THE ART OF WATCHING, MAKING AND SURFING IN MOTION PICTURES
Most, if not all of us who love surfing have grown up watching surf movies that have shifted surfing culture entirely. Fewer of us have been the subject of those important surf videos. And even fewer again have been the creative force behind them. Ozzie Wright, however, has done all three. He’s fanned out on, starred in, and created surf movies that have impacted more than one generation, and left lasting impressions on the minds of surfers all over the world.
Ozzie grew up on left field creations; Crystal Voyager, Mad Wax, and Filthy Habits. His section in Seven Days Seven Slaves, surf publishing’s first independent cover mounted video, blew minds and ushered in a new generational punk approach to surfing perfect waves, and his creative work behind Doped Youth (it too with an Ozzie section rated as one of the best ever) and his profile movie 156 Tricks redefined what it could mean to be a modern professional surfer. From there to appearing in Taylor Steele’s pivot towards high end travel features like Sipping Jetstreams, and to get sections in Kai Neville’s latest world leading big budget movie, Cluster, and the Volcom masterpiece Psychic Migrations, 17 years after famously hopping along Macaronis and surfing into rockpools on the cover of Waves, there is no surfer who spans the past two decades of surf videos quite like Ozzie Wright.
In much the same way that Kelly Slater has won World Titles over separate generations, and continues to influence and push the world of high performance surfing today, Ozzie Wright has been doing the same in the world less restricted by heat rashies and a competitive judging criteria, in surfing videos and our own counter culture fringe. He’d never say so himself, but if you look to the stars and purveyors of the medium that is surf video today, particularly Noa Deane, Dion Agius, Kai Neville, Toby Cregan and Creed McTaggart – the grubby paint splattered finger prints of Ozzie Wright are everywhere.
So there’s just no way a magazine all about surf movies, long and short, old and new, could go to print without including a chat with Ozzie Wright. So here is one. A chat with Ozzie Wright about surf movies. Long and short. Old and new. With photos from a recent trip to Indo with Noa Deane and Mitch Coleborn to help make the whole thing look pretty.
SW: What’s your first memory of seeing surfing on screen?
OW: The first surf movie I ever saw was the Crystal Voyager on VHS at home. We got a video player when I was about ten which was pretty late compared to everyone else. We had a telly, but there was never any surfing on that so when Dad brought the video player in the door it was like owning a spaceship. It was like we’d arrived in the future or something and I was frothing. So the next thing to do was hit the video shop. When we got there they had a couple of different surf movies; Storm Riders, Tubular Swells, Blazing Boards, and stuff like that. Because Dad was a kneelo and George Greenough was his favourite surfer we ended up getting Crystal Voyager. Dad always reckoned kneelos were more creative and cool, more alternative free thinking types and that they were the real inventors of short boarding, which is true because even back then Dad’s kneelos were so short. But yeah, it was pretty sick that Video Ezy was packing Crystal Voyager on the shelves.
You wouldn’t have been barrelled by then, what did you make of the tube footage?
Well, you were only allowed to have the video for a week and then you had to take it back, and to be honest I think I was too young to really give a shit about it, but I remember I loved the cover.
Ha! So you get a video player and instead of watching a video you end up staring at the sleeve of the VHS cover?
(Laughs) It was a painting of Greenough about to backdoor this washy peak. I loved it. I think Albe Falzon and Dave Elfick made the movie and I’m pretty sure they were the guys who started Tracks which had Captain Goodvibes in it, which I also loved mostly because Tony Edwards also did a kids book I owned called Ralph the Rhino. I dunno if I knew any of this shit back then though. I just liked the cover of Crystal Voyager better than the movie itself.
My first experience of surf movies left me feeling disappointed because there was no story, until Mad Wax came along, then I was like… finally!
