“This isn’t your typical ski film” - Vagrants director Jack LeMay speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about flying the flag for New England skiing and following six diehard skiers on a trip into the woods with a whole bunch of filmmaking equipment in tow
‘Made Back East’ is, in the words of Vagrants, the production company behind it, “a natively New England ski film”. A Vagrants original, in partnership with Parlor Skis and presented by Life is Good, it explores a love affair with backcountry skiing in a style far from your typical ski movie. This is anything but a montage of death-defying backflips.
The ski community refers to New England, the home of newly launched Vagrant, as ‘back east’, assuming that anybody who grew up skiing here would eventually find their way out west. But to Vagrants, that assumes too much. The mark of a true New England skier is a deep appreciation for the bad days just as much as the good ones. As they say: “if you can ski the northeast, you can ski anywhere”. In this film, Vagrants directors Dustin Devlin and Jack LeMay follow six diehard skiers on a trip into the woods seeking that perfect window where everything comes together.
The whole thing is an extremely enjoyable affair that also marked the first project for Vagrants, which was also co-founded by Dustin. To find out more about the tricky mountain-side endeavour to make it a reality, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with co-director Jack.
LBB> In the opening of the film, the voiceover says "this isn't your typical ski movie". Tell me why!
Jack> Our film isn’t about adrenaline-filled backflips and death-defying lines. We don’t follow professional athletes. We follow average people with slightly above average ski chops. These are the people you might sit next to on the chairlift. They all have day jobs. And they’re all united by their passion for skinning up mountains in their free time. We follow their pursuit of that magical moment when friends and powder align in the Northeastern backcountry.
LBB> You do actually mention right after that your typical ski movie isn't made in the North East of the US. As a follow-on question, can you tell me about skiing in New England? What is the area's relationship with the sport? What are the issues with it that push skiers out west?
Jack> American skiing was born in New England in the 1920’s when Scandinavians came to work the paper mills of New Hampshire. In the 1930s, Dartmouth popularized ski racing while the CCC was cutting the first official trails across New England. Think: guys with hand saws and axes making narrow (and dangerous) paths through rocky woods. In Vermont, people used the Model T Engine to create the world’s first rope tow. Resort culture blossomed here for the next two decades as New England remained home to the growing new sport.
In the ‘50s ski culture started migrating westward, partly stemming from WWII military training that had occurred in the Rocky Mountains. People started chasing the better powder, drier conditions and longer seasons that came with the higher elevations of western mountains. As technology got better and the sport became more competitive, America’s new home for skiing settled out West.
Nowadays, there tends to be a mix of reverence and perplexity for those who have remained addicted to New England ski culture despite the ‘better’ options. Why put up with the driving winds, fickle snow and bulletproof ice sheets that come with the lowland Appalachians? Our film explores that intangible mystique that keeps people searching for joy in these woods.
LBB> Despite that, why is skiing in New England so special to you, special enough for you to make this film?
Jack> Make no mistake. Just because New England ski conditions often suck doesn’t mean they always suck. We’ve all had days grinding edges, learning that ice isn’t as soft as snow when you fall. But there’s something to be said for how sweet a powder day feels after you’ve endured the discomfort. And for the community and friendliness you’ll find just beneath the ‘salty New England’ surface.
LBB> What are the foundations of the project? How did this film come to be?
Jack> Dustin Devlin, co-director of the film, had the dream of telling a uniquely Northeastern ski story. While skiing out West, someone had asked him on the chair, “so why do you ski back East?” This impression stuck with him - the notion that skiing in our home is over there, on the other side of town, in the rear-view mirror. We realised there isn’t a good one liner that sums up the allure of the East. It was better to show rather than tell the answer.
Dustin had gotten a custom pair of skis made by Mark Wallace’s East Coast born and bred ski company, Parlor. We started batting around the idea of a film with the Parlor team. And well, things… snowballed? Next thing you know, we were assembling a team of adventurers (most of whom had never met) and speaking with Alex Goff about heading four miles into the Adirondacks backcountry. At that time, we didn’t even know Alex Goff had a goat named Chuck Norris. Sometimes in New England, the interesting characters find you.
LBB> Once you had the idea, how did you go about shaping the narrative? What was important to you? Who are the six skiers and why did you get them involved?
Jack> I meditated with the ideas Dustin had put forward and went down a creative rabbit hole one weekend. I arrived on Monday with 20 pages of storyboards for our film. “Okay, this is a lot”, they said.
This was VAGRANTS’ first film and new territory for all of us. We wrestled with our approach - can super planned out scenes and spontaneous documentary magic coexist peacefully? We refined the storyboards and broke them down into a five-day shoot plan. We charged ahead with our plan knowing full well that the variables in play and the weather in New England would likely throw us curveballs at every turn. And it would be up to us to pivot and adapt the narrative day by day.
