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The Writer of ‘Aspen Extreme’ Had an Entirely Different Movie in Mind

Patrick Hasburgh, 71, writer and director of 'Aspen Extreme' reminds us that skiing is the easy part—making a movie about it is something else entirely

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Every year, a welter of skiers do one thing in common that marks the crescendo toward ski season: they watch “Aspen Extreme.” The movie hits the masses in the heart. It makes us laugh. It’s relatable. It is timely even though it’s dated which is what makes the 1993 film a cult-classic ski movie.

Written and directed by Patrick Hasburgh, “Aspen Extreme” is full of exiles and athletes, haves and have nots, inquisitive minds, and wayfarers, light, and dark—just like all of our favorite ski towns. Yet according to Hasburgh, the film we know and love is a far cry from the film he originally imagined. He has regrets. But 28 years after the film’s release, Hasburgh has softened towards the film.

“I’ve stopped apologizing for the movie,” he says. “And, I’m not too sure why it works except that everything that’s wrong with the movie are the kind of things that are wrong with Aspen, but we love Aspen anyway.”

We spoke with Hasburgh about the Disney version of Aspen versus his version of Aspen, what it was like to work with Doug Coombs as a stunt double, the challenges of story-telling, and how he ended up on a beach in Mexico when it was all over.

“Now that it has some of the patina of nostalgia, we’re allowed to appreciate the movie in a kind of time-machine way. ‘Aspen Extreme’ is a movie about the ‘70s made in the ‘90s,” he says. “I can actually watch it now without crawling under the couch.”

I like the movie now much better than I did. I hated the movie. I made a movie that was better than the one released but Disney, which was Hollywood Pictures at the time, was an impossible place to work. I was basically beaten into submission to release a movie that was less provocative and less edgy than the original experience of mine in Aspen and also the original intent of the movie.

Patrick Hasburgh on the set of Aspen Extreme

Everyone was going to college and I wasn’t. I was a straight-F student. I was going to the steel plant. My girlfriend just broke my heart. I was drinking way too much. There’s a thing that happens in small, blue-collar towns. They’re not pushing the lobster out of the pot. They’re pulling it back down because they want that lobster to die with them.

There’s something really interesting about a kid who leaves his hometown who wants to do something and goes to a new place and discovers himself and gets a chance to be that thing. I mean that’s a pretty simple story. There’s a lot of relatability.

Aspen saved my life. I was taken seriously. I was surrounded by people, like-minded people, and my outrage or my creativity wasn’t laughed at.

I went to Aspen and met a bunch of smart people who were doing cool things. I said, ‘I want to be a writer.’ Instead of saying, ‘what’s that?’ or the kind of shit you’d catch in Buffalo, a very good friend of mine said, ‘Cool, man. What do you want to write? That’s so exciting.’ Aspen was my college.

I try to create characters I think are interesting and then I have them tell me the story. When I imagined Dexter Rutecki and TJ Burke, they had a lot to tell me about their story of going to Aspen. I try to inform [my writing] in that way.”

The eloquence of a well-written sentence is musical; there’s a lyrical quality to it. There’s a kind of haiku in all great writing that the more obscure it is the better. Hunter Thompson is an easy example. He had a fantastic way of structuring his sentences. Hemingway, in the opposite sense, had his way of being brutally simple. I think we like Fitzgerald because there’s this fabulous use of the language that makes whatever he’s saying seem more important.”

As a hearing-impaired person, the written word is important because I can see it or write it or say it and I won’t get it wrong. I lived in a world where I got a lot of what I heard wrong. So, being able to write accurately was important. More importantly, I spent a lot of my time trying to figure out what people were saying.

Aspen Extreme, Welcome to Aspen
Aspen Extreme’s lead character T.J. Burke (Paul Gross, left) and Dexter Rutecki (Peter Berg, right) arrive in Aspen.
Photo: John Johnson

It was a bit of a vanity piece. I wanted to do my life story, not my legitimate life story, but the authenticity of that story. When TJ worked at the auto factory, that’s a variation of my experience. The story was much darker originally, but they wanted it to be a brochure for Aspen. I think the script was much better than the movie, but the script ultimately survived in a way and continues to poke through in the movie.

The editorial process becomes nightmarish with Disney—the testing and audience testing. To me, this is a movie about a guy who came to Aspen and his friend with a drug problem gets killed in an avalanche. He was seduced by the dark side of town but found the light, bright side of town, too. But they kept saying, ‘This movie is Top Gun.’

Doug Coombs. I mean, fuck, Doug Coombs. It was done with movie magic, but boy did that work as a piece of film. I have to give credit to E.J. Foerster [second unit director]; he shot that part. Even to this day, that film captures Doug.

One regret I have is that I cut out a friend of mine named Gary who had a bigger role. I shouldn’t have done that; I regret it to this day because he deserved to be in the movie. His scene was cut by the studio and I just folded my cards. Never cut your friends out of the movie because when the movie is forgotten they’ll still be your friends but if the movie is not forgotten they won’t be your friends.

Aspen Extreme, behind the scenes
The Aspen Extreme technical crew prepping for an action sequence.
The Aspen Extreme technical crew prepping for an action sequence. Photo: John Johnson

I took some fucking heavy hits from film critics. And I took it very personally. I love Aspen so much and my friends there so much, I felt that I let them down. I felt that I let Aspen down. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t able to make the movie that reflected my deep love for the place.

After “Aspen Extreme,” I felt so brutalized. Ultimately, I made every change that the studio wanted. When the movie didn’t do as well as they hoped I got all the blame. We went back to Aspen. We skied and partied, skied and partied. We played golf and skied in town races. Then, Cheri and I got married, we quit partying and had children. We sold our place in Aspen in 2005 and then moved to Panorama, BC. Went to Valdez a few times, realized that I couldn’t ski at the level I wanted to ski at anymore; so, we moved to Mexico and invested ourselves more in surfing.

My life’s philosophy is, ‘Live in great places and do cool things.’ That’s it. That’s what I tell my kids. I’ve had a lot of money and I’ve had no money. None of that matters. I wouldn’t give up a day surfing for an Academy Award.

In a way, the movie came true. It says something about Aspen, and it memorializes a time, the kind of event, and a certain lifestyle that’s drifting into the past. You can seize on that. Everyone who went to Aspen as a young person or wanted to or wherever they went can find it heartwarming.

Now, I feel celebrated. When Peter Berg and I went back to Aspen a few years ago for the 25-year anniversary screening of the movie at The Wheeler Opera House, I felt like the fucking Beatles.

Patrick Hasburgh
Photo: Alex Patrick