SKI BIG 3 TRAVERSE
Words by Kevin Hjertaas | Photos by Bruno Long Contradiction, they say, is the key to humour. Perhaps that’s why Rob Heule,...
It’s an age-old cliché to say that all good things must come to an end. But in the psyche of Level 1 Productions, one of the most revered film companies in freeskiing’s history, it’s time to change course. Twenty years after the Denver, Colorado-based entity first began documenting what was then known as the twin-tip movement with the first of many captivating films, Balance, Level 1 is ready for a break. And while it’s more of a “see you around” than “farewell,” their latest masterpiece, Romance—which aptly documents Level 1’s long-time love affair with skiing—is being christened as a swan song of sorts, in that it will serve as their final annual feature-length film.
Over the past two decades, to say that Level 1 simply changed the sport of skiing, the craft of ski filmmaking and the lives of many of the athletes who threw down in front of its lenses would be an understatement bigger than some of the airs the latter have etched into skiers’ childhood memories. Alongside the early days of Matchstick Productions, Teton Gravity Research and Poor Boyz Productions, Level 1 shined a spotlight on skiing’s emerging new breed of unsung heroes, while others were still scratching their heads over them. Through their films, most of which were hailed as instant classics and have stood the test of time, they unintentionally created a loud, in-your-face and ever-growing soapbox for skiers from all walks of life to showcase what was possible on two planks of wood with turned up tails. And if their roster—from relative unknowns to those who’ve become icons—and legions of young, fanatical skiers across the globe who religiously don their logo in near cult-like fashion is any indication, Level 1 has played one of the most influential roles in bringing the park, pipe, urban and backcountry sides of skiing to where it is today.
But after arriving at the dawn of freeskiing’s era, grabbing the sport by its throat, and turning it on its head, Level 1 is now opting to loosen its grip. The decision to do so, which was pondered by founder and owner Josh Berman and his reliable cohorts Freedle Coty and Georg “Schui” Baumann for the past few years—as their desire to achieve the milestone of making it to their 20th anniversary approached—did not come lightly.
“It definitely wasn’t easy, but in a lot of ways the decision was in part made for me,” says Berman. “At this point in my life I am very much a creature of habit. So had everyone around me said, ‘Of course we’ll make a 21st film, then a 22nd, and then a 30th and then a 35th,’ I probably would have never turned the tap off. Because I have a really hard time doing that. So it was very much a group decision, and really motivated by Freedle and Schui saying that we need to push the pause button and mix things up. And to be honest, I think that’s the best thing for us, the best thing for Level 1, and the best thing for me personally.”
While Berman eagerly concedes that Level 1 isn’t done making ski films, and “not necessarily” done making feature-length ones, the yearly offerings will be no more.
“I would definitely not write off making another ski movie, as one of my takeaways since we publicized the fact that this is the last annual film is that there’s a lot of heartfelt support in the community for what we’ve been doing. And that’s led me to believe, whether it’s true or not, that if we were to make the decision years from now that we wanted to make another feature film, I feel like we could pull in whoever we wanted, and probably get a lot more financial support than we do now,” he says.
Ultimately, the driving force behind the decision to take a breather was to pursue other opportunities and areas of filmmaking—both in and outside of skiing—that, due to the strict and at times gruelling schedule and confines that comes with making an annual ski film, he and his team were unable to explore.
“Creatively, this will open a lot of doors for us to pursue other projects in which we can tell stories, work with people outside of the crew we’ve established, and do commercial work outside of skiing,” says Berman.
For the initial future, though, some planned ski-focused items are on the menu, including a solo production from Coty on Level 1 stalwart Parker White, and a passion project from Berman about sit-skier Trevor Kennison. Berman also hopes to make a bigger push to grow Level 1’s SuperUnknown video contest for up-and-coming athletes, which he confesses has been somewhat hamstrung by his lack of time and ability to put resources into it. Additionally, he’s interested in a revival of FilmerUnknown (a contest similar to SuperUnknown, but catered to those behind the lens), and a little farther down the road, potentially realizing his dream of hosting a Level 1 Superpark, “as a gift to the ski community.” But he admits that it’s eyeballing the endless amount of possibilities outside of skiing that has him most intrigued.
“The concept of producing content outside of skiing is probably more exciting for me right now than the concept of producing content inside of skiing,” he says. “Skiing is definitely my heart and soul, and I’ll never step away from it, but at the same time, when you look through your viewfinder and you see an image that’s unlike anything you’ve captured before, it really gets the juices flowing.”
