Patrick Cummings, Veronica Balta, and EJ McLeavey-Fisher are filmmakers in New York City and are about to release New York’s most anticipated film of the year “Stacked”, about NY Pro surfer Balaram Stack and his entry into last years Quiksilver Pro in Long Beach, NY. The film focuses on Stack, but also tells a larger story about New York surfing and the community of Long Beach. EJ, Pat and Veronica will be giving the Long Beach Community a sneak peak of the film on Friday, April 13th at Long Beach Cinema. We caught up with them to discuss the film and their experiences in making the film.
How did the film project come about?
Veronica Balta (VB): My involvement began when Pat and E.J. asked me to help them with a “surf project.” They had already reached out and made contacts at Quiksilver. They even had the treatment typed up!
EJ McLeavey-Fisher (EJ): Pat and I were driving out to surf this past May and he mentioned that the contest was happening in Long Beach and Balaram would be the likely wildcard given the circumstances. Our thoughts quickly went from “we should definitely get out there to watch the contest” to “we should definitely figure out a way to make a documentary about it.” Once it was officially announced that he was the wild card, we did whatever we could to make it happen.
Patrick Cummings (PC): Yup, and after that drive to Long Beach when we decided we wanted to make the film, E.J. and I spent the next several weeks brainstorming ideas on what the most interesting angle to tell the story would be. But it wasn’t until we found out that Balaram was awarded the wildcard that our decision was set to focus the story him. From there, the next challenge was figuring out how to gain access to Balaram and the contest. So we wrote up a treatment and sent it to Quiksilver and Surfline who were both really into the idea and very supportive and helpful.
Was it hard getting the access that you guys got?
VB: We met really amazing people working the event who wanted to help us make something good. When I would ask for something- a different color paper bracelet or a parking credential- they’d say things like, “Meet me in five minutes” and I’d get it. It was important to stay flexible so we were prepared for any amount of access we could get and were grateful for it. E.J. and Pat were ready to shoot from anywhere! Mostly we just wanted a dry place to hold equipment and a bathroom.
PC: The people at Quiksilver were really amazing and supportive of the project. They helped us get the proper media credentials and introduced us to Balaram and other surf industry people along the way. We really only had one formally scheduled interview with Balaram and besides that, we just showed up and shot day everyday and talked to as many people as possible.
Had you known much about Balaram before this project?
VB: I didn’t know much about Balaram. I learned about him once I got involved with the project. Once in it, I met his mom and his brothers and some of his friends. I got to know Bal through the people who knew him best. There was something special in that.
EJ: I didn’t know much about him until Pat and I started talking about the contest, but then again I didn’t know a ton about the professional surfing world in general.
PC: I had known of Balaram, but just from surf mags and videos. I didn’t know him personally.
As you started working on this film, what things surprised you about NY surfing and the Long Beach surfing community that you learned along the way?
VB: I knew there was a NY surfing community but I didn’t realize how deep those roots ran. We met people who’d been surfing in NY since the 60’s and still do! I had no clue there was that much surfing history in NY.
EJ: I knew that there was a rich surf culture in LB but I was amazed at how tight the community is. I loved doing an interview with someone that ended with “Oh and you should talk to _____ as well because…”- we were able to really learn a lot just through these connections. It was obviously great to shoot with the big surfers and people involved with the tournament, but I think the most genuine and authentic moments in our film come from the Long Beach residents we shot with. And it was clear that even though there had never been an ASP event in New York, Long Beach surfing wasn’t a joke. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself with the camera pointed at the contest break while I was watching the local surfers ripping to the left of the jetty.
PC: EJ and I surf in Long Beach all the time, so we had already known that the waves can get quite good and that there’s a great surf community there. But as we started shooting and talking to locals, the thing that really stood out to me was how positive everyone was. The entire town, especially the surf community, was so welcoming and stoked to show the world what Long Beach has to offer. I guess I had kind of expected there to be an attitude of reluctance amongst some of the local surfers to over expose their home break, which would have been totally understandable – but there was absolutely none of that. Every single person we met, whether surfer or non-surfer, was stoked and welcoming. That really stood out to me – the positivity and pride of the local surf community in Long Beach.
What is the difference between what your original idea of the film and what the film actually ended up becoming? Did you have to adjust during the filming and deviate from your original concept?
VB: Originally, the story was all around Bal. After his elimination, we had to adjust a bit. The more time we spent in Long Beach and around the people who live there, we realized Long Beach was a big part of what the film was about. What we knew and kept telling ourselves was, “There’s still a story here.” I think that’s important to maintain for any documentary.
EJ: Going into this we knew that the story could go in a few directions depending on how Balaram did in the contest- but also knew that regardless of the outcome, he was still an integral part of the story and was the bridge between the contest and the town. I don’t think we felt like we had to deviate from the original concept once he was eliminated, but instead make sure that we kept him involved in the story that we were shooting even if he wasn’t still competing.
