Anyone who's been watching snowboard movies for the last 10 years or so will be familiar with Axel Pauporte. His patanted brand of hairball Alaskan descents and terminal velocity straightlines have without doubt cemented him a place in the annals of snowboarding's history. Two years ago, he decided to get the other side of the camera to tell the story of Big Mountain riding, and the history of which he is part of. The result is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Now nominated for an award at the X-Dance Film Festival – the action sports arm of the Sundance Film Festival – LINES is blends stunning cinematography from Axel's own camera with that of Absinthe FIlms and is part documentary of that crew of riders' experience in AK - warts and all - and part look-back at the pioneers of Alaskan riding, mixed with classic lines and interviews with the past and present masters of the art of Big Mountain freestyle riding. Nothing short of a heavy undertaking, it's nevertheless pulled off with aplomb. Onboard managed to track the mercurial Belgian down – as he was sat waiting for a flight to Tahiti, no less – to get the lowdown on LINES.
Onboard: Can you remember your first ever day freeriding, obviously coming from riding dryslope I guess it was kind of memorable.
Axel Pauporte: Yeah, totally. It was really with Regis [Rolland] that it all started when he kinda showed me around in Les Arcs. I mean before that I was doing mostly freestyle, and that was when it really kind of clicked I think is when he started taking us into these really short hikes that were accessing huge long runs with really good descents and then it struck me that, fuck, this is what snowboarding is all about – riding from top to bottom
OB: Would you say it was a revelation to you?
AP: Yeah, I would say yes absolutely, but I think also it was at a good time when I had injured my knee and I did not want to jump that much anymore, and I was actually looking for transitions. [after the injury when looking at] any jump, I knew that I had to use the terrain more than before. Before you just jump fat cliffs to flat and tabletops and park jumps and whatnot, and I think hurting my knee didn’t stop me from jumping but made me start thinking I need transitions and I need to use the terrain better and then you start reading the terrain better and I think that’s what got me more into freeriding and using the natural obstacles and trying to find perfect transitions.
OB: Do you think that was something that set you on the path that would lead you to riding bigger mountains and getting to Alaska?
AP: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean from then on I was like, this is what I want to ride and I want to combine freestyle and big mountain riding, that’s always been kind of my goal; looking at guys like steve graham, for example, you know that’s been a big influence too, and I think mostly because when you think about it slalom snowboarding obviously mocks skiing and freestyle and jib obviously mocks skateboarding, and I think that where snowboarding is really legit on its own is in big, natural terrain. … that’s where it belongs, that’s where it’s more legit I think.
OB: And so when did you first start riding in Alaska then?
AP: I went there first for the shooting of the My Way video. No, wait, I think the first time was probably for the King of the Hill in 97. No, sorry, I think it was all the same trip. I went to Alaska with Dave Seone to shoot My Way, the Arnette movie, and that was 97 and then from there I went to Valdez to compete in King of the Hill. I don’t remember what place I got exactly but I think I got a top 10, or 6th or 7th or something like that, and then I went back to Juneau and shot with Justin Hostynek for the first time for their movie and, yeah, that was the very first time and from then on I went every year.
OB: So what were your first impressions when you rode the mountains there?
AP: Well I think I was like “this is it. This is what I’ve been wanting to do" It was a revelation but I think that I got pretty lucky because that year was blessed with good conditions. Like everything was good to go, there was good snow everywhere, not too many avalanches and, yeah, everything seemed relatively easy, like the stuff I wanted to do, I went and did it and it worked.
OB: Which I guess... I mean certainly from your film it shows that that doesn’t happen so often up there.
AP: Absolutely. That’s why. And you realise later that, well not only that, I was also playing Russian roulette up there because there’s a few things that I did that were a little bit sketchy. Looking back you know when you start getting more experience and now I realise more some of the risks I was taking back then that I wasn’t really aware of, and so yeah when you look at it with perspective it’s definitely funny.
OB: Moving on to the filming side of things, what kind of filming experience did you have – apart from obviously riding in the movies – prior to making Lines?