In the meantime, Berman fills with pride when speaking about Romance—which has received rave reviews, and won Film of the Year at the International Freeski Film Festival (iF3)—and feels that, in his opinion, it offers a fitting end to this chapter of Level 1’s story.
“It’s the heaviest collection of action that we’ve ever put in a ski movie,” he says. “We very much made a concerted effort to not do some corny callback to what we’ve done. We just wanted to make the best and strongest action movie we could, as opposed to going out with some sort of weak-sauce, cobbled-together retrospective film.”
It shows. From its heart-pumping intro—which begins with a Dr. Seuss quote that appropriately sets the stage for the film—to its heart-stirring finish in the credits, which includes an assemblage of shots submitted by former athletes showing what they’re up to now, capped off by a moment that Berman considers to be a personal standout in his career: a shot of his six-year-old son Forrest skiing. But perhaps the most powerful highlights, not to mention nostalgic, are courtesy of getting the band of Phil Casabon, Tom Wallisch and Mike Hornbeck—three of Level 1’s most legendary alumni—back together for an all-out assault on the streets of Minnesota.
“To watch all these guys, who’ve been going at it for so long, still at the absolute pinnacle of their game, is something else,” says Berman. “With Phil coming off of winning X Games Real Ski gold, and clearly still being the best of the best street skiers in the world. To Wallisch, who doesn’t have anything left to prove, coming out and doing some of the heavier features and wilder things he’s done in years, like sliding a 360-degree spiral staircase. And Hornbeck, who’s got more grey hair than my 85-year-old dad, putting down a segment full of heaters. It’s just so amazing to see.”
Looking back, Berman lets loose a hearty laugh and assertive “absolutely not” when asked if he ever thought Level 1 would make it to 20 years, particularly because of how haphazardly things began.
After blowing his knee in the winter of 2000 while attempting to become a pro skier, Berman—who was looking to avoid going back to college after taking the season off—picked up a camera and decided to make a ski movie on a whim. Things began to slowly snowball from there, but it wasn’t until after the third, and in his mind at the time, final film, that he cheekily but accordingly titled Strike Three, when things began to click.
“By the time I was done editing it and had released it, it was about to start snowing, so there was this kind of natural cycle of just wanting to go out and do it again,” he says. “Combined with the fact that all of my best friends were saying, ‘What are we going to do if you don’t make a movie with us?’ So I sort of felt like I didn’t have a choice, because I had become very inspired by them, and didn’t want to leave them hanging.”
The logical title for their fourth film was Forward, which Berman feels was emblematic of Level 1, along with freeskiing as a whole, beginning to evolve into something more refined.
“The development of skiing in the early 2000s was unlike anything the sport had otherwise experienced, where every time we went out to shoot we were capturing something that had probably never been done before. So that level of excitement is what kept us going.”
From there, while harnessing that enthusiasm, Level 1 proceeded to hone the art of the ski porn by unleashing a flurry of award-winning films, six of which were collectively honoured with the coveted title of Film of the Year by iF3 and Powder Magazine. But Berman points to one in particular that he, and many others, deem to be the most memorable of the bunch.
“All of the films stand out for different reasons of course, but if I had to pick one that has a special place in my heart, it would have to be Refresh. We were celebrating 10 years, which was another milestone that we never dreamed of. And we had the ultimate all-star cast in terms of people who are the best of the best, as they were becoming the best of the best, and before they went on to dominate the sport and got pulled in different directions. And the fact that I wrote a script for Warren Miller to read for it just didn’t seem real. It was such a wild ride in every way.”
Since then, after being initially influenced, like most ski filmmakers at the time, by Miller, Berman, alongside Coty, Baumann and a host of others who’ve helped make Level 1 what it is, have followed in the forefather of ski filmmaking’s footsteps by encouraging anyone who’s watched one of their movies to get out there and go skiing. And, combined with the opportunities, and in some cases careers, that their films have given to various athletes, videographers, editors and interns they’ve worked with, Berman states that’s been the most gratifying and rewarding aspect of their long list of accomplishments.
“Somebody once told me that the true measure of success is the number of lives you touch and the number of people you inspire. So with that in mind, I think we’ve been successful with what we’ve created and what we’ve done, and it’s been the most meaningful takeaway from this whole experience.”
And when asked whether he’d like to convey anything in return to the countless skiers that Level 1 has inspired all over the world, and who in turn have passionately supported his two-decade-long labour of love, Berman, in movie trailer-like fashion, offers a fitting sentiment as his outfit begins to take things to a different level.
“We’ll see you soon.”
For more on Level 1 Productions, and to purchase Romance, visit level1.ski.