Outsiders: Warren Miller
[Editor's note: Freeskiing has always been a sport that's strived to remain unconfined, counterculture and limitless; free, by its very name. This interview series celebrates that freedom of individuality by featuring people in the freeskiing world who are paving their own way, doing things with their own style. They are the Outsiders. Stay tuned next Friday for the series' final installment.]
Suz Graham Logan LaPlante Warren Miller Scot Schmidt
Ski filmmaker Warren Miller, now 88, has done things his own way his entire life. A pioneer in the world of ski movies, Miller is an original American success story. Since getting out of the movie-making business in the 1980s, Warren and his wife, Laurie, now share their entrepreneurial spirit with others through the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, which educates those on how to make theirs own lives better through entrepreneurship. We spoke to Miller this week from his home on a small island in Washington's San Juan Islands.
I grew up in Hollywood, California, but I spent most of the time hitchhiking to the beach to go surfing, originally body surfing until I got a driver's license and could take my own surfboard.
An honest answer, my father drank and my mother supported the family. My sisters went to college and I eventually wound up there, too. I went to USC for a while and then the Navy for a few years.
I wound up in Sun Valley after skiing in Yosemite and Alta and I never looked back.
I had lived a very unorthodox life. I didn't think it was out of the ordinary. All I needed was a place to sleep and some groceries and somehow get a pass to ride on the chairlift. What else did I need? Nothing.
While I was doing all of it, I was skiing seven days a week. That was normal.
Unfortunately there isn't enough entrepreneurism today. Everybody wants free stuff instead of saying, 'Hey, I don't want to work for somebody. I've got this idea and I'm going to spend some time and make it work.'
Three years ago I broke my back. When I tried to go skiing after I broke my back, it was no fun. So I said, 'OK, instead of skiing every day, I'm going to write my autobiography.' I've been working on it ever since I broke my back.
In working on my autobiography, I came across a file of productions that I had been involved in. The file of films that I produced totals 623 on record. In almost every one of them there was some moment of excitement. It ranged from a rope tow in Wilmot, Wis., to the first year that they invented artificial snow to skiing on a volcano that was blowing up every day in New Zealand.
I had Jean-Claude Killy after he won his three gold medals. We skied on that volcano because it didn't blow up every day until 3:30 and we skied till 3:15. We skied and got off and watched it blow up while we were flying away from it in a helicopter.
I was privileged, and I used that word not guardedly but proudly, to have the opportunity to do those things and most everything in between. The hard thing to realize is that when I started, there were less than 15 chairlifts in America.
That first winter I made my first movie, film was $11 a roll and it was really hard to get $11 to buy film. I only had $125 a month. That didn't go very far so I did a lot of other stuff. I took pictures of people on the porch at lunch. I stayed up and processed them. If it was the guy and his wife, they were $1. If it was the guy and his girlfriend and not his wife, the pictures were $10.
After doing interviews since 1950, you can rest assured that I've been asked a lot of unusual questions. I sit back down at the typewriter and work on my autobiography. Typewriter….how's that for an old, ancient word? I sit back down at the computer and work on my autobiography and forget the question.
You can have a jolly time [skiing without spending a bunch of money.] You don't even have to pay for parking. Buy some skis at a ski swap for $25. For $50, you can get skis, boots, poles and the whole racket. Drive in there and park, climb the mountain and make turns on a groomed run.
When you're skiing down the hill, whether you own a four million dollar house or you're sleeping in the parking lot, you can only make one turn at a time and nobody has any more freedom than the person making a turn. The word freedom is what this whole thing is about.
In the ski industry, everybody hopes to have knee-deep powder snow every morning when they get up, hopes to have the chairlift running, hopes to have a free ticket on it.
I've been outside of the box my whole life. I've never considered myself an outsider; I just marched to a different drumbeat. But I'm right there marching along with everybody else.