“In the moment, it felt like we were failing every day. We weren’t good enough. We weren’t strong enough. It’s part of the artistic process,” says ski filmmaker Nick Waggoner, director of Sweetgrass Productions. Twenty seconds into Solitaire, his South American ski odyssey, it’s clear that the 25-year-old Waggoner has disproved the idea that the only way to make a better adventure film is with a bigger budget.
Shot on foot, horseback, riverboat, skis, and paragliders over the course of two years, Solitaire explores South America from the Amazon jungles to the Cordillera Blanca and from the Altiplano all the way to wind-raked Patagonia. Waggoner and his co-producers Michael Brown, Zac Ramras, and Ben Sturgulewski chose the Andes for its extreme conditions—fickle snow, horrible winds, and powerful landscapes. No helicopters. No chalets or ski lodges. Shooting the film required living and working out of tents in relentless rain and snow sometimes for weeks in a row, traversing broken glaciers just to see the peaks they would then climb and shoot, and flying paragliders from 17,000-foot mountains while filming. Each shot was earned by hiking thousands of feet in predawn darkness.
“This was complete immersion in the environment,” says Waggoner. The enormity and risk of what they were about to attempt hit home on the very first day of filming on location. The New York City native and Ramras arrived in South America to the news that their friend and the film’s intended star, extreme skier Arne Backstrom, had fallen to his death from 18,897-foot Nevado Pisco.
“This was no longer a cute little ski film,” says Waggoner. “This movie became about the dark place between failure and success.”
Fortunately for us, that uncertainty makes a beautiful, intriguing film through the focus of Waggoner’s lens. When it comes to the art of adventure, heart, resolve, and imagination trump a million dollars every time.