Yeah, they were just pretty images which is awesome if you know what you’re looking at but would struggle to hold a kid’s attention. Funnily enough, Mad Wax was the second surf movie I ever saw. I saw it next door at Tamati Tapara’s house, the maori kid who lived in the units. He was a good little surfer who went on to rap in a Coke commercial when hip hop first went mainstream. But yeah, I think Mad Wax hooked you in way more when you were a grom because of the acting and the idea of the magic wax that transported Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll and Bryce Ellis and Gary Elkerton all over the world. And then Ross’s goat eats the recipe and he can’t make it anymore and you just wanted to kick the thing off the dunes into the womp shorey and hope it got eaten by sharks. Funny to think that bumping into Kong 20 years later in the Canaries would lead to us making Doped Youth. Mad Wax was the original.
So your first couple of surf movie experiences were on the good old fashioned video cassette. Did you have any big screen surfing experiences in your formative years?
I went to the Sydney Opera House with the Lawson family to watch All Down the Line on the big screen and that was bullshit. I was frothing on that. By that age, I dunno, 12 or 13, we knew by then that our folks used to go to the Opera House to watch surf movies and that it was a big deal. So to go in there and see Tom Carroll at huge Pipeline and G-Land, and get some scale on the actual size of those waves on the biggest screen was an experience so good even the Noiseworks soundtrack couldn’t wreck it. That movie also had Danny Wills hanging out with all the pros and asking them questions and going surfing with them and stuff which just made every grommet in the Opera House wish they were him, even though he was a natural footer. Guess he can’t help that. Another movie I saw on the big screen was Cheyne Horan’s Scream in Blue at Collaroy Cinema. The one where he gets dumped by his sponsor at the end of the movie, but then he goes out shreds giant Haleiwa to pieces. What a sick finish. Shove your money! Anyway, surf movies on the big screen are kind of the best communal experience we have, everyone hooting and laughing and having a hell time.
By the time you hit 13 you really start hanging for surf movies, hey, because that’s the age surf froth begins to overtake your whole life. That’s what it was like being a grom in the late 80s and early 90s.
Jesse and Eli Faen had a video player and they had Filthy Habits and Pump which were the best surf movies I’d ever seen at that point. Occy just going mad. You couldn’t watch them enough times. You’d finish and rewind it and put it on again and watch the whole thing over and over. Memorise every wave and turn. Kind of school yourself on the breaks and styles. Billabong movies were always sick. How good was The Green Iguana? Man… so fun.
As your own skill level improved, did you find your experience of watching surf movies changing?
The more I surfed the more I got into surf movies and by the time I was doing the pro juniors and stuff I was pretty much frothing on Taylor Steele movies. I’d ride my skatey down to the shop the day they’d come out and buy them for like $60, ’cause they were fucken expensive man, and I spent a fortune on them, then I’d get home and I’d watch my favourite bits over and over again and use them to get psyched to go surfing. So I went from watching surf movies like Filthy Habits and Pump all the way through because I knew every wave and loved the sections and the soundtracks, to just finding and playing the sections I liked best and only rewinding and watching those particular sections on repeat. It was almost like the start of YouTube in a way. You ditched the film for those couple of clips, except that you had to sit there fast forwarding and rewinding and trying to find the spot. When DVDs came out you could choose the exact section.
What were the most influential sections for you from the Momentum era?
Machado sections in every Taylor Steele movie. Kalani Robb and Tim Curran. Goofies fucken rule. That’s all I watched. I didn’t care for naturals at all (laughs).
Your first appearance in surf movies was during the video cassette era, right?
Yeah I think my first waves in a surf movie were a couple of backhand floaters from a heat of the Amateur World Titles in Brazil in one of Sarge’s Surfing Scrapbooks. Then we made Doop Brain with Dan Webster, Nude’s (Nathan Webster) little bro, with all the northern beaches crew which went pretty good. Then there were the movies on the front of Waves Magazine, Seven Slaves and Bicycle. That’s funny to think about, a whole video cassette on the front of a magazine wrapped in gold foil like a giant stick of weed. And then there were the Volcom movies, Magna Plasm and Computer Body. Even 156 Tricks and Doped Youth originally came out on video cassette. Those two movies were cool though ’cause the tapes were yellow and white instead of black.
