It has been a tough few years for Mike Douglas. The Campbell River-raised, Whistler-based "godfather of free-skiing," as he's known, has lost a lot of friends: skiers Sarah Burke, JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson and Shane McConkey. At nearly the same time that Mr. McConkey died in an extreme-skiing accident in 2009, Mr. Douglas almost lost another friend to a mountain tragedy – lifelong pal Kevin Fogolin, an avalanche consultant, went down in a helicopter crash in the Toba Inlet north of Whistler, but survived.
Mr. Douglas, 45, has made a documentary that is ostensibly about Mr. Fogolin's near-death experience – but it's as much about their friendship, and the bond they've formed through their love of the mountains. Snowman, Mr. Douglas's feature directorial debut, has its world premiere at the closing gala of the Whistler Film Festival on Sunday.
The Globe and Mail spoke with Mr. Douglas in Whistler.
You and Kevin go way back. How did you guys become friends?
We met in school as kids when we were about nine or 10 years old, and it was really once we sort of discovered the mountains that that friendship kind of ramped up to the next level.
Long before smartphones were around – or even home video recording equipment was common – you and Kevin made a ski film together at school. How did that come about?
Kevin's uncle had an old 8-mm film camera, and it was sitting in a closet at this house, and when this [Grade 11] term project came up where it was a really pretty open slate. We saw an opportunity to go skiing and to use it to get some credit at school. We managed to convince [the teacher] that it would be a worthy thing to do.
You became a professional skier. How does one make a living as a pro skier?
Well, I started by competing. I did a stint on the Canadian freestyle team. I was teammates with Jean-Luc Brassard and John Smart. And then went into coaching for a short time and then a group of friends and I, who became known as the new Canadian Air Force, we sort of came up with the idea for twin-tip skis which has led to all the new ski events in the Olympics – slopestyle and half-pipe and all these type of things. And from there I competed for a while and then got quite into the film side of the business. There's a bunch of annual ski films that get made and tour around to the mountain and ski world, and for the better part of 15 years I was one of the guys who was one of the staple stars in those types of films.
And now you're making films. Did you learn a lot from being on the other side of the camera?
Oh for sure – just the volume of films that I've been a part of, probably more than 50 now. You get to see how the cameramen work, how they set up the shots, how they compose a scene. And in addition to just doing the ski films, I've also done work for different TV networks. I was mostly a colour commentator for ski events, but I learned a lot of the behind-the-scenes processes and getting stories out and doing research. It all came together as I was hitting my late 30s and thinking about what I was going to do with my life after being a pro skier, because certainly you're not supposed to do it even as old as I am now. I decided that film was something I was interested in and started a small production company, and we've been fairly successful doing branded content and commercial work. And when this story dropped into my lap, I said [to Kevin] one day we should really tell the story of the crash. That is where it started and that led to us peeling back the layers of the onion and discovering all these bigger life messages that were underlying this whole thing.
The climax of the film deals with two very difficult events that happen at the same time. One is the death of Shane McConkey. The other is a helicopter accident in the mountains that Kevin was involved in. Did these events figure in your decision to become a filmmaker?
That's interesting. Now that you say it, it's something that has affected me. When I lost Shane he was the first really close friend that I lost and we had kids the same age and we had so much in common, and I can't even imagine if I would have lost Kevin that day. That would have probably changed my life even more dramatically. But I think stepping behind the camera and focusing on storytelling as opposed to just doing the coolest, latest trick – there's risk involved in that, in just putting yourself out there and making things that people are going to see and judge. But at the same time that physical risk has been reduced now that I focus much more of my time on filmmaking. And that has been a product of what's happened to my friends.
Because, for a bit of an epilogue here, Shane's death was just the first domino. I've lost so many friends in the last five years, it's absurd. I've become a pro at doing media eulogies for my friends. I just lost two – JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson back in the end of September, and Sarah Burke was like my little sister. JP was one of my dearest friends; he was at my wedding and has been through all these milestones in life with me. Andreas was the subject of my last film. So it's been incredibly difficult. As my kids grow up, it definitely weighs on you for sure and focusing on the filmmaking side has been a little safer, but also therapeutic in a way. As a filmmaker and as a writer, you actually can take positive things out of the roller coaster of life. This is what life is and it's not always going to be perfect, and sometimes it's messy and sometimes there's beauty in that as well.
Snowman has its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival Sunday at 8 p.m. (with a second screening at 9:45 p.m.).