‘Flare – A Ski Trip’, A classic NZ ski film by Sam Neill

May 29


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Laura Williamson looks back at Flare, a classic New Zealand ski film directed by Sam Neill. Warning: Contains ski ballet.

“FREESTYLE,” THE NARRATOR TELLS US, “BEGAN AS AN EXUBERANT REACTION TO THE CONSTRAINTS OF CONVENTIONAL SKIING. NOW IT HAS STRETCHED THE LIMITS OF WHAT’S POSSIBLE ON SKIS.”

It’s 1976. Six skiers (five Kiwis and one American) are touring New Zealand to demonstrate, and compete in, the three disciplines of freestyle skiing: moguls, aerials and ski ballet. Because it’s 1976, the gear is crap. The skis are dead straight and the stretch pants restrictive. Rear entry boots are considered cutting edge. But man, can these people ski.

Released in 1977, Flare – A Ski Trip follows these athletes from Mount Hutt, to Queenstown, to Tongariro National Park. Commissioned by the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department as a promotional clip, it was directed by a not-yet-famous Sam Neill. (Though he was soon to be. Sam’s breakthrough movie as an actor, Sleeping Dogs also came out in 1977.)

The Kiwi skiers in the film, Arthur Klap, Lynne Klap, Huia Clifton-Pope, John Urwin and Mike Ross, had all been making a name for themselves, though few outside of the snowsports community would have heard of them. Long before stars like Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Nico Porteous or any of the Wells brothers were born, they were excelling in the nascent sport of freestyle skiing (or, informally, “hot dogging”). It was taking off overseas, and this handful of New Zealanders had ended up in the thick of it.

EUROPEAN CHAMP RANDY WIEMAN UPSIDE DOWN, DOWN UNDER.

Prior to the making of Flare, the five New Zealanders in the film had been spending their off seasons in Argentière, near Chamonix, France. The place was, at the time, a hotbed of skiing innovation. Sylvain Saudan was there (known as the “godfather of extreme skiing”, he is the namesake of Saudan Couloir at Blackcomb Mountain in Canada), as were the Garcia brothers, Bernard and Francois, who went on to become Chamonix legends. Bernard is credited with inventing the “ski wheelie”, which seems to involve pointing your skis straight downhill, leaning way back, and waiting for both ACLs to snap.

The New Zealanders competed on the European freestyle circuit and did well. Lynne took a second in the European Cup, and Arthur placed in the top 20. The second winter they were there, Lynne and Huia were invited to join Les Poods, an iconic French hot dog ski team that toured the Alps and Pyrenees in a VW bus (the Garcias were members). The freestyle scene seemed to suit the Kiwi sensibility. The women were hard cases compared to their European counterparts; eyebrows were raised when they mucked in to help build the jumps. But, as Lynne explains, that’s how it was back home. “If you were racing in those days, you had to do your time as a gatekeeper, and help pack up the course,” she said. And the lack of grooming on New Zealand fields built strong, adaptable skiers.

Inspired by Les Poods, the Kiwi crew hatched a plan for a freestyle demonstration tour back home. They just need to fund it somehow. Fortuitously, as well as being good skiers, all of them were either marketing or accounting students. Plus, they had something cool to sell.

Bedford van, Hexcel Skis, Spademan bindings, Scott ski boots and White Stag clothing. There were free hotel rooms, beers, and helicopter rides – it was living the dream stuff. “We thought we had it made,” Lynne laughs.

CARRYING A $35,000 ARRIFLEX 35MM CAMERA OVER THE KICKER. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

The team, which included the five Kiwis and an American, Gary Bigham, ran demos at Coronet Peak, Mt Hutt and Whakapapa. According to John, “people were just agog when they saw it. We used to draw a huge crowd. Back then, skiing was just the
ski clubs and a bit of ski racing.” Lynne added that if they skied at all, most New Zealanders in those days might get one two- week ski holiday per year. “When we went to Europe, we were getting a lifetime of skiing in one winter.”

At the same time, Sam Neill was working at the National Film Unit directing documentaries. He had been commissioned to make a promotional film about skiing in New Zealand for the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department, and he was looking for talent. He got wind of “hot dogging”, and through John Bridgewater – a mutual friend who had a ski shop in Dunedin – connected with the team. As well as Gary, they were joined for part of the shoot by another American, Randy Wieman, who was the European freestyle champion. As Arthur explains, “for New Zealanders, we were
at the forefront of what was happening in freestyle. But Gary and Randy added class.”

Flare took 21 days to film. “We were paid on a daily rate. Those were the days,” Arthur says. There are three segments: the first, shot at Mt Hutt, showcases ballet (more on that later). Then it’s off to Coronet Peak for the 1976 National Freestyle Championships, featuring aerials and the mogul comp, which was, apparently, quite exciting for the international competitors, who were used to purpose-built mogul courses. At Coronet, the moguls were natural, with bumps formed shambolically wherever skiers had cut up the slope. The film culminates in a gorgeous final section involving skiing off a live volcano, because this is New Zealand, after all.

