There is brewing consumer awareness about sustainable business models as they pertain to the surf industry. Pierce Michael Kavanagh’s (PMK) “Manufacturing Stoke” is a critique of the commodification of surf culture by big corporations. Surfing struggles with issues of sustainability due in part to the noxious materials used to make surfboards. On the other side is the surf fashion industry, which some would argue is not surfing, and yet it plays a major role in both competitive surfing and popular surf culture.
Those familiar with surf media know that in surfing everything is always OK and everyone is ‘classic.’ In other words, open criticism is not the norm. Why? It’s hard to say but undoubtedly the marriage of commercial interest to the culture plays a role. It is refreshing and encouraging then to hear Kavanagh’s words. His honesty is rare and uncompromising. Mr. Kavanagh was gracious enough to conduct an interview over email to discuss his motivations for the film and his surfing roots.
So you grew up in La Jolla but you have East Coast roots right?
Yes, that is correct. My folks were born and raised in the Bronx about 3 blocks from each other and the majority of our family still lives back there. Like a giant Irish Catholic tree we have deep roots and a lot of funky branches. I have family in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island as well as up in Vermont. Everyone thought my parents were crazy when they came out to California in the early 60s but I am pretty stoked they did. They settled down right next to the best reef breaks in La Jolla and raised a couple of die hard surfers…much to their dismay.
Can you talk a little about your surfing life -quiver choices, travel, etc.
I grew up right on a spot known for its shorepound so I initially started really early on a boogie board. I remember getting one for Christmas when I was about 5 or 6 and that changed everything for my brother Dennis and I. We were just stoked little groms having fun in the womp until I started surfing on a borrowed Skip Frye at around 11 years old. My brother actually ended up buying that board with his paper route money. As soon as we started surfing we wanted to go everywhere. First we ventured out to the local reefs and then it was around the corner to Windansea, which is somewhat daunting for a little grom. But we have a good support system with the older neighborhood kids and they kept an eye on us. Fast forward 30 years and surfing has led me to chase waves around the world. As far as quiver choices, I learned on a bigger single fin, which I think is vital for developing your style, and then transitioned into the typical 5’10” potato chips throughout the 80s and 90s. I am impressed by the anything goes attitude now concerning the rebirth of the fish, mini-Simmons, handplanes, etc. I have never really cared what people ride as long as they are stoked. If you are getting barreled on rollerblades I am going to give you hoots and shakas. And to be honest, as long as I have a pair of swim fins and some good womp I have no need for a board.
Manufacturing Stoke is your first feature correct? Can you tell us a little about your inspiration for the film and your background in the film arts?
It all started after my friend Gary Jules invited us to hear him play music at a “green surf expo” in Cardiff and I noticed a lot of people actually trying to change their surf industry for the better. I, like you, was intrigued by this “greening up” of the industry so I did my research and realized there is a story here that isn’t being told. I then enlisted a talented group of filmmakers I had met while getting my film degree at UCSB and we set off to just do a 15-minute short film or a series of shorts on sustainability in the surf industry. After a few interviews I realized we had a much bigger project on our hands and shifted gears towards a feature length film. After 7 months, several trips up and down the coast, 30 plus interviews we had created MANUFACTURING STOKE. And before we go any further, I want to give a shout out to Eric “Bird” Huffman because he was the first one I approached with the concept and his guidance and connections really got the ball rolling. Thanks Bird!
Your film made the festival rounds this past fall. Tell us a bit about that experience. Were you able to attend many festivals?
