By Stan Leveille
“Dear Rider,” was the salutation that Jake Burton Carpenter used in each intro to the Burton catalog since its inception. It would come to be a place where Jake would address his constituents year after year, and ultimately it allowed a genuine look into his energy, wit, and most importantly, infectious love for snowboarding. The path that accompanied this infectious love is dissected at large in the feature documentary from Red Bull Media House and Emmy nominated director, Fernando Villena, set to debut publicly Tuesday, November 9 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.
A raw and earnest depiction of the spectacular journey of snowboarding’s first larger-than-life icon, “Dear Rider” pulls no punches in telling the story of Jake Burton’s life and its relation to snow business. What the film accomplishes is much deeper than the Burton story though, as the documentary depicts snowboarding’s broad history in great success with no shortage of vault footage that even the biggest snowboard aficionados can find enjoyment in. From Suicide Six hosting the first ever National Snowboarding Championships in 1982, onward toward the U.S. Open, and eventually the Olympics, the timeline of snowboarding and its various timeless clips that this movie provides alone is impressive.
Where the documentary shines beyond historical retrospect, is its ability to face some of Burton’s controversies head-on. When speaking to Fernando Villena about directing the film, he said that Jake’s primary goal was to paint a full picture. “Ben Brian and Jake were developing the movie for probably a year before I got to know who Jake was. They went super deep with the timeline [of snowboarding] and did a really great job as far as doing the research, which is really important to the process.” He continued, “Jake, in working with Ben, gave a pretty good idea of what he wanted the movie to be about. He wanted the whole story told. Especially the Tom Sims rivalry, the controversy with the patent. He wanted all of that in there.”
As Fernando met Jake during the interview process for choosing the director, he got to know more about Jake. The film was pitched to Jake just before his passing in 2019. “I met Jake in the interview process. I shot a seven-minute proof of concept that I had put together just from doing online research. I read Pat Bridges’ article with Jake at one point in that process. I put together this proof of concept, which I was able to show Jake when I interviewed him. Looking back on that now, that was a really special moment.” He continued on trying to live up to Jake's goal for the project. “The spirit of what he said was ‘Tell the whole story,’ and that's what we did. Movies are about conflict. Movies are about tension. If there is no tension then you are not really telling the story. Or at least one that will keep people’s interest. So we had to find those moments of tension in Jake’s story...It’s something that Donna, George,Taylor and Timi didn’t shy away from.”
Fernando recognized the importance of leaning into this tension while working on a project tethered so closely to one of snowboarding’s biggest brands. “It’s tricky when you make a movie about a company and have it not feel like branded content. To avoid that we told all of the stories-– Burton having a target on its back for much of its existence, its insatiable need for growth. And that is what helped neutralize the feel of one long commercial. Because it’s not a commercial for Burton—it’s Jake’s story.”
As Villena is an outsider on snowboarding, it undeniably helps this movie tell an earnest representation of Jake’s story. Fernando recalls that one of the most important and challenging pieces of making this movie was his vision of having Jake be the primary narrator of his story. “In the very beginning, I told Donna specifically that the movie was going to be told by Jake as much as possible. He was going to narrate his life and his story. What that meant was that we had to use existing sources. And that became a puzzle. Not only do you have to line up the information in a chronological way, but it’s also the emotion. There’s moments where the first part of Jake's voice over is the ‘90s and the second part is 15 years later. You can hear a change in the tonality as his voice changes over time. We never re-edit what he was saying but we had to put it all together like a big puzzle.” This of course would be a logical place to mention that SLUSH founder and walking snowboard encyclopedia, Pat Bridges, helps pick up a lot of the slack in telling the full story of the company’s rise.
Inevitably, the story of Jake leads the viewer to his unfortunate health demise. His battle with Miller Fisher Syndrome, and two separate bouts with cancer, provide a duality to his story, showing the struggle he went through, but also his subsequent lust for life as a result. That duality is remembered well by Fernando during his interaction with Jake in his final years. “When I met him, I didn’t know as much about his career yet. My initial treatment was about his recovery from Miller Fisher. But he was very gracious, and actually when I left, he gave me toilet paper with Donald Trump's face on it, and I thought, ‘Wow this guy is dope’.”
From discussing the way Craig Kelly taught Jake the importance of listening to the riders, to Burton’s close relationship with Shaun White during snowboarding’s biggest expanse, the story line weaves through countless heroes in Burton’s history. And while Jake, of course, is the focus of this film, it’s general discussion on snowboarding's present and future makes the film something a little bigger than a biography. For example, it breathes new life into the important conversation surrounding the FIS regaining control of our Olympic qualifying system. In addition, “Dear Rider” reminds each of us about the powerful nature behind snowboarding, the essence we must never forget, which is chasing the escape, and sharing it with your friends. It’s an apt time to quote Jake’s first ever intro to the Burton catalogue, (narrated in the movie by Woody Harrelson, by the way.)
Snow Surfing is wintertime’s finest high. The experience of riding down a steep hill with fresh powder can only be compared to surfing a hollow six-foot tube. If there is as much as three inches of snow you can ride from your own backyard, to the rocky mountains. But the finest riding is found on that deserted backhill where there is nothing to interfere with you. Only your friends, your board, and plenty of virgin powder.”
See, even after all the life, lawsuits, love and loss, some things about snowboarding just don’t change. Thank Jake.
Make sure to check out “Dear Rider” for yourself on HBO.