Portions of a conversation recorded recently at a shady table off South 7th in Bozeman...
TBM: You guys are in a much more informed position than me to introduce the international projects on which you've collaborated. Can you give the Magpie readers a boiled-down version of the program?
Phill Baribeau: Over the past three years our team has promoted adventure travel and tourism in eastern Europe through film, photography, journalism, and social media. Our main focus has been documenting athletes and their journeys of skiing and fishing. So far, we've been fortunate to travel to the Republic of Georgia twice, Montenegro, and an upcoming trip to Azerbaijan in March.
Dan Armstrong: Pretty much, yeah, we're helping promote recreational opportunities in some very remote areas for countries that want to get more tourism attention. We started by traveling to Mestia, Georgia, to showcase their new ski area. It's near the Russian venue for the 2014 Olympics. The business model is to produce media content from magazine articles to feature films and web videos that would help convey the incredible skiing potential in a rather unexplored part of eastern Europe.
TBM: What has your involvement brought to the effort? What do you do, specifically?
Dan: The first hat I wear on these projects is still photographer. However, making these projects come together takes a lot of coordination so you become a producer in a way. From coordinating with Phil on how we want the story to be told and what avenues of media we go after, to lining up the group, it takes a lot of lead-time planning before you actually put the camera to your eye.
Phill: I've been the cinematographer and editor of the films. My goal is to try and help promote the country through a tourism-specific video, short film, and any sponsor videos. Our first short film, "Friends of Georgia," made the People’s Choice Tour for the Coldsmoke Awards which toured in eight different locations. There is also a compilation video from Georgia and Montenegro on Mystery Ranch’s website for their help on the last couple of trips.
TBM: A nice shout-out for the Coldsmoke crew... It's all pretty worldly stuff, ya know? So how'd a couple of guys from Montana get hooked up like this?
Phill: Wow, such a random and amazing connection I don’t even know where to begin—
Dan: Going to college, those student loans are worth something, right?
Phill: Really, it all starts with our leader, Randy Scheunemann or, as we call him, "the Commander." His background is in politics and foreign policy, working under heavy hitters like John McCain. On the side, he's an avid skier and traveler with huge connections all over the world—specifically in eastern Europe. After getting a second home in Whitefish and meeting up with some local skiers, he realized there was an opportunity to utilize his political connections to help promote skiing and tourism in other countries. Somehow, this led him to Andrew Wells, who lives here in Bozeman. As a professional ski bum, Andrew had the connections to pull together a team—a photographer, a cinematographer, a writer, and the athletes. Our first meetings all took place at the Eagles Club (in Bozeman), where we all thought Wells was just telling another one of his crazy bar stories. Within a week we had plane tickets in hand and realized this was the real thing. Still skeptical of what we were getting into, we had no idea they were going to treat us like kings.
TBM: Kings? I'm usually back with the commonfolk. Tell me more.
Phill: Every single night was setup with a massive spread they call a supra. They also had jugs of wine and a drink called Cha Cha for their many toasts to their American friends. And while we were skiing, they would grill up a feast every day filled with shish kabobs, wine and beer. They really wanted to show us the town of Batumi on the coast of the Black Sea, so they flew us halfway across the country to check out the casino's and night life and in the morning we loaded up and flew to the next ski resort in Gudari.
TBM: Princely enough. So, "the Commander" turned a career in diplomacy into a commercial gig? Seems like he's playing to his strengths—a smart guy.
Dan: The Commander is not only a heavy hitter in the diplomatic arena but he loves his sports. So he made the two work together in his favor... it makes for a fantastic combination.
Phill: The whole idea sounded crazy from the start, but it’s really genius. For Randy, this is an escape from D.C. and a way to ski and travel the world. When I edited the first film, I put him in the credits as producer—he was pumped. I could definitely see him making a second career as a producer; I’m sure it’s way less stressful than his political life.
TBM: How'd you get on that side of the microphone? What are your respective backgrounds?
Phill: After getting a degree in Media and Theatre Arts from (Montana State University), I followed my passion for film and adventure in the outdoor world. I took a job with Wink Inc in Jackson, Wyoming, working on a series for National Geographic called Nomads. While in Jackson, I was also fortunate to shoot for Brain Farm Cinema for their breakthrough film, That’s It That’s All. Since then I made it back to Bozeman where I started Implement Productions. I now direct, shoot, and edit for documentary films, broadcast, commercials and events. This past fall I spent a couple months in British Columbia shooting for the series Ax Men which was completely wild.
