Age: 38 years
Town of Residence: Terrigal, Central Coast, New South Wales, Australia
Profession: Primary School Teacher
Current Favorite Board: 9’6” custom log by Thomas Bexon, & I have a new 5’9” quad by Sage Joske on the way that I’m pretty excited about.
TB: Can you remember your first surf film? What was it and where?
NO: The first surf film I ever saw was a rerun of The Endless Summer on television. It was during the school holidays, around Christmas time, & we were staying at my uncle’s house. I must have only been six or seven years old at the time. It’s a beautiful childhood memory, being allowed to stay up a little late on a balmy summer evening to watch a movie with my dad, my uncle & my cousins. I remember being absolutely enthralled with Bruce Brown’s film. Absolutely enchanted & captivated. That early experience of watching The Endless Summer definitely inspired me in my desire to want to live a surfing life. It helped me to believe that surfing was a worthy pursuit, significant & noble.
TB: What do you mean by “Surfing life”? What do you consider to be a surfing life? What do you think makes surfing a worthy pursuit?
NO: By a surfing life, I mean a lifetime where surfing plays an integral part, where surfing is a lifelong engagement. For many of us, we don’t think about surfing as being a sport that we participate in everyday or a few times a week or twice a month or whatever. It’s a lifestyle, a way of being, a way of really engaging with the state of actually being alive. Surfing isn’t something we do, it’s who we are.
From an outsider’s perspective, looking in at surfing & surfers, I think there’s been this kind of history of incredulous disdain. They don’t understand what we do. All they can see is us going around in circles, catching waves in & paddling back out, sitting beyond the break for endless hours, watching clouds, sea-gazing, daydreaming. To them, surfing seems like child’s play, a waste of time, non-productive, useless, self-indulgent.
But a surfing life is full of rich gifts, even if it’s not how the world measures riches. I explored some of these ideas in my film Seaworthy. A surfing life can teach us to recognise the significance of beauty, the desire for wildness, a sense of belonging in the world, the value of pure simple joy. For me, these are the kinds of things that help give our lives shape & meaning. That’s what I mean when I say that a surfing life is a worthy pursuit.
TB: In another Interview, you mention that your father had passed on his Canon SLR camera to you when you were a grommet. Do you think you realized the significance of that gift at the time?
NO: I don’t think I could’ve appreciated at the time how much that old camera would influence my future. I was already really interested in cameras & photography. I used to pore over old copies of National Geographic and dream that one day I’d be a photo-journalist. But having that old SLR really allowed me to take my interest in photography to the next level. I used to borrow books on photography from the local library & study them cover to cover. I would record each shot I took down in a little notepad. I loved the whole process of taking photos with that old camera: winding back the film, the careful composition of a subject, the satisfyingly heavy ‘clunk’ of the shutter, the anxious wait to see if the shot actually worked, the delicious excitement of picking up the processed film from the lab, the satisfaction of a well executed photograph.
TB: Do you still have the camera? Do you still shoot with film at all? Do you think that digital camera’s deliver the same excitement as film cameras? I guess, what I’m getting at is do you think that delayed gratification of film added to one’s own value of their photos?
NO: Sadly, no. It stopped working eventually & disappeared somewhere along the line. I hardly ever shoot with film anymore. It’s something I want to get back to playing with, but making surf films has taken precedence in my creative life, at least for a while. And also, of course, digital has so many benefits over film: it’s cheaper, easier, you get instant feedback about how your vision for a photograph is unfolding. I actually think I’ve become a better photographer since I’ve shot digitally, just because it’s given me that instant feedback & because, due to the fact you’re not endlessly paying for rolls to be developed, it’s given me the space to experiment a lot more.
But I’m glad I had my grounding in film. I think it taught me a sense of restraint, to really construct an image in your mind before you try to create it in camera. And, yeah, nothing beats that feeling of picking up a developed roll from the lab & flicking through your shots & seeing that one image that gives you goose bumps. That’s a special feeling.
