Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Warren Miller—propagator of freedom

Filmmaking icon reflects on ski-bumming in Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

Warren Miller tells stories while staying in the Wood River Valley last week.

A fall ritual familiar to many college students across the nation is to crowd into a movie theater and get stoked about the upcoming ski and snowboarding season by watching the latest Warren Miller ski movie.

This year marks the 61st annual Warren Miller ski movie, "Wintervention," starring Jonny Moseley, Chris Davenport and Lindsey Vonn on lines in Alaska, Norway, Canada and Antarctica.

Miller has directed more than 100 ski films, but gave up directing in 2004. He writes a newspaper column about skiing carried by 14 newspapers around the country.

It would be difficult to estimate how many would-be professionals have been diverted over the past six decades from lucrative careers to the ski-bum life by Miller's cinematic combination of daring descents, eclectic music and wry humor. But Miller has no regrets about this.

"I'm proud of it," Miller said last week, after emerging from Jim and Judy Sweeney's Warm Springs cabin basement. He was in the Sun Valley area to speak at the annual awards banquet of the Ancient Skiers, a group of gray-haired skiing fanatics. The group enticed him to come to Sun Valley in recognition of the resort's 75th winter season.

"I had a young man come up to me once and say, 'My father really hates you,' because he took up skiing. The fact is, it's so easy to slide into something in life that you don't want to do. I think you should follow your dreams. Of course, that's a lot easier if you're single."

Miller said he has a friend in Montana who has 14 children under the age of 16.

"Now, that man is following his passion," he joked.

Miller has deep roots in Sun Valley. A surfer and skier, he came to Sun Valley in 1950, camping for two years with his friend Ward Baker in a teardrop trailer in the Challenger Inn parking lot. They skied whenever they could, teaching at Dollar Mountain and partying with the ski crowd.

"Ward was pretty good with a shotgun, so we ate a lot of rabbits and ducks," Miller said. "I'll warn you, never try to eat porcupine. It tastes just like the last tree that it ate."

Sun Valley General Manager Pappy Rogers knocked on the door of the trailer early one morning with cups of coffee for the boys.

"Shouldn't you guys be skiing?" he asked them.

Miller, a cartoonist as well as a filmmaker, agreed to paint a mural in the skiers' cafeteria in exchange for a season pass. Rogers said Miller could ski that season as long as he continued to paint.

"It was the longest mural job I have ever done. It lasted all winter," Miller said. "Sun Valley put up with us because we were local color."

While teaching on Dollar Mountain in the early 1950s, Miller happened to meet Charles "Chuck" Percy, chairman of the Bell & Howell Corp., a maker of motion-picture film equipment.

Percy gave Miller a 16-millimeter film camera designed for combat photographers. The young skiers put it to work, shooting themselves and others on the slopes to study technique. Surfer buddies on the West Coast enjoyed the slapstick humor.

"We banged frozen rabbits against the trailer and stuff like that," Miller said.

Miller passed the hat during a Sun Valley dinner party after showing one of his ski films and got $7. It was the beginning of his career. At 86, he's working on an autobiography. In many respects, the book will be an account of the history of skiing in America.

"When I came to Sun Valley, there were a total of 15 ski lifts in America," he said.

Today, there are 450 resorts in the U.S. with more than 5,000 ski lifts. Miller has skied many of the resorts and is known universally as an icon of ski fever. He lives at the Yellowstone Club in Montana and cruises to Alaska each summer with his wife, Laurie Miller.

Asked why he followed his passion for ski filmmaking, Miller said it all began with fresh-powder days in Sun Valley.

"If you've ever skied Christmas Bowl with 14 inches of fresh powder and not a track or bump on it, you would know. I had a passion to share that emotional experience, and that is what has motivated me all these years.

"People have a universal search for freedom, and that freedom is governed only by adrenaline—by how long you can stay in the line."

Miller also has an answer for people who may be tempted to work a job they don't necessarily love, for security. He and his wife recently founded the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation to inspire and fund entrepreneurship.

The mission of the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation is "to educate aspiring youth and adults in the fundamental principles of entrepreneurship by sharing the skills necessary to become successful, ethical members of the business community."

"The entrepreneurial spirit is the spirit of freedom," Miller said.

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