Ski comedy ‘Weak Layers’ embraces nostalgia and a ‘female POV’ on life in a mountain town
Ski movies generally fall into one of two categories: The action documentary — à la Warren Miller or Teton Gravity Research — and the scripted feature which combines epic skiing footage with dialogue and a plot. (Think “Aspen Extreme,” or even “Hot Tub Time Machine.”)
Katie Burrell’s new movie, “Weak Layers,” draws inspiration from both styles, but it’s definitely more of the latter — based partly on Burrell’s own ski bum experience living in a mountain town after college.
“I wanted ‘Weak Layers’ to really be imbued with that same sort of sense of nostalgia, as well as harkening back to those old ski comedies, and for it to also just have a really playful element to it that reminds … a lot of us of those early 20s in ski towns around the world,” Burrell said.
Burrell is the director, co-writer and one of the stars in “Weak Layers,” which was filmed at the ski-movie mecca of Palisades Tahoe. It’s about three young women desperate to make a quick buck in a ski town, so they enter a big-deal ski movie competition — while living out of a van.
“The underdog story is one that I've always treasured and connected with, from a personal level, very deeply,” Burrell said.
“Weak Layers” is a comedy, and a raunchy one, but there’s some deeper meaning, too. Burrell spoke about it with reporter Kaya Williams this week, in advance of Friday night’s sold-out screening of the film at the Isis Theater in Aspen. The screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with Burrell. Tickets are no longer available online, but there may be cash-only rush tickets available onsite at the theater. Those will be released five minutes before the screening begins, according to Aspen Film.
"Weak Layers" is also screening at other venues across the country.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Katie Burrell: I would describe the gist of “Weak Layers” as the story of a 30-something year old woman in a ski town, who has become stuck in her life of partying and skiing and that endlessly hedonistic cycle that we can get into in these places — of chasing the next high of a powder day or a fun night out with our friends or a new friend to ski with, etc. The adrenaline rush of life in these places.
And somewhere along the lines in those early 30s, she starts to recognize that it's just not enough anymore. And the friends that she has, and the circle that she rolls in, and the relationships that she's been keeping are no longer fulfilling her. And, while partying and skiing is great, there's more that she wants out of her life and herself. And with this pressure cooker moment of being evicted after throwing an outrageous house party, wherein they ski inside of a house, into having to live in her ex-boyfriend’s van with her two best girlfriends, and landing somewhat accidentally in the 72-hour ski movie competition “Hot Lapse,” Cleo discovers not only that she truly cares about making her dreams come true, but that she'll actually stop at nothing to do so.
Williams: I've heard comparisons made between “Weak Layers” and like, “Bridesmaids.” And of course, some references to influences like “Hot Dog: The Movie,” which is this classic ski movie that everybody knows. What sort of research or just kind of content absorption did you go through as you were shaping the story?
Burrell: We looked at a lot of the old ski movies, but things like "G.N.A.R.,” out of Tahoe, things like old segments from MSP — those really iconic, you know, ‘ski porn’ as they call them, segments from the ski movies that we've all seen and loved — as well as things like “Aspen Extreme,” “Dumb and Dumber.” And then looking at more recent ones, “Out Cold,” “Ski Patrol.”
And so it was sort of the combining of a few different genres that blend together to hopefully give “Weak Layers” not only its, you know, resurrection-of-the-ski-comedy element, but also this modern take, like from a female POV on the experience.
Williams: I'd love to talk for a moment about the skiing element of “Weak Layers,” because there is a lot of sick skiing in this movie. How did you balance that with the story you were trying to tell?
Burrell: I really wanted this movie to feel correct to core skiers and snowboarders, and I wanted it to feel like the skiing was as good as a Warren Miller movie or an MSP movie, or a TGR movie. But it intertwined with the narrative really seamlessly.
We were fortunate enough to have some of the most legendary ski videographers, cinematographers on our crew. We had Tom Day — legendary Warren Miller cinematographer. Scott Gaffneydirecting second unit. We had JT Holmes stunt coordinating. We had, you know, (Freeride World Tour champion) Connery Lundin skiing as the stunt double for Gabe. We had the crème de crème of the ski industry, making the ski action for this movie, in my opinion, you know, top of the line.
And as a result, you get both a really fun narrative film, but you don't get ski action that takes you out of the story, because it's really high quality ski action. And so for me, (I wanted) to make a movie that felt like ski culture was making a movie for Hollywood, not (like) Hollywood was trying to make a movie about ski culture. It's just done the way we do it. And so it feels really real.
Williams: Now the title of this movie, “Weak Layers” — folks who are into avalanche science will know that the weak layers are the ones that can collapse and fracture — and cause a lot more snow to slide downhill in an avalanche, especially when there are heavier, stronger layers on top of it. What does this title mean to you in relationship to the story that you're telling?
Burrell: “Weak Layers,” for me, is a metaphor for that part of our persona, ego, identity, that is our crack. It's either our deepest insecurity, it's our big secret. It's the thing we're afraid to pursue in our lives. And whatever it is, it's the spot within us where, when there is load applied — the snow scientists are loving this metaphor — when there is load applied, that is where we break.
And in some ways that break can be disastrous, and in some ways that break can be a clearing and a resetting into something better and grander than before.
And so I wanted to have sort of a nerdy, niche ski title for this film, in the hopes that there'd be some wordplay and fun with the metaphor of the ego of skiers and snowboarders, and then also that if there was like, a non-skier watching, they'd have to go Google what a weak layer means, and maybe put the metaphor together themselves.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a ski movie competition in the film "Weak Layers." It's spelled "Hot Lapse," with an e — a riff on skiing and filmmaking terms alike.
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