Interview with Gregory Shell (Part II)

MJ: Another thing that’s really apparent in the film is how do-it-yourself things were when Weaver and Wills were starting out. Even just looking at the stills from the film, there’s the shot of Wills splicing together film, or the one of Weaver shaping in a backyard in Hawaii. It was simpler time then, but harder in a lot of ways.
GS: Exactly. There was no industry. The surf industry was nonexistent then. If you wanted to go surf in Hawaii, you were like a frontiersman, going to this strange new island and doing this strange new sport. You were making your own boards, making your own water housings and camera lenses. And that was part of the genius of Weaver and Wills; not to disparage the guys doing it now, especially guys like Patrick Trefz and Scott Aichner who are masters in their own right, but the guys today buy their gear already made. Weaver and Wills were constructing stuff from scratch and cutting and splicing their own film by hand. Now we have digital cameras and Final Cut Pro and tools like that, so who should we respect more? The guys now, or guys who did it all from the ground up? It’s probably unanswerable, you know, and there are two sides to everything, but that’s the kind of question that Chasing the Lotus leaves open. Weaver talks about that in the film when we get to Kauai. His rise to fame in the surf world happened when he moved there; he got in with the locals and started taking pictures of some of the secret spots and publishing the shots with no names. That’s how he initially rose to prominence as a photographer, and he talks about how hard it was back at that time. There’s something else that most people don’t know either, which is that Spider Wills was the mentor and Greg Weaver the protégé. Wills had figured all this stuff out already; he and Weaver met in ’69 in Hanalei, and Wills basically said, "hey, if you want to learn, follow me." So Weaver gave up everything and started following Wills, and before long he came a master in his own way.
MJ: Despite how everything has changed, though, bringing the film in person to places like Tofino is a highly traditional thing. What’s it been like being on the road with Chasing the Lotus?
GS: It’s been an incredible time. It’s had ups and downs, just like life, but it’s been a remarkable experience. It was something I did on purpose; I knew I wanted to travel with the film myself, just to feel what it was like to be Bruce Brown or Hal Jepsen or Albert Falzon, traveling around campuses and film festivals, doing interviews, going on radio shows. I’ve been able to keep at it for a long time, and next month will be one year thatChasing the Lotus has been on the road. It’s been a trip for sure. There were places I didn’t think anyone would show up, like Albuquerque, and sure enough there were hordes of people there in the middle of the desert. And there were others where I figured it’d be a sure thing and instead there was barely anybody there. The first night in Santa Cruz was like that, but I guess the word got out and the next night everyone showed up. The Santa Barbara show was the same night as the last game of the World Series, which wasn’t exactly the best luck, but overall the timing has been really good. October of ’06 was one of the best falls that California had seen in probably ten years; there were back-to-back swells with offshore winds, and while I was working my way through Monterey and Big Sur and Santa Barbara pretty much every spot was perfect and firing. I’ve traveled a lot of places, but that was hands down the best month of surfing I’ve ever had. Places that don’t even break were breaking; the swell angles were all just right. That north swell was just so picture perfect that you honestly couldn’t imagine any swell ever setting up better. But to bring it back around, I’ve gone on tour with the film for historical reasons, basically to pay homage to the guys that did it before us and experience the same things that those guys did.
MJ: So now, when you sit down and watch the film, is there a specific sequence that really sums up the whole spirit of it for you?
GS: There are a couple that really resonate. The epiphany kind of moments. One of them is from the fourth day that Lopez and Russell had been surfing Uluwatu; the swell had been building, and Lopez had to switch to from riding a small board to a Brewer gun. There’s one shot in particular where Lopez is sweeping across the face of this perfect double-overhead wave, no leash, carving these huge open-face turns, and it’s some of the most beautiful surfing that you’ll ever see. That to me is the defining moment. The shot’s not perfect; it’s all green and grainy, and has this weird compressed look because Wills took his camera up the cliff and zoomed all the way in from 200 yards away. It has this one-dimensional, almost storybook feel. He was shooting Kodachrome 25, which has these real saturated colours, and he shot it at a slightly higher frame rate than normal, so Lopez is sweeping along the wave slower than usual, almost slow motion, this Zen trance sort of thing. That shot really transfixed me the first time I saw it, and I think that one wave really says it all. That one moment is what every surfer tries to find, that state of harmonic bliss that’s always out there somewhere.

MJ: The cover for Chasing the Lotus is one of the classic old photos of Lopez, Dick Brewer and Reno Abellira. Was that an obvious choice for you?
GS: Well, we had a couple of ideas in mind for the cover. We’d gone through a bunch of photos from Weaver and Wills, and then when I was looking through some old Surfer magazines I came across the series from Dave Darling, the Maui-based photographer who took all those photos. Those guys had all gotten together one afternoon and started doing yoga, and Darling shot a whole roll of it. There’s a more famous one from that series, so the one we used was an outtake. But they’re in the lotus position, and the shot just seemed to say it all about that time period. It was that Eastern mystic kind of thing, and it was accompanied by the psychedelic element. Those guys were Chasing the Lotus, which basically means they were chasing forms of perfection. The Chinese consider the lotus to be the most perfect flower in the world, and it really becomes a symbol of what we all strive to find.
MJ: That’s actually a really layered concept for us here as well, because there’s a tradition of B.C. being referred to as ‘Lotusland,’ which comes from the legend that the Lotus flower would bring you to this sort of forgetful and psychedelic and basically idyllic place. So you’ve called it Chasing the Lotus, but did they ever find it? How much of it was real, and how much of it was them being in the business of creating myth?
GS: I think the answer goes both ways. Weaver and Wills were the mythmakers, but along the way they definitely experienced their share of the true moments. But of course that begs the other question, which is how much of a role cosmic consciousness and LSD played in everything. Because all of a sudden in the ‘60s there were all these new drugs, so people were taking psychedelics and going surfing. And some people could handle it, but there were some people who you see in the film who couldn’t escape from it and lost their lives. Buddy Boy Keohe is the prime example: he just did too much, it was just too much drugs, and he went from being a standout Honolua Bay surfer in the ‘60s, really an amazing stylist, to being a drugged-out dude who was eventually found in a dumpster in Encinitas. There are some of those tragedies that we highlight in Chasing the Lotus. But there were also those who were able to tap into the higher planes: the drugs unlocked the doors, but the point was that you weren’t supposed to need the drugs to actually take you through. The doors of perception were opened, and it was up to you to walk through on your own, but some of the surfers of the time definitely tapped in and came out the other side. Herbie Fletcher talks about it in the film; they were approaching LSD in an almost scientific way, where they’d do acid and go surfing and imagine the water flow over the rails and then go in and cut down the boards and re-glass them. And that was a huge part of how the shortboard revolution came about. Even a guy like Rarick, who’s super clean, says that he can’t deny that Brewer and those guys were really innovative and that drugs were a part of it; those guys were the first guys to really cut down their boards and realize that surfboards should look like a teardrop to hold in at Pipeline. So a substantial part ofChasing the Lotus has to do with revealing those aspects of the surf culture of the time, and that was the world that Weaver and Wills, these real masters of their art, managed to preserve through their work.

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