Samuel L. Jackson walked up to a rack of ski-shaped plywood slats, selected one, kissed it, and tossed it into a fire burning in Telluride's Elks Park. A cheer erupted from the 100-odd ski bums, baffled tourists, and other A-list actors in town for Valentine's Day weekend. A local actor dressed as Ullr, the Norse god of skiing, snow, and archery, rallied the crowd in what locals refer to commonly as a ski burn—a pagan sacrifice of skis meant to reverse Southern Colorado’s snow drought.
Locals participate for fun but Mayor Stu Fraser insists that it always works—and this time, it had to. Director Quentin Tarantino was in town to film The Hateful Eight, a post-Civil War western starring Jackson and centered on travelers trapped by a blizzard. But the snow gods weren’t delivering. So Tarantino personally requested the burn.
Budgeted at $44 million, Hateful Eight is the biggest film to shoot in Colorado since 1969’s True Grit. Depending on the cast and crew’s experience, Colorado stands to gain—or lose—the interest of the rest of the film industry, and the big local spending that comes with it.
Three days earlier, Hateful Eight producer Shannon McIntosh found herself researching Native American snow dance rituals. Telluride’s snow season started with a three-day dump in November but has been abnormally light since, with the exception of one snowy weekend (after the season’s first ski burn) in December. The film’s cast and crew had been staying busy filming indoor scenes, but the movie’s pivotal scene needed powder. McIntosh wasn’t about to sit on her hands and hope for another storm.
“Our supervising art director told me one day how, in Vail two years ago, some Native Americans went and did a snow dance ritual that brought snow a few days later,” said McIntosh, who has worked with Tarantino since Pulp Fiction. “I said that’s a really great idea.”
Telluride, a quiet resort town of 2,300 nestled in the San Juans, has hosted burns a few times each ski season since the 1980s, when poor snowpack pushed a group of animated women called the Epoxy Sisters to take matters into their own hands. The ceremony lives on three decades later, but with organizers less inclined toward both disposal of real skis and the accidental epoxy huffing that comes with burning resin-covered gear.
Tarantino heard about the tradition from a local and put in a request with Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton. Within 72 hours, the town and the film’s crew organized both the ski burn that weekend and a dance with the Ute Indians at filming location Schmid Ranch the following Tuesday. The entire town government got on board for the burn: Clifton personally sawed and shaped the "skis."
Not everyone is convinced of the mystical powers of the ski burn. Donald Zuckerman, director of Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media, is a man of numbers and science. He’d never heard of a ski burn before this one. Even without one, he said, the forecast on the weekend of February 21 and 22 had called for snow. “The weather predictions show we’re going to have a huge snowstorm on this part of the state,” he said a few days after the burn.
Numbers also show, Zuckerman adds, that Hateful Eight—still months away from wrapping production—has already made a huge impact on Colorado's economy. According to the state’s Office of Economic Development, articles mentioning both the film and Colorado since filming was announced in November have generated about 1.4 billion page views. The exposure is significant—it would have cost the state $12.6 million to place ads in those articles, Zuckerman says.
“It’s huge for Colorado,” Zuckerman said. “Quentin Tarantino is an icon. There’s a tendency among producers and directors to figure, well, if somebody else went somewhere and they’re happy, then they should consider it as well. We haven’t had much stuff filmed here in a long time. [But take] our competitor neighbor states that have had film programs for a long time—people have seen almost everything they have to offer on film more than once. For us, we’ve got a lot of virgin territory.”
It’s more than the mountains that brought Tarantino here, though. In 2012, Zuckerman started an incentive initiative offering a 20 percent rebate to filmmakers on money they spend within the state, with a $5 million annual budget. “[The initiative] took a little while to take off, but once it did, we got a lot of calls and inquiries,” Zuckerman says. “We’re still getting a lot of them, although the word is out that we are pretty much out of money for this year.” Tarantino pledged to spend at least $25 million in the state, so Colorado set aside $3.5 million from this year’s budget and $1.5 million from next year’s to compensate him.
The weekend after the ski burn, in late February, the Norse god Ullr recognized the pleas by providing a 29-inch dump over two days. Was it the burn or the subsequent dance that worked, or did the town just get lucky? It doesn’t matter, McIntosh said. “We put it out there, and now we’ve got our snow.”