Cody Perry is pulling off a shooting site in his truck when he calls me on the phone. The sunset is bleeding behind him. It was a last minute change to film today, but they got the shot they were looking for. Plans are fluid and you’re already in the water, the only way to go from here is downstream. Hard.
“Fire away, let’s get into it,” he exclaims.
Perry is the co-founder of Rig to Flip, a film company based in Colorado that tells stories about land, water and people, built around the ethos of “preparing for unanticipated circumstances in dynamic environments.” An inherent adventurer with a special passion for rafting, the Steamboat Springs native has a never ending curiosity for rivers and their ecological connection points with humans. “I wanna use storytelling as a connection for difficult conversations. I also want to use recreation as a vehicle to spotlight science. I don’t want to come off preachy or use too much academic language. Make it so it’s simple so people get it,” says Perry.
He’s spent a lot of days on the river — specifically the Colorado and Green — riding flows, succumbing to their power, all the while trying to capture a transcendent essence of the environment for a larger audience. It’s no small task, yet Perry approaches it with a tenacious spirit and devout respect for telling a resonant story, no matter the physical toll.
“You gotta wake up early to get the shot and you don’t always get to rest. I need to use the camera and know it front ways and back and push it as a tool to get the most out of it and to put up with whatever physical condition it takes. The thing is, you have to, or you’re not going to get the shot. You gotta risk all this money on the camera, and it’s a lot of fucking money. You can’t be scared of it, you have to use it,” said Perry.
His film Warms Springs exudes that vicious grit in telling the story of the mighty Yampa River during a high springs flow, where nothing but chaos can be expected. In addition to weathering the unstable conditions of the river for Rig to Flip, Perry must build and maintain a trusting relationships with a wide variety of subjects, the voices of these stories. Ranchers, elder tribesmen, river rats and scientists are all a part of the grander conversation and knowing how to approach such diverse points of views compassionately is a real balance.
Recently nominated to the 2021 Colorado Environmental Film Festival, Rio Rica is one of those balancing acts as it looks at the conservation issues surrounding the Little Snake River. Salad Days is a different kind of balancing act though nonetheless delicate, as it reflects on legendary river runner Herman Hoops’ many days on the water just as he’s floating his very last trip.
“Interviewing is a lot of people skills, being able to read people and being willing to be a little clandestine and having respect for all the ground for all of that. It’s a special spot to be in and as a storyteller you gotta treat it with a lot of respect and a lot of sacredness and a lot of secretness,” says Perry.
Perry has shown he has the skills and awareness to ride the river as it comes, telling the stories of the people and lands that have experienced some of its wildest flows. But ultimately, Rig to Flip will be a success not because of Perry’s skills but because of his conviction to serve the river. You can hear it in his voice, the confidence he has that his storytelling can humbly protect the river in some small way and support the people who depend on it, like himself. He’s got no idea what the next bend might bring, but he’s ready to point downstream and get into it. Fire away.
Read below for a conversation with Cody Perry. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When you think about rivers, what continues to blow your mind?
When it comes to what I’m after in life, I’m on the scent of it when I’m out there. I can tell that I’m connected to something way bigger than me. It helps really having the background I did, where my folks illustrated the world in such a way that the “ultimate” was somewhere out on the land, to be chased and nurtured. Whatever is natural out there, I found it out there. They were just canyon desert people, but there’s still some connection to rivers.I really like being on the boat and going downstream. There’s something in that simplicity that is profound and I’m into it.
Do you have a sense of what that bigger “thing” is that you feel connected too?
It has to do with having spent enough time in a place where you start to see seasons go around the clock, just like a day. Having the incredible privilege around the Yampa Basin and being into the outdoors and good enough health to constantly be outside. I hiked all the winters. I liked skiing but I’m really into snow science and avalanche safety and how it’s all connected. It’s all about having an eye on that snowpack and every year I’m digging into it, watching the days of plenty and the days of dryness.
