As a teen growing up in Provo, Brian Wimmer knew winter was coming when Warren Miller brought his latest ski movie on tour.
“It was like Christmas morning when the Warren Miller movie came, because it meant skiing was just around the corner,” said Wimmer, whose career has ranged from actor to film-festival creator to activities ambassador for Robert Redford’s Sundance ski resort. “It got you all amped up … to go skiing.”
Miller’s long career as “the Pied Piper of skiing,” beating the drum for winter sports and helping the industry grow, is chronicled in the new documentary “Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story.” The movie will be shown Friday as the opening-night film of the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.
Slamdance, the scruffy kid brother of the larger Sundance Film Festival, runs through Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City.
“Slamdance is a perfect fit” for a movie about Miller, said the movie’s director, Patrick Creadon. “His entire life was filmmaking, and most of it he did himself, with a camera in his hand.”
Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter agreed. “There are two major roles Warren Miller played in his life: a driving force in the development of skiing throughout the world, and a founding pioneer of independent cinema,” Baxter said. "One of them is recognized and the other is not.”
Creadon’s first documentary, “Wordplay,” about the making of The New York Times crossword puzzle, premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. He conducted the last on-camera interview with Miller in May 2017. Miller died Jan. 24, 2018, at age 93.
“He really had a sense that this was kind of his last chance to sit down and tell some stories he hadn’t told before,” Creadon said. “Warren was pretty old-school and kept his cards pretty close to his chest for a long time. It was important for him to let his loved ones know what he felt.”
That gave Creadon a chance to get beyond a surface portrait of Miller, who made his reputation as a one-man band for ski films — shooting, editing, narrating (usually live) and self-distributing a new movie every year, capturing the world of skiing both for snow junkies and people living vicariously. He released his first movie, “Deep and Light,” in 1950 and cranked out a new movie once a year until 2004 — a run of 55 films. (His son Kurt took over the company in the late 1980s, and Miller left the company that bears his name after 2004.)
“His movies are playful and funny, and they get you really excited to get out and hit the mountains,” Creadon said. “Warren really made it look easy with what he did. What our film does, for the first time, is to pull back the curtain and see how hard it was.”
The documentary covers Miller’s distant relationship with his alcoholic father and his vagabond days touring the few ski resorts that existed in the 1940s. It delves into how he accused his mother and sister, who ran Miller’s film production company in the early days, of embezzling some $100,000 from him. It details how life on the road, making movies, led to the end of his second marriage and left him estranged from his three children for years.
“The most challenging thing with this film was not so much talking about the professional side of his life. It was talking about the personal side,” Creadon said. “He made a lot of sacrifices to have the career that he had, and his children really paid a high price for that.”
Miller, Creadon said, “wasn’t a bad guy. He was kind and warm, and he loved to do fun things with his family. The source of some of the pain within his own family comes solely from the fact that they wanted to be with him more.”
Besides interviewing Miller, Creadon gathers a Who’s Who of the skiing world, including extreme skiers Scot Schmidt and brothers Dan and John Egan, Olympic skier Jonny Moseley, and Miller’s collaborators, such as the ski cameraman Greg Stump.
Wimmer — who worked at Robert Redford’s Sundance resort as a kid “so I could get lift tickets” — falls into that category. As an actor (best known for the TV series “China Beach”) and filmmaker, Wimmer used his Hollywood connections to help launch X-Dance, a film festival highlighting extreme sports. X-Dance started in Park City in 2001, one of the alternative festivals that used to crowd Main Street in the shadow of Sundance and Slamdance. It moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 and disbanded after the 2012 event.
Miller was an enthusiastic backer of X-Dance, Wimmer said. “He was one of our guest judges. He was so energetic about it. He would watch these films and give his critique. … He was kind of a coach to us.”
Creadon was determined to make a movie that would have appeal beyond the ski fans who flock to Warren Miller movies every fall. “I think there’s a bigger audience for this film,” Creadon said, calling Miller “an American filmmaker and an American artist who was incredibly entrepreneurial, and very creative.”
Wimmer is looking forward to the premiere at Slamdance, where many of the movie’s interview subjects will be in attendance.
“It was a lifelong goal to be in a Warren Miller film,” Wimmer said. “I am now. I’m in a film about Warren Miller.”
25th Slamdance Film Festival
The Slamdance Film Festival is the scrappy alternative to the Sundance Film Festival.
Where • Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City
When • Friday, Jan. 25, to Thursday, Jan. 31
Tickets • $14 for features, $10 for shorts programs. Passes are also available.
Information • slamdance.com