Warren Miller was born in 1924 in Hollywood. He grew up in the Depression in an unloving, dysfunctional home, but he found his freedom, and later his career, by escaping the domestic chaos and exploring the outdoors. After surviving a sinking at sea in World War II, he bought an 8-mm Bell & Howell movie camera and three rolls of film with his mustering-out pay. He then embarked on a four-season ski odyssey that took him to most of the ski resorts of the West and to the parking lot at Sun Valley, where he lived in his signature teardrop trailer along with his buddy Ward Baker. With the idea of becoming a ski filmmaker slowly developing in his mind, Warren spent the 1949–50 winter at just-opened Squaw Valley, teaching skiing, drawing cartoons, hustling, and shooting footage for his first ski movie. What follows is from the summer and fall of 1950 in Southern California, where he produced and finally screened that first movie. The following an excerpt from his autobiography, entitled “Freedom Found.“
I had absolutely no training in motion-picture production, no idea of how to go from my 37 100-foot rolls now sitting in their cans to a final hour-and-a-half feature ski show on two 45-minute reels. I edited the film by blundering along. I logged each scene, with a brief description, plus a number for its position on the reel and another number that identified the reel. My logbook took me right to the scene I wanted.
It took three months before there was a final sequence for the entire film. For the next step, I had to retreat to my parents’ home on Berendo Street and build 10-footlong racks in my old bedroom, cut the scenes that would be used out of the rolls of film, and hang the scenes, like ties on a tie rack, in the order of their appearance. Next, I spliced them, until I had 45 minutes’ worth of film designated as Reel One. Then I spliced the scenes for Reel Two. I started Reel Two with my 10-minute “Surfing Daze” movie to give it variety, while also making it longer. Next, I painted and photographed the title and screen credits on a ski and filmed it in a bed of soap flakes to look like it was on real snow. “Deep and Light” by Warren Miller was my very first title shot. I titled Reel Two: “The French Technique” and incorporated Émile Allais’ teaching sequence and the great skiing that resulted. Then I reviewed both reels by cranking them through the movie-scope in succession. It looked good to me.
I knew I needed $400 to buy a projector and to have a lab make a release print. I was out of money, and making $40 a week digging ditches at my construction job kept me alive but no more. None of my friends were anxious to make a loan. One weekend, while surfing at San Onofre, some surfers I had known for years asked how it was going. I told them that it was time to show the film to potential sponsors, but I didn’t have the $400 to buy a release print and a projector.
One of the guys said, “Warren, I’ll lend you a hundred.” He turned to the other three and said, “Why don’t we help Warren show his film?” All four of them were successful businessmen, and they all knew that they would be paid out of my ticket sales. All movie tickets back then were a buck apiece to avoid the federal entertainment tax that kicked in when the theatrical admission fee went over a dollar. As soon as these guys came up with the $400, I ordered the print and bought the projector. (Those four “angels” who put up that money were John Levy, El Jordan, Jack Given, and George Gore. I hope they realize how grateful I am for their belief in me.)
Next, I painted and photographed the title and screen credits on a ski and filmed it in a bed of soap flakes to look like it was on real snow. “Deep and Light” by Warren Miller was my very first title shot.
Now there was only one thing missing: a music track. Music played such an important role in ski films that John Jay had set up his own recording studio in his house and cut his music track onto 78-rpm records. However, 78-rpm original discs deteriorate with use so rapidly that I wanted to avoid using them. The wire recorder had been around since 1946. The first truly fine tape recorder had just come out: The Ampex let you record and make a version of Scotch tape splices without pops. Grandmother Edith suddenly had one appear in her living room. She called me as if she just had a thought and said, “Well, I’m not using my tape recorder at all. Can you use it for your movie work?” I drove right over and picked it up. Grandmother Edith had come through once again.
Even with the right sound equipment, it was still difficult to create a music track from various selections of music available on 78-rpm records. Each new selection had its own feeling. A friend of my grandmother’s, who played the organ in a neighborhood church, called me and said she would like to help. She said she could play various selections to make a music track with smooth transitions, but the only time we could use the church organ was from 4 to 8 in the morning. Several times I drove my projector, my print, and my screen to the church at 3:30 in the morning, projected the film, and practiced my narration off the top of my head. After three or four run-throughs, this talented lady said she had the selections all worked out in her head, and it made the film much more enjoyable.
I started calling my local skier friends who might belong to a ski club, and told them I had a great new movie. “I’d like to come show it to you, and I’ve got a moneymaking idea for your ski club.” I said that Lester Jay would back my word that I had something worth seeing. I managed to get a bunch of dates to show the film for ski club officers. This was shoot-from-the-hip guerrilla marketing at its best—and it was working. One of these ski club sample showings would get me a booking.
In my first film, there were a lot of good skiers: Squaw Valley instructors, with Dodie Post one of the best of them, and members of the ski patrol, who were also excellent skiers, including Stan Tomlinson, Jack Nagle, Gar Robinson, and Jack Simpson. I also showed other ski patrolmen like Gordie Butterfield and Arnie Madsen making fine turns in deep powder, and there were two or three days’ worth of shooting beginners on the rope tows that were inserted here and there for comic relief. There was also an extraordinary sequence of Émile and a totally blind skier. That was amazing footage on an icy rope-tow hill full of bumps.
