The Mountains are Calling, and We Must Go
At the top of Stevens Pass, a phone rang.
On his snowboard and about to drop in for a ride, Western alumnus Jeremy Dubs was asked a question that would lead to three consecutive trips overseas.
“Hey, would you be interested in going to Japan?” Dubs’ close friend Andy Stern asked.
At first Dubs thought, “Why not?” It would make for a fun trip, Dubs said. He didn’t take Stern’s suggestion of filming a snowboarding movie seriously.
After a Facebook post from Stern announced their new travel plans, Dubs realized that Stern was for real. After less than a week of planning, the group of four friends were on a plane to Japan.
“I barely had any time to think about it, I just did it,” Dubs said.
Three years ago marked their first winter. Dubs and his friends recently finished their third and last winter filming in Japan, and after months of filming and editing, “Naturestyle: Hokkaido” is looking at an early-December premiere date, Dubs said.
A Kickstarter campaign was launched in order to raise some of the funds, and according to the page ended up bring in almost $5,500 toward the trip.
The original concept was to make a film that was an ode to spending a season on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, said former Western student and featured snowboarder Jackson “The Rookie” Blackburn.
“My idea was an Anthony Bourdain-type movie where you get the whole overall experience and you feel like you are in that place for that moment,” Dubs said.
The typical ski and snowboard movie would be classified as “snow porn,” only showing the best moments of the season, Dubs said. These films, he said, don’t show what’s driving a person to travel, how they got there or what the surroundings and the people are like.
In Chisenupuri, Japan, the starkly contrasting scene of an abandoned ski lift against an untracked, snow-white hillside provided one of many beautiful locations to film, Blackburn said. They had the whole place to indulge in.
Their days were never set in stone, participant Andy “The Voyager” Bergin-Sperry said. Days were long when the weather permitted and as short as an hour when it did not. The slopes, however, were worth the travel time, Bergin-Sperry said.
“It was the driest, best snow I’ve ridden in my life. It’s pretty radical,” Bergin-Sperry said.
Finding that their adventure was not just based on the ski resort, the team found themselves enthralled with the different culture surrounding them, Blackburn said.
“It’s hard for Americans to go somewhere like Japan and say what the authoritative look at Hokkaido is,” Dubs said. “That’s never going to be the case. We’re just visitors.”
Dubs’ goal was to focus on the art of filmmaking and telling his story. Anybody could have gone to Japan and made a movie about Hokkaido but “Naturestyle” documents their unique experiences, Dubs said.
The movie was filmed in 4K, a technology with picture quality four times more detailed than 1080p high definition. The quality alone posed another world of problems when Dubs had to upgrade all of his equipment to edit the film.
Lacking the proper equipment, Dubs crammed two months of footage onto a friend’s laptop hard drive before heading back to Washington. With months of snowboarding and travel footage in his hands, Dubs grappled with how to turn all of the scattered footage into one comprehensible story.
“Naturestyle” might not focus just on the best snowboard tricks of the year. Instead, it features a true-to-life scene of Bergin-Sperry trying to eat more than the record four steaks at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, Dubs said.
Culture shock was “100 percent” a part of the experience, Bergin-Sperry said.
On the outside, places like grocery stores looked the same as stores in America and somewhat normal on the inside. But getting into the details and the language made it a challenge to find even simple items like bread, Bergin-Sperry said.
“Out of five of us, two people bought food and the other three people were too overwhelmed with not knowing what we’re buying,” he said.
Things didn’t always go according to plan, Dubs said. In one instance, the AA batteries in their wireless microphone died while filming. Another time, the sun went down while trying to film an interview in a Japanese garden.
Getting a shot was a waiting game, Blackburn said. The crew would look at a snow-covered roof for a days before finally deciding to strap on gear and take it on, Blackburn said.
“You’ll see the right spot and say, ‘Hey, film this,’” he said.
And that shot may take a couple of seconds, he said. Another shot could take days.
The shots didn’t always pan out as planned.
“[Sometimes] you hit the jump and when you look at the footage, it doesn’t work and that shit sucks,” Blackburn said.
The crew faced more than bad lighting and unreliable technology as many of them fought injuries.
Senior Kevin “The Skier” Curran tore his ACL by “gapping on down” a snow-covered boulder known as a pillow, but was able to keep pushing forward.
“I was able to keep riding on it through the pain, which was great because that’s when I ended up stacking most of my high-quality hammers,” Curran said.
For Blackburn, tearing both of his ACLs while teaching Curran to snowboard meant having to leave Japan early.
Even after his injury, Blackburn said there is nothing better than working with friends in the best place in the world: on the mountain and in the snow.
The culture shock, lack of bread, torn ACLs and dead batteries were all part of telling the whole story. Spending time with locals, absorbing the culture and trying new food were part of the experience “Naturestyle” aims to share, he said.
*Editor’s Note: The original article contained an error regarding Jeremy Dub’s name.