AP: I did 6 episodes for Fuel TV that were called Pro Files, and um that’s about it really. But I’ve always kind of liked filming and I’ve always been interested in it. I mean, these days with the video cameras out I don’t think it’s that hard at all.
OB: I hear you. But what was your motivation to make this film, to make Lines?
AP: Well really I wanted to show… I really felt like there was a story that needed to be told, you know? And that nobody had no idea, just from the questions I was getting coming back from Alaska every year, I figured that people had no idea you know what it was like, and what it looked like, and what it was like to be there, and how come we were going there for that long… and all that stuff and I just really wanted to show it in a really true way because I felt that there was very little that was being shown. It’s always kind of focussing on the super spectacular and I just hate to see it in mainstream media when it’s always kind of exaggerated.
OB: Yeah. From what I took from it it was really just showing it how it is. Like not glamorising it too much…
AP: Exactly. That was my idea, and also I felt like I was in a good position to do that because I was going to be able to take the camera where big crews with a couple of people could never go, and being up with the rider on the top of the line and getting all that stuff I think that’s what made me think shit, I should do this. I should really do this.
OB: And when did you start thinking about this project?
AP: I think I started thinking about it in 2005, early 2006 maybe, and the first person I talked to was Reid Pinder at Billabong, which was pretty amazing because immediately he said “yes. We’re gonna do this, no matter what". He saw it with me, we talked about it, you know, he had it in his head too, he was like yeah, we’re doing it. And we didn’t have any of the financing yet, but he’s like “we’ll find it. You’re doing this." So that was pretty amazing, and it really pushed me because it was and idea, and then after talking to him it became a project.
OB: That must have been a massive thing in actually getting the thing off the ground; talking with someone who’s like ‘yeah man, that’s sick. Let’s do this’
AP: Yeah. And the wife [Flora] too, I have to give all props to her too because she was the one pushing me and saying ‘yeah, we need to do something bigger because the Fuel thing was good but this is your think; let’s do this.’ She was really … she came up with a lot of the concepts and she was also a big push and a big motivation at the early stage.
OB: And she was heavily involved with the whole film wasn’t she?
AP: Yeah absolutely. We pretty much did every… I mean it’s hard because you always want to put titles and but, honestly, we did everything 50/50. We did everything together and I mean there’s a few things that I did more and a few things that she did more, but really we consulted each other and did pretty much everything together.
OB: So what’s her background?
AP: She’s a helicopter pilot. It’s really hard to find work in the helis in France so that’s why we started our… she started working with me on the Fuel thing and we did that together and she learned really quick. I mean I’m doing all the filming and stuff but she’s the one doing all the production, but also the writing and the script, and most of the editing really. She started doing… we started with editors but quickly she became the director and the main editor. Someone has to do the storyline, someone has to... I mean we made all the decisions together but she was a much bigger… she was not just a help, she was a partner.
OB: When did you actually realise it was on. “Right, we’re gonna do this. We want to do it this winter and we want to get it out."
AP: That would have been just early season 2006. Just setting everything up and talking to Justin [Hostynek] was a big part too because once I decided I wanted to do it I wanted to do it with Absinthe and no one else.
OB: That was going to be one of my questions. So you had Absinthe as the crew you wanted to follow to tell the story.
AP: Absolutely. For many reasons, because we’re really, really close friends with Justin and Brusti and I knew they had the riders I was interested in, they had the footage library I was interested in, and I knew I could… I mean, for the… that’s what I lived for maybe the last 13 years, I’ve been filming with them and so that’s what I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to tell the story of another crew, and then I figured for the archives and stuff they wouldn’t have, like more stuff of Johan, Victoria, Tom Burt and those guys I would just get that specific footage from the other companies. But as far as telling the AK story, I really wanted to do it with the Absinthe crew because that was my crew.
OB: Going back to the other guys that you mention, from back in the day, was it always in your mind that you wanted to make this film as a semi kind of history piece?
