5Point: Carbondale filmmakers look beyond adventure
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – Filmmakers Anson Fogel and Skip Armstrong swear they love the typical outdoor-adventure films, the kinds that pile up powder shots, near-catastrophes, kayaks dropping over enormous white-water falls, climbers hanging off vertical rock faces. “We love highlight reels,” Fogel said in his deep voice. “Love them.” To remove all doubts about their passion for cinematic visual thrills, Fogel cues up a three-minute video he made as a trailer for this year’s 5Point Film Festival, and it is two action-packed minutes of slot canyons, mountains, deep powder, and the most dramatic clip ever made of Carbondale, where Fogel’s Forge Motion Pictures is based, and where Fogel and Armstrong both live.
Then, to hammer the point home, Fogel shows me another video, a 45-second promo piece Forge Motion Pictures made for Garfield County: more roiling rivers, steep mountains, adventures happening and waiting to happen.
Attendees at the 5Point festival this weekend will witness Fogel and Armstrong’s devotion to cheap thrills; the 5Point trailer and the Garfield County promo videos will show before each film program. But they will get an even better look at the filmmakers’ other side, which is a drastic contrast to the highlight-reel lovers in them.
The 5Point festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday, features the world premiere of two films directed by Armstrong, produced by Fogel, and assistant directed by Thatcher Bean, a Forge employee. “Nomad” shows in Friday’s 7 p.m. program; “Mother” is on the schedule for Saturday at 7 p.m. Both of the pieces are seven minutes long; both are part of “Of Souls + Water,” a planned five-episode series. And both of them take a purposefully meditative approach that is meant not to spotlight adventure, but to ask what is the relationship between these individuals and their quest for adventure.
“Visually, we wanted to slow down the pace in this series. Get great shots, but not necessarily adrenaline-fueled shots per se,” Armstrong, a 34-year-old who spent seven years running a river-running operation in Costa Rica, said at Forge’s home base, a Carbondale warehouse that is a videophile’s dream, with neatly organized arrangements of cutting-edge camera gear. “We took a risk in making these; it’s so different. The knee-jerk reaction in shooting Erik” – Erik Boomer, the extreme kayaker who is the focus of “Nomad” – would have been to get all white-water. We wanted to slow it down.”
Fogel, a Glenwood Springs native who started Forge five years ago, was obsessed with the cinema as a kid. And at 39 he remains so; when we start talking movies, he brings up such favorites as the “Blue,” “White” and “Red” trilogy by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, the director Terrence Malick, and “Heaven,” a 2002 crime drama by Germany’s Tom Tykwer, starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, that Fogel believes has been terribly underappreciated. Fogel considers himself inspired more by these philosophical works than by the cheap thrills often found in outdoor action videos.
“Those focus on one emotion – awe. And awe is fun,” he said. “But there’s this whole breadth of human emotion. To limit yourself to just titillating people, this ‘wow’ experience … .”
“‘We flew to this exotic location, we overcame it, we did some really cool stuff there …,'” Armstrong said, picking up the narrative of the typical action film. “But, ‘This blade of grass; the way the sun hits the mountain’ – I love to capture those nuances.”
In the “Of Souls + Water” series, small details – the way a hand feels against a rock wall – and unusual storylines – a man’s decision to live on the streets – are used to open up a different sort of exploration. In “Mother,” the focus is on a 67-year-old who is not only a mother, but a grandmother, and a diehard kayaker. Her story is meant to address issues of aging.
“It’s, How do we as a society see older women?” Fogel said. “What wisdom do they have to offer us? Do they have dreams, aspirations, hopes? As they get closer to death, what is their relationship to mortality? We all have the mother in us, the ability to love, nurture and protect life in all its forms.”
“Nomad” is, in its way, an even more radical departure. It is a portrait of Erik Boomer, an adventurer who made international news last year by circumnavigating Canada’s Ellesmere Island by sea kayak and skis. But rather than emphasize the challenges and triumphs of that 104-day journey, the film takes a fuller account of Boomer and his motivations. Early in the voice-over, Boomer says, “I wanted to find silence. What is it about solitude and nothingness?” Later, he talks about why he chose to be homeless.
“People expect, ‘Oh, Erik Boomer – it’ll be kayaking, big action,” Fogel said. “But this series is about looking at elements of the human condition. It’s about people. What does it mean to search? What do we all search for? How does searching or looking for things inform our lives?”
• • • •
Fogel’s journey began with a love of two things: flying fighter planes and movies. “I never wanted to do anything else,” he said. His effort to become a pilot was aborted, due to his poor eyesight. His path toward filmmaking hit a major stumbling block when he became “distracted and disillusioned” while studying at CU, Boulder’s film school.
Seven years ago, Fogel got “undistracted. And I extricated myself from my old life,” he said. He left the business he had been running and started Forge. “I had to do what was essential. Now, I’m basically the cliche for following your dreams. I live the life I want to live, and I feel very lucky. Every day.”
Forge makes most of its income with commercial work. “The films that everyone wants to see don’t even buy groceries,” Fogel said. But two years ago, having made enough contacts to be able to acquire good equipment, he made his first real film, “WildWater.” Fogel doesn’t think highly of the piece, but it earned a handful of awards on the festival circuit.
Most significantly, it began establishing Fogel’s reputation as a filmmaker. Last year, when 5Point Film Festival founder Julie Kennedy heard about some raw footage taken by climber Cory Richards on the Himalayan peak Gasherbrum II, Kennedy connected Richards with Fogel. The result was “Cold,” a penetrating film about fear and pain that earned numerous accolades, including top honors at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. (When I asked about “Cold,” Fogel, who doesn’t mind talking, cut the topic short by saying, “That story’s been told.”)
Fogel is trying to develop a feature-length documentary, about what he won’t reveal. But it doesn’t signal a desire to leave the world of outdoor-oriented film festivals.
“It feels like a community of artists helping each other grow, rather than competitors,” he said.
Armstrong is also a Colorado guy – born and raised in Castle Rock, and attended college in Durango (where he says he made “awful ski movies”). But he left Colorado for 12 years, most of those spent working as an outfitter in Costa Rica. After breaking his toes on the river, he was forced into doing video work, which was easier on his feet. Making DVDs of the guests, he pushed himself as a filmmaker. “When I came back to the States I thought, What do I want to do? And it was make beautiful films,” he said.
Last year, Armstrong made three shorts; all three were screened at last year’s 5Point festival. This past winter, he moved to Carbondale to work with Fogel, whom he had met on the side of an Idaho river. Between being in Carbondale – his first extensive time in Colorado in over a decade – and being able to put some focus on the “Of Souls + Water” series, Armstrong says it has been “a fairy-tale year.”
Two more films in the series are in the works: “The Warrior” is about Chris Peterson, a surfer from Hawaii who moved to Idaho to care for his sick grandmother. After a fire burns down the home he was living in, Peterson looks to the water – not the familiar Pacific of Hawaii, but the rivers of Idaho – to ground himself, and he takes up river surfing. “He’s surfing, just shredding up the rivers on an ocean surfboard,” Armstrong said. “It’s about rebirth – it’s another chapter in his life that he never expected.”
Immediately after the 5Point Festival, Armstrong heads to Quebec to work on “The Shape Shifter,” a profile of freestyle kayaker Ben Marr. This one, Armstrong said, will edge somewhat closer to a true action film. “Quebec has the biggest waves on rivers anywhere. Huge,” he said. “It will be the one with the most visual energy.”
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