PC: We set out to tell the story of Balaram competing in one of the biggest surf contests in history, right in his backyard. At the same time, we knew we had to be up for anything, and there was no way to predict how far Balaram would advance in the contest. But once we started shooting, we quickly realized there was another main character – the town of Long Beach. We realized that it was the story of Balaram and the town of Long Beach and how for a brief time, they both became the center of the surfing world. Once we realized how rich that part of the story was, we began focusing on talking to locals just as much as, if not more than, professional surfers.
What did you think of working with Balaram?
VB: I was impressed with Balaram, not only his surfing but his demeanor throughout the event. I can imagine it’s difficult to keep your thoughts straight with that many people focusing on you. He has a wonderful support system to turn to, and help keep him grounded.
EJ: It was great to follow Balaram during the event and see how he was able to be himself despite obviously being placed into a set of super intense circumstances. He never seemed to let the pressure bother him or change his motivation- he was surfing no matter what, whether he was competing or out with his brothers at Lido. Especially for someone as young as he is, it’s hard not to get caught up in all of that craziness but he was able to stay super grounded.
PC: Balaram was great. He such a good guy who just genuinely wants to surf all the time, that’s his number one priority. I got the sense that he didn’t mind all the attention he was getting, but he doesn’t crave it either. I was really impressed with how he handled all the attention and pressure.
How long did it take you to film this whole film?
VB: Two weeks total.
EJ: Two weeks…plus one day later on when we interviewed Will Skudin and Jeff Anthony. Which almost didn’t happen anyway because they were out surfing when we had scheduled our interview with them. Gotta respect their priorities though.
PC: Yeah, we shot everyday during the 2-week contest waiting period.
What sort of schedule were you working on?
VB: I’d say our daily schedule was shooting 5:30a to noonish, nap, tend to other work/responsibilities for a few hours, then either shoot again or the guys would surf. Dinner was around 8p. Bed by 9p. Repeat.
EJ: Yeah I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping to have more time to surf! But we didn’t want to miss a second of anything so we were up super early and shot until the sun went down- and even later if there was something going on that night. And even if there wasn’t I found myself wandering around on the boardwalk with the camera, just in case.
PC: Yeah, we were up every morning before sunrise and shot until at least sunset everyday.
We were pretty much just shooting non-stop, but we managed to in the water at least once a day, the waves were too good not to.
You rented a place in Long Beach. Were you juggling between other jobs and this project or did you commit fulltime to this?
VB: I had just finished producing a fairly large commercial campaign with E.J., so the time in between that and starting Stacked, I was able to prep a bit- figure out access logistics, set up interview time w/ Balaram, etc. Once in Long Beach, I took a few conference calls here and there and prepped for the next job which we shot the Monday after we got back. Oh yea and we had a quick shoot one Saturday we had to head back into Manhattan for.
EJ: Yeah we did our best to juggle filming Stacked and the other commercial projects we were already involved with. Luckily we could sneak back to the city easily and at least one of us would be around LB to shoot, so we never really missed anything.
PC: Yeah, we were all juggling other jobs at the same time. I was working on a treatment for a potential commercial job while we were out there – a lot of writing and phone calls mostly. Luckily I was able to do most of that work at night, which meant that I almost always ended up passed out on the couch with my laptop on my chest. E.J. and Veronica have a lot of embarrassing photos of that.
Have you had much experience filming surfing? Are you big fans of surf films?
VB: This is my first surf film. I’ve been watching as many as I can since. Once you start taking an interest in something it’s not enough to just expose yourself a little. You have to surround yourself. You want to see how other people make their films, how they tell their story.
EJ: This is my first surf film as well- I started surfing a couple of years ago so a lot of this was new to me. I had seen a ton of surf films though and had an idea of what I did and didn’t want to reference from those films. We knew we were going to get some amazing surf footage no matter what, so we really wanted to focus on a story that could stand up alongside of it.
PC: This was my first surf film too. I have always been a big fan of surf films, but I’ve always loved the “non-surfing” moments in surf films the most. Those moments between the surfing footage where you get a glimpse into the story behind the trip or learn something about the country they’re in or about the surfers themselves. So I was really excited, not just to document great surfing, but to tell a great story as well.
What are your plans for this film after the Long Beach showing?
VB: We’ve entered it into festivals and hope it continues to be well received.
Are you working on any other surfing projects at the moment?
VB: That’s the idea… Pat? E.J.? What’s next?
EJ: Yeah we’ve started to put together a pitch video and are writing a treatment for the next one- we’re hoping to keep the momentum from Stacked going and utilize some of the great connections we’ve made from this film. As long as we can keep filming on/near a beach, we’ll be happy.
PC: We are currently working on a treatment for another surfing story that we think needs to be told. We hope Stacked will help open doors for us the begin production on that film as well as others in the future. We love surfing and we love filmmaking, to be able to do both as much as possible is our goal.
Stacked Premieres Friday, April 13th 8PM @ Long Beach Cinema
For More information go to: //longbeachsurfersassociation.com/