Words & interview: Eben Wragge-Keller

Photos: Ryan Kirk, Reid Morth & Steven Doyle

In a state traditionally known for its farms, cowboys, unforgiving mountains and barren plains, a dedicated skiing culture exists. Montana has seemingly created some of the world’s best riders, and yet it is given very little credit. If you live here, or grew up here, then you’ve most likely heard the questions that come from kids who live in a “real state.” Do you ride a horse to school? Does your house even have indoor plumbing? Is there anything to do there at all? In recent years I have given up on trying to explain what it’s actually like here, and just started confirming their incredibly misguided judgments. I love riding my horse to school, outhouses are for real men, and no, there’s not a damn thing to do up here. It seems that unless you see it for yourself, a bias is usually too strong to be changed. Luckily though, a small, upstart film company is doing just that - showing people what it’s like here.


If you hadn’t heard of Toy Soldier Productions until now, sell your skis. Justin Brodin, a film major at Montana State University in Bozeman, started the company last fall when he got a group of students together with the intention of shooting a full-length ski and snowboard movie completely within the state. If you’re curious as to why it was shot in only one state, the answer is more simple than you might think: there were no other options, and they were already here. With almost no budget at all, any big road trips were out of the question, as was anything else that couldn’t be arranged for free. What came as a result of this was a guerilla ski movie. The driving force bringing this company together was a youthful ambition to do something great, and enough dedication to power through one of the driest winters Montana has seen in some time.


All of these personalities come through in the originality of the footage and the attitudes of everyone on the crew. The only goal of the film is to expose riders and show the world what we actually do in Montana. Shortly after it was formed, the crew invited any interested riders to join them. With that amount of open-mindedness held by the producers, the kids who responded were not only grateful, but also more enthusiastic than anyone could have expected. In the first three months of the season, the state received some impressive snowstorms, and a pre-season teaser was born.


Almost instantly the excitement was palpable. The teaser created a noticeable buzz about a crew that nobody had ever heard about. People started paying attention.  Crowds gathered at park shoots, watching small remote control helicopters do multiple fly-by’s of the riders. T-shirts featuring a silhouette of a soldier behind a camera started popping up, and a brotherly nod would be exchanged between those who wore the shirts with the knowledge that this person had their priorities straight. Little did any of us know that those shirts were the only source of income for the crew.


In a state that is not only misunderstood, but completely overlooked, it was incredible to see everyone pull together in order to create something entirely original, unique, and true to the scene in Montana. Skiers and snowboarders from all around Montana have taken an active interest in the crew. The film will encompass all aspects of a niche so small that it has remained completely under the radar. Until now.


I sat down with a few of the guys in the crew and asked them some questions about their first feature length ski film. Justin Brodin (producer/director/cinematographer/editor), Shane Dowaliby (associate producer/cinematographer/editor), AJ Meldahl (associate producer/rider), Dan Darling (graphic designer/rider), and Jonny Durst (cinematographer/editor/rider), all of whom are clearly multi-talented, informed me that sponsors have plucked members off their team while the film is still in production. Whistler’s Camp Of Champions recently drafted Andy Hahn (editor/cinematographer) to film for a month, so it’s probably safe to assume that “Come Find Us” will truly be a professional-level film. With all the talent, hype, exposure and expectations, the guys I interviewed were as down-to-earth as someone can be, and were more than happy to share their experience, hoping to help kids out there to pursue their skiing fantasies.

Photo: Ryan Kirk

Montana is a big state. Did you guys run into any unexpected problems while shooting an entire movie here?

Shane: One of the main things was the weather, just the lack of snow...basically we were just calling people that lived in the surrounding towns and were just like, “Hey! Is there any snow there?”


Dan: The urban scene in Montana is strange. We didn’t hit many rails in Bozeman, because there’s not much here.  We just had to find other things to get creative on.


AJ: Yeah, I really enjoyed finding those creative spots and hits. It made it more unique, as opposed to just finding a down bar and hitting it.


Dan: It was also tough getting into the backcountry because of bad snow conditions and our general lack of experience out there. None of us realized how hard it would be to film a movie with a bunch of students. Matching up everybody’s schedule was nearly impossible. Someone’s got too much homework…someone’s got a test…someone’s mom says they can’t be out past eleven…


Justin: Let’s just say the next movie I make, student schedules will not be allowed. To really do it you need a whole crew who’s completely dedicated and available. At the same time though, not having that created some cool opportunities. The randomness of who showed up to a shoot was completely dependent on who was available. Riders got invited to shoots specifically because no one else could make it. It helped us stay away from calling the same five riders over and over again; we got to mix it up. The schedules didn’t necessarily make everything worse; it did tend to make everything a pain in the ass though.

Todd Kirby, mid-double back. Photo: Steven Doyle

A full-length project was new for pretty much everyone on the crew; can you give me an idea of what the vibe was like while you were shooting?


Jonny: Working with new people on this project started off a little shaky because I don’t think anyone really knew how influential this whole thing could be. But as soon as the first trailer dropped and the audience wanted more, we kicked it into gear and started working extremely hard on the film. Nobody gave up any opportunity to go shoot. This is the hardest working crew I have ever seen or been a part of.


Justin: For us the pre-season teaser was essential. We were trying to get sponsors and any kind of help we could, and once we released it, the viral hype was so big that it got us motivated. Ever since then, the online response has completely kept us motivated. Suddenly we had someone to answer to and there were a lot of expectations.


AJ: And then we got some more sponsors too so it was, “Now we really have to do this.”


Justin: Yeah, now we actually have to make a movie, dammit! (laughs)

Cody Perin. Photo: Ryan Kirk

It seems like there are a lot of pro riders that grew up here. What do you think it is about this place that creates good skiers and snowboarders?


