Testing the limits of skiing-meets-Hollywood, Sweetgrass Productions hails from beautiful Salt Lake City and dwells near to the hearts of so many ski enthusiasts. Afterglow, a short film released last fall, is Sweetgrass’ latest and the follow up to the award-winning film Valhalla. After getting their pants back on and their heads back in the game, as well as some well deserved recognition from companies like Phillips, Zac Ramus, Mike Brown and crew were able to make a long time dream of theirs come alive. Big mountain skiing filmed at night, and that is just the start of what they accomplished. Using some of the most high-end equipment and meticulously working through a logistical nightmare to boot, Sweetgrass accomplished something that has never been done as far as the ski industry is concerned … again! SLUG had the chance to sit down with Brown and Ramus at the Rose Establishment Café and talk skiing, film and of course about walking onto the stage of the powder awards wearing nothing but a birthday suit.
The sweet story began with childhood friends Brown and Ramus coming together with close friend Nick Waggoner, who Ramus had met in college back in 2008. After getting out of college, the trio found that school didn’t get them much value in what they loved, so they set out on a trip to Canada and got filming. Ramus recalls the experience, “That piece turned into Hand Cut, our first film for Sweetgrass, which was also Nick’s senior thesis. We went on tour with that film and that is how it all started.” Being natives to Salt Lake City, Ramus and Brown got on snow at an early age and fell it love with it. As far as building Sweetgrass into the unique and expressionist film company that it is, Ramus and Brown say it was a step-by-step process just like anything else. “We initially started out just wanting to do something different with ski films. We saw a different way and a different voice that we could reach,” says Brown. Ramus adds, “We grew up watching the MSB films, the TGR films and the Level One movies and that is what got us hyped and inspired. Eventually we saw this area for a different type of film and we were excited to explore that.”
For Ramus and Brown, the film process starts with creating a theme. “It starts with an idea, then it’s the blossoming of that idea to an actual goal,” says Ramus. Brown adds, “We know what we are working towards, but we don’t know exactly how that will be expressed. There is a lot of discovery and exploration that goes on in the film process. The vision is one thing but the result is a pretty big process.” To accomplish this at the level that they have proved capable, Ramus says, “We live our films, we put ourselves in the experience and with that experience, the film changes.” To accomplish this, flexibility is key for the Sweetgrass guys. “The nature of making outdoor films is that you are at the mercy of the weather,” Ramus says.
Now let’s talk Afterglow—big mountain skiing shot at night, an idea of Ramus and Brown’s that had been floating around but ultimately put to bed—was now a reality. Ramus says, “We were approached by Phillips after Valhalla in 2013, and they had some ideas that aligned with what we had in mind and we were able to work together and make it all a reality.” After about two months of pre production and getting all of the plans down on paper, Sweetgrass sent it up to Canada and got to work again. When it comes to a shoot like that, being on point is absolutely crucial. “When you’re out on the mountain in the dark and it is storming, conditions change and things come up, but you need to work through that and get creative or else the shoot is done,” says Ramus. All things considered, the guys thought they did a pretty good job of covering all leaps and bounds except for one unforeseen shipment. Brown says, “We were having our light suits custom made, but one of them didn’t make it in time. We special shipped this suit with a courier out to Canada and then paid for a helicopter to get it out to our remote location—one of the most expensive shipping jobs imaginable.”
Correlating with becoming a recognized film company, Sweetgrass has been able to work with some of the most prestigious athletes in the ski industry. These athletes include Chris Benchetler, Pep Fujas, Daron Rahlves, Sierra Quitiquit and Eric Hjorleifson to name a few. Big names mean big time skiing and these guys and gals know how to deliver. “For these guys to have the patience and the professionalism to stand at the top of a line freezing for 2 or 3 hours while we set up, and then drop and stick a corked seven 60 feet down a cliff—that is what makes them the best,” Ramus respectfully says. Brown says, “There is a lot of thought and care that goes into picking athletes and our production team. Making sure everyone can work together and create a strong team is key.”
After the strong reception of Valhalla, the Sweetgrass team had a lot to live up to, especially after dropping Afterglow exclusively online. “By the time we are finished with the film, we have edited it and looked at it so closely for so many hours that we are never really sure of what people will think,” says Brown. “We posted it online and, in a day, it did about 50,000 views. For a minute we had a moment and I thought maybe it wasn’t going to catch on. We woke up the next day and it had already gotten 6 or 700,000 views.” It was a humbling experience for the guys, but also a stress reliever as well.
As far as influences, the Sweetgrass team brings it back to the movies that they loved forever. Some favorite directors of Brown’s include Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malick. Ramus adds, “We try to keep up with the movie and music scene and try to collectively draw influences from all of those things.” As far as environment, Salt Lake is a place where Brown and Ramus proudly call their home and the perfect hub to work out of. Having their offices downtown, the guys enjoy being a part of the downtown scene and experiencing the growth that has and continues to go on in SLC. When it comes to skiing, the guys say the Cottonwood Canyons have to be some of their favorite close-to-home ski spots.
Sweetgrass Productions is a company doing something groundbreaking for the ski industry year after year. After proving their perseverance and longevity with their films, they’ve gone from the low man to a force to be reckoned with, especially after winning movie of the year at the 2013 Powder Awards. Oh yeah, about walking on stage naked, “Honestly that’s a blur in my mind,” says Ramus. Sweetgrass is a great bunch of guys doing great things for the ski industry. With some exciting projects in the works, be sure to keep an eye out for all things Sweetgrass. In the meantime, check out their website, Vimeo and all other social networks to follow events and upcoming films. Until then, get out and enjoy the mountains!