One of my favourite moments with Nick Waggoner was this past July as we sat on the edge of a shallow pond watching larvae. He, photographer Steve Ogle and I had just completed a rock climbing adventure in the Purcell Mountains and were hiking out via Monica Meadows when we decided to rest by the water. We talked about fly-fishing (both Nick and Steve are aficionados) and birds and weather and then we just went silent. No one said anything for what felt like minutes. It was like we were three toddlers lost in the movement of a bug.
Two weeks later I stumbled through the dust near the VIP area of the Shambhala Music Festival looking for Nick’s rented cube van. The bass music emanating from the Amphitheater Stage was so deep I could feel it in the roots of my molars. I was hoping to catch him in action with the rest of the Sweetgrass Production Crew as they lugged cameras from stage to stage capturing footage for Shambhala Films. But as happens at Canada’s largest electronic music experience, paths diverged, plans changed and I didn’t connect with him until after the event was over. He said his experience there was like working in a sleep deprivation chamber, but one filled with amazing sound.
These two snapshots in time perfectly illustrate the dichotomy of Nick’s life. He’s from the heart of New York City but resides in the woods near Nelson, British Columbia. He co-owns a successful film production company but would rather be dirtbagging it in the mountains. He’s most comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt but donned a tuxedo to accept his Emmy award this year. His work is primarily visual but goddamn it he can write! Here’s an example from a recent Facebook post:
“Sunday night at Shambhala. Dust-caked eyebrows, shoes filled with sand, bound for the compost. A fine silt covering every possession. Possibly our souls. The weight of striving, endurance, ultra-marathon camera raving, sinking shoulders and hanging in suitcases beneath all our eyes. I’d watched everyone on the crew fall asleep standing up, jolt awake, and then fire up their cameras to march back into the pit, through a cloud of brown baby powder belching from their RED fan. Everyone committed to achieve and to each other, motivated by creativity not coin. By 2am we hid everyones batteries and mandated a catharsis, group hug, dance, put-the-cameras-down-boogie-down. 15 deep, we roved from stage to stage as a jelled one, taking care in the chaos not to lose a Sweetgrass soul. Sequestered editors were released from their pens, and as I watched camera operators hoist them onto their shoulders, and DITs break dancing with DP’s, AC’s twerking with PA’s, I was proud of what we created together, the film and the family.”
On the eve of the release of Nick’s latest project, the “Shambhala Music Festival Official AfterMovie,” I interviewed him about his past, his presence and making out with Lady Gaga.
Hey Nick. Let’s begin with the fact you grew up in the heart of New York City. When did the mountains start calling you?
My dad bought a place in Colorado in the early ‘80s before I was born so skiing was always a part of our lives. It took a hold for me and my brother at an early age….When I was nine years old I started going to summer camp in Connecticut and living in a tent for six weeks. At the age of 12, I was convinced I was going to become a professional skier….So the mountains have always called to me. I’d be sitting in class staring at the world outside and wondering where the snow was falling. It felt like I was missing the big event.
So you moved to Colorado and went to film school. Have you always been interested in filmmaking?
I’d play with my dad’s little 35mm Rollei camera when I was a kid….I was given stock in Gerber baby food and I cashed that in when I was 12 to get a camera of my own….I used to hold slideshows in my Catholic school.
What was film school like?
There was such a cool energy in college. Just people striving so hard to make films. That’s when we created Sweetgrass…The biggest I could dream at that point was getting sponsored by the local gear shop.
What was your first big break?
I remember I had emailed Osprey and they asked if I was going to OR. I had no idea what OR even was so I Googled it. (ed note: OR=Outdoor Retailer tradeshow.)…I hitchhiked through the night to get there…and then hit the ground running. I pitched Patagonia on an hour of sleep. The result was “Hand Cut,” which was my thesis in college. It’s 27 minutes long and heavily influenced by (Kootenay filmmaker) Bill Heath and (his movie) Sinners and the ethic and value of the “every man skier.”
What’s been one of your favourite projects you’ve worked on?