Shane: I think it’s similar to the situation in Alaska. Obviously they have bigger mountains and everything, but you get these kids that can ride the whole mountain, and then when they get into the park they think, “Oh this is easy. Groomed? What’s this all about?”  Most of our riders started skiing in places outside of the terrain park, so it ended up being an easier transition for them when they picked up freestyle. 


Jonny: I think the wide variety of terrain ensures that a rider is on point at all times. Montana offers some of the best freestyle terrain in North America; it’s just that most people don’t talk about it. The local skiers and riders seem to have a very intimate connection with the mountains here. We respect the mountains for what they are and what they are capable of. 

Miah Favara. Photo Reid Morth

So while you were filming, did you get any idea as to why so little time is spent here by other film companies?


Shane: Maybe it’s because we’re keeping it a secret. (laughs)


Dan: A few big film crews came through this season and I think they were confused because they were expecting to find a Mecca of urban and dope spots, and they got here and were like, “What is this? Why are we here?” You can get creative on anything, wherever you are. There’s no point in coming up here solely for that.


Justin: There’s definitely a lot of down bars in Butte and places, but if you’re going to plan an urban trip three or four weeks in advance, you’re probably not going to have snow when you get here. The snow is too inconsistent to make an urban trip worthwhile. It was easier for us since we could just drive there if snow started falling. Backcountry is a different story though…everyone films at Cooke City.


Do you guys have any guesses as to the effects this movie may have on the skiing scene in Montana?


Shane: I hope the resorts that see it are going to say, “Okay, there’s people here that are into freestyle, we need to build that up.” This is where the sport is going, I think it’s worth their time and effort to incorporate that. I also hope it will allow people to see the amount of talent coming out of Montana.


AJ: I hope it will encourage people to check out the state. Kids might say, “Let’s take a trip to Montana this year instead of Colorado because Breck is packed, and there’s no lines at Big Sky.” 


Dan: Hopefully the mountains around here will realize the importance of terrain parks and they’ll see what kind of a scene there is in Montana and that there’s a market for it.


Justin: I don’t think after this film kids are going to swarm the parks, because, according to the movie, the parks in Montana are kind of lacking. If anything, I hope it changes the resorts’ minds about freestyle. Maybe this state will be less overlooked, whereas before you never even heard of it, now you’re aware that there is actually something up here. But I think most of the effect will remain within state borders.


Dan: Just to clarify, the terrain park crews around here are killing it, it’s just a matter of the resort management being able to supply the resources to build large features.

Cody Earnest. Photo: Ryan Kirk

There are a lot of new riders breaking onto the scene in this movie, anyone that we should be looking out for?


Shane: There’s some well-known names strewn throughout the movie, which is great to see, but people are also going to be pleasantly surprised by some of the lesser-known guys. Shay Lee is going to be a huge part of it, as are Brock Paddock and Cody Perin. Brock and Cody are the youngest kids in the crew and they’re just always stoked to ride and progress. Those are the three guys that stand out in my mind; they put in a lot of work, were always down to shred, and ended up stacking a lot of shots. 


AJ: Yeah I’d look out for Brock and Cody. Being sixteen and killing it, they have so many shots that are just straight bangers, and considering how much more time they have to progress and find the right sponsors, I’d definitely keep an eye out.


Justin: Watch out for Shay Lee. He’s got the motivation, talent and patience, but it’s also a mental thing. Filming with him was great. He’s definitely the most mentally tuned rider I filmed with all year, as far as, “Okay I’m going to do this. Dropping. Done.”


When you’re shooting urban, you get pretty familiar with the police force in town. Did you guys get harassed much?


Shane: I think the cops in Bozeman got to know us a little better than they would’ve liked to.


Justin: Yeah, Bozeman was rough. It started out okay, with the cops just telling us that we couldn’t be here, then they started confusing us with other crews, and eventually they got pretty hard to deal with. It’s more due to the pedestrians who called the cops on us, though. Bozeman's a small town and when people don’t really understand what you're doing, they generally assume you're up to no good.

Collin Collins. Photo: Reid Morth

Any tips for the kids out there looking to get into filming later in life?


Shane: Just grab a camera and go for it. We’re not any different from anyone else, we’re just kids who are stoked on it. You don’t need a super nice camera to get good shots. It’s more about composition and engaging the viewer. A tripod is essential in my opinion. Other than that just watch movies and talk to people to see what they like, get out there and have fun.


Justin: If you want to film, stop skiing. An injury helps with that decision. It’s absolutely worth it, I don’t regret not riding this year at all. Also, be ready to work your ass off and run into a million obstacles that you never expected. If you’re going to do it, dedicate yourself and do it right.


Jonny: I know everyone says this, but honestly, just grab a camera and go film with your friends. Practice, practice, practice and be involved with as many projects as you can. Most importantly, try to create your own style that separates you from the next guy. With technology as cheap as it is, it’s easy to get lost in the world of edits and blogs. Be friendly, put yourself out there, and have fun!


Toy Soldier Productions presents Come Find Us

Toy Soldier Productions will be releasing their first full-length ski & snowboard movie in the Fall of 2010.  Check out http://www.toysoldierproductions.com and http://www.facebook.com/toysoldierproductions for more information. “Come Find Us” will feature Shay Lee, Brock Paddock, Cody Perin, Collin Collins, Kyle Miller, Luke Tanaka, Todd Kirby, Alex Adams, Carson Wiser, Nate Falconer, Eric Gronneberg, Parker White, T.J. Andrews, Kevin Fischer, Zak Steele, Dan Darling, A.J. Meldahl, David Steele, Danner Pickering, Adrian Pougiales, Shane Stalling and many more.