Fred Schwoebel: The Mountains Will Wait For You

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The way in which first-time filmmaker Fred Schwoebel came to make his film about Grace Hudowalski is one of those stories that fate played a large hand in.

How do you explain how a back packer from Portland Oregon, who had never even heard of the Adirondacks 20 years ago, came to Schroon Lake to make the only documentary film on Grace?

Well, if it wasn’t for Fred’s mother-in-law, and a story about gardening in a newspaper, this film may never have been made.

“Before I show the movie I tell the story of why is a guy from Portland, Oregon making this?  The answer is:  I had just moved here from Nashville, Tennessee, where I was working in films as an art director, and as looking to re-invent my self out here,” Fred told Schroon Laker last week from his Portland home.

“In the meantime, my mother in law, living in Ventura California, had clipped a newspaper article about gardening out of the Ventura Free Press and sent it to me with a letter. I read the letter and read the gardening article and you know how  -- for one reason or another -- I flipped it over and there was an AP article by Mary Ashe that was entitled “Climbers Scale Peaks, Write Letters”, and it was an article about Grace.

“You know there are times when art just comes in a moment and I said I’m doing that – that was 1993”.

And when Fred says he’s  “doing that” –  it was not his intention to climb the 46 Peaks - but rather tell Grace’s story in a documentary.

“I called long distance to Albany, got a number and told her I wanted to meet her, first of all, and I told her about the documentary I wanted to do about the letter writing and The 46ers.

“I made a trip out in May of 1993, came back that same year in late September with a cameraman, when the fall colors were peaking, and sat and with Grace and would turn the camera on every time she’d speak. It was a cinéma vérité approach – to try to collect everything we could.”

Fred returned to Portland where he “ran into a fundraising obstacle” to finish the film. 

“At that time you couldn’t edit in your home or on a computer”.

Fred got busy with life, starting a family, and got back into art direction. Those videotapes with Grace’s story on them sat unedited in boxes for the next 18 years.

But all that changed two years ago, when technology and software for film editing came drastically down in price. Fred was approached by a friend (who edited the film) and he bought Final Cut software and started the arduous process of cutting the film.

So what was it in that original AP article that appealed to Fred? Grace’s back-story? The letter writing? Her unique character?

“I’m a life long back packer and love being out in in the mountains. Her story resonated with me on that level. But really what caught my eye was the letter writing and the fact that Grace through her entire lifetime, answering those letters, her dedication, her love of mountains, her service to people was really impressive”.

How did she react about being the subject of a film?

“The thing that impresses me the most is that I cold called her out of the blue and told her I read this article and I wanted to meet her. She said: ‘Well you’ll come and stay with me. She was 87 at the time.  Nowadays, people would say:  ‘I need some information or give you direction to the Ramada’”.

Fred has nothing but special memories of Grace and his time at her camp in Schroon Lake.

“When we came back to shoot -- I stayed with her both times – that openness and gregarious nature was infectious.  She knew I loved mountains also. As soon as I imparted that information, we had a shared love.

Grace’s climbing days were well over when Fred shot the documentary. But she was still very connected to the 46 Peaks and 46ers, Fred said.

“In the documentary she talks about climbing one of the high peaks at 80 years old. She knew every inch of every trail in the Adirondacks. When she was typing those letters it was her way of being still connected to the mountains”.

Fred says Grace’s camp in Schroon Lake was fairly rustic.

“It was modest and filled with things she collected and people gave her. She loved hummingbirds, and feeding the raccoons and she had a cat called K2, so her environment there was very reflective of her love of animals and love of hiking and of the Adirondacks themselves.

Another twist of fate in getting the movie made is how Fred got country legend Johnny Cash to record the narration for the film.

“He’s my father in law, I married his youngest daughter. (Tara Cash Schwoebel)”

In 1993, after a northwest tour on the west coast, Fred handed Cash a storyboard and a treatment for his proposed film.

“He put it in his briefcase and said: ‘I’ll let you know’. He wanted to look and see what he was getting himself into. He wrote me a letter back and said you name a place and time and I’d be happy to do it, so that’s how that happened. I wrote the script and he recorded it with his sound engineer back in Nashville.

“This is the first film I’ve made and the only film I’ve made. When I was skating though this I said to myself wow – did I get lucky, I just recorded the straight narration  -- no pick up lines. A bit of beginners luck? –- I’d say so”.

As a first time filmmaker did Fred have any idea what he was getting himself into?

“The way I look at it is the story and idea came to me, and so the difficult part was the technical aspect”

With his career in film art direction, everything was in front of the camera.

“Post production (editing, sound recording and color correction) was totally unfamiliar and new to me. That was the real obstacle, but I had good people here in Portland”.

For the two screenings in Schroon Lake, the film will be introduced by Doug Arnold, who is heading up the Grace Peaks Committee.

Doug, a winter 46er, is the Chair of the Grace Peak Project. The group has been working for almost 10 years to rename East Dix to Grace Leach Hudowalski #9.

Fred said she is so worthy of the honor and hopes the film can help.

“Part of the purpose of my film is to help promote the naming of Grace Peak”.

We wish Doug and Fred all the best in their efforts. For more information about the Grace Peaks effort you can contact Doug here 

Where and When: Friday and Sunday, August 30 & Sept. 1 at 6pm @ The Strand Movie Theater. 44 minutes.