Interview by Mike Rogge
Photos courtesy of Level 1 Productions
Josh, how are ya? It’s Rogge.
Josh Berman: Rogge! What up dude?
You ready to get this interview in?
JB: Sounds good!
Now, I don’t want to make you sound old Josh but this season you’re going to begin filming the tenth film for Level 1.
JB: (laughs) This is true and to make it even worse, I turned 30 in April. I’m entering into my fourth decade on the planet which is pretty ancient.
Can we hope for a title with a number reference?
JB: Possibly, but all of the good ones are already taken. X=ten, Decade, 10…I mean, I’d love to come up with something fitting. You know, Freedle might want to weigh in on that one. He just walked into the room… hey Freedle, I’m talking to Rogge. He wants to know if we’re going to go back to the number thing for this year’s title. You know, cause it’s number 10.
Freedle Coty: Shanghai ten!
JB: Shanghai ten!
There ya go!
JB: (laughs) Strike 10
See, now Strike 10 would be good!
FC: Level 10…
JB: Level 10…but you know I don’t think we have a definitive answer at this time but the reason we veered away from the number thing is because we didn’t want to force a title name just because it involved a number. For example, we were just like, ‘ugh…Shanghai Six…” and it made absolutely no sense what so ever.
FC: The fact that it’s the tenth year and the tenth movie is really big deal and it will somehow be emphasized.
JB: A number of companies that have done the ten-year specific projects have had the number thing and others haven’t. Either way, like Freedle said, we’re going to emphasize that it’s our tenth year.
Most people on Newschoolers are always giving props to Josh and I think only a few people really know there’s some other people behind the scenes at the Level 1. I’m curious, as I’m sure the NS crowd is, how you (Freedle) got involved with Josh and Level 1?
FC: I don’t know if anyone knows this but I was making movies in high school, ski and snowboard movies, with my friends, like everyone does. I knew Ben Grunow and my brother Emil was also ripping and the first time I met Josh was when I bought a copy of Balance off him at the Mt Snow X-Games.
JB: (laughs) Holy shit, in the parking lot!
FC: In the parking lot!
JB: and I had to run all the way back to the car!
FC: Yeah, it took him like 30 minutes to get me a copy.
JB: Was I on crutches at that point?
FC: I don’t think you were on crutches but you weren’t very stoked about it. You were like, ‘yeah alright’
JB: But point noted, I did run all the way back to my car and I was parked way the hell away but I obviously was in no position to deny anybody that wanted to buy a copy of Balance.
FC: I knew about Balance and it was definitely a big deal for a kid on the East Coast, sort of like the Meathead thing of current times. My first legit photo shoot was on the East Coast with Ben Grunow, Jeff Winterton, Josh, and Derek Klick at Sugerloaf in Maine. That’s where I really met everyone for the first time and I was 16 years old. That day introduced me into the whole ski world and it was a small world back then so we all just started shooting together, Winterton was the glue that brought everyone together.
Originally you guys are both from the East Coast but where specifically are you guys from?
JB: I was born in Southern Vermont in Springfield actually. It’s the same town that won the contest with Fox to be labeled the official Springfield hometown of The Simpsons. Grew up right between there and Peru, VT and Westchester County, NY.
FC: I’m from Stowe. Born and raised.
For a few years, Level 1 was the east coast film company. I can remember watching Strike 3 and seeing rails from the Stratton parking lot and being stoked. The early films had this feeling that it was just Josh, Freedle, and your friends. Was there a time when you realized, maybe I could do this for the rest of my life?
JB: Well you know, I haven’t come to that conclusion yet. Balance and Second Generation were made while I was still a student and going to school pretty much full time. It wasn’t something I was relying on for income and had budget support so I didn’t really have long-term ambitions for it. I decided to give it one year after I graduated to make it work and that year we made Strike 3. I maybe had a grand total of $10,000 in sponsor support and may have sold 500-1000 copies max of that movie. It was called Strike 3 in part because it was, you know, strike 3 and then I was out, so to speak. At that point, though, I was too inspired to hang it up. I thought I might be able to take it places and at the same time all my friends were really coming into their own as aspiring pro skiers and that was really my motivation for keeping it going. Every year we’ve grown our distribution, grown the scope of our movies, and worked with athletes that are rapidly taking their skiing to the next level again and again and again. We just never wanted to pull the plug while we were gaining momentum. If we ever get to the point where myself and everyone involved thinks that we’re no longer moving in the right direction then it will be time to pull the plug.