AP: Yeah. And I think I soon realised that I was really trying to make two films into one, but I felt like that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make two. I wanted to do it all in one shot, because I thought there was room for it especially if it was going to be over an hour long we had time to do a bit of both, and I think it worked out well. It was a challenge, because it’s really two films into one, it’s really just behind the scenes, this is what happens in Alaska when you’re filming, but also this is the history of the sport, so… it is a mix but I think Flora did a really good job at mixing the two because it would have been almost too easy just to say ‘oh yeah, here is the history’ for like half an hour, and then go into the second part. I really wanted the two to be kind of blended together and I think it worked.
OB: I think you succeeded really well at doing that and it doesn’t sit as like two separate, distinct entities. Did you find it pretty hard to get all the archive footage?
AP: Yes [laughing]. That was a full time job I can tell you. For different reasons but um, a lot of practical reasons…transfers, NTSC going to PAL and PAL back to NTSC… those kind of nightmares, but also tracking people down and finding where the stuff is, and I mean some people were amazingly easy to work with and some others were honestly a nightmare, probably not intentionally but just the fact that it’s hard too because everything’s digital now and having to go back to some film and being willing to do it and then finding the time is not easy, so I’m not blaming anyone but it wasn’t easy. That was probably one of the biggest tasks, also because there was specific stuff that I really wanted to have. I mean if you’re just getting some archive it’s easy but for this there was stuff that I really wanted to get in.
OB: How well did you know the guys that make up the ‘history’ side of the film?
AP: Well it depends, I mean Tom Burt is a really good friend, and Goodwill, Tex and Ranquet, they’re friends. Most of them it was really easy because everybody that knew about it was super motivated because I don’t think there had really been such a film on their sport, so guys like that really went out of their way to make sure I could hook up with them and do the interviews and they made it super easy. Jeremy was the easiest because he was up in Alaska with us and he was super, super excited about it so, you know. Some guys we had to track down a little bit but most of them… like Farmer is a friend too and he was super stoked to do it. Most of them were really easy.
OB: Were they guys that you were kind of looking to when you first went over there?
AP: Yeah, for sure. Noah Salasnek or like Johan, guys like that for sure and Goodwill, Farmer, Ranquet, Tom were all the guys I was riding with at the time so, yeah, that was the fun part. I think it shows too, I think that’s what makes it different, the fact that I probably could take the camera to places where they normally don’t and also the fact that the guys were actually being interviewed by me and not by some random guy. I think it helps and they were not only motivated but also pretty relaxed and opened up.
OB: I was going to ask about the filming side of it. Was it hard to kind of step back and film the guys rather than taking a couple of lines for yourself?
AP: It was [laughs]. Definitely, sometimes. But in the end I got to ride most of the lines, with a bigger backpack [laughs], but no it was fun. The filming was the part that I enjoyed the most.
OB: And did the filming all go to plan, or were there any hiccups or sketchy situations?
AP: There were. I mean, always pretty much. You never know what you’re going to get, or if you have enough or if the weather’s going to shut down on you and so it was pretty sketchy. I mean it was a big gamble, it was a one man band you know with one camera so just if the camera had broken down it would have been big trouble. Stuff like that is pretty unpredictable, and then the one really exciting moment but really, really stressful too was that we rented this high end system to put outside of the heli to put the camera, and we hired a second heli to put that on there, but it’s really tricky because you have to order the thing at a certain time get it up, ship it to Alaska, and then you cant really have it sit there for too long because it’s really, really expensive, and so I worked out a deal so that I didn’t have to pay for every day that it would sit there doing nothing. Anyways, long story short I had a tiny, tiny little window and didn’t know if it was going to work and it ended up working but it was really close. Like I had a few hours, it was on the heli, got all the scenic shots that I wanted and then basically 5 minutes after we were done the clouds came in, so it was nerve-racking, I tell you, because in the morning you have to make a decision ‘are we doing it today? This could be the last window. Is it good enough?’ you know, and it’s a lot of money on the line and you don’t have that much more money. So that was definitely very sketchy and very close to not happening. So the whole intro of the film would have been much different, but it worked out so that was actually pretty good.
OB: Yeah. We spoke about it a little bit earlier, but I think it’s Salasnek who says somewhere in the film that a lot of it’s not the riding it’s everything that goes in to it, the preparation, getting on to it, I mean I guess that was a big part of the story of Alaska that you wanted to tell. Not just the glamorous ‘money shot’ of the guy coming down the mountain but…
AP: That’s only 10%.
