Celebrating 25 Years of 'Aspen Extreme'

As Told To David Stillman Meyer | December 18, 2018 | Culture

The seminal film about Aspen turns 25 this year. Here is a look back at what the film meant from the mouths of those who lived it.

aspen-extreme.jpgIt took three stunt skiers, ropes and helicopters to make this insane frozen waterfall scene come to life on-screen.

It’s a tale as old as Aspen. Best friends dream of powder and a better life. They come to Aspen, become ski instructors and find adventure on and off the slopes. Loosely based on writer/director Patrick Hasburgh’s experience as a Snowmass ski instructor, the 1993 cult classic is famously flawed, and the skiing is famously fantastic. Herewith, the people who made it—and skied it—recount the highs and lows of Aspen’s favorite turn on the big screen.

Patrick Hasburgh (writer/director): Around 1970, I read an article called “Aspen’s Still the Best” in Ski magazine. I was working in a steel plant in upstate New York, teaching skiing and driving trucks, and it was awful. So, the next fall my friend and I left for Aspen and got jobs teaching at the ski school. We were staying in a trailer house in Woody Creek, and I remember that first morning. It was foggy, and the clouds lifted and there were the Maroon Bells, Hayden and Sopris. The snow was covering Independence Pass, and I thought I was in The Sound of Music. I thought, “Oh my god! This place really exists!” I had never seen anyplace like it.

After a decade of ski instructing, Hasburgh moved to L.A. and became a successful TV writer and producer, most notably creating 21 Jump Street. But even as he conquered Hollywood, there was at least one story he had yet to tell.

EJ Foerster (second-unit director): Patrick and I were ski instructors together at Snowmass in the ’70s and have been lifelong friends. As I recall, it was on a heli skiing trip in Canada where the idea for Aspen Extreme really came together. He had taught skiing to Michael Eisner [CEO of Disney from 1984 to 2005] and Michael Ovitz [co-founder of Creative Artists Agency]. He pitched them the story, and Eisner bought it.

PH: OK, I was Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz’ ski instructor. Ovitz ended up being my agent and Eisner was running the studio that produced the film. However, none of that had anything to do with me being a ski instructor. They’re kind of ruthless bastards; well, they’re businessmen. Eisner liked to say later on, “Oh, this guy was my ski instructor.” But it didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t like, “You taught me to ski, so I’m gonna buy a script from you.” If anything, he would use that against me—any excuse to pay less.

aspen-extreme-2.jpgTJ in full Aspen Ski School regalia.

The Green Light

PH: Leonard Goldberg [the producer] was friends with Marvin Davis who owned Aspen at the time [he owned 20th Century Fox, which owned the Aspen Skiing Company], and while they were protective of the Aspen brand, with his blessing, we could pretty much do what we wanted. The Ski Co. was very supportive, as was the community.

Canadian actor Paul Gross was cast in the lead as TJ Burke—a handsome ski instructor with a heart of gold. Peter Berg, who would later go on to become an A-list director (Deepwater Horizon, Hancock, film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights), played the role of TJ’s best friend, Dexter Rutecki.

PH: Despite the fact I discovered Johnny Depp and had cast Brad Pitt and George Clooney early in their careers, I didn’t have as much input [in casting] as I would have liked to. I don’t mean to say that Paul Gross did a bad job, but I thought he was miscast. I thought he was too old and didn’t bring the necessary boyish naiveté to it. His interpretation of the character was too wise. I wanted to cast David Duchovny, but the studio didn’t think he looked enough like Tom Cruise, and I was like, “Um, isn’t that a plus?”

Scott Nichols, Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs were the three primary ski doubles that filled in as TJ and Dexter. Coombs died tragically in a ski accident in France. Nichols owns Aspen Trout Guides, and Schmidt is an ambassador at the Yellowstone Club.

EJF: We got anyone who had a name in skiing to ski in the movie. That year, Powder magazine called our fictional character, TJ Burke, the best skier of the year because he was this amalgam of the best skiers of the day.