TB: “Lines From A Poem” was your first film endeavor. What were you doing before you embarked on making that film? Where were you in life at that point?
NO: I’ve always been wired to make things. I get restless & unhappy if I’m not working on something. So before I started filmmaking I was interested in other creative stuff: making music, poetry, journaling & building surfboards. Poetry, in particular, was my focus. I wrote a lot. I had some work published in an anthology of new Australian poets, which was really important to me at the time.
Before I started working on Lines, I had the dream of making a surf film myself one day, but it was a dream that always seemed unlikely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, although surfing photography & filmmaking interested me, I couldn’t actually bring myself to stand on the beach behind a camera when the waves were good. I used to feel sorry for the guys stuck on the beach shooting when I would run past them to go surfing! And the other reason, I guess, is that I had no training whatsoever in film or video, & in that pre-digital age, making a surf film was beyond my budget. I didn’t have the finances, equipment or training with analog equipment. Shooting & editing film is prohibitively expensive & I didn’t go to film school & have access to any of that kind of equipment. But then all of a sudden, the digital door opened, digital video cameras were becoming less expensive & more accessible, & so I taught myself how to shoot & edit.
TB: Do you think filmmaking has lived up to your dreams of making surf films?
NO: Definitely. My dreams, when I first began filmmaking, were pretty simple. I was just enjoying the creative experience of making something that had meaning for me. I had no idea of the momentum my work would gather in reaching the audience that it has. My films are fairly left of center and appeal to only a niche market in surfing, as opposed to more mainstream surf films, but now they have been watched by surfers from all around the world. The audience might not be that large, but it’s widespread. I’m always humbled when I get emails or messages or letters from people from various places overseas. I’m touched & grateful for their feedback & interest in my work. Also, I’ve been blessed to have met a lot of people & to have made precious, lifelong friendships through making my films. For me, that has been the most unexpected & the most enduring & noteworthy part of the whole experience. I’m really thankful for that. So, for all of these reasons, filmmaking has gone beyond my dreams.
TB: How critical are you of your own work after the film is done and has been out on the market? Do you ever look back at your films and see where you could improve? How self-critical are you and do you think it’s important as a filmmaker to go back over your films with a more critical eye?
NO: I’m a bit of a melancholy perfectionist. The strength of that personality trait is that you’re constantly driven to create, to make the best thing that you’re capable of. So I’m very particular about how I want my work to be. I scrutinize what I make with a very critical eye. I’m determined, too. It takes a lot of hard work over a few years to make a feature length surf film all on your own. In lots of ways, so it’s almost like you need to have that kind of personality for filmmaking. The flipside, of course, is that your strength is your weakness. When you have that perfectionist tendency & melancholy leaning, you can become overly reflective to the point of being too self-critical. You can become so absorbed in your work, you become so close to it, that it makes it difficult to step back & evaluate it with an objective eye as an audience would. To be honest, I hardly ever watch my own films once they are finished, but when I do I always see room for improvement & things that I’d change. But I’ve learnt that happens with lots of things I’ve made: poetry, writing, songs, films, surfboards. It’s just a matter of acceptance, really, that you made something & now you’ve perhaps moved away from that place. All art happens in the context of a place & time, it becomes a record from a past that you no longer inhabit. But having said all that, you also want to make something that stands the test of time.
TB: What sparked the need to create “Lines From A Poem”?
