Some months ago I wrote about that masterpiece of surf movies called Chasing the Lotus. Today, while browsing the web I found an interesting interview with Gregory Shell, the director not only of Chasing the Lotus but also of other great flicks like The Far Shore. The following interview is courtesy of coastalbc.
Interview with Gregory Shell (Part I)
Gregory Schell made his name in the surf world a few years back with the release of The Far Shore, an elegant documentary about the legendary travels of Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson. In his most recent film, Chasing the Lotus, he turns his attentions to the work of Greg Weaver and Spider Wills, the groundbreaking surf filmmakers who shot some of the most memorable footage from surfing’s Age of Exploration. With the inclusion of newly-found original footage from Weaver and Wills, Chasing the Lotus is an important and multifaceted work that pays tribute to two influential artists whose images still resonate in our culture today. Schell is bringing his film to Canada for a screening at the Tofino Film Festival in October, and the trailer is online at chasingthelotus.com .
MJ: I’ve always found the origins of a project really interesting, especially in art or film, because it seems that beginnings and motivations play such a strong part in how projects actually turn out. How did the concept for Chasing the Lotus come about?
GS: Well, it’s actually a bit of a roundabout story, but it initially started because I was asked by Fuel to create a 44-minute version of my previous film, The Far Shore, for broadcast on cable TV. They recommended a post house in L.A. where I could do the editing, and I was in there working one day when a producer came in and asked if I was the guy who’d done The Far Shore. I said that I was, and he basically just said, "well, I’m down the hall in Office 7, and I’d like to talk to you." So that was how I met Chris Bell, who became the producer of Chasing the Lotus. We started talking, and Chris told me that the girl who cut his hair was dating a guy who was an older surf filmmaker from Newport Beach, and that this guy apparently had decades worth of Super 8 footage. Chris was curious to see if I’d be interested in taking a look at some of it, and I certainly was. So he got me a copy of five minutes of this footage that had been shot by Greg Weaver. And as soon as I saw it I was instantly blown away; he had stuff of Buttons Kahuliokalani and Rory Russell at Pavones in ’70, stuff of Gerry Lopez and Russell from their first trip to Bali in ’74, tons and tons of other early exploration footage. So after I’d seen it, Chris asked me if I thought we could make a movie about it, and I was sure we could. A week or two later I signed a contract, and we started into production two years ago this October.
MJ: The tagline for the film is "the lost reels of Weaver and Wills." What’s the story of the finding of their missing footage?
GS: That’s another interesting story, actually. Back in ’80 Weaver and Wills were making an effort to amass their highlight reels; they’d had an idea for a project that would be along similar lines to Chasing the Lotus, basically something that would showcase the best of their whole canon of documentary film. It was sometime around then that Weaver ended up losing this one box that contained all his best reels. It had basically all his A-list stuff. So he was obviously supremely bummed; they couldn’t track the box down at all, and eventually they just thought that it was lost to the ether. So when I started working on the film and said "well, let’s find these reels," it didn’t seem that there was much hope. But it also happened that at the same time we were starting on the film Weaver had started remodeling his garage; one day he tore down this one storage area, and sure enough, there it was. The box had been hidden underneath another box that couldn’t be seen, and the reels had actually been in house the entire time. It was serendipitous, I guess, and that’s how the lost reels were finally found. That story’s not actually told inChasing the Lotus, but that was the how the lost reels came back to the light. And having them made the film just so much stronger than it would’ve been.
MJ: Obviously you’d been influenced by their work, and you’d been working on Chasing the Lotus already, so what was it like for you to go through the lost reels for the first time? Surely for someone who makes surf films that was a discovery on the same sort of level as finding long-lost tracks from J.J. Cale or some band like Deep Purple in their prime.
GS: Yeah, it was really incredible, and I’m still just so stoked that I was able to be a part of it. That box had 25 reels, and each of those had 15 to 20 minutes of footage. So there was a lot to go through, and the greatest thing—and this is to pay tribute to Weaver and Wills here—was that back then as young guys they were interested enough to turn cameras on things other than just the waves. So the reels had tons of ethnographic elements: there were African dancers in Mauritius, Balinese locals walking up and down the cliffs, all this other National Geographic type of stuff they’d cut into the reels. The most exciting stuff to me wasn’t the surfing but all this incredible B-roll footage. That stuff, I think, is what really shows the genius of Weaver and Wills, and I included as much footage from those reels as possible, both to do justice to their work as filmmakers and to illustrate what the places they were traveling to were actually like back in the ‘60s and ’70s. And it seems strange now, but not much of that footage ever made it into the surf films they were shooting, films like Forgotten Island of Santosha and Pacific Vibrationsand a few others. John Severson, to give an example, wasn’t looking for that kind of footage for Pacific Vibrations; he only really wanted the surf stuff, so Wills cut the travel stuff out and assembled it in B-reel. So it was that footage I was most interested in, and a lot of what you see in Chasing the Lotus hasn’t been seen in any of the major surf films. Shots like the ones of Joey Cabell are an example of that. So that footage was the real gold mine for me; at first I’d just been dealing with the regular reels, but when we found the lost ones it was suddenly like "o.k, now this is really something special."
MJ: It seems that one of the strengths of Chasing the Lotus is that it’s not a static piece of film. It was obviously a conscious choice to talk to some of the well-known surfers from our current culture, and I’m curious about what your thought process was when you were deciding which of today’s surfers you wanted to involve.