Scott Nichols (ski double): I got a call from EJ one day. I was an instructor in Aspen at the time and had the right style. I mostly doubled for TJ. I had red hair, so I had to wear a wig to match Paul’s brown hair. We shot for 35 days in Blue River, British Columbia, with three helicopters and a lot of fuel. And then we did another 15 days in Aspen and five days at Telluride.

EJF: It was a terrible snow year, so we had to go where the snow was, which was all over the West and Canada. The Cirque at Snowmass was the starting spot for the Powder 8’s. That’s also where they fall into the crevasse. That wide shot, where you see the snow crack in the avalanche, was shot on Highland Bowl.

SN: We would get our regular daily pay, and then we would get a bonus if we did an extra stunt. A “stunt adjustment,” they call it. So, if you got a bonus that day, you had to buy beers for everyone at the bar that night.

aspen-extreme-3.jpgDexter Rutecki (Peter Perg) and TJ Burke (Paul Gross) on their fateful hike in the backcountry.

On January 22, 1993, Aspen Extreme was released nationwide and screened locally at the Wheeler. The reviews were savage. The L.A. Times said, “Inches of powder on a pile of slush.”

“Radical skiing, predictable story,” Gil Rudawsky wrote in The Aspen Times. “It was fun watching the film with 300 locals who all know the skiers, but for anyone outside of Aspen the movie is a complete waste.”

Lisa Hancock (curator, Aspen Historical Society): Well, I remember people laughing a lot. Like when they drive into town, and it looks like the Maroon Bells face Aspen Mountain. That was hilarious.

PH: I know the Maroon Bells are not directly across from Aspen, but I always thought they should be—not that brown, ugly knob that is Red Mountain.

Brent Gardner Smith (local journalist): What’s interesting is that it’s held up so well. You can nitpick this or that, but something that Patrick said is everything that happened in this movie happened to someone he knew. That was true for me as well. I drove here in a van. I had friends who got into drugs and couldn’t handle it. I had friends who were ski instructors who slept with women on Red Mountain… I think Patrick deserves a lot more credit than he got at the time.

PH: I’ve grown to like the movie much more than when it wrapped. Working for Disney and Hollywood Pictures was very challenging. Hollywood Pictures was a disaster. We had a lot of disagreements… but despite that, the movie somehow survived itself. The original message—the humility of the movie—about these two blue-collar kids going to Aspen and discovering themselves, that survived.

SN: Filming it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I thought the story was great. I was a kid from Minnesota who came out here to be a ski instructor.

aspen-extreme-4.jpgCultures clash as the freshman ski school recruits flirt with the wealthy Bryce Kellogg (Finola Hughes) at Ajax Tavern.

EJF: You never know how a movie is going to resonate in the present or even down the road. It reveals itself over the years.

PH: Aspen Extreme is a movie made in the ’90s about Aspen in the ’70s, and I wanted it to have that kind of naiveté that the ’70s had. My memories of that time were bigger than life. The houses were bigger; the women were prettier; the snow was deeper; the mountains were taller and steeper.

EJF: People still come up to me and quote every line. That’s what’s brilliant about Patrick: He gets a lot across in a small amount of words. That’s one of the reasons it holds up so well.

PH: I get people coming up to me all the time. Even my doctor told me, “You’re the reason I’m a doctor. I was living in Jersey working a crappy job, and I said screw this and moved to Tahoe, became a ski instructor, started going to community college and ended up a doctor.”

Every December, Aspen Extreme plays at the Wheeler. People love to come dressed in their finest early-’90s skiwear, which has somehow become the classic expression of Aspen ski culture. That period was arguably the high-water mark of materiality meets ski-bummery.

BGS: I think maybe the movie helped capture that late-’80s, early-’90s moment that has somehow endured over the decades. That wide-eyed, freshman excitement is still here every fall. People are still getting in vans and coming to Aspen.

PH: I still long for Aspen in a way that I have never longed for anyplace else. You long for Aspen the way you long for an old lover. It’s still a real pull. Despite all the problems. Despite all the billionaires and all that bullshit. It’s really my place.

This piece has been edited for length and clarity.