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Sundance: Stars and Slopes Forever

By M.J. McAteer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

FADE IN:  A bird's-eye view of an old mining town surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Dazzling sun, cloudless sky.

SUPERIMPOSE TITLE: "The Parallel View" (L's in title formed by skis).

Camera begins slow zoom down, bringing into focus: Old West-style buildings, crowded streets, bustling sidewalks.

FADE IN TITLE: Park City, Utah, Sundance Film Festival 2005

FADE OUT TITLE

Cut to street level.

ENTER FROM BOTTOM OF FRAME: Woman in ski boots, carrying skis and poles.

FLASH CUTS OF STREET SCENE: Skinny young things, talking on cell phones, swinging bags of swag.

Men in black, smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones. Also men in denim jackets, leather jackets, tuxedo jackets, ski jackets.

TRACK PAST: Crowd pressed against a barrier outside a cafe.

WOMAN WITH SKIS: "What's going on?"

SECOND WOMAN: (eyes fixed on cafe) "Someone said Pierce Brosnan is in there."

First woman scans teeming street, then looks up.

CAMERA TILTS, revealing chairlift.

CUT TO: Woman riding chairlift up still, white mountain, bumper-to-bumper traffic below her. Empty chairs rise in front of her and behind.

FADE TO BLACK

* * *

No, my screenplay, "The Parallel View," won't be coming soon to a theater near you. Hollywood has turned a cold shoulder on the ski movie ever since 1969's "Downhill Racer," a non-hit starring none other than the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford.

Too bad. "The Parallel View" (working title) would have been perfect for Redford's film festival. What with it being set at Sundance 2005, that whole cinema verite thing would have been kicking.

But since this film project has the proverbial snowball's chance of getting into production, I'll pitch the concept here. So cue title, bring up music:

For an ab-fab time on the slopes, head to Park City during the annual Sundance Film Festival, this year scheduled for Jan. 19-29.

Oh, sure, it's gridlock for 10 days as members of the movie tribe -- 15,000 a day -- schmooze, deal and see and get seen in the flesh and on the many screens set up all over the small mountain town. But approximately none of these people ski.

What's more, the locals aren't on the slopes much either during Sundance. Some are going to screenings and parties. Some are picking up extra work with the festival. (A bonanza for bouncers!) Others have hunkered down to wait out the invasion.

This leaves the mountains' majesty to the minority that comes to Park City in late January for the snow, which, by the way, is usually super -- an average yearly fall of 350 inches. Park City also has enough terrain to keep a skier or boarder of any level busy -- a combined 8,600 acres at Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley and the Canyons.

And, thanks to the film festival, skiers and boarders can enjoy an apres-ski is that is way more widescreen than the typical hot tub, hot toddy and hot meal. Just walking down Main Street is a show, with all the stars from Planet Hollywood out and about. Last year, the long list included Kevin Bacon, Jeff Daniels, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sidney Poitier, Jenny McCarthy, Chevy Chase and Anne Heche. Paris Hilton almost caused a drunken riot. And, say, was that Frodo Baggins sipping a chai latte? This year's galaxy of stars expected to attend includes directors Jonathan Demme and Wim Wenders; actors Ashley Judd, Lucy Liu, Sam Shepard, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake; and rocker Neil Young. Plus Ralph Nader and Al Gore.

I gathered background color for "The Parallel View" by spending a week in Park City during Sundance in the convivial company of the Ski Club of Washington D.C., which makes the trip an annual outing.

The only downside to an otherwise fabulous trip was a wee miscalculation at the Canyons that cut my location scouting short. But it at least had the courtesy of happening on my last day.

Park City by Ski

The first nice surprise about Park City was, believe it or not, the bus.

Unless you have a limo, the bus is the way to travel while at Park City, because the traffic is just rotten. Even if you have a rental car, it is better to park and ride once in town. Park City buses are frequent and free, and they take you to all three ski areas as well as to the movies, the market, the masseuse and the medical clinic, if need be.

