A few years ago, Anthony Lahout was living in Boulder, Colo., 2,000 miles from his family's ski-shop business in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, when his grandfather, Joe, implored him to move back home.
"When you tell somebody, 'I would die happy if you were here,' that's heavy to drop on a 27-year-old," Anthony recalls in North Country, a 20-minute documentary that tells the story of Lahout's, which bills itself as America's oldest winter-sports' supply store. The younger Lahout returned to the fold, forging a deep bond with his granddad.
Filmed by Stept Studios between 2015 and 2019 and backed by nine global brands, North Country chronicles the family's quest for the American Dream. These Lebanese immigrants overcame long odds to build a beloved enterprise that has endured for 100 years and achieved iconic status among ski aficionados worldwide.
It's an uplifting and insightful tale, but be prepared—the film takes a sad turn that puts the human experience in stark, melancholy perspective:
Joe Lahout, a compelling character whose big heart shines through his gruff exterior, died in June 2016 at the age of 94, during the doc's production. In scenes of quiet, primal power, family members visit him in the hospital near the end of his life.
"We wanted to shoot the story while he could still be a part of the narrative," Anthony Lahout tells Muse. "We thought he would make a full recovery, and it would be a way to bring the story together. I went to the hospital for his birthday and he passed away. Earlier that same day, I was watching footage of him skiing at 70 years old. In the footage, he looked like he was 30, carrying skis over his shoulder, and super positive and happy. [Thinking back on such scenes] I came to peace with Joe's death. That was him in the video, not the guy in the hospital."
Skiing serves as a potent metaphor throughout. Just as the industry tamed the rough, frozen tundra, the Lahouts carved out a lasting niche. Family members hit the trails when personal and professional pressures rise, embracing the solitude and vigorous physical activity, clearing their heads and planning for tomorrow.
The North Face, Burton, Icelantic Skis, Merrell, Keen, K2, Salomon, Kuhl and Prana financed the film, but their presence is minimal. Crisp storytelling abounds, punctuated by deeply felt reminiscences, home movies and newsreels that span decades, as skiing evolved from a post-war pastime into a billion-dollar subculture.
Below, Stept director Nick Martini and Anthony Lahout, who served as executive producer, chat about the project, which has won honors at numerous film festivals since hitting the circuit last year:
Muse: Where did the concept begin?
Nick Martini: Anthony Lahout approached me with the idea of telling the story of his grandfather and their store. I grew up skiing just down the road and loved the idea of going back home to tell a story about a place that was dear to me. The team at Stept worked with Anthony to pitch the idea to several brands that all contributed funding to the film.
Why go long-form?
Martini: A story like this that does a deep dive into multiple generations of a family, and the history of a region, takes time to tell. Over the past 10 years we have seen a lot of interest in longer, docu-style stories on digital platforms from people who want to kick back and watch an amazing story unfold. We initially thought the target audience would be people in the ski community, but as we made it we realized it was for anyone who could relate to having complex relationships with their families.
Can you put North Country in a branded-content context? It reminds me of Stept's earlier long-form project with Merrell about a transgender mountain climber…
Martini: This is a great example of brands getting behind a story because of what it stands for, rather than because it features their product. All the brands involved here wanted to help share a story that was important to their audience, the ski community, people in New England, and people who appreciate the legacy of the store. We believe attaching their brands to stories like this adds value to their marketing goals.
Sourcing the kinds of stories that you personally connect with and make you genuinely feel something is what we spend a lot of time doing. We have seen a ton of success with our stories because we think about where and how and when these will be seen, versus creating a piece of long-form content and then figuring out where to place it. Our longer-form projects have had a lot of success with festivals or streaming services.
Can you describe the production process?
Martini: The production consisted of several small shoots with the family in northern New Hampshire. Whenever I would go back to the area, for the holidays etc., I always made a point to bring a camera package and shoot with the family. The DP, Cam Riley, is a founding partner of Stept and also grew up skiing in the area. We worked together with a small crew, only four or five people per shoot. The story evolved over the years as we slowly chipped away at it, and we realized we were onto something special. The local community was really helpful, and everyone wanted to support the film. Some days in the winter it was -20F while we were shooting, and it was a real battle. It reminded me of growing up there skiing: You need to fight the elements every day. We called in favors from the ski mountain and hired a local pilot with a prop plane for the aerials. It was grassroots filmmaking at its finest.
Any life lessons here on a personal level?
Martini: I do a lot of commercial production, and this film reminded me how much I love sharing real people's stories, and how powerful they can be. To watch the Lahouts band together through so much adversity over generations was really inspiring. I think, too, that no matter how much Anthony thought he knew his family, he couldn't have possibly known all of the complexities before this journey.
Anthony, it's a wonderful immigrant story that really showcases the strong, independently minded women in your family.
Anthony Lahout: When we started the film, we thought it was about Joe and his store. But as we went deeper, we learned there were so many more important themes to explore. In the 100 years that the store has been thriving, this has been largely because the store was managed by the most entrepreneurial members of the family: the women. [Joe's mom] Anna, being the most hands-on and badass of all the ladies, ran the store through the Great Depression following her husband's death, and again through World War II. She made it a successful business, in a time when women, especially immigrant women, were not offered much support. We wanted to draw parallels between today's political climate and a century-old story of strong female leadership.
Client: Lahout Ski Shop
Production Co.: Stept Studios
Director: Nick Martini
Executive Producer: Anthony Lahout
Director: Nick Martini
Cinematographer: Cam Riley
Editor: Mattias Evangelista
Designer: Addie Glass
Head of Production: Laura Cushing
Post Production: Connor Scofield
Sound Designer: Eric Crepe
Sales: Lindsey Hagen
Telly Gold - Non-Broadcast General - Sports
Telly Silver - Non-Broadcast General - General
5-Point Film Festival - Creative Excellence for Director
Main Outdoor Film Festival - Best Film From Away
2019 ISHA Award Winner