Dan: After going through the photojournalism school at the University of Montana, I traveled with a group of kayakers working with Teton Gravity Research. It was a great opportunity to shoot high-paced action in a variety of different locations. We explored Iceland, Sir Lanka, and Africa, looking for new rivers and waterfalls to make travel/adventure kayak movies and photos. Being nomadic is part of an outdoor photographer's life, but I needed some sort of foundation. So I moved to Bozeman in 2001 and have been here since utilizing its incredible location for outdoor pursuits and my career in photography and visual media. It took awhile to settle in but I eventual did, starting Strobot Studios with Reid Morth.
TBM: What countries/areas have you visited through the Commander's connections?
Phill: The first trip we took was to the Republic of Georgia. The main area we were focusing on was called Mestia; it's in the northern Caucasus region, right under Russia. At the time they had just opened a new ski area located in a remote village. We also traveled to the the town of Batumi on the Black Sea and went to their main ski area in Gudari. I also have to mention that we got a two-week tour on a Russian MI8 and skied with the president of the country. Last winter we made it to Montenegro and started the trip off with a tour of the coast. We stayed in the actual Casino Royale in the town of Budva. After being stranded on the coast thanks to a 100-year storm, we eventually made it to the town of Zabljak. From there, we visited the ski resort, Durmitor.
TBM: You're describing an area from the Balkans to the Caspian Sea—that's a lot of turf. Why there? What sets it apart?
Phill: The biggest thing is how undiscovered the regions are and the size of the mountains. The Caucasus have some of the hightest peaks in Europe, topped out by Mount Elbrus—located on the border of Russia and Georgia—at an elevation of 18,442 feet. These areas are for those that want to get off-the-grid to ski and travel in places where there is little tourism.
TBM: You're talking the old Communist bloc... How risky is this? Are there places over there that the typical family of four should consider vacationing?
Dan: Family of four, well... there you probably won't find a Starbucks or Hilton. But you will be well received and treated kindly.
Phill: That’s a somewhat difficult question to answer because our trips were fully catered by their state offices of tourism... I will say that Georgia is extremely friendly and one of the most hospitable places I have ever been. I would strongly recommend a family trip there. Montenegro was far different, and we didn’t get the 'open arms' treatment like in Georgia. Even though you see remnants of past wars throughout the countries, I never felt like either place was all that risky.
Dan: It is definitely not as fancy as France or Switzerland, but that is part of the region's luster.
TBM: Luster, that can go either way, right? Maybe we 86 the family; how'd this place be for the lone hedonist?
Phill: This is the ideal place for that guy—
Dan: Yeah, go for it!
Phill: It may take a little longer to get to than the traditional European destinations, but right now, they'd have the playground almost to themselves.
TBM: Just tell me where to sign, I'm in.
Phill: Yeah, you can party and hang out on the coast one day and make it to the mountains the next for incredible skiing.
TBM: Now all I need is a friendly diplomat who can ski. It's no secret that Bozeman is like a clown car with photographers and videographers these days. Is this what it takes to create market separation?
Phill: It definitely helps, and we were extremely lucky to have met Randy and to have the perfect team for these trips. Our goal is to keep these trips going through any type of outdoor adventure.
Dan: Maybe, but I it think comes down to that Phil shoots with a shaky pull out, while I'm usually a half-stop off on my exposures.
TBM: Hopefully, our smarter readers will have some idea what that means. When not schmoozing with international diplomats and leaders of state, what other projects keep you busy?
Dan: Bird hunting, fly fishing, creating photos that I like to look at—and getting paid for it.
Phill: I'm gearing up to film a documentary starting in April. We’re documenting a crew of cowboys riding wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada in six months. I have little to no experience on horseback, so there's gonna be some serious breaking in.
TBM: Tell me a little about the clips we're gonna include with this.
Phill: Friends of Georgia (shown, top) is just the teaser to help promote the short film that is eight minutes long. The Implement Production Reel (below) is a sample of my work from the past years.
TBM: Awesome. I think that's a wrap. Thanks, guys.