Friday Interview: Mike Douglas

The godfather of freeskiing discusses his contributions to the industry, how film is pushing the sport forward, and his mixed feelings about freeskiing’s induction into the Olympics

Mike Douglas.     Photo: Mattias Fredriksson/Salomon

"Really good filmmaking can be more powerful than athletic performance."

Mike Douglas, 43, is widely regarded as the godfather of freeskiing for his role in launching the New School movement. In the '90s, Douglas, then a mogul skier, along with J.P. Auclair, J.F. Cusson, Shane Szocs, and others, led the revolt against new rules FIS had implemented on mogul skiing, which they believed stifled the sport’s freedom and creativity. In response, the New Canadian Air Force, as they were collectively known, pushed into snowboard terrain parks and began hucking massive airs, 360s, and backflips. In an age when skiing was largely limited to moguls and racing, they did with their skis what snowboarders were doing with their boards—and they did it with style and attitude. In doing so, freeskiing was born.

In 1998, Douglas was instrumental in developing and launching Salomon’s Teneighty, the first twin-tip ski, which revolutionized the sport and the way skis are made. With the twin tip, skiers could ski forwards, backwards, and land tricks from either direction. Twin tips opened up the creative doors for what was possible on skis. And if you’ve looked at skis lately, most have some form of twin tip integrated into their design.

In the last several years, Douglas has segued into ski filmmaking and is pushing that genre’s boundaries, too. He’s a director for Salomon Freeski TV and heads up Switchback Entertainment, which released Tempting Fear in October, an award-winning documentary about big-mountain skier Andreas Fransson. Last year, Douglas traveled from Japan to Russia and several places in between to shoot the Salomon Freeski TV episodes. "Vuelo," Salomon Freeski TV’s most recent episode, dropped December 4, and features Leo Aherns, Alexi Godbout, and Vincent Gagnier hammering down in the Chilean Andes. In 2014, Douglas and Switchback will release the documentary Snowman.

Here, Whistler, British Columbia-based Douglas discusses his contributions to skiing, how film is pushing the sport forward, and his mixed feelings about freeskiing’s induction into the Olympics.

When did you start skiing and how?
I was a late bloomer. My first day of skiing was on a Grade 5 school trip to Mount Washington on Vancouver Island. From the first day, I was hooked. The following year, I convinced my family to take up skiing and from that point I was on the mountain every weekend.

You were an important part of moving the sport forward—you've been called the godfather of freeskiing. Looking back now, what do you think your contribution to the sport was?
I'm not exactly sure. I haven't put much thought into it. I've always enjoyed challenging the status quo. Leading the charge with the whole twin tips thing is where the nickname comes from. No matter what I do, I try to break the rules in some way. At the same time, I've learned to compromise to get things done. Looking back now I'd say it's worked out mostly good, but if I could do it again I'd change the way I did some things.

Were you aware of the significance of what you were doing at the time (New Canadian Air Force era)? If so, when did you become aware that you were on to something big?
Not really. The motivation in the beginning was to simply get enough support to continue to live the sweet life of a pro skier. All along in the back of your mind you hope for the best-case scenario, but life rarely works like that.

We were at a trade event in Aspen in 1998 doing a demo for Salomon. A lot of people had heard what we were doing on skis, but few had seen it. As the day went on the buzz was building and by the end we walked through the place like rock stars. That was probably the first time I realized it would be big. The next year of our lives after that was super exciting. It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of us.

What was the impetus to break free and start the New School movement back in the '90s?
The entire crew was made up of passionate mogul skiers. We were freestylers at our core. Thanks to a bunch of stupid rule changes in the early '90s, all the freestyle got sucked out of mogul skiing. At the same time, snowboarding had arrived and was pure freestyle, but we were skiers. We knew we could do all the same tricks on skis.

What do you think about slopestyle and halfpipe being added to the Olympics?
Mixed emotions. I think it's great the athletes and sport are getting the recognition they deserve, but part of me is bummed because the Olympics and FIS is what we were running away from in the beginning. I think the sport is in a good place though. I'm not worried about this affecting its future.