We were hoping for a couple things above all else. We were hoping that we would find a window for perfect skiing and knew that any shitty skiing we got along the way would help paint a realistic portrait of our home. We were also hoping to see an eclectic group of people forge a bond and bring the passion for New England ski culture out of each other.
We were lucky and got pretty much all of that, although not in the order we had planned. Each personality helped illustrate a different side of the New England skier. Jen Barofsky is a doctor and mom who wakes up before dawn to go touring and clear her head. Jeb Wallace-Brodeur is a photojournalist who has collected ski maps of every nook and cranny of New Hampshire since he was a teenager. And Alex Goff, as mentioned, has a goat named Chuck Norris and lives in a barn. We made the plan, New England brought the personality.
LBB> Back to the voiceover, it plays a pretty important part throughout. Who did you get to voice it and why? And why did you decide to use it so extensively?
Jack> Going into the project, we were inspired by outdoor films like Ian Durkin’s Camel Finds Water. We loved how a sarcastic narrator could boil down a series of events into a pithy blend of humour and nostalgia. But we also knew that we wanted our characters to have voices.
As the editor and writer of this film, I was wrestling with how to create that throughline between the voices of all our characters. We workshopped a script that connected the musings of each character and left room for real dialogue and documentary to fill the gaps. Then we went on the hunt for the perfect voice of New England.
After searching extensively and failing to find that unicorn, we tried a shot in the dark. Maybe we could get John Egan of Warren Miller fame
to get on board with our wacky project? He called back and said, “I’m in, bring donuts.” We were floored. John brought what we were looking for (and we brought the donuts). Before we even started recording, he had us spellbound with stories of survival and hilarity from his upbringing in Southie and his world class ski guiding in Nepal.
Here was the perfect exemplification of New England heart. He was salty, seasoned and self-aware. He had skied the greatest peaks in the world and still enjoyed the hills of Vermont as much as anywhere. And he was game to improvise and riff on our script to bring his own flare and authenticity to it. Bull’s eye.
LBB> I imagine the terrain wasn't the easiest to shoot on - can you tell us about the production in general? What was it like?
Jack> In short, we got our asses handed to us. Though we all came from the scrappy approach to run and gun filmmaking, we’ve grown our business by bringing that commercial polish and professionalism demanded on big shoots. We always want to achieve the best of both worlds when we can. So we slogged several sleds of high end (and HEAVY) camera gear into the backwoods telling ourselves that we would just ‘bag it’ when the conditions got bad.
Oh, and our whole crew was ski touring for the first time. Our camera rig took several dives narrowly avoiding snowbanks and icy streams. Our vigilance with plastic wraps and air blasters was far outweighed by sheer luck. The skiers started splitting the load with us and pack-muling over half the gear. I ripped a hole in my jacket with a snowshoe trying to capture audio during a critical scene. Our cameraman Dan Kennedy quite literally put an Alexa Mini over his head and sprinted uphill in waist deep powder to get critical shots. Suffice it to say, any illusions we had about it being like walking uphill were quickly shattered.
Though we were discouraged at first, this asskicking ended up becoming a charming feature of the story. Why try to hide our hubris and thorough humbling? In fact, that makes our story more entertaining and relatable, which is why I decided to include it and pull back the curtain slightly when formulating the edit.
LBB> From an aesthetic point of view, what were your main aims and ambitions? And how did you think the end film looks and feels?
Jack> Winston MacDonald (head of production) and Dan Kennedy (DP) fought for anamorphic lenses that would reinforce the nostalgic vibe we were going for. They knew that ‘70s glass would give the film character despite our lack of lighting control.
I think that was an excellent call. We leaned heavily on natural lighting with a small amount of control for our indoor scenes. We had a strong shot list going in, so we put faith in the visual language we had planned for, like Wes Anderson centred portraits and the surreal headlights of Snowcats at night (one of our favourite scenes).
As we edited the film, we partnered with an awesome designer named Fernando Pino who helped us develop a font package and retro ski pamphlet aesthetic. This visual treatment helped reinforce what we were going for. And it inspired new ideas for how the graphics and voiceover could interact with the footage. Each element added a special ingredient to our film’s balance of humour and nostalgia.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Jack> Haha, I think I’ve laid them out pretty well in the previous answers. Perhaps navigating our 1991 Vanagon with rear wheel drive from Boston to Vermont to the Adirondacks and back… without sliding off the road. Chains helped.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Jack> This project paid a lot of dividends that weren’t evident from the outset. It started relationships, opened doors and helped us rediscover how we could be filmmakers and run a commercial production shop. It also became tangible evidence that brands want to get on board with great stories when they align with their ethos. And that brand partnerships can be a great way to support filmmaking dreams.
For anyone who feels passionately about a story but isn’t sure about making a film, I would say go for it. We learned a lot about ourselves in the process. And we know now there will be more films to come.