Valhalla was incredible. It was a process of creating this incredible world. We were renting a three-story house in Rosemont (in Nelson) and at the time there were, like, 25 people living there: friends, ski bums, randoms. We’d have parties, bonfires in the woods, and of course we were all skiing. It was like we were living the movie we were making – an art imitating life kind of thing….We were shooting the naked segment…all these pink bodies sitting on the chairlift at Whitewater…and I had to stop and say to myself, “This is the only time in your life you’re going to see this.”
Tell us about your experience winning an Emmy this year for “Outstanding Camera Work.”
It’s crazy to think I was on a mountain, putting on crampons and climbing an exposed route in the Rockies a few days before the Emmy’s and thinking, “I don’t want to go to New York.” But Zac (Sweetgrass producer Zac Ramras) and I went and we’re in this theatre filled with 1,200 people. There’s one row of 50 seats behind the stage and that’s where we’re seated. We’re looking out at all of them. So surreal. I mean, there was no logic as to why we were seated there….At one point I remember the executive producer from Outside TV leaning over and telling me to thank certain people in my speech. My heart was beating like crazy but my mind was like, “Dude, get over it.” Then it’s gets to (our category) and the winner is announced. I heard the first syllable and was like, “Oh my God! I should have prepared something.” Up until that point there had been lots of cheers and clapping for winners but when our names were called…I mean, the two producers with us were shouting “YEAH, YEAH!” but that was about it. We were just these unknown dudes in a massive room filled with famous people and industry guys….Luckily I remembered to thank the right people. But I was totally buzzing….Later that night we were at a bar and I looked around and couldn’t find the Emmy statue. Then someone points and there’s our statue being held by (singer) Nicki Minaj. She’s sitting beside Nas the rapper and getting their photo taken. Seriously? Dude! Four days ago I was roping up on a glacier!
This is the TV segment that earned Nick and Sweetgrass Productions an Emmy Award.
Filming at Shambhala must be an entirely different experience compared to the mountains. What’s it like shooting at the festival?
You know my scene: I come from a city of 12 million people but I like to go walking in the middle of nowhere. I like the extremes. I’d rather be alone in the wilderness or at a massive rave….I’ve learned a lot from shooting at Shambhala. For example, when we shot the “Shambhalovelies,” we’d literally drive around the festival in a golf cart, scan the horizon, pull over and walk up to talk to someone we thought might be interesting. And sure enough they were interesting. The things they were saying totally related. They were all so genuine and real, every one of them!….Another time I remember standing on top of the Pagoda (stage) after I was done filming. The DJ was building it up (the music) and then all of a sudden it goes dead quiet. Everything stops. Suddenly the beat drops and instantly 5,000 people are writhing and jumping and just going fucking insane. I’d never experienced anything done to that level before. I’ve been to clubs where people are half-heartedly dancing but this, man, I could feel the energy come up through my crotch. That was my first year going. I went in there being like, “I love folk music. I love Bob Dylan.” And I left there thinking, “I’m never going to miss a Shambhala, ever.”…But naturally, when I get out of there, I need to see some wilderness again.
You were in the helicopter filming at Shambhala a few years ago eh? So much jet wash! I think I gave you guys the finger.
Yeah, that’s a standout experience for sure: flying over 13,000 ravers in an A-star. But yeah, when you’re filming you’re so tunnel-visioned you fail to remember you’re jet washing ravers in inflatables. (Laughs.) The other crazy thing about that story is we were walking towards the helicopter when a woman at the front gate jokingly asked if she could come with us. We were like, “Sure, we have an empty seat.” Crazy eh? I don’t even remember her name but I’m sure that was an experience of a lifetime for her.
Is it true you kissed Lady Gaga in high school?
(Laughs) Yes, It’s true.
OK. Last question: What’s your ethos for how to live?
I’m still figuring that one out. My initial reaction is to say, “Do what you can to make yourself the most happy.” But it’s also about engaging with people in a genuine way. Be trusting. Open yourself up and, ultimately, that allows them to open up to you. Be vulnerable…right now the biggest voice in my head is like, “You’re not living right now! When I’m typing or Googling or Facebooking or whatever, that’s my biggest thing – that I’m not maximizing. Go do things! What’s stopping you from doing a naked alpine run? Howl at the moon. And be real. Very real.