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Greg Stump - Back in the ski film business

By Michel Beaudry News travels fast these days. “Stump here,” began the e-mail from an old Whistler friend. “How are you? I've been in Hawaii all winter healing my knee and working getting funding for my new movie Legend of Aahhh's .

By Michel Beaudry

News travels fast these days. “Stump here,” began the e-mail from an old Whistler friend. “How are you? I've been in Hawaii all winter healing my knee and working getting funding for my new movie Legend of Aahhh's .” And then he jumped right into the meat of it. “I read your Plake article with interest,” the e-mail continued, “as Glen called me ranting and raving as soon as he got his phone back at YVR.”

Turns out the Mohawked-One did not take kindly to being refused entry into Canada last week. “I've heard Glen pissed before,” wrote Stump, “but nothing like this... he kept telling me what an idiot I was for spending so much time in the stupid country... he referred to the border agents as ‘unarmed goofs who think they can control me’... They went so far as to search him... ‘Why do you have Euros?’ they asked. ‘Because I was in Europe last week and I am going back next week...’”

But as harsh as this sounded, Stumpie’s punchline was still to come. “You know, I had a similar experience myself in December,” continued the legendary filmmaker. “They treated me like a criminal, Michel! Two charges (not convictions) came up on the screen for me... charges that were dropped! They said I could stay in the holding pen for twenty-four hours and prove they were dropped. All I had was a cell phone, no charger, and it was a Friday night... not likely I'd get any courthouse or lawyer in the States in the next twenty-four is it?  I threw in the towel and said, just let me go back to Seattle... that act required me to sign a statement saying I was rescinding my right to come to Canada voluntarily. Now I am red-flagged — unless of course, I’m ready to pay $5,000 US to Immigration lawyers (and Canada Customs) and ‘buy’ my way in on a temporary visitor permit…

“So you see — that’s why I couldn’t come and heckle you at Words & Stories last week.”

It also explains why things seemed so tame at the festival this year. Frankly, I’d been surprised by the Stumpmeister’s no-show at the ’07 WSSF. Gauging from past events, this was one party he’d never miss willingly. As Doug Perry used to say about Stump: “No matter how wild and crazy he may be perceived to be, his personality truly mirrors what this festival is supposed to be all about…”

Theatre brat, mogul skier, filmmaker, editor sans-pareil, music connoisseur, creative genius, bon-vivant, rebel, frustrated romantic, jester — Greg Stump is as complex an artist and person as you’ll ever meet. But his contributions to ski culture are beyond question. Though his film oeuvre might seem slight when compared to the Warren Miller juggernaut — who, let’s face it, needs a recipe change — Stump’s ski movies have always resonated deeply with viewers.

“Skiing is sexy,” his films proclaimed. “Skiing is hip.” And not in some cheesy, superficial way. But in a way that transformed his stories into magical mountain tales that really had something to say.

And he couldn’t have done it at a better time. In the mid 1980s when mainstream skiing was mired in terminal navel gazing, Stump introduced the public to a posse of hard-charging, big-mountain skiers who were as brash as they were bold. But he did it with a progressive MTV-type editing style — and an ironic, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek narrative — that further emphasized just how extreme this big-mountain lifestyle really was.

Am I exaggerating to make a point? I don’t think so. Take a walk through 1988’s Blizzard of Aahhh’s — widely considered his most popular film. Gawd — it’s 20 years old! But somehow, it still resonates with an energy and sense of humour and realness that today’s ski filmmakers have yet to match.

