UNPLUG FOSTER HUNTINGTON
Foster Huntington unplugged from society and plugged into his dream world. Now, he’s taking one step further into the realm of fantasy, constructing a film studio in the woods where imaginations can roam free.
On a warm and sunny August day in Skamania County, Washington, Foster Huntington strolls down a sloping dirt road to greet me. The 28-year-old Pacific Northwest native is dressed in cut-offs, slip-ons and a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He’s got a fresh mug of coffee in one hand; the scruffy beard of a guy with more important things on his mind than shaving; a laid-back smile that can only be a symptom of waking up every day in paradise.
The drive to visit him is maddeningly gorgeous. Sunlight dances through the tops of hundred-year-old fir trees along the snaking Route 14, which is carved into towering cliffs overlooking the mighty Columbia River. On any other day, I’d park at the top of the hill where Foster resides. Today, however, the driveway is occupied by a small construction crew who arrived at six o’clock this morning to pour 140 yards of concrete into a hillside foundation. Foster is up to something, and this is just one of countless steps in his master plan.
Five years ago, Foster was living in Manhattan, working as a concept designer for men’s sportswear at Ralph Lauren. “Everyone was seven to 20 years older than I was, so I could see these various stages of what my life would look like if I stayed doing what I was doing,” he says. “Although it was really comfortable, I realized that I didn’t need that. I wasn’t motivated by comfort. I wanted to have fun, I wanted to make things, I wanted to do things.” In his spare time, he’d started a photo blog documenting the precious items people would choose to save during a house fire, which lead to a book deal with HarperCollins, which funded the van in which Foster would escape the confinement of life in Manhattan.
He traveled the country and launched the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram to document his journey, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers along the way (at the time of this writing, it’s up to one million). “I have a different appetite for risk than a lot of people,” he tells me, and those of us who lack the resolve to drop out of society could live vicariously through him. After three years on the road, he yearned to put down roots, but rather than buy a house, he recruited friends to help construct two treehouses in a pair of magnificent Douglas firs on family property here in Washington.
“These places we’re in are not typical. There’s certainly an element of fantasy in them. I’m excited about taking that a step further and embracing fiction.”
The story has been well-documented in a film by Farm League and an expansive feature in The New York Times. You can see the place in hundreds of online photos–whimsical tree-top structures adjoined by a rope bridge and arched staircases, overlooking Foster’s epic concrete skate bowl, everything drenched in the golden tones of magic hour. In real life, miles away from the nearest town, it’s even more fantastical. A flock of chickens dart in and out of flower patches, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons drift through the sky above. There’s no shortage of hammocks to lounge in or ripe blackberries to pluck from the bush. But this isn’t a story about all of the pleasures at my fingertips. It’s about what isn’t here yet–Foster’s next big dream, soon to become a reality.
“These places we’re in are not typical. There’s certainly an element of fantasy in them,” he says. “I’m excited about taking that a step further and embracing fiction.” Over the course of the next month, the wet concrete slab behind me will be transformed into a fully-functional film studio, complete with a green screen space, motion control system for special effects, metal milling station, editing room, recording room and, of course, an indoor mini skate ramp. “Instead of having it be some nondescript office park in Burbank, or some little cubicle zone, people can come and kind of get lost in their imagination and not be as concerned by what’s normal or practical,” he explains.
If you glance at Foster’s Vimeo channel, you’ll see that he’s already quite the documentarian, with beautifully composed videos of the treehouses’ construction, surf trips, sailing expeditions. Dig a little deeper, however, and you might notice something more at play. In a recent video titled Floater, a handful of surfers appear to ride waves without surfboards, like magic. “It was done in a documentary way where it could have easily been a traditional surf video, but we used CG to remove the surfboards,” he explains. “I just assumed people would think it was a total joke and it’s funny, and I was blown away by how many people thought it was absolutely real.”
“I want to have this space be something that people can get excited about, and inspire them to think bigger and broader and more ridiculous.”
Around the treehouse where he works today, there’s plenty of evidence of this progression into alternate realities. The walls are lined with paintings of futuristic airships by a concept artist Foster is working with. A mood board–much like the ones he created for seasonal lines at Ralph Lauren–features photos of elaborate cockpit interiors and tricked-out desert vehicles. Every detail in Foster’s life is evidence of an imagination running wild. “[When] I was a little kid, I was obsessed with Legos,” he remembers. “I’d get the boxes and I wouldn’t follow the directions. I would just make shit that I wanted to make. When I was older, I’d go out and build forts in my backyard and get totally lost in these worlds.”
His passion for film began early, too. “I’m dyslexic, so reading is something that’s always been labor-intensive for me,” he says. “When other kids would read a book, I’d be like, I wanna watch a movie.” In college, he obsessed over Sergio Leone westerns and filmmaking documentaries. This morning, he split his time between overseeing the construction crew and watching Under Pressure, which chronicles the making of James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi film The Abyss. “When you start doing fiction, you have to have a team as opposed to a one man show,” Foster tells me. “I want to have this space be something that people can get excited about, and inspire them to think bigger and broader and more ridiculous.” According to him, doing everything on site means it won’t look “as capable or as polished as a lot of other places,” but he and his collaborators will have the freedom, and unlimited creativity to make whatever they can dream up together without ever having to leave.
Another man in his position might be content to remain the treehouse guy forever, living out his utopian dream, making peach wine all day and soaking in his wood-burning hot tub all night. “I certainly get restless and my mind wanders easily,” he says. “I’ve always been someone that’s more interested in the process–in actually doing something–than in the result.” When his friend Kai, who Foster calls a “wonder-fabricator,” arrives at sunset with his custom-built drone, I get the sense that Foster’s far more interested in seeing how it flies than what they will potentially film with the device. It’s a scene that could only happen here: Kai’s drone gliding through the air while Foster zips around the skate bowl, the sky ablaze in orange hues as the sun sinks into the pines. Just another day in paradise.
“If the internet were to go away tomorrow, I’d still be doing projects. If I had a camera, I’d still be taking photos,” he explains. “I just want to make stuff that the people I’m friends with and my inner five-year-old would be psyched on, whether it’s these treehouses, or traveling around in a van, or the science fiction film that I’m working on in the studio. I just want to make things that make me excited.” Quickly, the drone crash-lands among the treacherous brambles of a massive blackberry bush, and our new mission is to find a way to rescue the machine. While it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to dislodge it in time for a successful flight, out here, that’s not really the point.
Frances Capell is a writer and video producer based in LA.
Clayton Cotterell is a PDX/LA based photographer