FC: It’s been said before but there was a shit load of progression going on at that time and what was going on in the ski movie industry was that everyone was shooting in 16mm and they were one of the big boys like Poorboyz and Matchstick and TGR. They were covering the big names too. For us, to document what was going on with guys like Dave Crichton, it was a separate thing, and that’s how I think Josh sort of found a niche. I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere and it was rowdy traveling around the east coast with guys like Dave, Steele Spence. Back then it was really just a mixture of rails on the east and park shoots on the west and Dave Crichton really transcended all of that.
In all of your movies, whether its in the bonus footage or in the actual movie, there appears to be a strong bond between you and the athletes you’re shooting. You’ve had your Tanner Hall’s and your Simon Dumont’s and as those guys blew up and went onto other companies, you still seem to come back with a core group of guys and bringing up fresh faces that are pushing the sport. How is it that you find these athletes and choose who to film with?
JB: To what degree I have my finger on the pulse is debatable but I feel like I might have my ear to the ground more than most and I think that sort of explains it. I’m always looking for the new kid coming up and if I don’t realize it then somebody else will very shortly after. These kids are going to blow up one way or another regardless of me. One thing I have always liked to do is find up and coming talent and give them an opportunity they may not have gotten otherwise. As far as our crew and how we pick athletes, talent obviously has a lot to do with it but as much as anything else, it’s shooting with people who’s skiing you respect, and I know I probably speak for Freedle and Kyle, in that we look for people that we personally like and enjoy working with. I mean, realistically you’re spending 6 or 7 months out of the year living and traveling with these people at various points and time. Unless everyone all gets along, there’s no other way to do it. First and foremost I think it’s important that we all have mutual respect back and forth between the athletes and the folks here working at Level 1. That tight-knit bound is really what’s behind the feeling and the mood of a lot of our movies. It’s why I think we maybe have a different vibe than some of the bigger movies out there is because really, it’s just us. It’s myself. It’s Kyle. It’s Freedle. And then it’s the athletes. We don’t have separate editors that come in or filmers in Europe that we’d send an athlete on a trip with. I don’t want to call it a family because that’d be a misuse of the word but we’re definitely a tight-knit group that has a bunch of mutual respect, understanding, and friendship.
The Super Unknown contest gives, especially for the kids reading this on Newschoolers, skiers a chance to be in a Level 1 film just by going out and filming with their friends. Is there going to be a Super Unknown this year and how has having this contest benefited you as a filmmaker?
JB: There’s absolutely going to be another Super Unknown this year and I think as long as Level 1 is making ski movies, I don’t see a reason why we’d give that contest up. We think its something positive for not only Level 1 but also the ski community that chooses to follow and take advantage of it. As far as how we benefit, I don’t think there’s a real specific answer. Originally I really wanted to make it this big thing and have our sponsors involved use it as a unique way for them to help build their teams but it seems like most of the companies in the industry don’t quite know what the hell it is or just don’t give a damn which is why we haven’t been able to attach our sponsors directly to it aside from Jiberish and Spy and a couple other companies that really, really get it. It’s certainly helped us maintain a presence. Back in the day, there were far fewer contests so I could be at every single one and I knew every single name of virtually all the up and comers and it was easier to know what was going on. As Level 1 grows, our filming locations are becoming further and further away from contests so we’re no longer at all these events. I think Super Unknown allows us to keep a finger on the pulse and see who’s doing what.