Next to the hot tub, they are also the place to pick up info on cool parties and hot screenings -- lots of buzz last year about "Hustle & Flow" and "the penguin movie" ("The Emperor's Journey," aka "March of the Penguins"). People unload extra tickets to screenings on the bus, too, sometimes for free but generally for face value ($10 in 2005). And chatting with seatmates who turn out to be publicists, aspiring actors and production assistants gives an East Coast type some insight into the L.A. vida loca .

In "The Parallel View," the heroine, a champion snowboarder named Brandy, meets a young actor on the bus, and they make a date to go to a screening of "Lackawanna Blues," an HBO-backed festival entry that in Sundance 2005 played the Eccles Theatre, the largest venue in town. Later, they will spend a fateful day on the slopes at the Canyons.

On our first morning in town, a dozen ski clubbers could be found at the bus stop in front of the condos the club had rented, which were just a couple of blocks from the action on Main Street. (Anyone booking rooms now, though, probably will have to stay on the outskirts of Park City because of the cinema crowd crush.)

We were headed for the Park City Mountain Resort to get started with a free mountain tour. The garrulous guide there dispensed a bucket load of tips -- where to go for the morning sun, trails not to be missed, best places to find powder -- as he deftly sketched the area's history and ecology.

The ski runs at Park City are honeycombed by 200 miles of tunnels, he told us, and are punctuated by the ruins of the mining business that gave birth to the town in the 19th century. The skeletal remains of one building near the top of Thayne's Canyon figure as a spooky backdrop for a dramatic chase scene in "The Parallel View," as Brandy is pursued down the long, narrow trail by a Tonya Harding-variety villain bent on mayhem.

Even better, though, would be to get permission to shoot that scene aboard the now-defunct Skiers' Subway. When the resort opened in the '60s, our guide said, one "lift" was an old mining train that ran for a mile and a half through the pitch-black 1,700 feet underground -- that's a skyscraper of dirt overhead. Skiers then caught a hoist or elevator to the surface. In addition to the obvious phobic drawbacks, passengers emerged damp from the subway. A bunch of high-speed quads and even a six-person chair now whisk people up the mountain instead.

As a blue-trail skier, I found lots to like about Park City -- extended runs with beautiful views, some steep but groomed black slopes for the morning before the legs got mushy and a well-planned layout of lifts that meant almost no poling.

For the double-black diamond crowd, Park City has screamingly steep bowls. The resort also courts snowboarders with four terrain parks crammed with boxes and rails. In one scene, Brandy shows off her winning moves at Park City's half pipe, which was used for the 2002 Olympic competition and has impressive 22-foot walls. Kelly Clark won the gold for the women that year, and the American men swept the medals.

On the lifts at Park City, conversations typically veered between slope and screen.

"I laughed. I cried," one boarder told me as we rode the nearly deserted King Con lift. He sounded strangely like a trailer for an old Bette Davis movie as he raved about "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," a Slamdance offering.

Slamdance is a cheeky alternative film festival that runs concurrently with Sundance. It sees itself as Sundance before Sundance sold out and went Hollywood. I had seen "Farmer John" Peterson himself on Main Street that morning, promoting his bio pic. He had been driving a tractor while dressed in coveralls, a bowler hat and a feather boa. The movie is about how he literally lost the farm.

"A must-see," the boarder proclaimed.

No Boards Allowed

My lift companion was plenty handsome enough for a walk-on (board-on?) part in "The Parallel View," but his looks would never get him past the ski patrol at Deer Valley, where I skied later in the week. That's because Deer Valley is one of the last board-free zones in the country.

Ski magazine readers voted Deer Valley the No. 1 ski resort in North America in 2005, partly because its slopes are better groomed than Pierce Brosnan. That No. 1 ranking is not just about lifts and layout and terrain, though. It's also about ambiance and amenities. Where else do ski valets greet arrivals at the base and offer to help carry ski equipment?

