At the centre of legendary freeskier Mike Douglas' latest film, Snowman, is a sensational helicopter crash that would seem more at home in a '90s action film than a soul-searching documentary about two best friends.
"It's like a Bruce Willis movie," the Whistler director says. "It's unbelievable what happened."
It's a story that has since become a mainstay of local mountain lore, proving that in some cases truth is indeed stranger than fiction: In March 2009, Douglas' childhood friend, Kevin Fogolin, was doing avalanche control in the Toba Inlet when the helicopter he was riding in alongside 300 pounds of explosives hit a gust of wind, the rear rotor striking the slope. In an instant the chopper began the 2,100-metre slide down the side of the mountain, along with its deadly cargo and three passengers.
After tumbling off a cliff, the heli mercifully came to a stop, but it was not the end of the crew's troubles. Buried in snow, Fogolin's survival instincts kicked in and he began sprinting for his life, knowing that a charge he had dropped only moments before was about to kick off a massive avalanche.
It was at that moment he thought he was going to die.
But whether a twist of fate or a stroke of dumb luck, Fogolin would walk away unscathed, but not unaffected by his brush with death. The incident would leave an indelible mark on the avalanche expert, and it's this existential crisis that forms the basis of Douglas' film.
"(The crash) definitely wasn't a good thing in my life. It caused me a lot of self-doubt," Fogolin says. "I asked myself: 'Am I doing the right thing?' That's part of where the film's coming from. 'Is it all worth it?' Hopefully the film does answer that."
For Douglas, the founder of video production company Switchback Entertainment, Snowman marks a departure of sorts from straight ski porn to a more intensely personal form of storytelling. For all his accomplishments as an elite athlete, the man considered "the Godfather of freeskiing" admits bringing this film to life was the most trying challenge he's faced to date.
Where the traditional documentary filmmaker maintains a certain objective distance from his subject, Douglas' life is so tightly intertwined with his childhood friend that he had no choice but to insert himself into the narrative.
"As we peeled back the layers of the onion, we found a bigger story," Douglas says. "It turned out that my own story, and the relationship Kevin and I have, tied into all of this as well. In a certain way, the story's about my life, too."
Having cameras trained on him for hours on end was a level of intimacy that Fogolin wasn't always comfortable with, but with only days before Snowman has its world premiere, he admits that his old skiing buddy is the only man who could've made this movie.
"I would not have done the film with anyone else," he says. "It was great therapy for me, to tell you the honest truth. There were things that came up during filming, where Mike would ask me questions, and I didn't want to deal with it. But at the end of the day, I am so glad we did it and I feel so much better about what happened, and definitely a large part of that is because of the film."
In many ways, the making of Snowman mirrors Fogolin's own journey from self-doubt to self-actualization. Beyond the obvious challenge of weaving a narrative compelling enough to hold an audience for 90 minutes, Douglas ran into issues with funding, and even dipped into his own money over the course of filming. But it was after a successful $50,000 Kickstarter campaign, launched in June, that the director realized that dreams — no matter how big — are worth following. He hopes it's a message that resonates with viewers.
"When we finished the film we realized a lot of documentaries are built around extraordinary characters, people who are just so different from the average person that they're inherently interesting," says Douglas. "In our case, we found, and we've always felt this, that we're just regular guys who do extraordinary things. For that reason, we're really hoping the audience identifies with us as being just like them and look at themselves introspectively after watching the film."
Snowman premieres at the Whistler Film Festival's closing gala on Sunday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. Douglas, Fogolin and the film's crew will be in attendance at the Whistler Conference Centre to discuss the movie. Tickets are $25, available at www.whistlerfilmfestival.com or at the box office in front of the conference centre.