NO: “Lines” kind of began unintentionally really. I’ve never had any training in filmmaking, but I was always interested in photography growing up, & always a fan of surf films. It was a dream I had tucked away in my heart to maybe one day have a go at making my own film. I’d grown up surfing, taking photographs & watching surf films, so for me the transition to surf filmmaking was a natural progression. It happened in a really kind of organic way, just as an extension of my surfing life, like making my own surfboards. I’d finally got a camera, & friends & I used to take turns filming each other. After a while, I began to be the one who was behind the camera the most, & I started to play around with editing little shorts, just to share among my friends. I enjoyed the creativity of capturing & cutting the images, the simple joy of making something. It all kind of grew from there & I taught myself along the way. The shorts began to merge together & before I knew it, I was working on a feature length surf film. At the time, I had no idea how well & how widely “Lines From A Poem” was going to be received. My plan was just to dub a bunch of VHS copies & hand them out to friends.
TB: Can you describe the process in making that film? How did you get started? How long did it take to complete? How did you go about putting together the cast for the film?
NO: Like I said, the process of making Lines, unfolded gradually & almost unintentionally. It grew from something that was just a personal little creative exploration with friends. It took me about two years to make. I didn’t have a plan, a storyboard, a cast. I just documented the surfers I met along the way. I chose to document logging because I loved it so much and, with the exception of Thomas Campbell’s beautiful film The Seedling, I felt that logging was an overlooked & underground niche in surfing. Also, of course, I felt that logging was really aesthetically pleasing & photogenic. So, really, Lines From A Poem was just a film that emerged out of that particular time in my surfing & creative life.
TB: How did “Seaworthy” come about? Did you expect that film to do as well as it did? Many surfers that I knew loved that film and really resonated with the overall vibe and mood of the film.
NO: After making “Lines From A Poem”, I definitely felt like I’d learned a lot, & I felt certain that I had another, better surf film in me. But I wasn’t in any hurry. Our firstborn son Noa was born two days after we premiered the film, & I just soaked up the experience of being a dad & not worrying about making anything for a while, other than a few surfboards. But after a time I got creatively restless again, & felt the need to start working on something. A little bit of money was trickling through from Lines and we saved up enough to buy a better camera & I started shooting for Seaworthy.
I didn’t really have any idea about where the film was heading, but I started collecting images & ideas. Then, without warning after a perfectly healthy pregnancy, our daughter Willow was stillborn. For my wife Eliza & I, it was the deepest darkest experience of our lives. The grief journey was immensely difficult and impossibly long. Seaworthy, really, grew out of that place. Making the film was a kind of therapy for me. My heart, as a grieving father, was what drove me to have the energy to make the film. All I wanted was to tell my daughter’s story, to tell the world how much I longed for her, to share with others how sacred the gift of life truly is. Also, I wanted to share my gratitude for how a surfing life helped carry me through that tragedy. There were times in the extremities of grief where all I could do to stay alive was to go into the sea. Just to get into all that endless water.
Seaworthy was all about the water, about being in it, on it, under it, along it, across it, inside it. Literally and figuratively, the water carries us through our lives. We are upheld by something larger than ourselves. I think these are some of the subtler messages in Seaworthy that may have resonated with people. I’m grateful they gave the film time to soak in & it means a lot to me personally to hear that Seaworthy touched their hearts.
TB: Your next film “The Heart & The Sea” is being released. What can we expect from this film? How is this film different from your other films?
NO: I think people who are familiar with my work might recognize some kind of continuity with my previous films, in terms of cast, themes & the overall texture & tone. In lots of ways, I think The Heart & The Sea moves forward from where Seaworthy concluded. Seaworthy explored some difficult themes, the personal tragedy of losing our daughter Willow; grief & despair & learning to grow through those things; but by the end of the film it was about a kind of return to joy. “The Heart & The Sea” takes that feeling further, that sense of new hope & gratitude for the gift of being alive.
When I’d finished watching “Seaworthy” for the first time with my good friend Tom Wegener, he told me that he was proud of me that I took that film to such a personal & vulnerable place of broken heartedness. But in the same conversation he predicted that the next film I would make would be all about joy. I’m happy to say that Tom was right. The film is called “The Heart & The Sea” because it celebrates the richest gifts of a surfing life: healthy relationships with family & friends & a shared intimacy we have with the sea & each other through surfing. Joy & thankfulness for these things are really what the film is all about.
