Storyteller amid thrillseekers

Radical Reels 2013 returns to the Piedmont with shows Thursday, Sept. 5 in Chapel Hill and Friday, Sept. 6 in Winston-Salem. Learn more about both showings, including quick reviews and clips of all 11 short films to be shown, here. Following is an interview with Skip Armstrong, whose film The Shapeshifter is one of the shorts to be shown.

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While most adventure filmmakers go for the viewer’s adrenal jugular, Skip Armstrong goes the extra yard. He likes to tell a good story as well.

Not to say he shies away from the jaw-dropping moments that distinguish the world of extreme sports videos. His films, which he’s been making for 20 of his 35 years, have their share of big drops and gnarly whitewater action. But when he turns his camera on a subject, he’s looking for more than just visual thrills.

Indeed, in six minutes or so Armstrong manages to plumb the depths of his subjects, be it a 67-year-old matriarch examining life — and death — paddling the peaceful waters of a Utah canyon, or a restless paddler reliant on turbulent water to help chart his life’s course.

Or, in the case of The Shapeshifter, the last installment of his five-part Of Souls + Water series, an examination, with the help of noted freestyle whitewater kayaker Ben Marr, of the supernatural. Armstrong’s The Shapeshifter is one of 11 films in the 2013 Radical Reels Tour, a collection of the top adrenal-action sports films appearing at the annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.

Skip Armstrong

This year’s Radical Reels entries range from three-minutes of “Rollerman” Jean-Yves Blondeau zipping down windy mountain roads in Europe wearing a plastic suit covered in rollerblade wheels, to 13 minutes of mountain bikers searching for the best off-trail riding in the world, to a 28-minute mini-documentary on the friendly competition between veteran rock climber Chris Sharma and upstart Adam Ondra as they vie be the first to concur the Spain’s La Dura Dura, one of the hardest climbs in the world. Extreme skiing and snowboarding, longboarding (the skateboard variety), parasailing and flying a la Rocket J. Squirrel (wingsuiting) are also represented.

For Armstrong, there’s so much more to adrenaline sports than adrenaline.

“I’m passionate about people and the experience,” says Armstrong. “I truly believe you could make a film about anyone and it would be wonderful. Everyone has a story to tell.”

Armstrong began by telling those stories en masse. After graduating with a degree in economics from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., in 2007 he bought into a whitewater rafting business in Costa Rica and took on the role of guy-with-camera-who-sits-on-rock-shooting-pictures-of-happy-paddlers. He took that skill on the road — to Mexico and Canada, among other places — then started shooting more involved projects for non-profits with a conservation bent.

Shooting in remote locales typically requires time spent behind the wheel driving subjects to shoots, time ideal for getting to know one another. “I’d be in the car with them so long and I’d really get to know these people. I wanted to translate that into something I could share on the screen with the audience.”

It was on such a ride with Anson Fogel, founder of Forge Motion Pictures and the producer of the Armstrong’s work, that the idea for Of Souls + Water was born.

“Anson and I spent five weeks driving around shooting another project. We were both interested in doing a series, an original idea. We had done ‘Seasons’ “ — short films on winter, spring, summer and fall — “the year before. We wanted to so something like that, but more character driven.”

Thus was born the idea of Of Souls + Water using five archetypes to tell the stories of paddling personalities. Those archetypes: The Mother, The Elder, The Warrior, The Nomad, the Shapeshifter.

Next came the challenge of finding the appropriate subjects for each installment. Erik Boomer, a  restless friend, was perfect for answer-seeking Nomad. Armstrong wanted to include sea kayaking but worried it wasn’t provocative enough in and of itself. Perhaps using the activity as a metaphor for the last chapter of life? After putting out calls to paddling friends he hooked up with Melody Shapiro, a 67-year-old retired psychologist with two kids and five grandkids who was happy to share her thoughts and “hang out in the desert for five weeks with three stinking guys.” Surfer Chris Peterson, The Warrior, Armstrong had met a year earlier. Over time, Peterson shared a story of personal tragedy salved only by water.

Ben Marr’s reputation as a stellar freestyle kayaker — and game for anything; he once paddled Quebec’s roily Ottawa River in a tandem kayak with his 83-year-old grandmother — preceded him. Armstrong hooked up with Marr the new-fashioned way: he friended him on Facebook.

“We wanted to peak energetically,” Marr says of this, the last Of Souls + Water installment. “The Shapeshifter was intended to be less story driven and more action oriented.” Still, they wanted to stick with the series’ theme. “I Googled archetypes and came up with The Magician.”

The Magician: Goal, to make dreams come true. To develop a vision by living it. Making things happen. The shaman, the visionary, the healer — sounded like a good way to finish the package. And Marr, with his freewheeling, anything goes style, was the paddler for the job.

The first part of the film is magical enough, with Marr doing flips, twists and other airborne moves on the big waves of the Ottawa River. The magic becomes dreamlike when Armstrong straps a flair to the stern of Marr’s playboat and sends him out in the dark. The result: a Class V interpretation of Dante’s Inferno in which Marr, backlit by the flaming flare, appears to be surfing a lava flow.

“Ben went out and surfed this giant wave in the dark 12 times,” says Armstrong. “It was the ultimate test of all of his years of experience. He had to rely totally on his instincts.

“He was very happy,” adds Armstrong. “He had a huge smile the entire time.”

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