Over the years, you follow that same snow on the river and on the boats. Then you have those huge years, flood years, where I’ve never seen the river do some of the things it does. The water is so big that it takes on those physical dimensions, but also creates sound and all the wildlife. Then there are years where it’s drier and it was kind of a rhythm and it was much bigger than me. It’s the landscape and it has a rhythm and you know how these things intersect. It’s not just the runoff or skiing or the boating, but how did the grass do that year? How thick were the mule deer herds in the fall? Were they robust? What kind of birds are around?
I found that the world got a hell of a lot more complex and there was a lot more to see. It wasn’t necessarily difficult to understand, just that I was seeing more.
What do you see your job as in the projects you pursue?
You gotta be aware of your own voice and understanding. You gotta know everything there is to know about a subject, while having this understanding that in interviewing a subject you are trying to portray this story in clear terms. Sometimes that’s coercing them to say their sentence in a certain way, which is a pretty technical part of it. You gotta know how to edit a film and know how to relate to the audience.
My job is maintaining a sense of the story, to get the best I can get out of the people who are voices in that story, then really dressing it up for the audience. You gotta be vulnerable and open. I do a lot of reaching out to tribes and I’m just a white dude. I can’t throw my expectations out at them. I try to thread this needle of having my own values and meeting another person who might have opposite ideas and developing your journalistic side.
Ultimately, my hope is that I tell stories that build bridges between constituencies and communities that typically are at odds over a conservation measure. If it’s water or land issues or seemingly conflicting values over assets or land, I hope these stories can help better understand the other side.
We are messing around with this film concept on wolves and the state’s legislative plans around wolf reintroduction. When you get into edgy places like that, fuck (laughs)! We’re trying to embed with people who are out there possibly trying to kill wolves. We’ve had discussions about how we would deal with that down the road, does this comply with our insurance policy (laughs)?
What story do you want to tell next?
The story of these native fish of the Colorado River system and the Green River system [Humpback Chub, Bonytail, Colorado Pikeminnow, Razorback Sucker]. They are endangered and extremely rare and really hard to see. It’s hard to have a lot of compassion for an organism you can’t see, feel or touch.
I want to make a film that attempts to do that, that gets really high quality cinema on fish that you just don’t see. I want to engage a rec. audience that is into this kind of stuff and really draw up some attention to these critters. These fish are a part of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program. It has a sister program called San Juan River Recovery Program. Lots of nonprofits and partnerships between tribal, federal and state agencies.
This program sunsets next year to be reauthorized for 2023. Our film supports and anticipates the renewal of this program. I want to get this out to an audience in a way that just hasn’t been done yet with science. We can kind of fill in this niche which is to take enthusiasts and put this fish — smooth-finned and puppy-dog-like — in front of them. Make a film that really showcases the specialness of these creatures. Yes, it’s worth paying any dollar figure as a people for this species, which only lives here, does not wink out.
What does your ideal self look like and how does Rig to Flip this fit into that conversation?
I do have a sense of my ideal self and it involves an acute awareness of my current self and behaviors and achievements. What am I supposed to be and do I measure up to that? Do I measure up to my younger self, were promises made? It’s interesting that I feel like there are cycles in our lives that lead to rising interests taking up our lives. It’s a bit about being out there as like a millionaire vagabond, but rich in the way.
I’ve been a rapper, I’ve been a painter, I’ve taught in colleges, I’m an outdoor instructor, I’m a filmmaker. I’ve chased all kinds of stuff and I’m always trying to be better. It’s an inescapable human desire to be validated by our own loved ones and our communities and peers. That involves chasing betterment. Being better is where the interesting thing happens because it’s different from person to person.
I have a hip-hop mentality, I want a crew. A crew is a people that identify under a banner, that’s Rig to Flip. But it’s illustrated by these individuals with their own talents and forms of expression. I have enlisted best friends to help me with this from the get go. I’ve put everything I’ve had into this and it’s all on me.