Gritty Filmmaking


It’s always fun when the filmmakers behind a project have lived lives at least as engaging as the subjects they are filming. It should be no surprise that this happens a lot in the world of outdoor adventure. And in particular with Nathan Ward and Sam Bricker, co-founders of Grit & Thistle Film Company, whose small but growing pantheon of short films includes “Ernest,” “Sandrider,” and “High Speed,” and the upcoming “Rider and the Wolf” about mountain biking legend Mike Rust.

But wait. For once we’re talking about the guys on the other side of the camera. Both are Colorado natives. Both grew up far enough outside city life that the mountains and every sport therein became the playground – and training grounds – for some pretty epic adventures of their own.

For his part, Nathan Ward wasn’t even looking at filmmaking as a career. He studied finance and political science at University of Chicago and seemed headed for a lifetime of number crunching, when from the 32nd floor of an office in Hong Kong, his gaze kept wandering towards a familiar sight. Mountains. There were mountains on the horizon. Doing what mountains do best. Beckoning…

Nathan Ward So, after a quick three month class in photography and a few online adventure articles that he fudged to convince his bosses that he was “in demand” in the world of expedition photography, Nathan cut bait on a life of corporate finance. And entered a world of Mongolian horsemen, river rafters, expeditions to east Africa… be forewarned guys. Once you land your first gig shooting action adventure photos – I think Nathan’s first gig was for “Action Asia” magazine – you’re not going back to anybody’s spreadsheets. Do not open this door unless you are prepared to go through it. It’s a one way door. It’s called “exit.”

For the next decade or so, Nathan lived the life of the ex-pat nomad photographer, picking up gigs for magazines. Photography took him from Tibet and Nepal high into the Andes and deep into Botswana. He’s been to Mongolia a total of 9 times, and was one of the lucky few to see it right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian factories literally packed up and went home, leaving the vast expanse of Mongolia – damn near empty.

Yet it wasn’t until Nathan met his partner in Grit and Thistle, that he traded in his still camera for motion picture. And all of the myriad challenges that come with making films – the hard way.

sam brickerFar away, on another corner of the planet, Sam Bricker was honing his survival skills in a very different arena – the rodeo circuit. “I did some cowboy protection. Some people call that being a rodeo clown.” It’s where you basically run out in front of the bull to make sure he doesn’t gore the guy who’s just been thrown to the dirt.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course. Why didn’t I get that job?

Still, if anything can teach you to stay focused, when the S#!!T hits the fan, facing down a 1200 pound bull will do it. Worked for Hemingway. Worked for Sam Bricker. Keep cool under fire. Solid training, however odd.

From there, Sam had the fortune to enter the first class taught be adventure filmmaker Michael Brown, who now heads up filmmaking classes for Outside TV. As a promising student and early graduate, Sam caught a few breaks when his friend and mentor connected him with Outside Magazine and later, Outside Television. And one particular story that really set him on his path. The job was to follow skier and climber Chad Kellogg on his bid to summit and ski Mt. Everest in a single 30 hour push, base camp-to-base camp. The film project took Sam along with him, shooting, editing and uploading dispatches from Everest itself. A new world opened up. And life hasn’t been the same since.
sam-bricker_shooterTogether these two men make up “Grit & Thistle” a name that requires no explanation. But their vision holds some promise, especially for those of us who have had enough of action footage edited to throbbing music tracks. And no thought of story or character.

In my interview with Sam and Nathan, I broke the journalist’s 4th wall of neutrality and basically stated that I couldn’t watch one more music video masquerading as adventure filmmaking. All this cheap, lightweight film gear hasn’t turned out a lot of great storytellers. Just because it’s pretty and you’ve got it on your SD card, doesn’t make it compelling cinema.

The guys answered with assurances that they felt exactly the same way, and that they were showcasing rich stories and characters that go beyond the eye candy. Their recent short “Ernest” is evidence of this. It’s a profile of an 86 year old trapper who has lived in the mountains so long he’s forgotten more than most of us will likely learn. He’s likable and tough and lets loose a few good barbs at our hyper-connected generation. He could be our grandfather, shuffling about in a cabin older than Lincoln. So yes, character, check.

The guys assured me their upcoming project, “The Rider and the Wolf,” would take us much deeper. It follows the disappearance of one of Colorado’s best known mountain bikers, Mike Rust, who mysteriously vanished 4 years ago and hasn’t been seen since. “It took us two years just to establish enough rapport with this community that they would talk to us,” Sam told me. Riding out of Crested Butte, Mike Rust was one of the seminal mountain bikers who defined the sport. He had no reason to disappear, unless he just – wanted to. And why would he do that?

Intrigued? You should get your chance to learn more sometime this fall. The guys are rushing to finish an edit in time for the Mountain Film Festival in Banff. Let’s hope they make it in time. Moreover let’s hope adventure filmmakers everywhere begin getting the message. It’s time to move beyond beautiful images. Let’s also tell powerful stories about real people and let’s dig deep enough that audiences have a stake.

You know that’s our calling at Xpedition.TV. And it sure sounds like it’s Sam and Nathan’s calling too. Looking forward to seeing more.