HEXCEL BRANDING AND A TEAM PROMO FROM THE BAVARIAN SNOW SHOW

As well as reflecting a moment in time to perfection (the shot of someone coming down the moguls in jeans will trigger PTSD in anyone who grew up skiing in the seventies), it’s a beautiful wee film, and, at moments, quite edgy. The thing starts off with an arthouse / Ingmar Bergman vibe, all distorted angles and closeups, before it erupts into an old-school mogul party train complete with sequential spread eagles and bongo drums. There are extreme closeups and clever cuts – a skier crashes, and there’s a crack, which serves as a transition to wood being broken up for an après ski fire. Flare – A Ski Trip was translated into French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish, and went on to win Switzerland’s Les Diablerets International Festival of Alpine Films Prix de la Commune in 1978.

It is not the best skiing movie ever made; that would be Aspen Extreme, and I will not be entering into correspondence on this matter. (The worst, FYI, is Hot Dog… The Movie, which, as well as 1982 Playboy Playmate of the Year Shannon Tweed, features an actress called Victoria Rae Walker, who is credited in the role of ‘Beer Chugging Wet T-Shirt Contestant’.) But it really captures something.

The volcano segment takes place on Mount Ngauruhoe. Story goes, Sam Neill was familiar with the New Zealand segments
of the TV series The Killy Style, a 13-episode global ski travelogue featuring triple Olympic Gold medallist Jean Claude Killy, produced by Warren Miller. A section was filmed involving Killy skiing down the previously-unskied eastern flank of Mount Ngauruhoe, which was erupting at the time. It was so gnarly, the network refused to include the footage, because they felt no one would believe it was real.

In the case of Flare, there was no eruption, but there was a fair bit of steam; Lynne remembers the stench of sulphur being unbearable. Nonetheless, the team had a blast, clocking up 19 laps of the volcano and helping with the actual filming. “Now you have GoPros, but that didn’t exist, so they designed an aluminium frame just wider than your body – maybe 75 centimetres – and about a meter and a half long. The film was in 36mm, so they had one of these big cameras on the front, and a 6-volt battery on the back,” Arthur explains. He filmed all of the point of view shots, which went well until he tripped up, somersaulted,
and broke both the camera and the frame, rendering the whole setup unusable. Still, it came out great, and they were able to share the love. “After we finished, all the ski instructors from Ruapehu flew up in the heli and skied down at dusk,” John says.

As for the freestyle scenes, they’re a reminder that the DNA of early mogul events and ski ballet is all over the triumvirate of modern freestyle skiing: slopestyle, pipe and big air. Flare came out 11 years before ski ballet made its short-lived appearance at the Calgary, and then Albertville, Olympics, but anything about this story is making you tempted to mock ballet, you can pole flip off.

For one, a lot of the moves were quite dangerous, and the athletes were executing the tricks on equipment that was not even close to fit for purpose. Arthur did his first back somersault on a pair of 180s, and started out doing ballet 203s. In ballet there is a trick called a leg breaker; you can see Lynne doing one in Flare, all grace and athleticism. As John explains, “as you go across the slope, your skis end up in opposite directions. You had to throw your upper leg across. If you weren’t brave enough to let the other ski go, you’d break your leg. The first time I saw one, I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing.” True, the more ski ballet grew, the worse the outfits got (two words: gold lamé), but I challenge you to attempt a leg breaker on pre-twin tip skis.

And in the moguls and the aerials, the tricks hold up well. There are front flips, back flips, helis, double helis, spread eagles, back scratchers and, of course, daffys, all performed on the aforementioned mogul field of doom and hand-built jumps with a landing area covered in death cookies. It’s downright rowdy.

Shorts like Flare used to be shown before the feature film in theatres, and that’s where the team got to see it. Lynne and Arthur were living in Dunedin when it came out, so paid to catch it at the movies. John remembers friends in London telling him it had screened there.

Today, you can watch it on YouTube, a deliciously retro alternative to the glut of “edits” clogging certain corners of the internet. Or check out the video for ‘Morning Sunshine’, by the Mount Maunganui musician Mitch Horton, AKA Bluey Green. He used Flare as a hot- dogging backdrop to the uplifting, dreamy track, saying he “fell in love with the colours, cinematography and good vibes.” The video attracted a thumbs up from Sam Neill himself, who tweeted “I LOVE THIS!” and noted, “it’s worth watching for the ski outfits alone.” Ski outfits, yes, and so much more.

WORDS: LAURA WILLIAMSON
PHOTOS: SUPPLIED, EXCEPT WHERE NOTED

 


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