FC: Right after Forward, Josh said, “Hey I’m going to do this contest” and at the time I was like, “That’s cool” but I didn’t fully get the grasp of it because at the time we were still small enough to still be in touch with a lot of what was going on in skiing. Plus the ski community was smaller so it was easier to find those unknowns on our own. As the ski community exponentially grows on the Internet, I mean, the Internet thing is fucking huge! Anyone can go out there and film their buddy and throw it online for everyone to see so it’s become more democratic. Basically Super Unknown worked out because it came out the same time skiing was getting huge. I think it works well because it’s helping the best skiers get seen and rise to the top. We’re not trying to take advantage or anything like that but if they come to us with a video, I think it’s symbiotically beneficial for everyone. I remember the first time I saw Tom Wallisch’s Super Unknown entry, I was filming powder in Montana for Real Time and I was with Wiley, Steele, and Travis and of course, I had never heard of Tom Wallisch. Josh sent me the video for us to check out and we were just like fucking watching. I mean, here we are, we just got done snowmobiling all day and here we are watching this kid just do shit that had never been seen before and we were all just like, “WHAT THE FUCK! This kid is ridiculous!” We sat back and were like, “look at what this contest just did” and you know; now Tom is one of my good friends and he’s one of our top riders.
Newschoolers.com has a huge following for Mr. Tom Wallisch. He’s told Schmuck that kids will send him mesages with pictures of their ski clothing and asking, “Tom, does this look right? Is this cool?” For people that might be a little older than most, this is sort of weird because skiing was never like this before. It’s become this industry where quite literally a kid can become a rock star over night and Tom Wallisch is basically embodying that. From the first time you watched Tom’s Super Unknown video to what some people are calling, “The dirtiest zero spin” featured in his TURBO segment. What’s it been like to watch that transformation?
JB: To quickly and immediately answer that question, I think every time that kid goes out skiing or at least every time I’ve seen him ski, I feel like he learns a new trick, does something one step bigger or better. The transformation is happening so fast and its pretty wild. One of my biggest concerns when we gave him that Super Unknown victory was that we had never seen him hit a big jump. He’s got all these cool tricks, you know, doing 900’s on park boxes but ultimately we hope that everyone we work with can really take what they’ve been doing to big, big, big jumps. If you can do a really cool trick on a 30 foot table that’s nice but it ain’t gonna make the movie and it ain’t gonna separate you from the rest of the people out there. We invited Tom to the Copper shoot that spring and we had a pretty textbook perfect jump. Some of the kids were calling it one of the most fun jumps they’d ever hit, you know, a 75 foot true table styled step over and as long as you could keep your speed up, it was perfect every time. Tom must’ve done 20 something different tricks over the two-day session on that jump. He told me it was the first time he’d ever done a rodeo 10 or a cab 10 with a specific grab and I mean, we felt like we watched Tom figure out all these new tricks and at the same time he was doing them better than I had seen other people do them that had been doing those same tricks for years. The same EXACT thing happened at Mt Hood this year! Tom hit the jump about 30 times the first day and the second day he hit the jump almost 80 times! No joke. We had 75 or more, raw clips and I think he did 30 different tricks, maybe more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or even heard of anyone doing something like that before. It’s in a five-minute bonus feature on the TURBO DVD. Go watch it. That kid was doing every trick you can think of.
FC: Going back to what I saying before about Tom, I sort of figured, ‘this kid must be a punk or something.’ I mean, I’m always wary of someone that gets famous on the Internet and that’s what he did. I’ll be honest, I was skeptical and I wasn’t about to just dive into his program. I had my reservations about Tom Wallisch and the Copper shoot definitely opened my eyes a little more because I got to know him as a person. I got to know him a lot more this year and what I realized about him is that he loves skiing as much as anyone I know and more than most can realize. He’s not doing this to impress anyone, at all. Obviously he likes the recognition but he certainly goes out there everyday to do something new and if he’s not doing that he gets bummed out. He’s like a video game. I know it’s a cliché thing to say but its…
JB: …it’s never been more true. I’ve heard that phrase thrown around with a half dozen skiers over the past decade but this kid really, really, really lives in a video game. More than anybody else that’s come along so far… oh, Kyle has entered the building and is sitting between Freedle and I and I think he might like to weigh in…
Kyle Decker: I think we can say a lot about Wallisch and both of those guys just summed up what I feel and respect about him.
