It’s one thing to make a movie about college and high school students partying too hard and making some very poor decisions, but it’s another to do so with a narrative that has roots in a true story, and Mo Ogrodnik’s Tribeca Film Festival entry Deep Powder proves it.
The film features Shiloh Fernandez as Danny, a former hockey star who can’t hold on to his college scholarship in the wake of his father’s passing. Instead of heading off to school and pursuing his dreams, he’s living at home with his mother and two young siblings, stuck in a monotonous existence working as a ski lift operator. His routine is rocked when Natasha Tabor (Haley Bennett) and her privileged boarding school friends head up to enjoy a run on Danny’s mountain. Danny catches Natasha’s eye and the two strike up a relationship, one that’s overflowing with honest love and passion, but also one that’s bound to destroy them.
Natasha is a member of the secret society, the Deep Powder Alpine Country Club. What appears to be a group dedicated to skiing and the occasional party is actually a vehicle for upholding the annual tradition of sending a member on a trip to Ecuador and returning with a kilo of cocaine. This year it’s Natasha’s turn to go, but rather than take another member of the club along for the ride, she brings Danny. It’s a genius concept for a fictional film, but not only is Deep Powder inspired by true events, Ogrodnik experienced them firsthand.
While talking about the film at the Tribeca Film Festival alongside Fernandez and Bennett, Ogrodnik explained, “I was actually tangentially involved. I was in boarding school at the time and I knew a bunch of those kids.” According to an article from the AP News Archive, in April of 1984, U.S. Customs agents at Kennedy Airport nabbed Choate Rosemary Hall students Catherine N. Cowan and Derek Oatis trying to hide 300 grams of cocaine in his shaving kit. Not only did a group of classmates pool the money to pay for the drugs, but they funded the pair’s trip to Caracas, Venezuela to purchase them, too. Ultimately 16 students were arrested, most of which were expelled, and the authorities also caught a Venezuelan resident who was responsible for arranging numerous drug-buying trips between Christmas of 1982 and April of 1984.
Oatis wound up with a six-year suspended sentence, five years of probation, and 5,000 hours of community service while Cowan faced a three-year suspended sentence, five years of probation, and 1,000 hours of community service. Over the next few years the other students involved wound up with probation and community service until lastly, in March of 1987, the student who was dubbed “the kingpin” of the operation, was sentenced to a suspended five-year jail term, five years of probation, and 5,000 hours of community service, a generous sentence considering he could have faced up to 15 years in prison for cocaine smuggling.
While Ogrodnik does respect the gravity of the true account, she also enhances its cinematic quality by framing that high concept using a relationship between two very well-developed characters, and one with a somewhat justifiable reason for committing the crime. Fernandez even admitted, “If I put myself in the shoes of my character, I think I would go all the way.” Unlike Natasha and her classmates, for Danny, the trip isn’t just some thrill ride after which he’ll have the luxury of being able to get a quick high. Without a wealthy family, he’s making the run to fund his own education. Fernandez noted, “It’s not the smartest thing, but I think that it’s very relatable that somebody would try to figure this out if something like that dropped in your lap and there’s no other options in front of you.”
And it’s that ability to relate to Danny that makes Deep Powder such a success. When asked about going the sexier and flashier route with the film, Ogrodnik joked, “I wanted to make a really disposable piece of sh*t, but I couldn’t; I didn’t have enough money!” More seriously, Ogrodnik pointed out, “I really love working with actors,” and it shows because she guided both Fernandez and Bennett to deliver two notably well-developed characters, both with very refined personalities, but also two people that can behave impulsively in a very realistic fashion.
Danny’s dedicated to his family and very clearly knows right from wrong, but his desperation to succeed and his affection for Natasha understandably rattles his values. Natasha, on the other hand, is much tougher to get a handle on initially, but, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that her free-spirited nature stems from deep-rooted insecurities and emotions that she doesn’t know how to handle. As an actress, that was a challenging mind space to access, but Bennett noted that the fact that both she and Ogrodnik are sensitive people made for the ideal collaboration. She explained, “We sort of exposed ourselves and our fears and insecurities and kind of went from there, and she was always so supportive and encouraging.”
The duo also needed a little support to handle the psychical requirements of their roles – appearing to be an expert hockey player and skier. Fernandez said that he did take skating lessons and came out with a great respect for the sport, but lamented, “I didn’t quite get good enough, I don’t think, but it was great.” Bennett jumped in and announced, “It was all me skiing,” but Ogrodnik’s reaction made it abundantly clear that that wasn’t the case even before Bennett revealed the movie magic behind her skiing skills. While Bennett did take a lesson, she admitted, “There’s people laying on the ground with sticks, with tree branches, and there’s a blow dryer and there’s a wafter.” She continued, “I’m supposed to be very intensely skiing, having a great time, and there’s just branches being propelled.”
Not only does the team manage to sell Bennett’s nonexistent skiing skills, but just about every other element of Deep Powder, too. It’s a modest representation of a grand-scale event infused with a remarkable amount of emotion, suspense and heart. Joe Castelo’s The Preppie Connection, due to star Evan Peters and Bella Heathcote with the same subject matter at the core, definitely has quite the film to contend with. Check out our full Deep Powder discussion with Bennett, Fernandez and Ogrodnik in the video below and, if you’re in the New York area, Deep Powder is highly recommended. You can still catch it at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26 at 1 p.m.