Was there a difference filming for a Volcom film as opposed to being in what were essentially Taylor Steele formula rips ie: skit, fast music, surfing?
The Volcom movies were all shot on film so they were more about capturing emotion rather than trying to get the best trick, you know, trying something over and over until you made it. The mini DV tapes and the cameras of that era made making surf movies a lot easier and cheaper than for the guys who were shooting film. The Volcom guys wanted vibe and spirit and I think the results are pretty timeless. Troy Eckert and Wooly knew what they were doing and I think their movies are sick because of that.
Was there an increased pressure on your surfing when shooting for film instead of the disposable DVD?
Maybe, but I dunno, I’ve always been hyperactive in the surf. I like to catch a million waves and surf all of them as hard as I can. Throwing everything at anything has always been my tactic, so I don’t think I noticed really.
156 Tricks was your first film project. You were given a budget by Volcom and a super lengthy time frame and told to go travel and make a movie. How different was it for you being the creator of a surf movie as opposed to just surfing for one?
It was a lot more fun because it was basically just me and my best friend Cowboy going around the world having the time of our lives. I’d be telling Cowboy to film every wave that I caught every time I went surfing and he’d tell me to fuck off and he’ll do whatever the hell he wants and film whenever he damn well feels like it (laughs).
Aaaah Cowboy… An interesting choice for cinematographer considering his previous credits included no films or photography at all, but plenty of building shelves for chemist and newsagency fit outs. Your career was on the up, surely you could have asked for and got any filmmaker in the world at that point?
Yeah, but Cowboy is such good company. Who else would you rather go around the world getting drunk and having adventures with? His only agenda is having fun and hanging out with his mates, and that’s the best qualification a surf photographer can have, really. I think being a great filmmaker is all about being there in the moment and loving what you’re doing. If you think about it like, “I gotta make money!” or that you need to get ahead in life, then generally you’re not gonna end up being a surf photographer (laughs). That sounds awful doesn’t it? But it’s the last thing you’d do if you wanted a lucrative career. Then again, Taylor Steele and guys like that have smashed it I suppose.
So you start out watching Taylor Steele movies and then eventually you find yourself starring in them. What’s it like working with these guys? Are they like big Hollywood directors; mad genius, wild ego, crazy demands… what’s the experience of doing surf films with guys who basically changed surf culture?
Working with Taylor is awesome, man. Good times. I wasn’t in Good Times. They just are good times when we go on trips together. He’s a really funny and creative guy who has his own vision and I think that’s really the secret to his success – he knows what he wants to do and he goes and does it. Mostly though I just like hanging out with Taylor ’cause he’s a fucken legend and a lot of fun.
Along with Dane Reynolds and Dion Agius, you were very quick to embrace the possibilities of web clips over surf films.
I love it because it’s so easy to do it yourself. In the old days you had to find someone with a camera, hope they were into shooting you, and maybe if everything went sweet you might get a few clips. Nowadays everyone in the world can make their own clip of themselves surfing, add a heap of their own personality, and bring something completely new to the table. It’s awesome. And I don’t necessarily think it’s at the expense of the long form surf film. I still think you can make an awesome surf movie that will have a cultural impact if the idea and execution is really killer.
Can you name some full length feature films you’ve seen in the age of the web clip that have had a lasting impact?
Nix Nic Nooley was absolutely bullshit. I loved that film. I love Jack Coleman’s movies a lot. The Zone, Secret Sound Underground. Jimmy Kinnaird’s movie A Month on the Moon is an underrated classic, with Mooney and the giant seagulls.
They’re great movies no doubt, I just wonder if we’ll see another movie that changes global surfing culture and shifts the entire way we think about riding waves, in the same waythat Endless Summer or Morning of the Earth or Momentum did?
It’s possible for sure. Everything changes so quick. I mean, look at how much longboarding and fish riding and all that culture has grown in the past few years. It’s a huge part of surfing now, but in the 90s that stuff was not around at all.