JB: Yeah, no more Wallisch for now! (laughs)
Haha, ok! Now, when it comes to the three of you guys working together, what’s that relationship like? I can’t promise that Josh won’t fire you for talking shit but you are on Newschoolers.com so now is the time. (laughs)
KD: (laughs) I really don’t think there’s anything bad to be said. As Josh said we are kind of like a family here. I don’t know if I can speak for Freedle as well because he got in over here a lot earlier than I did but I grew up, just like a lot of others did, loving Level 1 movies and I would have never believed that this is where I would be now. I think between the three of us and the athletes, everyone is just a good group of friends that works together to get it done.
FC: Josh definitely is Level 1. Anytime someone says, ‘A Berman Movie’ there’s a reason for that. He started this company from scratch and he still is this company. I’ve seen him work on a daily basis for the last five years and I have a huge amount of respect for him. What he’s done for me is given me a job where…(pause) I don’t even know what to say about it other than I gain more and more appreciation for it as I get older.
Josh, how has the addition of these two helped you as far as filmmaking is concerned?
JB: You know, it has helped me tons and tons. Freedle started shooting a little bit for Forward and then a little more with High Five and then by Shanghai Six he was shooting pretty much the entire winter. He contributes more and more every year. This was Kyle’s first year shooting for us. First and foremost as far as shooting goes, it’s awesome to have people with shooting abilities I trust. We get emails from random people all the time saying, “I want to shoot for Level 1, I just graduated from film school” or “I’m 15 and I want to do this, and how do I work for Level 1?” But it’s really difficult to find people that share the same visual ideals as what you would consider a good shot. Freedle has been killin’ it for a few years and Kyle has really come into his own, unbelievably so in the past year. I know that if something awesome goes down, I’m 99.9% sure they will get the shot and it’ll be a good shot and that’s super important. As far as the process of filmmaking goes, these are two people whose opinions I respect as much, if not more than anyone else in the film industry. There are tons of people in the ski industry at large but there’s a very select few that have the same goals and ideals for the direction of skiing, and how it’s viewed and represented in films. Both of these guys are on that program. They’re the ones that help me determine what the new Level 1 movie looks like.
photo: Chip Kalback (http://www.chipkalback.com)
FC: Basically, what it comes down to is that we’re all obsessed with movies. I’m really obsessed with movies. (laughs) If someone could enter into one of our late night editing sessions, they’d see it can be a little tumultuous. I mean, we’re all so passionate about what we do; it can get a little ugly when we’re making the final decision but the end result is a series of compromises and we’re all happy with it in the end. We’re all pretty passionate about it and there’s some butting heads at some points but we’re all happy in the end.
JB: Exactly. Ultimately the final cut is a compromise for everyone. If we all sat down at the beginning of the summer and made our own movie, they’d all have a slightly different look, with different shots but what it comes down to is this is a group effort and having these guys apart of it is hugely important to me. I certainly could not do this by myself and I don’t think TURBO could have been close to what it is if I had done all the editing solo…it wouldn’t have been done by now, that’s for damn sure! (laughs)
KD: I like the fact that the three of us do have basically the same overall vision and we all look towards and appreciate style which is sometimes overlooked in other movies.
Level 1 flicks have recently had a really good balance of park, urban, and back country. Originally the Level 1 thing was pretty much rails and park shoots, then you moved to Colorado and started doing back country, and this year you went to Alaska. Are you guys sitting down at the start of a season or even in the editing room and determining, ‘we’re going to have this much park, this much back country, and this much urban”?