But look at his other films too. Time Waits For Snowman or License to Thrill (shot almost entirely on Blackcomb Mountain), or Groove Requiem In The Key Of Ski or even the slightly creepy Doctor Strangeglove — they all have it. They all have that signature joie-de-vivre that separates great storytelling from mere reporting…

What the heck, I decided. Might as well phone him up in Maui and see what the old devil is up to. I caught up with Stumpie just as he was packing his bags to fly to New York to attend Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“Yeah — I’m heading the premiere of Steep ,” he told me. And he giggled in that self-conscious, little-kid way that he has. “It should be really fun,” he said. “There’s a whole gang of us going.” Another nervous chuckle. “Thank goodness it’s not premiering in Canada…”

A highly anticipated documentary on the history of big-mountain skiing that the late Peter Jennings was involved in, Steep features a number of Stump film alumni, including Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup (note: local hero Eric Pehota also stars in this high-profile doc). Stump tells me that his own role in the film is considerable.

“And that will only serve to raise the awareness for my Legend of Aahhh’s project,” he says, a quick giggle escaping between breaths. “The timing couldn’t be better, in fact…”

He has a point. For in his latest film venture, Stump has taken Marshall McLuhan’s iconic dictum “the medium is the message” and transformed it into “the messenger is the medium.” Which means that any attention on the “messenger” at this point — particularly from such mainstream media sources as Jennings and Tribeca — is sure to raise his stock greatly among investors.

Remember Dogtown and Z-Boys? Remember the surprisingly popular “underground” documentary film that explored the roots of skateboarding through the words and pictures of celebrated insider, Craig Stessick? Well, that’s the starting point for Legend of Aahhh’s .

Part autobiography, part historical document, part social commentary — and all filtered through Stump’s high-jinks, funhog, go-for-it filmmaking lens — the new flick promises to shine an exuberant light on the big-mountain skiing lifestyle that Stump and his compadres have pursued since he was let loose with a camera nearly a quarter century ago. “I want to bring people behind the scenes and show them what was really going on while we were shooting these films,” Stump tells me. “I want to tell them a great story. Show them the madness and the fun and the sheer magic of it all. But I also want them to feel that they got their money’s worth when the curtain falls and the credits start to fall….”

But really Greg: why go back to making ski movies? Why hit your head against the wall of a played-out genre? I thought this was all behind you?

“I admit — I lost patience with ski movies a long time ago,” he says. “They’re so boring.” Another wave of giggles overtakes him. “They’re like bad lovers. No variation. No teasing. You’re numbed throughout. And then there’s barely a climax at the end…”

But seriously — with the 20 th anniversary of Blizzard of Aahhh’s approaching fast, Stump decided it was time to throw down the gauntlet. “The other ski filmmakers better watch out,” he says. “I’ve already raised more money for this film than I ever had to play with in the past — over $500,000 — and I’ve set myself up with a state-of-the-art editing suite.”

More laughter. “You know Michel, with this kind of technology at our disposal,” he explains, “there is no excuse for making bad movies anymore. You can fix any scene with a simple keystroke. All you need is a good eye and lots of patience.”

And this is where Stump shines. Widely acclaimed in the film world — yes, even the mainstream film world — as a genius in the editing room, Greg can blend music, action and narrative together like few others can. “It’s almost like climbing into the computer and doing the film from in there,” he says. “The process fascinates me.”

Contrary to the way most other action filmmakers approach their work, Stump has always built his movies “backwards”. That is, he sets the soundtrack down first, then he splices in the needed images to fit. The result is a seamless story that flows effortlessly across the screen. “It’s way more fun to do it this way,” he says. “And with the new technology that’s available now, it’s easier than ever.”

But above all — much bigger than the technology, or the new editing tools or the bigger budget — is Stump’s vision of things. “I didn’t come to terms with the fact that I was an artist — creative, hilarious, entertaining, outrageous, whatever — until very recently. But now that I’ve embraced that role, I’m completely comfortable with it”

He stops talking for a moment. He wants to make sure he’s understood here. “I’m not normal, OK. I’m different. I’m high-strung. Over-sensitive sometimes. And I’m beginning to come to terms with that.” He sighs. “But it’s never easy…”

Suddenly his mood lifts. It’s like watching a cloud being burned off by the sun. “Look,” he says, “it’s all about having fun. If I can make people laugh, then I’m happy.”