I guess another way in which this new film is different to my previous ones is that I had the opportunity to travel a little wider. The film is shot here in various places in Australia, as well as in New Zealand, France & Spain. It was a real pleasure & privilege as a filmmaker to have the opportunity to explore new landscapes & seascapes & cultures & people. That’s something I’d love to do more of in the future. All of those trips were family trips, too, & it was wonderful for my wife & I to share those experiences of travel with our kids, to see them soaking it all in with wide-eyed wonder. We are really thankful that my surf filmmaking opened those doors for us to have such precious family adventures.
TB: Was the process in making this film different than your other films? How long were you working on “THATS” (Did you know THATS is the acronym for the film? Classic.
NO: Haha. Never thought about it before. You’re the first person to point that out! The process was pretty similar really, apart from those overseas trips. I’ve always just gone filming in school holidays, & done my editing in between trips away. I’ve worked on “The Heart & The Sea” for over three years, and Seaworthy was about the same. “Lines From A Poem” was a little quicker, about two years worth of work, because although I was already teaching back then, I hadn’t become a father yet & I had more free time. It takes me a long time to make films because it’s not my real job, & also because I’ve always done everything on my own: song acquisition, shooting, editing, production, promotion & lots of other stuff.
TB: You are a school teacher? What year do you teach?
NO: Yes, I’ve been a full-time primary school teacher for fourteen years now. I’m trained to teach all grades, from kids aged five to twelve years. At the moment, I’m teaching a Year 4 class, so the kids are all aged nine or ten.
TB: Do you think that your skills as a teacher helps you with storytelling and outlining your films? It would seem to me that being a teacher would be a great skill in filmmaking because you have to lay out a lesson plan that can keep kids attention but still be able to educate them.
NO: That’s an interesting question, & one I haven’t given much thought to before. I’m not sure that it’s the case really. Long before I was a teacher, I was interested in language, narrative, writing, story telling. I’ve always been most moved by surf films that told a story, even if those stories were told in less concrete & abstract ways. My primary influences as far as surf films go were those that had a narrative element, films by Bruce Brown and Jack McCoy’s work. But even other films that were less overtly stories and more like visual poems – movies like Morning Of The Earth, Litmus and Sonny Miller’s The Search films – had a profound impact on me, both as a surfer & as a young filmmaker. Even later, it was the stories in films like Thicker Than Water & Shelter that affected me most, as opposed to other films that were saturating the surf movie market at the time that tended to just be more like nineties skate videos, trick after trick after trick.
TB: Do you ever incorporate your surfing and filmmaking into your school lesson plans?
NO: Not really. As a primary school teacher it’s my job to teach across all of the key learning areas, from English to math’s, science, drama, art, social studies, & sport. But my heart is always in literacy. It’s a beautiful privilege being able to teach children how to read, spell, write & construct language. Until recently, filmmaking hasn’t really entered the equation. But lately, with advances in technology, I’ve been enjoying integrating filmmaking in everyday classroom activities. I’m teaching my kids how to shoot & edit with iMovie on iPads. As an educator, it’s a really interesting & challenging opportunity to explore these new tools. I’m learning at the same time as the kids in my class are.
TB: What skills do you think are important for someone making films?
NO: The foundation of good filmmaking for me is the narrative element, telling a story in a compelling way that engages the audience. In this day and age, anyone can grab a camera & capture images & throw them up online on YouTube or wherever. The difficult thing is constructing something that’s significant & beautiful; something that affects people; something that stands the test of time. I’m interested in exploring how valuable and meaningful surfing can be in people’s lives, my own included. Those are the sorts of themes I like to explore in my work. That’s why I think it is important for me to tell human stories in my movies. I appreciate that some people aren’t interested in story they just want to quickly watch some big turns and crazy airs, cut to fast music, to get psyched before a surf. And that’s cool too, if that’s what they’re after. But the human element will always be a part of my work. So my films always have that documentary undercurrent of storytelling moving through them.