JB: We’re definitely striving to have a well balanced movie and make a product that not only appeals to the super core east coast kid that’s been a Level 1 fan for awhile but to all the Level 1 fans that are maturing in their skiing and their perspective on skiing. I think we want to make a balanced movie but at the end of the day, we’re not throwing out urban bangers or park bangers just for the sake of creating a proper balance. We do sit down at the beginning of the summer and put on a board what we have, and try to design a movie that has a specific flow from beginning middle and end. We try to align segments so there’s never an overdose of any one thing. As far as the progression of what we’ve been shooting over the years, more than anything else it just has to do with the athletes. The AK trip was really 9 years in the making and it was. I wasn’t going to take, you know, Stefan or Steele or Tanner Rainville to Alaska five years ago. It just wasn’t going to happen. What it came down to, is when they were ready, it was going to happen. A semi-defining moment was towards the end of our trip to Japan when we were filming for Real Time. Tanner just really slaughtered legit lines and just showed me what kind of skiing he was ready for. At that point, we just sat down and said, ‘we’ve got to go to Alaska. It’s finally time.’ I think Steele was ready for it, Stefan was ready, and Wiley, of course, was certainly ready for it at this point but I didn’t quite realize it then…
…It’s really all dictated by the athletes and my own abilities and knowledge and I think Freedle would say the same thing. I mean, I wasn’t going to start hiking gnarly backcountry lines with no experience or knowledge of the snow conditions or snow safety and throw a Derek Klick on top of a big mountain line in Second Generation. It just wouldn’t have made sense. The kids we work with, and again we try to keep the crew as similar as we can from one year to the next and let the content of the film develop with the skiing, the way the athletes see skiing, and what they want to do with it.
FC: One of the things I realized this year is we have a crew that’s diverse and has strengths all across the board. It’s something I’ve been waiting to see for a very long time and like Josh said, you can’t force it. We’re getting pretty good at multitasking because we can go from being fully immersed in an urban situation and documenting that progression but at the same time scoping out a line and shooting it. We can go from, say a Will Wesson, who just shot urban with us to a Wiley that just shoots primarily lines and back country with us. We’re comfortable and we’re starting to get more comfortable in both of those environments. In years past it was difficult to show these movies to people that only appreciated powder or ‘soul skiing,’ as they call it. It’s good to bring skiing back to jib kids that have always been our core audience and on the opposite side bring the jibbing to some of the more traditional ski audiences.
Most of us only experience the skiing that we’re surrounded with. But with segments like Wiley conquering the cliff in last year’s film to Tom’s zero spin to Will Wesson’s…well…no one really knows what to call it, actually, that’s the question I’m going to ask. What the hell do you call Will Wesson’s under the rail slide?
FC: It’s an under slide I guess? Will’s got a mind of his own and you might have to ask him for the official term. I don’t want to spill the beans but I think he may want an under slide to…
JB: …he’s got some crazy ideas but I’m going to cut Freedle off there and not give away too much. (laughs)
(laughs) Ok… fair enough. So you guys are sitting there, and as anyone that’s ever filmed or shot photos of urban, know it’s a long, freezing cold process. What’s it like to see a trick like the under slide or any trick that’s never been seen before, happen right in front of you?
FC: It’s some pressure.
KD: Yeah, because if we miss the first shot of that trick than, well…yeah…
JD: …there’s pressure for sure. I mean, when I’m nervous sitting there and I know someone is going for something that is either big or consequential or just can’t happen again if it’s last light or something like that. Obviously the athlete feels pressure to stomp their trick but to the same extent I feel pressure to ‘stomp the shot’ for lack of a better way to put it. We strive to progress and get unique and pretty shots. It’s definitely nerve racking...
KD: …but we definitely do the celebration after getting a great shot…
FC: …and I think that’s why you make a movie. I mean, the reason I wanted to film with Will was because I knew he would do something like that. (laughs) But I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I got the shot of that under slide and I began wondering, “Are people going to think this is cool?”
photo: Austin Holt (http://www.iesthetic.com)
JB: To add something to that, Freedle, after seeing the Meathead film from the previous year when we were back in Southern Vermont last November, we were talking about new athletes said, “This kid Will is just doing really wild, different stuff, and you know I’d really love to get him on the program.” So Freedle can take credit for getting Will on our program for sure. It’s really cool to see someone with an entirely different and unique perspective. On that note, kudos to the Meathead crew for putting together an unbelievable segment on Will this year. If you like his 90 seconds of stuff in TURBO, go get the five minutes of stuff in their flick (Head for the Hills). It was just, unbelievable and gives you a better look into just how that kid’s brain works. He’s awesome because he’s bringing something entirely new to the table. Like Freedle said, I don’t think I conceptualized how that trick would be perceived because we edited his part together. His tricks aren’t exactly, I don’t know, the biggest or consequential type stuff because he’s more super techy and creative but I’ll tell you, at all six premieres I’ve been to this year, pound-for-pound his part probably gets the loudest and most constant cheers and applause. Specifically that follow cam shot Freedle got of the under slide…I mean…I can’t even tell you…well, you were at IF3, you saw that go down. It’s been that way every single premiere. Its just awesome to see people just tweak out on something because really, it’s the opportunities are really few and far between when someone can see something they’ve never seen before or more accurately for that trip, something never really thought of before. I’d like to think the vast majority of kids sitting in the theatre had never even though of a trick like that because I sure as hell didn’t. When Will came out here and tried to explain to me what he wanted to do while we were shooting, he had to draw a diagram before I could actual understand what he was talking about doing.