Who is moving the sport forward now? And where is the sport going?
Maybe I'm biased, but I think it's the filmmakers that are now moving the sport forward. Higher, faster, stronger is getting very close to its limits. Creativity is the new outlet for progression.

What do you think have been the biggest advances in skiing in the past 20 years? What has been most instrumental in moving the sport forward?
In terms of gear, it's carving skis, twin tips, fat skis, and rockered skis. Those innovations have completely changed the way we ski. Aside from that, I think athletes and the Internet have been the two biggest catalysts. The skiers are pushing and the Internet makes sure everybody knows what just happened in real time. And as I said above, filmmakers are also an important factor in the sport’s progression.

How did the twin tip ski revolutionize skiing? How did you come up with this idea for a ski?
I think it made skiing cool again. Snowboarding had tremendous momentum in the mid '90s and skiing was becoming viewed as stale and lame. Now, most of my kid's friends ski. I'm not sure that would be the case without twin tips.

The twin tip was primarily conceived because of the tricks we were doing on our mogul skis. I didn't get serious about the idea of a specific ski for it until I lost my ski sponsor. If I wasn't dropped at that time, I don't think I would've had the motivation to pursue the idea the way I did. Somebody would've eventually done it, but it wouldn't have come from me.

How did you segue into film and why?
I've always been interested in film. In fact, my best friend and I made a ski movie together in 1985.  I really enjoy dreaming up creative ideas and then watching them come to fruition.

What was the first film you worked on in a creative role (not as an athlete)?
Born To Ski (1985)! I did a lot more behind-the-scenes work on ski films than a lot of people know. For a long time I really wanted to be the skier in the films so I never publicized the work I was doing on the back end. When I started Switchback Entertainment in 2004 I started getting a little more serious about it, and then in 2010 I decided I wanted filmmaking to be a big part of my future.

What's films role in skiing and evolving the sport?
I think films have the biggest role in evolving the sport. Competition pushes skiers to spin more, go bigger, and be perfect. Film can do that too, but really good filmmaking can be more powerful than athletic performance. For example: J.P. Auclair's street segment for All.I.Can was, from an athletic standpoint, one of the weaker displays of modern urban skiing on film (way crazier tricks and things are being done by the top urban skiers), but from a creative standpoint it was the best ever. That segment was watched more than all of the other urban ski segments combined. It shows us that it's not all about athleticism. At the end of the day, creativity and filmmaking won.

What is your goal with your films?
Our goal is to inspire people through creativity and storytelling. We have great skiers working with us on Salomon Freeski TV, but we don't push them to do super-crazy stuff on the mountain. We push them creatively and I think they appreciate that. Our most successful productions rarely involve cutting-edge skiing.

In what way do you think ski films are changing? And what is driving that change?
They are getting better, and by that, I mean they are getting more creative and interesting. I think it's both the filmmakers and viewers driving the change. People are tired of the same old formula. As both a skier and filmmaker, I have no motivation to make ski porn.

Is the way ski films are being consumed changing?
Absolutely. The Internet has changed everything. I find the most progressive stuff being done in filmmaking (both in and out of skiing) is on the Internet. That being said, the Internet will never replace the feeling you get from being in a room of like-minded people watching something on the big screen.

Does your experience as an athlete in films influence the way you make films? If so, how?
For sure. I've learned what it takes to make a great shot by understanding both sides of the lens. Some people have the eye and some don't. Even though pro freeskier Dan Treadway doesn't take pictures, he thinks like a photographer when he's on the mountain. He understands how to make a beautiful shot and that's why he gets more magazine covers than any other skier. Same with Jordan Manley—he's a photographer who has a deep understanding of storytelling. His photos tell a story, so when he made the transition to filmmaking, he was very good right away.

Who were your early influences skiing?
My first real heroes were Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake, and Mike Hattrup. After that, it was a bunch of mogul skiers like Edgar Grospiron, John Smart, Lane Barrett, and Jean-Luc Brassard.

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