When the film “Aspen Extreme” was released a quarter-century ago, it may have been a stretch to think the story of two idealistic ski bums who move here from the Midwest to pursue their dreams would stand the test of time.
But the movie that was written and directed by former Aspenite Patrick Hasburgh, and which shows Thursday night at the Wheeler Opera House as part of the Wintersköl celebration, has done just that. Tickets are free for the 7:30 p.m. showing, but must be procured in advance.
The film follows the exploits of buddies TJ Burke (Paul Gross) and Dexter Rutecki (Peter Berg) who leave their dead-end jobs in the auto industry in search of the ski-bum lifestyle. Set in the 1970s, which Hasburgh said was “a fabulous time, much simpler. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t want to go back,” the film was made in the early 1990s.
“At the time, it was the perfect movie to capture all the aspects of Aspen,” said Roger Wilson, who plays a drug dealer named Jake in “Aspen Extreme.” His scenes were filmed at a bar in Basalt. Jean Robert, owner of the eponymous Aspen gym, also plays a bad guy in the film.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated this would become the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ of Aspen,” said Wilson, the operator of the restaurant 7908 and an established actor when hired by Hasburgh, who used some of his own life experiences as fodder for both the TJ and Dexter characters. (The “Rocky Horror” reference is apt because filmgoers often don one-piece ski suits or other period attire when attending showings of “Aspen Extreme.”)
TJ, who aspires to be a writer, was most like Hasburgh, he said, allowing that “Dexter is my Id for sure, my darker side, though. Dexter’s character was the most interesting one for me and my buddy Pete Berg killed it.”
Hasburgh said Wednesday he didn’t originally think “Aspen Extreme” would become a ski film classic, but now understands why it did.
“There is a certain awkward naiveté about the film, so much want and dream, so much of what many have when they first roll into a town like Aspen, searching for a future and, maybe an identity,” Hasburgh wrote Wednesday in an email.
“Aspen gave me permission to dream about being a writer…I found my ‘artistic’ confidence there. I’ve been a writer now for nearly 40 years, novels, film, TV, etc. There is no way that would’a happened had I not rolled into Aspen in 1971, stared up at the mountain, the Maroon Bells, the beauty of the place and said, ‘Holy shit I have to figure out a way to stay here.’ ”
“I’m still an Aspen guy, a ski instructor who got luckier than he deserved to get,” Hasburgh said.
Plenty of locals are recognizable in the 1993 film that starred then-unheralded actors Gross, Berg and Teri Polo, all of whom have since gone on to greater fame either on screen, or in Berg’s case, behind the scenes as a director.
Hasburgh said he enjoys the casting process and finding “the right people to fit your words, which was easy in Aspen because at least at the time, anyone who could survive there was a star, not a movie star of course, but interesting and resourceful and full of life.”
Bill Madsen, director of the NASTAR program which is based in Snowmass Village, skied as the double for Dexter, as well as another skier named Pounds.
“It was really fun, such a cast of characters,” said Madsen, who has kept his orange Mt. Brighton lift maintenance hat that he originally wore in the film.
“Aspen Extreme” left such a mark on the Michigan ski area that “occasionally, a convenience store will put up a sign that says ‘Welcome TJ Burke,” he said. Madsen annually visits Brighton as part of his work with NASTAR.
It’s possible the film has achieved an even greater cult following in Europe, Madsen added. “You say ‘Aspen Extreme’ and people’s eyes light up,” he said with a laugh.
Scott Nichols, who manages the racing programs for Aspen Skiing Co., is the stunt skier in many segments but most notably the iconic waterfall scene. Two other skiers, Scot Schmidt and Bob Rankin (the latter stepped in after local Sal Aurely was injured during filming), shared the skiing with Nichols to capture thrilling and dangerous footage from British Columbia. Nichols said he spent 35 days shooting in the Caribous and Monashees, during which time three helicopters were used to get the shots.
Hasburgh credits EJ Foerster, a Snowmass Village instructor, filmmaker and close friend for contributing “much of what was good about ‘Aspen Extreme,’ including directing the amazing skiing and effects, the avalanche sequence, he said.
“I wanted to depict the beauty as well as the danger of big mountain backcountry skiing. I think ‘Aspen Extreme’ is the only ski film wherein someone dies for messing up and not preparing or respecting the mountains as they need to be respected. TJ and Dexter were naive. I felt it was important to show that luck comes in streaks and that you can’t count on being lucky in the backcountry,” Hasburgh said.
Who couldn’t relate?
“We all had a common goal to make a really great skiing movie,” Scott Nichols recalled. “A lot of people can relate to giving up their job, moving to a mountain town from the Midwest, seeing the ups and downs and trying to find that perfect moment.”
Madsen remembered filming one scene in Telluride with Nichols where the situation had the potential to get hairy. Initially flown by helicopter to Bear Creek, weather moved in after the crew had filmed for most of the day. Subsequently, the helicopter was unable to fetch the skiers and crew as night time crept in.
With only three headlamps between them and no avalanche transceivers on hand, it’s fair to say they were unprepared for the elements and exiting the basin. Darkness came quickly, snow started to fall and the avalanche danger was high.
“It was a comedy of errors. At one point we could hear avalanches in the distance,” Madsen said. “Bear Creek was not where you wanted to be.” Everyone made it out safely, but not without some initial stress and memories that stuck.
So too has the impact of “Aspen Extreme” on its players.
“The whole thing was so funny to me,” Madsen said. “At the time I had done four or five Warren Miller films.” The compensation for those guest appearances was minimal, he suggested, whereas “We made real money with ‘Aspen Extreme.’ ”
Wilson, who had achieved prior success in the surprise hit film “Porky’s” (and its sequels), says it was the film’s authenticity that’s given it staying power.
“Patrick touched the cultural nerve. That's not easy to do as a writer,” Wilson said. “The movie captured what it was like to live here then — whether it was a free-for-all, coming here to realize their dreams or escape their nightmares, or to reinvent themselves.”
Since “Aspen Extreme” was released, Peter Berg may have undergone one of the greatest reinventions. A rank beginner skier during the filmmaking — “He had to take lessons while he was here to get off the chairlifts,” according to Nichols — Berg now owns a second home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, he said.
Wilson joked this week that he had gone from a “drug dealer to owning a supper club” and encouraged audience members to stop by 7908 located on the Hyman Ave. mall on Thursday night to “come by, celebrate ‘Aspen Extreme’ and have a toast.”
Hasburgh, who was recently back in Aspen for the book signing of his second novel, “Pirata,” which was released by HarperCollins in July 2018, said with the passage of time he’s come to better appreciate “Aspen Extreme.”
“The movie isn’t great, but the nuance holds up. It used to make me cringe but now it makes me cry. Tears of joy,” he said. “It’s cool that some folks think that the picture still matters. And that matters to me.”