It’s quite obvious that you guys are putting a lot of your time and energy into producing these films. How does it feel, after all the work is done, to sit in a theatre and experience people watching your film?
JB: As a filmmaker its one of the coolest things in the world and I think Johnny really illustrated that point in his intro to Reasons this year. Just standing in the back of a theatre and see a crowd not only enjoying but also verbally and physically reacting to a movie. I mean, its really like someone is patting you on the back and even if they’re not telling it directly to your face, its just awesome to see the appreciation and the stoke for these movies. Like you said, so much time and energy and money goes into these projects for all of us, and its like, ‘this is what we spent our past year doing’ and like these guys pointed out earlier, we’re all very emotionally attached to this movie. Every fall is the sum total of all of our energies and efforts spent over the previous year. Whether you spend that year writing a book, doing a painting, or…
FC: pressing license plates…
JB: Yeah! Pressing license plates! (laughs) Whatever you spend a year doing, it means a lot to you and to have people stoked on it is unbelievable. It’s an absolute natural high.
FC: I’m going to have to quote Justin Hostynek from Absinthe Films on this one. Basically, we all know there’s a lot of shit out there. There’s a lot of bad signals and shitty media, and I think everyone knows that. To be able to put out your own signal and your own media is really fucking cool. It’s so cool to put out your own signal that can inspire people to go out and ski or make a movie or whatever, its just such a rewarding feeling, for sure. (a dog howls in the background)
JB: I think Luka actually wants to say something…(dog howls loudy)
JB: Luka is our beloved Level 1 husky. Hey Luka, what do you think about premieres? (Luka howls and barks loudly)
KD: (laughs) Well, what I was going to say is you know, after we finished the movie, I went back home to Ohio for three weeks and made a point not to watch the movie since leaving the office. I went to IF3 and I honestly, at that point, had seen the movie and worked on the movie so much, I was starting to get numb to it and being a filmmaker you sort of lose your grasp on whether it's dope or not and seeing again at IF3 and seeing the response on how everyone is taking it in is definitely one of the most rewarding things but then the fall comes around and you start thinking about where the bar has been set and how what’s going to happen next year is definitely something I’m excited to be apart of.
And it’s fair to say you guys have once again raised the bar with Turbo. That being said, let’s bring this interview full circle. Again, Kyle, Freedle, and Josh, this is the tenth year of Level 1 and that’s sort of a big deal. I’d like to say Congratulations but instead, I’m going to ask what can we expect for the next ten years?
JB: Like I said before, as long as I think we’re moving in the right direction, everyone we work with is happy and our movies are getting better, this thing is going to keep going as long as the people out there want us to.
FC: Really, I want to say thanks to our fan base. I mean, holy shit. It seems like its been received really well and its awesome to be apart of something like that. Thanks to all the people that watch our stuff. We’re stoked on you guys. Hopefully there’s still some good snows years ahead and we can continue to help make stars out of the friends we work with and film on yearly basis. Basically we are just trying to help make skiing cool, positive...that is an overall priority.
KD: And once again, those guys stole my words!
So it’s fair to say, you guys will be moving Forward, sorry for the pun.
FC: Yeah, to make a Long Story Short, we just want to move Forward at Turbo speed mostly…
KD: In a Real Time kind of way, though…
JB: We’ll try to find a proper Balance between keeping the kids really happy and following the sport of skiing, which is really you know, the Second Generation of skiers.
Well on that note, let’s give each other a High Five and end this interview!
JB: High Fives all around!
Thanks again guys!
JB: Thank you!
photo: Chip Kalback (http://www.chipkalback.com)