Warren Miller: Out of Bounds

Warren Miller: Out of Bounds

CultureJanuary 03, 2013

Deep powder cuts. Steep-angled faces. Adrenaline-pumping drops. Washes, tumbles and tomahawking. Welcome to the world of Warren Miller.

Though Miller himself is no longer involved in the movies that bear his name, 63 years after Miller’s first film, Warren Miller Entertainment continues to celebrate the rush and majesty of winter sports.

Its latest feature-length film, “Flow State,” begins with a fish-eye, slow-motion sequence of a skier doing a flip over a gap, arms spread. Trunks of aspen trees reach into the blue sky while an eagle floats on a distant thermal. This is an athlete fully immersed in the “flow state,” a concept put forth by Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. 

“As an elite athlete in any sport, it seems like the faster you go physically, the slower things appear to you mentally,” said WME executive producer and director Max Bervy. “This is the flow state. You get submerged in this very singular focus in the moment.”

For athletes as they punch it, danger be damned, there comes a moment when the rest of the world does not exist.

“For any other one of us it would be like, ‘Oh crap, we’re gonna die, or we’re gonna tomahawk’—and they don’t,” Bervy said.

“Flow State” is all about sound and music: the driving drums of a grungy rock track, the oomph and crunch of riders plowing or tumbling through powder, the snap-click of strapping in at the top of a descent. Each sequence brings the viewer into the visceral reality of the moment: It’s about to get freaky.

Part of what sets a WME film apart from its contemporary counterparts is its folksy narration (lately from Olympic medalist Jonny Moseley) mixed with a bit of camp. Rather than rely on a bunch of fast cuts and thrash music jammed together into a barrage of extreme, a Miller film breaks up action shots with fun and sometimes serious segments that occasionally have nothing to do with winter sports. A scene in “Flow State” features athletes salmon fishing in Alaska before dropping off a series of gnarly cliffs.    

Bervy has worked on 23 feature-length Miller films. For him, what makes these films so iconic is that everyone involved feels a part of something bigger than just the film, that there’s a tradition no one wants to screw up.

“There’s a sense of purpose that we all feel when we come to work every day,” Bervy said. 

“How to make the next one bigger, how to market it better, how to sell it better ... we love the brand and we want to help foster it and grow it.”

To help achieve this, WME employs Kim Schneider, who Bervy describes as “arguably the best editor on the planet.” According to Bervy, Schneider, who has been cutting Miller films since the late 1970s, breaks his 24-hour day into “three chunks of eight hours, and none of it really includes sleeping. He just goes and goes and goes.”

This passion is apparent. Some of the sequences in “Flow State” are so seamless, so perfectly matched to the music, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a film.  

Of course, this polished final product comes at a price, requiring months of planning, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of flexibility. Changing snow conditions keep the crews on their toes and can make shoots more difficult than anticipated; there’s often a huge gap between what’s planned for and what actually materializes on the ground, cameras in hand.

“We’ve got great athletes and great cameramen, so they make it look really good,” Bervy said. “But they’re using every trick in the book to make it look good. It’s like, you want to go there, there and there, but you’re going to die, so you’ve got to go there, there and there, which is different and not optimal. But that’s the business we’re in.”

These days, if the crew knows it’s walking into a punch, it’ll simply pull the plug. A punch is anything that can turn a shoot sour: no snow, absent support, unbooked rooms, helicopter times cut short.

“We’ll work on pre-production for weeks and weeks, and get all the permits dialed (in) and athletes booked, and if it’s not right, we’ll cut our losses before we get on the ground,” said producer Josh Haskins, who joined WME in 1999.

It often starts with a map and finding places they haven’t been: Libya, Bulgaria, one of the ’Stans or something new in Europe. Then themes and stories are discussed. There are a dozen or so segments in each film, and while WME wants all of the segments to have some kind of commonality, “You also want them to have their own personality, their own beginning, middle and end,” Bervy said.

Then there’s picking the athletes.

“We want guys that are really into the process and the project,” Bervy said. “If you’re (in British Columbia) for two weeks, you want them every day, 24/7, to be ready to go and ready to work with you and into making that piece as good as it can be.”

And there’s always an element of danger that must be taken into account.

“Every year, someone’s going to ding a knee or bang their head—it’s something that’s just inherent with this business—but you try to work with really good people that have really good experience and you trust them,” Bervy said. “So if they’re going to send it off something, you know it’s not just Kodak courage ... they’ve done it a hundred times and that’s what they do. They just flip the switch and go.”

Despite all of the planning and raw talent involved, injuries and even death still happen.

“Obviously our athletes are driven by that adrenaline,” Haskins said. “But everyone understands that they want to grow old skiing; they don’t want to push it so hard that they’re not going to be around to enjoy it for the rest of their lives.”

Of course, winter sports are dangerous for everyone, not just the guys and gals pushing it for the camera. Anyone on the slopes faces risks.

“You can front-side slam, hit a tree and hit your head, get tagged by some Spanish kid who’s on vacation and T-bones you at 60,” Bervy said. “You can be doing a nice powder run, go over the front and bury yourself and drown in powder. It happens every year. Warren always said it’s that sense of freedom that you get. It’s alluring.”

Perhaps this is why we keep coming back to the slopes every year and why we relish seeing athletes push the limits.

As pro-skier Marcus Caston, who takes a tumble early on in “Flow State,” puts it: “That’s what we’re up here to do. It’s hard to say no.”