The Father of Ski Filmmaking, in His Own Words

Warren Miller’s autobiography gives a thorough look at his six-decade career—which just so happens to parallel the rise of skiing in America

Sep 23, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
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Warren Miller skies for the movie "Ski on the Wild Side " circa 1967.    Photo: Getty Images

If you’ve ever spent an early-winter night in an auditorium filled with frothing skiers, you’re likely to recognize Warren Miller’s voice. 

That voice—slightly nasally, switching between wry and earnestly obsessed with skiing—became the hallmark of Warren Miller’s films. In Miller’s new autobiography, Freedom Found ($30; Warren Miller Company), he lends the narrator’s voice to stories about learning to ski on the rope tows of Mount Waterman, or sweet-talking his way out of naval duty so he could chase storms in Yosemite. 

freedom-found-warren-miller-cover.jpg
  Photo: Warren Miller Company

Miller, often called the founding father of ski filmmaking, is also a prolific writer and cartoonist. He’s self-published books since 1942, when he sold a book of cartoons about his time on a submarine chaser called The Navy Goes to College, and he’s been documenting his life in snippets since then. Freedom Found is the whole shebang, from his start making surf movies to this year’s Warren Miller Entertainment film, Here, There, and Everywhere, which he’s helping narrate for the first time in 12 years. 

Miller invented the ski film tour by hustling the movies he shot in the early days of Sun Valley, Idaho, and Squaw Valley to ski clubs around the country. He gets into some of that in Freedom Found, but the richest parts of the book are about Miller’s desire to live a ski bum lifestyle just as skiing was growing around the country. Living in that fascinating early slice of ski history is also what got Miller into movie-making in the first place.

In the mid ‘40s, Miller and his friend Ward Baker moved into a teardrop trailer they found for cheap in L.A., because they wanted to ski but they didn’t want to pay rent. With the trailer packed full of oatmeal, mackerel, and goat meat, they headed to the first place it snowed: Alta. From there, they moved into the parking lot in Sun Valley, where they broke into the pool and sweet-talked society girls into taking them to dinner. Miller was shooting pictures and film along the way, and by 1950, at age 26, he had enough footage for an hour-and-a-half film. Miller narrated Deep and Light from the auditoriums where he showed it, became popular enough that it launched him into a yearly cycle of documenting skiing.

More than anything the book is a 70-year-long look at skiing—basically the entire lifespan of the sport—and how it evolved. Miller was there when ski resorts like Vail opened, and he filmed the beginning of heli-skiing, freeskiing, and snowboarding. "There was hardly a place with a ski lift anywhere in the world that Don or Brian or I didn’t point our cameras at during the '70s and ’80s," he writes. "We were spreading the freedom of skiing around the globe, and doing it in my trademark seat-of-the-pants style."

He also gets into the less-glamorous nuts and bolts of being a roving filmmaker: two unhappy marriages, bankruptcy, broken friendships, the family life—an alcoholic father and a mother who embezzled his money—that led him to life on the road. You get all the sides of Warren Miller, not just the canned narrator. 

“I never took any business courses because I thought I’d never own a business, and I never took any accounting courses because I knew I’d never have enough money to need to account for it,” he writes. “As a result, in those two very important disciplines, I was way beyond bankruptcy several times during my career, but too naive to know it."

The book drags when Miller goes long on his personal relationships or proselytizes about the state of skiing. Andy Bigford, a longtime employee of Warren Miller Entertainment, helped with the writing, and it could have benefited from an editor with more distance—someone who could parse out the stories integral to the narrative from the ones that just happened to be a part of Miller’s life. 

But if you’re a sucker for the idiosyncratic history of skiing—the time Miller did amateur chiropractic work on Benjamin Netanyahu on a Sun Valley dinner table, for instance—or are nostalgic for an era when ski bums could actually be bums, there are worthwhile stories to be found in Freedom Found.  

Filed To: Skiing, Film, Books

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