‘For Lack of Better’ goes behind the scenes of street skiing

Andrew Travers
The Aspen TImes
"For Lack of Better" profiles street skiers Clayton Vila, Sean Jordan and Cam Riley.
Topher Baldwin/Courtesy Photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘For Lack of Better’ at The Meeting

Where: Wagner Park

When: Friday, Oct. 2, 6 p.m.

How much: $10

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info: The full 10-film, three-concert schedule for The Meeting is online at

Street skier Clayton Vila pulls back the curtain on the unglamorous side of his sport in his new film “For Lack of Better” while also showcasing the rare passion of its leading athletes.

The 45-minute movie, which screens today at The Meeting, follows Vila, Sean Jordan and Cam Riley over the course of a winter shooting in Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and Quebec. Working together, they’re each in search of enough quality shots of rail slides, jumps and jibs to make a segment for a ski flick. Along the way they scout locations, battle cops and make trips to the emergency room.

Street skiers spent a whole winter exploring urban environments in search of a segment for a movie. The highlight reel of tricks, familiar to anybody who watches ski cinema, run from two minutes and 30 seconds to six minutes and include anywhere from 15 to 40 tricks. Months of work go into creating that short montage.

Vila wanted to bring audiences behind the scenes of how those segments are made.

“That highlight reel is a false presentation,” Vila said this week in a phone interview. “You get this segment of all the landings and when you see it you think it’s super fun, exciting and cool and these people are just daredevils. But you look into it and you find that 99 percent of the time no one is skiing. What we’re doing has nothing to do with skiing. That right there is just a missing link.”

He went into last winter knowing he wanted to do something more personal than the usual segments.

“It’s something that’s been on my mind for years,” he said. “We’re in a box in this industry. The way we film is basically a highlight reel and that just doesn’t portray the work that goes into each shot.”

Vila and his trio worked with production company Teton Gravity Research on the film, which premiered at IF3 in Montreal in September. Some audience members weren’t sure what to make of “For Lack of Better,” which is more character study than stokefest.

“It seemed like kind of a curveball to them,” Vila said of the premiere. “They were like, ‘Whoa, this was not what I was expecting.’ It was cool to have guys like big mountain skiers see this stuff because they really don’t know about it.”

The heart of what Vila and his friends do is imagination. They see a rail, a set of stairs, a bridge or a concrete wall as a blank canvas, and then envision how to ride it. To execute the concepts, they use a winch, lights, shovels, water and such before, of course, applying their skis and their bodies. The average setup takes about three hours.

“It’s like an art,” Vila says in the film. “You’re creating something. You can be the best skier in the world and just not have an image of how to use an urban environment and you would fail.”

Adds Riley: “I wouldn’t want to be thought of as just a skier. It’s more than that.”

Their approach to the sport has more in common with graffiti artists than big mountain skiers. It’s a renegade culture, filming largely in the dead of night. They hit school grounds on evenings and weekends, government buildings after hours. Super Bowl Sunday and Christmas Eve, when few people are out on the streets or at work, it turns out, are the prime filming times. They cut fences and pile up snow ramps while the clock ticks down to the time the police will, seemingly inevitably, show up and chase them off.

“A lot of the time we’re vandalizing and most of the time we’re trespassing,” Vila says in the film. “It’s not because we’re punks. It’s because we only have so much time to get it done.”

Because they’re most often breaking laws, they have to work with a lean crew — the three skiers act also as producers, directors, cinematographers, cameramen and triage nurses.

The triumphant segments that we usually see in the movies don’t show many of the falls. All three athletes in the film rattle off a grotesque litany of injuries: collapsed lungs, severed ankles, concussions, a literally countless number of pulled muscles and so on. Vila slams into a wall and dislocates his knuckles at a school while a PTA meeting is going on.

“It’s fine — a little numb here and there, but she’ll be fine (for this winter),” Vila said earlier this week.

He immediately gets back to filming after getting the knuckles set and soon returns to skiing, with his broken hand still in a cast.

“You deal with it and then you pretend it never happened,” Jordan said of the constant bumps and bruises and breaks.

The tension between risk and reward is a constant during the filming process.

“It’s such a silly thing, and we know that,” Vila says in the film. “We know it’s not worth it, honestly. But we know it’s what we do. It’s not worth talking about the alternative.”

The climax of the film is a drop from the fifth level of a parking garage at a Boston train station that Riley attempts (“I do what I know,” he says. “Jump off big s—.”) But the key to the movie is in a far less triumphant scene. It shows Riley attempting a slide on a long rail down a concrete staircase, and it sticks with him as he attempts it over and over again, unable to pull it off, screaming in frustration, before finally sliding and landing the trick cleanly on his 132nd attempt.

We’ve grown accustomed to “ski porn” that showcases skiers and snowboarders hopping out of helicopters on far-flung peaks in exotic locales. Vila’s “For Lack of Better” is the antithesis of that glory-chasing tradition and a refreshing change of pace and tone. It’s an unvarnished look at how the sausage is made for street skiers and it asks some uncomfortable questions; the subjects talk about the inevitable physical disabilities they’ll deal with if they reach old age, for instance. Riley is asked what he’ll do in a few years when he can’t ski well enough to make segments anymore.

“I’m sure I’ll be able to find something to fill the gap,” he says. “But I’ve never been as passionate about anything else in my life.”