TB: Do you think that element of storytelling is often overlooked in today’s surf films?
NO: Not really. There’s plenty of surfing films nowadays that have a narrative, documentary style. Just as there are plenty that have no narrative & are focused purely on high-performance. Surfing’s become so specialized now, logging, big waves, shortboarding, tow-ins, contests, air guys. We see that specialization occur in surf films too. I just happen to be drawn to those kinds of films that reflect my interests in surfing: riding a quiver of different boards, exploring human stories. And I make those sorts of films because that’s what I’m into. But I can also enjoy state-of-the-art high performance shortboarding films, too, whether or not they have a narrative element.
TB: From your blog and interviews, it seems like you are a very loving and devoted father and husband. How do you find time to balance your profession, family and filming/photography?
NO: Again, this is a great question, an important question. Being a good husband and a good dad are my highest goals in this life. Everything else is secondary, whether it’s working as a full-time school teacher, surfing or making stuff. Honestly, I’m finding this balance harder and harder to achieve as my are growing up. As they get older, making surfboards & photographs & films has increasingly had to take a back seat. It’s the season of life I’m in at the moment.
I’ve always made films as a full time teacher. I just film during school holidays and edit at night after work. It s been a healthy hobby. And it’s also been good for my family. My wife and I had our first child eight years ago, and ever since she’s been a stay at home mum. The income we’ve generated from my surf films has been modest, but it’s enabled Eliza to stay at home to look after our kids. This has been a real blessing financially for us. Also, as a result of me making films, we’ve been able to experience a little bit of traveling as a family. I always bring Eliza and our kids along with me when I travel to shoot. They are so much a part of me, I don’t like to go away without them. But, as a family, with the kids getting older, I’m feeling a bit torn. I feel less inclined to stand on the beach behind a camera shooting surfers. I just want to be hanging with the kids on the beach making sandcastles, pushing them into waves on surf mats, tandem surfing with them on our family twelve footer. Once my new film, The Heart & The Sea, is done & dusted, I’m looking forward to a break from all of the shooting & editing. I’m looking forward to life being a little less cluttered.
TB: Do you ever feel that feel like surfing can get in the way of some other important things in life? How important is it that you have a supportive family for your creative pursuits?
NO: When you’re a surfer & a husband & a dad, there’s definitely an art involved in making sure you’re achieving a healthy balance. Surfing is one of the most profound passions of my life. It keeps me healthy & happy & centered. But it pales in significance compared to my family. I have been so blessed to have been able to use surf filmmaking, alongside teaching, to support my family. But yes, surfing can definitely get in the way sometimes. I’ve been a dad for almost nine years now & you get used to surfing taking a back seat, but at times it’s not easy, especially when the waves are good! I’m always conscious to put family first. Sure, I don’t always do a perfect job, but I aim to do a better job day by day.
TB: Do you think that it will get easier as your children get older and hopefully enjoy surfing as much as you do? While we are on it, how do you introduce your kids to surfing without forcing it on them?
NO: For sure. That’s my dream. At the moment they’re still young but one day I can see us all surfing together. I already tandem surf with my eldest, Noa, who’s nearly nine & I push him onto waves when it’s small & friendly. It’s a really beautiful way to experience surfing, to share it with your kids. I think the key to introducing kids to surfing is just lots of no-pressure-to-surf beach time, lots of digging holes & making sandcastles, lots of mucking around in the shore break with surf mats & boogie boards. I admit that sometimes it’s hard, when all I want to do is paddle the kids out the back & get some good ones, & sometimes I might get too pushy. But my wife’s always good at putting me in my place & getting me to get back to the basics of no-pressure-beach-time routine.