GS: That’s a good question for sure. I think I tried to find guys who were on the freespirited and freesurfing bent. I think the soul surfer type of guys are closer than the guys on tour to what Weaver and Wills were documenting a few decades ago. So I knew I wanted to bring in guys like Rob Machado, who’s got such a great perspective on things from having seen and experienced both sides. Donavon Frankenreiter as well, who’s just such a complete soul freak-out kind of guy. And Sunny Garcia was really incredible to talk to as well; I interviewed him before he’d gotten into tax trouble, and it wasn’t the competitive side of his life that I was interested in but his upbringing on the West Side of Oahu. That was one of the first times anyone had asked him about that on a serious level, and he really lit up when we talked; most of the time, he said, people just stuck a microphone in his face and asked him what it was like to surf Pipeline or some question like that, so he was really stoked that I was interested in his background and what it was like growing up at Yokohama Bay. I’d also gotten a hold of some great footage of Sunny surfing there in his teens, so that was obviously another reason to interview him. Randy Rarick was another example of a guy on that level who, like Weaver and Wills, had also done a huge amount of exploration. And of course we knew that we needed to interview the guys from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Lopez and Russell, Corky Carroll and Herbie Fletcher. But the reason that I chose the current guys was that their lives seemed so in line with what Weaver and Wills were shooting. Wingnut was another guy along that line. I also knew that I wanted to show a different slice of the surfing population; I didn’t have a lot of interest in a film about Kelly and Andy and Bruce, or something with Laird and Jaws. That stuff just gets too saturated, and I really didn’t think the world needed another video on Teahupoo or Mavericks or Jaws. I definitely don’t say that degradingly, though, because the guys who make those films do it really well; I’m thrilled by those guys and the stuff they do, but with my own work I really wanted to transcend the stereotypes. I think the surf audience is intelligent enough to start digging deeper into more meaningful things, and what I really want to do is to show the different backgrounds, different pursuits and different styles of surf culture. I’m interested in the deeper aspects of the tribe of surfers, this group of connected people who are still so varied and diverse in their beliefs and what they do.
MJ: So how do you see the work of Weaver and Wills relating to what’s going on today? What are the strains of our current culture that you see as some sort of continuation of what they were doing?
GS: It’s funny, you know, because there are people out there who think that everything has been found and mapped and Google-identified, but the reality is that there are still so many unexplored areas and so much uncharted ground. With enough determination anyone can go out there and find empty waves. It’s just a matter of being willing to put in the time to do it. The torch, I think, passed from guys like Kevin Naughton and Craig Naughton and along to guys like Lopez and Russell. That was the ethic that Weaver and Wills were shooting. And now, I mean, just look at the Long brothers, or Brian Conley deep in Baja, or the Malloy brothers at some remote slab in Ireland. Those guys all live by that same philosophy. The things that Weaver and Wills were doing have definitely transcended into today, but it comes to loggerheads when you compare that side of surfing to what goes on with competitive surfing and the WCT. The competitive side is just one aspect, and I find it interesting but not even half as compelling as the travel and exploration side. There are guys who want to go paddle out at Malibu and spots like that, they want to be seen and be in the scene, but then there are all these other surfers who you never even see, the guys who are off surfing the remote spots. But there’s always a dilemma that comes along with that, which is how much you show and how much you expose. Because if you film a place enough, it’s guaranteed that people will find it. And it was the same, actually, for Weaver and Wills. There’s a moment in Chasing the Lotus, for example, where Weaver is talking about how he was shooting on the West Side of Oahu and this huge local guy pulled over and got out of an old Chevelle. The guy had a big long goatee, total black trunks guy, and he walked up and said, "hey, what you doing, we don’t like stuff in magazines here." And Weaver basically responded that he wasn’t with a magazine but was shooting film for a movie; and this is pretty classic, but the guy looked at him and said, "well, then you shoot me." We show some of that footage in Chasing the Lotus, and what was so crazy is that when I was interviewing Randy Rarick he said "oh, that’s Warren Hoohuli. I know that guy." So we got his phone number and ended up finding him, and we have him in our film talking about that incident 30 years later. You have to see it to see how it turns out, but Hoohuli was one of the warlords of Yokohama Bay for almost 50 years, and during that time he went from being one of the young thugs to being one of grandfathers there. But he has this incredible attitude about it all; after the ‘80s things were really bad there, people were getting murdered on the West Side, and all the violence had basically reached a point where people saw it was futile. So for him, at least, it became much more about aloha and giving, and now he’s one of the patron saints of the West Side, which is a really unique and really rich part of the Hawaiian Islands.
MJ: It must be an interesting experience to be making a film about filmmakers. How much influence did they have on what you were doing?
GS: Well, it was a really neat process, and what was great was that Weaver and Wills, even though they’re master technicians, seemed content to let me kind of run the show. I expected them to be more critical during the making of the film, but they weren’t that way at all. Weaver is classic; he only said one thing to me, which was "I don’t care what you do, just promise me one thing: California has to be green, and Hawaii has to be blue." And that was it. Wills was even less demonstrative: he basically saw it and said, "well, it’s just fine. A fine piece of film." In the end, they were really happy about it, and when we premiered at the X-Dance Festival they were just beaming. And that was a really rewarding thing for me, to see that they were being recognized for the work they’d put in over the years. They were always underground guys, and what I was doing with Chasing the Lotuswas trying to bring what they’d done to light. It’s funny, because at first they didn’t even want to be interviewed on camera; that was one thing I was firm on, though, and I kept telling them that I couldn’t make a documentary with just their voices. People would’ve been burning to see what they looked like, and they finally agreed to be seen on film. But that’s how underground those guys were; they shunned the media spotlight, and they always just wanted their work to speak for itself. But the whole film was done with their approval, and it worked out well that way.
END OF PART 1