‘Signatures’ anything but the standard ski film
September 18, 2009
ASPEN – Nick Waggoner says that he and Ben Sturgulewski, his partner in the Colorado-based Sweetgrass Productions, aren’t interested in “pandering to attention spans.” That approach is quickly evident in their new film, “Signatures,” which has its world premiere tonight at the Wheeler Opera House (and also shows Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Dos Gringos Burritos in Carbondale).
The film opens not with a sick aerial or skiers perched on a dizzyingly remote peak – in fact, the first segment isn’t even set in winter, but autumn, with colored leaves floating on water. By the time the first skiing footage appears, over four minutes in, those looking for the quick-cut hits of insane steeps and death-taunting jumps that are the stuff of the typical ski movie would probably already have their attention spans severely tested.
Waggoner and Sturgulewski, who were freshman roommates at Colorado College and made their film debut with last year’s “Hand Cut,” didn’t set out to make standard ski films. In a way, they aren’t aiming to make ski films.
“Signatures” can be seen as a document not so much of snow-sliding, but of the seven months the two spent recently in Japan. The film is as much about the serenity and beauty of the mountains, the filmmakers’ take on Japanese visual and spiritual aesthetics, and the people they interacted with on their adventure, as it is about skiing and snowboarding. There are downhill adventures – but also surfing, landscapes and a poetic survey of the art of carving snowboards.
“This is the life I’m living and the people I’m living with and my understanding of their culture. It all just saturated our beings,” said the 23-year-old Waggoner, who spent almost all of his time in Japan in Kutchan, a small town not far from the Annupuri ski area. “That’s not necessarily the case if we were moving spot to spot, traveling. You don’t have that rhythm.”
While Waggoner and his crew – which included over the course of filming several Aspen area athletes, including Nick Devore, Will Cardamone and Jacqui Edgerly – stayed put, the Japanese seasons did not.
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Waggoner arrived in Japan just after Christmas, as the snow was starting to pile up in the backcountry areas of Iwaonuppuri and Tokachidake, where they did almost all of their downhill shooting. He watched the blizzards of January, the beginning of the warming in February, the onset of spring. After a three-week break from Japan, he returned in June to find a place he effectively had not seen before.
“I came back to 15-foot tall bamboo forests, rhubarb plants with leaves the size of car hoods. It was a different world. It was amazing to see,” said Waggoner, who grew up in Greenwich Village.
To Waggoner, this is the heart of “Signatures” – how distinct the seasons are in the northern end of Japan, and how deeply aware the residents are of the changes throughout the year. The film begins with Taro Tamai, a Japanese snowboarder and board-maker who was Waggoner’s next-door neighbor during shooting, musing about the seasonal extremes: how hot it is in summer, how snowy in winter.
“We need the details of the seasons as Japanese. They are the foundation of our values,” says Tomai.
Waggoner found profound truth in that. “The lifestyle we were in and around are shaped by the seasons and the rhythms and those differences,” he said. “Japanese people know exactly the order of the blooming of the flowers. It’s in that order, and the understanding of that order, that informs Japanese culture. It makes total sense when you’re living that life – living on someone’s sofa, opening the window to look at a massive volcano, and there’s a wild connection between, What is the mountain doing, and what do I need to do? I can’t imitate that; I can’t aspire to that. But it is so ingrained in people’s lives.”
Waggoner and Sturgulewski’s rhythm is about to undergo a dramatic upheaval. After tonight’s premiere, they take off in an old mini-school bus for a three-month, 60-date tour of screenings that includes 15 presentations in Japan. They also have the release of the DVD, which features 30 minutes of extras, to deal with. (There is also exclusive bonus footage available at aspensojourner.com.) The rhythmic tide then turns again, as they plan to take this winter off from filmmaking.