Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the edge with Kevin Swigert

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Kevin Swigert

Filmmaker and former national Nordic ski champion Kevin Swigert recently returned from Alaska, where he spent 12 days directing a feature film based on the Jack London short story "Love of Life."

The story is about a starving gold miner who is abandoned and struggles to survive in the desolate northern wilderness. Swigert is several weeks into the editing process and hopes to publish a book about London and the making of the film sometime next year.

"The story is an examination of the inner self, especially when confronted with death," said Swigert while taking a break at Zaney's Coffee House in Hailey. "All of Jack London's stories were like that. His characters wonder what life and death are really about."

Swigert is a Twin Falls native who has spent most of his 57 years in the Wood River Valley. He coached skiers for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation after winning three national championships of his own. He is the director of the Boulder Mountain Tour Nordic ski race, and three years ago spearheaded the Sun Valley Nordic Festival, a nine-day event that draws a spotlight on the exceptional Nordic skiing opportunities available in the Sun Valley area.

"It's about promoting the area. The skiing here is absolutely first rate," said Swigert.

His own skiing career began in 1973, when he left the University of Utah ski team—he did not see eye to eye with a coach about training practices.

"I can't stand being told what to do, " said Swigert.

Two years later, after living and training at Galena Lodge, cutting ski trails with Bob Rosso and training with Leif Odmark and Rod Kiesel, Swigert proved his former coach wrong and made the U.S. Nordic team.

"When I'm told I can't do something, that motivates me to do it," he said.

A climber since the age of 13, Swigert was hired in 1977 to scout locations for a TV show in the Sawtooth Mountains. Thus began a career in the film business as a stunt man, rigger and stunt coordinator. He has worked around the world on commercials and films, hanging from icebergs in Antarctica, sailing in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific and hanging from sheer rock faces from New Zealand to the Alps.

He won four "Fittest of Them All" competitions, a televised precursor to "Survival of the Fittest." It was an early reality show that pitted top athletes against one another in cross-country competitions of strength and endurance.

"I won $15,000 each time, which was more than I had ever made in three years of my life," he said.

Swigert became dedicated to alpine climbing many years ago, reaching the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska and getting to 28,200 feet on the West Ridge of Mount Everest. These experiences allowed him to gain valuable expertise and confidence for keeping actors, camera operators and others safe on cliffs and rock faces.

Two of the big Hollywood films he has worked on are "Cliffhanger" with Sylvester Stallone and "Vertical Limit" with local star Scott Glenn.

"Cliffhanger," shot in the Dolomites in Italy, broke a stunt record when a woman fell 1,200 feet tied to a "fan-descender," an apparatus that slows the rate of descent the farther the stunt double falls.

For "Vertical Limit," shot eight years later, Swigert worked in New Zealand and Monument Valley, Arizona.

"There were five people peeling off the mountain at one time, with five descenders working at once," said Swigert, who has developed some lightweight technical solutions of his own for shooting in the wilderness. One of the contraptions he has devised is called the "wall-eye," set up for filming in vertical environments.

"On a $100 million film you can get bogged down in an enormous amount of equipment," he said. "You're always at the mercy of the weather and you can spend a ridiculous amount of time in helicopters. Sometimes you'd rather be back home feeding the horses."

Swigert drew inspiration from Scott Glenn's performance in "Vertical Limit" to undertake his recent, $225,000 budget film in Alaska, based on the Jack London story.

"I saw how an inspired actor can build a movie through his performance as it happens," he said.

That's what Swigert said he hopes to do in his final cut, based on a lean, 17-page script.

"People didn't get Jack London's books at first because all they wanted was adventure stories, but the reason people climb and do other dangerous things is because they want to be out there on the edge, where you come to understand what matters most in life."

"That's what our movie is about," he said.

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