Émile took him up on the rope tow. I was there with my camera before they got to the top, and I shot 100 feet, two and a half minutes. Never having seen anything like this made me want to share it, knowing that it would impress my future audiences as it did me—and it did. The rope-tow slope was full of ungroomed bumps, but Émile was able to talk the blind skier down the hill, teaching him uphill christies. Just the fact that this guy was blind and skiing with the two-time world champion was enough to excite any audience. Afterward, I almost always devoted part of the films to a segment showing someone who had overcome tough challenges to find his or her freedom on the side of a hill.
There were also shots of the guests from a high angle from the chairlift tower, mostly of the bad skiers coming down the mile and a half of Squaw’s big, open slope. The film also had some scary shots of skiing on the steeps of the headwall. Of course, the best skiing in the film was the wizard himself, Émile Allais. No one skied as smoothly or effortlessly.
Now I was scrambling around most of Southern California, showing the film to ski club officials between construction jobs. I had set dates with 10 of them. These viewings were also lessons in learning how to narrate. I watched the club officers’ expressions closely, noting where my ad-libbed narration was working and where it was not. My commentary got better and smoother at each showing, or so I thought. I also was less nervous; however, the first nine clubs all gave me the same answer: “We really like the photography, the music is OK, and we would sponsor it and give you a $200 guarantee if you get somebody else to narrate your film.”
There was no way I could afford to pay a narrator. I just kept slugging away, learning how to handle almost-constant rejection, a lesson that helped throughout my life, as much as I hated it.
The short films of Pete Smith from an earlier era influenced my narration. Pete Smith was a pioneer filmmaker who produced short, candid films on everything from operating a drill press to bringing the cows in from pasture. He appropriated old movie clips, edited them down, and ran them over comments on the little stupidities shown. Pete Smith produced 160 specials through 20 years, twice winning Oscars for Best Short Film. They were usually shown at movie houses between double features.
While I was practicing to be as successful as Pete Smith, I was turned down by the Santa Monica Ski Club—and by the Santa Ana Ski Club and seven others that have escaped my memory bank. The 10th was the Ski Club Alpine—a bunch of Southern California ski racers and the leading ski club in that part of the world at the time—and they said, “Let’s do it!”
They booked me for a night in mid-October with a guarantee of $200, or 40 percent of the gross, whichever was higher. The showing was in the auditorium at John Marshall Junior High in Pasadena. The day of the showing, I was busy nailing on a roof from 8 until 4:30, constantly asking myself, “Will anybody show up?” After work, I drove down to the beach to one of the freshwater showers that were there to give swimmers a chance to wash off the salt. I washed off all the sawdust and sweat and went back into my truck, put on clean clothes and my tweed suit, tied my bow tie in the rear-view mirror of the truck, and headed for Pasadena, 30 miles away to the east of Los Angeles.
I was really nervous. I had never given a speech to a crowd before. I was going to face hundreds of people who had hired babysitters and taken their wives or girlfriends or spousal equivalents to dinner before coming to spend $1 on me. When I saw that the auditorium was filling up, it was exciting but also intimidating. I had arranged to do a warm-up introduction, which turned out to be a good idea.
I walked out on the stage to face the crowd and started my introduction—a tale of the ski bum life: living in a small trailer in the Sun Valley parking lot, spending only $18 total for lift tickets for four months’ skiing.
I talked about shooting rabbits in Shoshone for dinner and the rotary plow that threw our buried rabbit skins into the tree above the trailer and the intricate dance routine involved in getting undressed outside in the freezing night air in order to get into bed in the freezing cold teardrop trailer after a dinner date. The audience laughed at my stories, not just polite laughs, but loud laughter. So far, my ski movie night was working, and I hadn’t shown the movie yet.
The film really worked, even though I had no script other than the one that was lodged in my brain. I took my cues from the images as they came up on the screen and ad-libbed my way through the film in a monotone. I was so new to the business I had stationed myself, my tape recorder, and my microphone up in the balcony by the projector, where I was talking to everyone’s back. I didn’t know enough to stand on the stage alongside the screen and talk toward the audience, but once the film got going, those nine practice sessions for the officers of the ski clubs that had turned me down had evidently polished my routine. I hoped I was going to be an acceptable feature filmmaker!
Ski Club Alpine had sold 836 tickets at $1 each, and that meant $334.40 was coming to me as my 40 percent. I had made more money in an hour and a half than I had in a month and a half of pounding nails. To look at it differently, my take was a little less than the amount spent on the 37 reels of raw film stock I had bought in order to film the movie in the first place.
Thus, my 55-year-long journey began with the showing of “Deep and Light.” On Sunday, I went surfing, and on Monday I was back to pounding nails. The ski club was happy and talking about the same proposition the following year.
It was then that I realized I would have to make feature-length ski film No. 2.