Katie Burrell is the director, co-writer and star of Weak Layers, a revival of the ski comedy genre that follows a scrappy, thirty-something named Cleo who enters into a ski documentary short film competition with the hopes of fulfilling her dreams of directing movies — and also winning enough prize money to move out of the van she’s living in. In the piece below, Burrell explains the many weather and lighting challenges that came with shooting the movie in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, California. Weak Layers is now streaming on Prime Video, Apple TV and VUDU.
Katie Burrell on Making Weak Layers
When I arrived in Tahoe on October 15, 2022, a mere 3 weeks out from our first day of production, it was all blue skies and bare ground. I took my mountain bike for a few rides on the trails around Lake Tahoe after long days of prep — until I crashed and the producers vetoed that activity until after we wrapped. But with our goal of making a film that could resurrect the ski comedy sub-genre that produced the likes of Aspen Extreme and Hot Dog — and no snow in the forecast — we were starting to worry.
Contingency plans became the main focus of the conversation. How do we shoot a ski movie in the dead of winter with no snow? Our Art Department had their work cut out for them. Jeff Curry, our production designer, jumped in a cube van and headed to Los Angeles to pick up $15,000 worth of snow blankets, which he later referred to as an insurance policy. We talked through how to steam and fog the sides of the Volkswagen van that our main characters lived in so that the camera wouldn’t see through to the bare ground outside.
Curry returned, and we were ready to shoot that first scene in a way that was, to put it bluntly, cropped. But on the day of the tech scout, four days out from camera, a miracle happened: It started to snow. We were thrilled. Curry could leave the blankets in the van and we could shoot the first week out in real snow. But what we didn’t know was that we were at the onset of what would be a record-breaking winter in Tahoe — the most snowfall on record ever, which added a whole host of new challenges.
Shooting a narrative in the mountains is tricky for two reasons: light continuity, and, for our LA-based cast and crew, temperature.
The light changes dramatically and quickly as the sun moves behind the mountains and in and out of the landscape. One particular scene required us to hike up to a ridgeline so that Dane (Neal Bledsoe) and Gabe (Evan Jonigkeit) could have a conversation overlooking the ski line below. By the time we got to the shot, the light was completely different than what we had expected it to be. Someone — I couldn’t tell you who, it was a madhouse — had the idea to build a “ridge” right there on the cat track. A mound of snow and a camera shooting up created the look we needed… and the public got a kick out of twenty of us standing around two men doing a dramatic scene on 3 feet of snow.
Temperature is a constant battle for performance. As soon as one of the cast members gets cold, it becomes extremely difficult for them to focus on lines and delivery. We were constantly monitoring our cast for their temperatures and making sure they were layered up. However, I somehow managed to get myself into a situation where I had improvised a beat of losing my jacket. We all loved it and decided to keep it, which meant I had to do the following scene in just a sweater in -5 degrees. Between takes, I tried to control the shivering next to the heater.
There was also a scene where Cleo (myself), Tina (Chelsea Conwright), and Lucy (Jadyn Wong) had a scene of dialogue where they cross a parking lot in robes with wet hair after “fucking up the amenities.” However, the time spent debating whether it was too cold to shoot it, deciding to do it, warming up the cast, and layering underneath the robes entirely ate up our light, and we had to shoot the scene in the twilight — which, in November in the mountains, is about ten minutes before it goes pitch black.
Our other hurdle to shooting on snow was the public, who were just trying to enjoy their ski vacations. Palisades Tahoe had come on board to support the film as a location, but what they couldn’t do was shut down entire lifts for us to do take after take. We were limited by light and even further limited by time.
Our final scene, where our will-they-won’t-they B-story romance plot comes to a resolution, happens on a chairlift. The camera was rigged to the chair ahead, and the performance occurred over three different times up the chair. Two takes of the wide, and one take of the Cleo camera pointed into the sun, with DP Ryan de Franco on the chair with her and her scene partner delivering lines from the chair behind. We wanted another take, but the hill was open and it was getting busy. We had run out of time and hadn’t shot Gabe’s (Jonigkeit) coverage.
Forced to move on to the next scene, de Franco had a genius idea. On the way out of the next scene, we had to transport the crew down on the chairlift. He suggested we shoot Gabe’s coverage as we traveled out for the day. The sun would be setting, giving the light a completely different look to Cleo’s take, and the chairlift would be going downhill, but the way de Franco knew he could play the light against each other and how he positioned the camera made it appear that they are on the same chair, at the same time, going in the same direction. Jonigkeit effectively had one take, I yelled lines from the chair behind him, and the crew carried gear out around us.
It worked, and I will forever be grateful that we had such a collaborative team, and such a focused cast, to be able to lace that moment in one go.
Main Image: (L-R) Katie Burrell, Chelsea Conwright, Jadyn Wong in Weak Layers