OB: So that was heavily in your mind that you wanted to document the downtime?
AP: Absolutely. The whole idea was trying to show things instead of explaining them. I mean, yes, there’s a lot of interviews because the guys had a lot to say and they explain things in their own words, which is really cool, but I wanted to try to do it visually too, so that’s why there’s little edits on the down days and it may seem redundant and slow, but that’s that’s specifically what we wanted to show: that it is, you know, slow and it’s a waiting game and all that stuff. I wanted to try to visually explain it rather than in the textbook way.
OB: And again, was it important to you to show how difficult it is.. I mean, as a kid when you’re watching the big mountain section you’re a bi like, meh, but then when you start to have experienced more in snowboarding you really get a huge respect for it and stuff. But also what you don’t get is an idea or what it takes to film a big mountain part.
AP: Exactly. All the kids realised that. Nico Müller, Gigi, Romain, all the kids that came to Alaska for the first time they were kind of like ‘oh yeah, fuck, soft snow, it’s easy, let’s do this’ and after the first year they realised there’s more to it and it wasn’t that easy. But they were quick learners, but they realised that it takes experience and that it’s really not that easy.
OB: Yeah, and I guess one minute you’re shut down for 5 days and then the next day the blades are turning and you’ve gotta go and step up.
AP: I know and that’s the tricky part. I really wanted to show that contrast because there’s not much else to do so you’re really in that mode when you’re really relaxed and mellow and your body goes soft [laughs]. You really don’t do anything and then the contrast is brutal because in 15 minutes you’re on the peak, strapped in and ready to go, so… and you know it’s not that important, but it is because you’ve spent all that money and everybody’s there for you so you really don’t want to screw it up. It’s not like a contest, but it becomes like one because you really don’t want to screw it up.
OB: You mentioned the guys like Müller and Gigi. What do you make of what they’re doing on the lines these days? You mentioned earlier about bringing freestyle to the big mountain…
AP: Oh yeah, that was the whole idea of the film too. I really wanted to show the early days and how it evolved, and then just to show that today it is, I think, the purest form of snowboarding and the future and that’s why you see that when guys like Travis or Nico or Wolle or any of those guys, when they combine the two and bring freestyle tricks into the lines I think that’s obviously the ultimate form of snowboarding by a long way, and if you can do the same trick on a tabletop it’s good but you can try it a million times. If you can do that first track on a natural jump I think it’s 10 times better. Especially if it’s not even a built kicker. They still do that and it’s still pretty good but when it’s completely natural, first track, I think that’s phenomenal.
OB: Yeah. And I think some of the stuff they put down in your film and also in Optimistic? is just snowboarding at it’s purest form, as you said.
AP: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think it is, I mean you cant get much better than that. And I think the you’re a snowboarder you understand that and you respect it that much more when you see that because you know everything that went into it. I mean, I respect the guys who do the crazy tricks in the park, but these days so many people actually do that.
OB: I think we’re pretty much done. I just thought it was really interesting… the cover of the film, the title… you get the impression that it’s a freeride film – which it is for sure – but I just though it was really interesting that a massive part of it was how the freestyle snowboarders have…
AP: Yeah, well it’s because I really think it’s the future. It can’t go much more technical and bigger than what it is today so the only way to raise the bar is to do it in harder conditions. And once again I think it’s where it’s most legit too, I mean all the respect to all the rails and stuff that’s pretty gnarly too but it’s kind of mocking skateboarding to me and so I have even more respect to see freestyle big moves on natural terrain because I think that’s where snowboarding’s really legit.
OB: Do you have plans to make other movies? Or what’s next?
AP: I want to take some time off and it’s been a really long process and quite a painful one, there were a lot of parts that were great and fun but I have to say all the editing was a complete nightmare. Really didn’t enjoy that part at all. So I want to take a couple of months off and surf and get back on my board too so hopefully snowboard a bunch more this season and then we’ll see. There’s no plans to rush into anything yet and no movies and no nothing really.
OB: Thanks Axel. Enjoy Tahiti!