At tiny, cozy Cushing's Cabin at the top of Flagstaff Mountain (elevation 9,100 feet), where I adjourned one morning after making seven or eight runs down slopes unmarred by the telltale grooves that snowboards leave, the hot chocolate came lathered in whipped cream with a flotilla of miniature marshmallows afloat in the froth.

The luncheon buffet at Silver Lake Lodge was fresh and sumptuous, and the meals at Deer Valley's fancier eateries, such as the Snowpark Lodge, are discussed in gourmet magazines. The fireside dining at the Empire Canyon Lodge is the setting for one of the romantic interludes in "The Parallel View."

But the movie's big climactic scene is a cliffhanger at the Canyons.

This widespread ski area of multiple peaks and glades offers lots of entertainment for black and blue skiers and boarders, though not much for the greenies or beginners. But, sadly, I didn't get to see much of it.

You know when the movie audience is let in on something important that the main characters don't know about? Well, in "The Parallel View," the audience sees Brandy and her strictly blue-trail actor boyfriend go blithely past the sign at the base of the Ninety Nine 90 lift -- so named for the elevation at the top of the chair, the highest point at the Canyons. The camera zooms in on the sign that says the lift services only black-diamond and double-black diamond terrain -- expert and kamikaze stuff, in other words -- but Brandy is new to town and too caught up in her actor boyfriend to notice.

Of course, in the movie, the boyfriend gets into trouble up there on the ungroomed sheer slopes, and his plight provides a chance for "Mission: Impossible"-type derring-do.

I based the scene on the real-life experience I shared with two newly minted ski club buddies who unwisely trusted my navigational abilities one day.

The three of us had been doing blue runs off the Canyons' Tombstone Express when we ran into a video crew preparing to shoot a scene for "Entourage," the TV series about an actor's life. We decided to get out of the way. "Follow me," I said, and, to their regret, they did.

One major mistake later, and we were looking down at a landscape that resembled an inside-out moon on edge and searching for a signs of a merciful god in the list of trail options:

"Red Pine Chutes."

Would need a ladder to get out of that one.

"94 Turns."

Not an optimal choice for a skier who doesn't turn too well to the left.

"Talus Garden."

Isn't talus loose rock?

"Fright Gully."

Leave it to the Freddy Krueger franchise.

Not an "Easy Street" or a "Scooby-Doo" among them, and downloading was not an option.

A couple of weeks earlier, a boarder had ridden up the Ninety Nine 90 and never come down again. He skied under the ropes and out of bounds and was killed in an avalanche.

"It ain't called a fall line for nothing," I joked to my companions, who may have been considering skewering me with a ski pole.

"How bad can it be?" I asked as I began a wobbly traverse across chunks of icy snow known as death cookies.

Bad enough to inspire the kindly ski bus driver to lower the hydraulic step so I could limp aboard a couple hours later. Bad enough that he offered some of his personal stash of pain relievers. I had no idea my knee could rotate so far backward, but I counted myself lucky for stopping my upside-down slide down the slope before I hit the pine trees.

We finally made it down to our level by painstakingly sidestepping for a half-hour or so. Even that was, as they say, fraught with peril.

Of course such sensible caution won't do box office, so the scene in "The Parallel View" has helicopters, a ledge and a ski patrol team with toboggans. Yet even with all that action, "The Parallel View" probably will never get off that mountain because underneath that Hollywood tan, Tinseltown is frostier than a T-bar in a snow squall.

So until someone with that vision thing decides to bring my movie in out of the cold, I'll keep doing my knee exercises and see if Slamdance might be interested in a fresh new filmmaker. Maybe Farmer John would lend me his tractor and boa. If not, the secret of Sundance will remain unblabbed, and you'll find me -- and hardly anyone else -- on the Park City slopes.

M.J. McAteer is the letters editor for The Washington Post.

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