It seems for a film to have a significant impact across the culture you need a fresh idea, blended with state of the art surfing, and it needs to be released at some junction in time that is crying for change. I think Ryan Burch in Psychic Migrations is a good example of what I’m talking about. A beautiful film with some revolutionary unseen shit going down as well. It had the combo.
That was really good. Burch was riiiiiiping! I think Derek Hynd’s friction free surfing has changed the game big time as well. That’s been an instant and fantastic global interest based on a couple of movie sections and a few clips. But really that’s all an extension of what he was doing in Litmus, which is a huge culture shifter as a film, not just through what Derek was doing, but through how Fitz and Occy and Curren surfed and also the way it opened up everyone’s minds beyond riding little tooth-picky thrusters. I think that combined with Tom Curren riding the Tommy Peterson fish out huge, huge Bawa in those Sonny Miller Search movies. I think that session and Litmus changed everything. So yeah, it’s kind of like performance plus vision plus timing equates to a shift in surfing culture, or at least has some kind of lasting influence on it.
Litmus was 20 years ago though… will we see another like that?
It took the influence of Litmus a long time to show up, but now the legacy of that movie is huge. I mean Jack Coleman was saying to me, “SHORTBOARDING’S FUCKING DEAD! IT’S SO LAME! I MEAN, I CAN’T WATCH IT!” And I kind of agree! (Laughs).
Ha! But is he a prophet or a madman?
Well, if you watch Noa Deane and Mason Ho you’ll think the latter, obviously (laughs).
You do a lot of surf trips with young guys who probably grew up with surf videos and DVDs but who now primarily shoot for clips. Do you see a difference in the way they approach surfing or in their emotional connection to surfing?
Yeah I do. They just go psycho. Dion will base an entire trip on trying to get one giant air. And he’ll be hating it if he’s getting barrelled ’cause all he wants to do is get out of there and try and do an air. That’s not a bad thing, he’s inspired by what he wants to achieve and he goes after it 100 per cent. It’s pretty classic.
That’s how he sees his job, that’s what pays the bills.
And the end result is fucking awesome, man. I love watching that. It’s different for me. I just try and catch a million waves and get the most out of every single wave and have the best time ever, but at the end of the day when you see the results those guys get, rather than catching 50 mediocre waves they’ll wait for one good wave and do the biggest fucking air of their lives, and then they’ll put all the best clips together and you’re just like… FUCK! It looks amazing and it’s pretty cool, it’s just a different approach that I haven’t got the patience for.
There was a clip that dropped from this trip with Mitch Coleborn going absolutely psycho punching his board. Do the guys put a lot of pressure on themselves to get those hangers in the bag?
Yeah, Mitch was just doing the biggest most psycho airs, but he wasn’t making many and it was driving him mad. He was getting the shits so bad. It was funny to watch, but not that funny for Mitch. I was just saying, “Fuck man, get a few tubes and do a few snaps!” Noa was having a blinder too. He was doing the biggest fucken jumps all over the place and he couldn’t fall off if he tried. He made absolutely everything and was having a hell time. It swaps and changes though. I’ve been on trips where Mitch is basically flying through the air like a gannet and making everything and I can’t even look at myself in the mirror, ’cause I’m so ashamed of my surfing. Everyone goes through it, whether you’re being filmed or not.
Are there any web clips or webisodes you’ve seen that have had a lasting impact on you?
Mason Ho’s clips froth me out and Dane Reynolds’ clips too. Noa’s Cheese clip was sick too. That’s pretty much it.
You’ve made some classic surf films in your time 156 Tricks, Doped Youth, Valley of Scum, to name a few, do you reckon you’ll make another feature film some day or are you happy making clips?
I love making clips but I wouldn’t mind making an ensemble feature one day, get a bunch of surfers I like and work on a big project. Actually, yeah I’m psyched to do that. Let’s just say it’s coming soon to a cinema near you, or maybe I’ll just release it on VHS cassette.