Oh yes, this last year has been a blast. We had our world premiere fittingly enough at Bird’s Surf Shed in San Diego in late May. I was really proud of what we had accomplished but since the first screening was a sold-out show of mostly family, friends and people in the film I wasn’t sure if this crowd was unbiased enough to give a proper review. After a few seconds into seeing the film on the big screen all the doubts had disappeared and everybody realized we had risked something different. The response was overwhelming and then the film took off like somebody left the gate open. We were selected for around a dozen international film festivals starting with the Honolulu Surf Film Festival in July, which my wife Petra and I attended, and continuing with the upcoming Byron Bay Film Festival in March of 2012. I was told we are actually up for ‘surf film of the year’…which blows my mind. Two of the festivals I really wish we could have attended were in Anglet, France where MANUFACTURING STOKE actually caused a fight among the judges panel and the hotly debated sold-out screening at the Canadian Surf Film Festival which I heard caused quite a ruckus. Unfortunately, our tour schedule was locked from Maine to Florida with the New York Surf Film Festival being our focal point when we heard we were accepted in Canada and couldn’t logistically backtrack.
Sustainability, product lifecycle, green -these are a few of the terms that get thrown around in marketing a lot these days. What was your sense of how honestly big companies are pursing more sustainable production?
As far as QuikHurlaBong is concerned, they all have a long way to go. Imagine cashing fat checks for decades and now being held to a higher standard that may cut into your bottom line. The CFOs want nothing to do with sustainability because it means an entire restructuring of their tried and true manufacturing program. Sure, they all hopped on the green bandwagon and released an organic line consisting of a few t-shirts or trunks but that was all bullshit. They manufacture overseas and ship their products to frothing surfers all over the world who pay 5 times what they are worth. People will actually pay $30 a t-shirt to be a walking billboard for these soulless companies just so they can be identified as a surfer. It is completely lame. Yep, I said it. But the joke is on us and they are laughing while they fly to surf resorts all over the globe. That is, if those kooks even surf anymore. Surfing was pioneered by a subculture that fled from the mainstream, now these companies are force-feeding the masses and people are starting to get sick but hopefully they will figure it out.
The only individual in the corporate surf industry that I can personally back is Derek Sabori from Volcom. He is in charge of their sustainability program and although he knows he has an uphill climb he strives everyday to make positive changes. Spend wisely, young grasshoppers. Your dollars control the industry.
What was your relationship to the surf industry before you began making the film?
Did you receive any negative feedback from the corporate surf industry?
Quiksilver asked me to re-edit the film.
What’s next in your creative agenda?
Misfit pictures have several films in various stages of production right now. We have been approached to continue the STOKE series with documentaries on the skate and snowboarding industry. I am pitching Nike to direct a commercial series that leads into Wimbledon this summer so we will see where that goes. I have been out shooting for the last 6 months for my bodysurfing opus called WOMP. I will be shooting in Australia during the first two weeks of March. I am also helping out my friend Doug Walker’s with his film Soldier Surfer. Staying extremely busy, I realize as I answer this question. All good things, though. Ah yes, and after all the traveling and festivals, we decided to launch the San Diego Surf Film Festival to promote the art of independent surf cinema in our beautiful hometown May 11-13th. www.sandiegosurffilmfestival.com. That is going to be a really good time. The SDSFF will feature beautiful films, art and music just in time for the south swells to start rolling through. Definitely, come visit.
Nike got a lot of flack from the skateboard scene when they finally broke through. In surfing they have had an easier time. Is the work with them related to surfing at all? Like surfing and tennis?
Hahahahahahaa. No, that would be a good one though. Nike owns Hurley, so they have already infiltrated.
I will give you a quote from Matt Biolos (…Lost) during our interview for MANUFACTURING STOKE in regards to Nike, Target and Hollister infiltrating the surf industry:
“We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
My work with Nike will be strictly tennis related so maybe I need to get Bobby in some Wimbledon whites.
It strikes me that Manufacturing Stoke in some ways is about looking for the essence of surfing. What is it about surfing that makes life devotees out of people from varied social classes? What does a surfing lifestyle mean to you?
The beauty of surfing speaks to everybody regardless of who you are. Once surfing grabs a hold of you it is hard to let go. The proof being there are just as many old salties as there are groms in the water and that is a testament to the surfing lifestyle. I really don’t see that with anything else I have experienced. I guess I am like everyone else in the sense that I really just like to go play in the water.
Photo’s Provided by Pierce and Dennis Kavanagh, and Shawna Suffriti
For more info on PMK you can go to