by Ivan Shadis
Lukas Huffman and Mathew Ellison will be part of a talk on local filmmakers to be held as part of the 20th Green Mountain Film Festival. Huffman and Ellison were both raised in Vermont, both now live in New York, and both have become involved in filmmaking by circuitous routes. The Bridge was able to speak to them about how they became involved in film, their roots in Vermont, and their perspectives on film in the state.
Lukas Huffman is a producer and filmmaker, but before that he was a professional snowboarder. Huffman first learned to snowboard on the hills of Vermont and by the time he graduated Montpelier High School was well on his path to snowboarding professionally, which he did for the next 10 years. It was Huffman’s need to promote himself in what was then a counter cultural sport that would eventually lead him to filmmaking.
Huffman’s turn from professional snowboarding to filmmaking began after the pursuit of sponsors and advertisers led he and his friends to start a small film production company and shoot promotional snowboarding videos. Before long they were “trying to force little narratives and themes into” the videos. “It didn’t go over very well,” said Huffman, “snowboard movies with stories don’t sell very well. It’s just not the place for that. But it had inspired in me a real interest in how film can be used for storytelling.” When Huffman aged out of professional snowboarding at 28, he decided to enroll in Columbia University film program. “My time was just up for snowboarding, I’d had a couple of injuries and I was just getting really burnt out on the cycle, it was a lot of traveling and I was just over it, so I threw my boots in and moved to New York.”
The program helped Huffman develop his craft and “just get the business end of it together.” He now runs a production company with his twin brother Jesse Huffman, a Plainfield resident. The company does commercial work including snowboard videos and a recent piece for Hill Farmstead Brewery as well as short fiction films like “When the Ocean Met the Sky” which has played in the Green Mountain Film Festival in previous years and ‘”Aeris” which will play this year.
Huffman’s new film, “Aeris”, will be playing in the Pavilion in Montpelier (6 p.m., Saturday, March 25) as part of this year’s Green Mountain Film Festival. The 16 minute scripted short tells the story of a female snowboard professional on her first day back on the snow after recovering from a bad injury. Huffman draws on his decade as a professional snowboarder to tell the story. “This story is like a synthesis of experiences that I had and those people I knew had,” he said, “the action sports culture is really hero driven and progression driven. Everyone is an ironclad champion and there’s really no room for the vulnerabilities that occur in action sports, and this is what this movie is all about, it’s the side of the sport that no one talks about and I wanted to.”
To make these experiences from his career vivid in the setting of today’s professional snowboarding world Huffman was intentional in casting a female lead. “I identify more with the professional experience of female snowboarders than when I see guys snowboarding right now,” said Huffman who explained that while male snowboarding has gone from counter cultural, during his career in the late 90s and early 2000s, to mainstream, now the most watched Olympic sport, female snowboarding remains a counter culture. “From my perspective it’s the current experience of the female professional snowboarder that’s most similar to when I was in the game and you just felt like you were up against mainstream culture more.”
Huffman’s film about snowboarding playing in the festival has the satisfying feeling of coming full circle. The film which draws on the compass of Huffman’s work, both as a snowboarder and film maker, will play in the community where he first got his footing as a snowboarder. “Even before I graduated from Montpelier High School I already had some sponsors and had been snowboarding since I was nine. Vermont and snowboarding go hand in hand and so to be able to bring a snowboard story back to Vermont is something I’m really tickled about, and I look forward to sharing that.”
Mathew Ellison’s path to becoming a producer is similar to Huffman’s in its indirectness, but where Huffman came by way of the slopes Ellison came to film making from the summits of high finance — he started as an investment banker on Wall Street.
Originally from Shelburne Ellison grew up around the Burlington area until leaving to attend college. Though he attended a liberal arts college, Ellison found himself pushed toward finance and Wall Street. When he graduated in 2014 he moved to New York to work as a banker. “For whatever reason there was a pipeline to Wall Street, oddly enough. It seems ironic but it’s sort of the reality of the situation. I knew when I was there, immediately when I first got to New York, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Despite his apprehension Ellison stuck with banking for a year, but after a conversation with his friend about what legacy they wanted to leave Ellison decided to leave the banking business. “I had come back from a trip with one of my friends who works in the creative industry, and we were talking about what we wanted our legacy to be and how we wanted to shape the course of our next ten years,” said Ellison, “It was actually on a plane flight home that I said ‘I’m done’ and I put in my two weeks.”
Ellison had always had a passion for film and thought that getting in to production would be a good way to connect what he knew about finance with what inspired him in the film world. “I really wanted to bridge that gap between art and commerce. I think film is interesting because it’s such an eclectic group of people in the industry, in terms of socioeconomics, in terms of education, in terms of ethnicity. Finance is this really homogenous thing where you’ve got a very specific route and a lot of nepotism involved, and I’m not saying there’s not in film, but I wanted to transition into something a bit more creative that allowed me to still flex those business muscles a bit.”
Ellison used the money he had made as a banker and the contacts available to him in New York to start his own production company, Yellow Bear Films, after interning for only a month with another production company. “I interned for a month just to get my bearings and see what it was about and found that just like anything else that, at least on the production side, it’s not necessarily rocket science.” That was two years ago. Since then Ellison has cultivated relationships with film makers, is working on a Broadway play coming out within the next year, and is excited to be premiering the film “Thirst St” at this years Tribeca film festival.
Yellow Bear Films is run out of New York City, and while Ellison is looking forward to returning to Vermont to be part of the panel hosted by the festival, he is doubtful about his industries’ place in the state. “Honestly Vermont is a beautiful state but there really isn’t a ton of state support in terms of funding. You look at a place like New York or California. Georgia in particular now. You have these really fantastic tax credits that draw in a lot of productions and make it really enticing for production companies and film makers to come there and with Vermont you don’t really have that, so it’s more really a cost benefit analyses. Tons of people want to shoot in Vermont, everyone wants to have that background, but if you can replicate a Vermont in Oregon and get 25 percent back on a tax credit then that is what most people are going to do,” he said. Ellison credited Vermont with generating a lot of creative people, talented artists, musicians, and filmmakers, but said that to keep them in the state more incentives need to be offered. “ It’s just a matter of finding a way to support them and make sure that film is appreciated in Vermont the way it’s appreciated elsewhere and trying to find a bit of state funding.”
While Ellison and Huffman both working out of New York goes to show that Vermont has trouble holding on to its filmmakers, Huffman is encouraged by the festival, saying “The Green Mountain Film Festival is such a healthy film festival. You know I’ve been to a lot of film festivals and the one in Montpelier sees such big turnouts … there’s a lot of buzz in town during that week, when the film festival is taking place, and it’s always exciting to see a community who just supports cinema like that. That’s really important”
Huffman’s film “Aeris” will be playing at the Pavilion in Montpelier at 6 p.m. the evening of March 25.
The Talk featuring Huffman and Ellison, Coffee Talk: From Vermont to the Big Screen’ will be held at 10 a.m. March 25 at North Branch tea and wine on Main Street, and is free and open to the public.