TB: For many of us who started surfing at a young age, there was someone who introduced us to surfing. Someone we looked up to. Your father played an integral role in introducing you to surfing. Can you describe what lessons your father might have passed on to you and how that has influenced your films?
NO: Dad started surfing & making boards when he was young. He loves surfing with his whole heart, he always has. But he also put family first. He had my sister when he was just eighteen & me when he was twenty-one & for several years he moved inland, away from the sea, in order to work as a teacher & support his young family. It was only when I was ten years old that he finally found a permanent teaching position on the coast. I have a lot of respect for his sacrificial work ethic. He also is a very do-it-yourself kind of guy, from fixing cars, making surfboards, renovating houses, fixing broken things. That determination, that willingness to have a go & make something from nothing was a great model for me growing up. I’m nowhere near as ‘handy’ as he is, but his example has always taught me to try.
TB: Describe the moment when you had finished “Lines From a Poem” and you showed it to your father for the first time?
NO: I think both Dad & Mum were very gratified to see that I’d made something. They’ve always been very loving & proud of both my sister & I. And they’ve always supported us & our dreams & passions.
TB: Do you think it’s harder now to make a film and a profit than when you started? What do you think of all the films being released for free online? Do you think that the DVD is dead? Do you like the new digital format for viewing films?
NO: There’s clearly less and less money involved in surf films now. I’ve been making films for eleven or twelve years, but the profit I’ve made has never been something I could live off, let alone support a family with. Making money was never my motivation for making movies, I could have made a lot more money spending all those thousands of hours doing something much more lucrative. But at the same time, it sure would be nice if people attached more value to surf films. The landscape of filmmaking has entirely changed, & lots of things have impacted how surf films are accessed & priced. We saw the same thing happen in the music industry. Digital files are so easy to duplicate, so piracy has definitely had an impact, & iTunes effectively killed the CD. The DVD is in the same boat, too. Soon the only way to access surf films will be through places like iTunes or other online download or streaming sources. Also, of course, surfers are so used to being able to access free video content online nowadays, there is a reluctance to actually pay for a surf movie. Although I’m not an expert, this is my feeling about how the industry & market is at the moment. At the end of the day, it all adds up to less return for the filmmaker.
TB: Where do you think the future of surf films are going? Do you think the independent filmmaker can survive in this new digital age?
NO: I’m not sure to be honest. There are opportunities out there to work as a filmmaker for big companies. They’re making films all the time as part of their advertising strategies, & then often releasing those films for free online. But it’s becoming increasingly harder for independent filmmakers to produce work & make a decent profit. I think we’ll see less independent feature-length surf films for this reason. But it doesn’t mean the independent surf film is dead. I think there will always be artists out there with the passion & creative drive to make meaningful contributions to the genre. I hope so, because they are the kind of surf films I look forward to seeing.
TB: The Surfing Version of the Proust Questionnaire:
Who is your favourite Surf Filmmaker?
NO: Bruce Brown.
TB: List your top 3 surf films of all time?
NO: The Endless Summer. Thicker Than Water. Sprout.
TB: What is your favourite surfing term?
TB: What is your least favourite surfing term?
TB: What sort of wave turns you on?
NO: Empty ones. Preferably at long right points.
TB: What sort of wave turns you off?
NO: Crowded ones.
TB: What sound or noise in surfing that turns you on?
NO: The delicious roar of a tuberide.
TB: What sound or noise in surfing that turns you off?
NO: Surf rage.
TB: If Heaven exists, what sort of wave would you like to surf for eternity?
NO: I absolutely believe heaven exists, & I look forward to it. I’m hoping for a long right hander that slabs out the back over a rock shelf at the take off, then runs down a sand-bottomed cobblestone point in endless tapering corduroy lines. That way I could get barrelled out the back on a short board every morning, & go logging along the inside every afternoon. Perfect!
Tickets are now on sale for The Heart & The Sea for March 16th at Anthology Film Archives