As rancher Ray Heid was making his way toward a late spring "six-hour horse ride, two-hour hike and five-minute ski" on Sand Mountain in North Routt County two weeks ago, an unlikely crew skied past him as he tied his horse.
A film crew, that was -- direct from Los Angeles.
Twenty students from the University of Southern California spent the past two weeks making a short film about local ski legend Buddy Werner. The filmmakers gleaned inspiration from Werner's old friends and family, captured a ranching atmosphere from the Fetcher Ranch, scrounged historic skiing and ranching props from barns and caught the last flurry of snow on Mount Werner just in time for the film's climactic ski race.
Heid, a close childhood friend of Werner, said he spent a lot of time consulting with the film students to make sure they got it right.
"This is a legend you're dealing with -- and even though you're on a budget, we don't want to screw up a legend," Heid said.
He started out by sending the crew in search of Kastle skis with 6-foot leather straps, called "longthongs," such as Catherine Harwig used to make for the skiers. The old Head skis with step-in bindings that the students first planned to use just wouldn't do, Heid said. "Buddy was real adamant about Kastle skis," he said.
The 12-minute film, "Racer Number 9," is being produced by Jason Berman, a junior at USC who has been visiting Steamboat Springs for the past 18 years. Berman said he was inspired by his passion for skiing and a documentary about Werner that he had seen. Berman knew the basic story -- Werner, a native of Steamboat, was a three-time Olympian who died trying to outrace an avalanche in Switzerland in 1964 -- but he said what he really wanted to show was what kind of person the legendary skier was.
"We had known all the factual stuff. We wanted to know the details," Berman said as he supervised shooting of a scene inside the Fetchers' chickenhouse-turned-bunkhouse that was used as the set for Werner's bedroom.
Berman said he and screenwriter/director Mike Jenson turned to a list of luminaries to capture Werner's personal history, some of whom included Heid, John Fetcher, Loris Werner, Jim "Moose" Barrows, Billy Kidd, Dave Gorsuch and Jimmie Heuga.
"Buddy was a different kind of racer," Jenson said. "He was more willing to give 110 percent than the other racers out there. Everyone said he was always first or last because he went all out."
In addition to helicopter shots filmed on Sand Mountain and scenes around the Fetcher Ranch headquarters, the three-person cast and 20-person crew filmed racing scenes at Arapahoe Basin, a bar scene at Steamboat Smokehouse, and ski runs in the trees next to Buddy's Run in the Steamboat Ski Area. The Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. assisted the students with snow cats and snowmobiles to film their runs in the ski area, which got 6 inches of fresh snow the day before their shoot.
A lot of the production design was made up of authentic, local gear. The filmmakers borrowed Werner's medals from the ski area. They said they found skis, boots, poles and racecourse flags by digging through several barns. And they got old uniforms such as Werner's from Barrows, another former Olympian.
"It's great being out here," Jenson said, expressing his gratitude for the community's generosity. "I think people were more willing to help out because he's a hometown hero."
Jay Fetcher, who donated the use of his ranch for the film, said he was impressed by the whole operation after hanging around the set for a few days.
"You've got to admire their tenacity to tackle something like this -- to point 20 college kids in the right direction is pretty amazing," Fetcher said.
Berman and Jenson said they are planning to finish "Racer Number 9" by the end of the summer and hope to premiere it in Steamboat late next winter.
After taking a critical peek at the script, Heid said he thought the film students had done a good job capturing his old friend who "always took time out to smile and talk to somebody."
"It's as close as Hollywood can get it," Heid said.
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