Anthony Lahout never expected to be rubbing elbows with Hollywood elite like Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansen.
Yet, that’s the situation the New Hampshire native found himself in last month at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where “North Country,” the short film he helped produce over the last four years, found its way into its first Academy Award qualifying competition.
“North Country” was featured in the American Stories collection, which mostly included tales about people coming into the country, whether or not it be under their own will. One film was about a Russian mail order bride; another detailed the immigration crisis at the Mexican border.
But Lahout’s film stood out from the competition in at least one definitive way.
“North Country was the only film in the American Stories collection that did not have actors in any shape or form,” he said. “We’re just a real-deal family from Littleton. I thought that was cool.”
The film tells the story of the Lahout family and its significance in Littleton, N.H. and the New England ski industry. Billed as the oldest ski shop in the United States, Lahout’s is one of the region’s most dependable retailers with a history as rich as the mountains that surround their eight locations.
In 2015, director Nick Martini and Stept Productions presented a short film profile of Joe Lahout, the 93-year-old who had helped run the shop for decades.
The film, clocking in at a shade longer than three minutes, was warmly-received and was became official selection to the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival.
“But it was a film that would go before everything because it was so small,” Anthony said. “We started getting approached about making a bigger story.”
That’s because everybody had the same question about Joe Lahout. “Who is this guy?”
Joe Lahout, who died in 2016, was the son of Lebanese immigrants who grew a passion for skiing while helping his mother and sisters run the family store. He served in World War II, and upon returning, took advantage of the booming activity skiing had become in the Northeast, building his family’s shop around the needs of the local skier, all while fighting perception that stood in the way at time.
“He looked different,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t until he got on a set of skis that he equalized it and everybody just laid down.
“He was a very proud guy, but had his own chip on his shoulder about how he got into the industry. When he got into the ski industry, he was treated as a minority. He was locked out of the Boston Ski Show and the Providence Ski Show for what he was doing in his store. This was when he was an adult, when he’s a GI veteran. And he’s still kind of getting kicked around.”
So, when Anthony and Martini decided to turn their project into something bigger, it was Joe’s presence that kept knocking.
The original intent was to create a skiing film on part with what the likes of “Dogtown and Z-Boys” did for skating or “Riding Giants” did for surfing. They traveled the country and spoke to various icons of the sport; Klaus Obermeyer, Bode Miller, members of the the 10th Mountain Division, and, of course, Joe Lahout.
Lahout was the character that kept screening the best. He was the one people wanted to learn more about.
“We’re the opposite of a perfect family, but I think people can identify with that,” Anthony said, “which makes me understand why we’re getting screened at these kinds of festivals with these kinds of celebrities.”
Anthony received a lot of questions about the filming process. “How did he stage the old apartment? How did he stage this old guy?” It was then that he truly understood the special nature of this film and how it might be received.
“This is just my grandfather,” he said. “It’s him in the flesh. That’s just him in his apartment.”
That led to a four-year adventure of detailing the history of a tribal sport.
“We didn’t make this movie on a napkin,” Anthony said. “It was a really organic process.”
It wasn’t the sort of path Anthony had originally intended. After graduating from Bentley University, he initially moved out west for a job in financial analysis.
In other words, as he puts it, “I was dying a slow death.”
He took a winter to ski bum everywhere from Utah to Colorado to Idaho and discovered a desire to do more in the creative field and marketing side. That led to jobs at Smith in Sun Valley, and Spyder in Boulder, working with cinematographers and photographers as an athlete manager.
“It was more that western exploration in job that gave me the confidence of being a producer and executive producer of a film and being part of the creative team,” he said. “But finding the subject was kind of right in front of my face the entire time even though I didn’t know it.
“I kept coming home and seeing my grandfather, this guy who I knew just past 90. As much as I love shooting athletes, [I thought] this is the guy I want to make a short film about.”
Anthony classified his relationship with his grandfather as the standard sort while growing up. He’d show up at his baseball games and family dinners. But there was never really the opportunity to talk in-depth about his experience in the army or how he was raised by strong sisters.
“I was learning so much about my family — and I grew up with my family, I grew up in a very tight-knit Lebanese family,” he said. “But I was learning very intimate things about my family’s past through this relationship with my grandfather.
“I was learning so much about this guy who is so much older than me, and he was kind of becoming my friend in the process. Which I don’t think is very common when you have decades in between people.”
“North Country” ultimately presents this budding relationship in the way it shows Anthony tending to his grandfather’s needs. In many ways, it is a look into the passing of the torch from one generation to another, detailing the history of the family’s name’s importance not only to the audience, but the protagonists themselves.
The film recently won the International Ski History Association’s film of the year award, one that the creators will accept in Sun Valley at the end of March. It has seen its day at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, Banff Film Festival, and the Kendall Mountain Festival in the UK, and Joe said that the focus now is getting the film into some long-shot competitions before figuring out the right media partners to host it and offer it to the general public.
“Because the story is about immigration and female empowerment and family, we’ve got to get it to the masses,” he said. “That’s the biggest goal of mine besides the international festivals, finding the right way and the right home for this thing to live so a lot of people can see it.”