We caught up with the award winning director of “Dark Fall”, Alex DePhillipo to discuss film, New Jersey, and the increasingly difficult way to make a living as a surf filmmaker.
Alex DePhillipo came out of nowhere and made possibly the best surf film ever to come out of the Northeast. The film was “Dark Fall”. It started with an impressive trailer and spread like wild fire on Facebook through New Jersey, then New York, and then everywhere. “Dark Fall” went on to win numerous film festival awards and was nominated for a Surfer Poll Award in 2010. It follows the life of New Jersey’s best surfers, the lives they lead, the friendships they make and the friendship that bonds them to their coastline. Alex is a hard working surfer from New Jersey. He has spent a lot of time on the North Shore paying his dues and earning respect as one of the more talented surf filmmakers of his generation. We caught up with Alex as he was filming for the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker, the making of “Dark Fall” and how does a surf filmmaker make a living in today’s new digital download world.
When did you first start getting into filmmaking?
Alex DePhillipo: When I was in high school, I was pretty young and my dad handed me a video camera because I always loved movies. I started filming my friends surfing and doing “Jackass” stuff, like any 14 year-old punk kids.
When did you realize this was something you wanted to pursue as a profession?
Alex DePhillipo: Not until I was failing out of college. I was going to FAU with no direction. I then realized I needed to go to school to learn something I enjoyed. So, I went to film school and I knew I’d be doing this for the rest of my life.
What film school did you go to?
Alex DePhillipo: The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Florida for film production.
How was it being a Jersey boy in Florida?
Alex DePhillipo: No different. Everyone who lives there are from the North. Plus all of my friends lived down there and my family and I have been going there for years.
What happened after school? Did you go directly to the North Shore?
Alex DePhillipo: Yeah. My close friend Mikey Shellem had built property out there and was connected with all the boys. I decided if I was going make it anywhere I might as well take the chance and move to the North Shore.
Who was the first to take you under their wing over there? Did anyone?
Alex DePhillipo: I became a real close with Freddy Malone, Kealii Mamala, Flynn Novak, Kalani Chapman and Braden Dias. That was the crew. They would call me up whenever they wanted to do work. It was pretty humbling but, also gnarly at the same time,
Any filmmakers or photographers show you the ropes? Or was it more of being on your own and figuring it out for yourself?
Alex DePhillipo: Just Freddy. As for swimming not really. You could say I earned my dues out there like everyone else. On my own.
How was it breaking into the pecking order amongst the other photos and filmmakers?
Alex DePhillipo: It’s not that crazy like everyone imagines it to be. When it gets gnarly out there everyone sort of looks after each other. If you show aloha, you get aloha. Ya know? I try to always smile when I’m in the mix. It goes a long way.
How long did you spend in Hawaii?
Alex DePhillipo: A couple winters off and on.
When did the idea for Dark Fall come to you?
Alex DePhillipo: When I was out there on the North Shore, I was looking around and seeing 50 other guys like me filming. I thought to myself, I need to go home and show people where I’m from and tell that story. It is really hard if not impossible to be unique in Hawaii. There are so many people, who are just like you, but Hawaii is my second home and I owe my career to that place. It has taught me everything.
What were people’s reactions in NJ when you started Dark Fall?
Alex DePhillipo: I don’t know. Not to hate on my home but I will, cause I can. Most people back east are sort of ignorant to the whole scene. They are not used to someone trying to capture the culture around surfing. People try to do it and it always seems to fail or get hated on a lot. I guess as time went on some people warmed up to it, but I don’t really give shit what other people think. I made the film for the surfers and myself.
Who was the first surfer you pulled into the project?
Alex DePhillipo: I was surfing in AC, and ran into Andrew Gesler. Literally grabbed him and said, do you wanna make a surf film, he said yes and that was it. I was that blunt too
How involved did Andrew get in the film? It almost seemed like a partnership between you two.
Alex DePhillipo: Yeah, he was pretty involved, but it wasn’t until down the line in the making of the film that we started to work together.
Was it hard to pull in the other well-known NJ surfers into the project?
Alex DePhillipo: For sure. As soon as I sat someone down and showed my ideas, they were into it. It’s funny because some particular guys wrote me off and then after I made it they wished they could have been a part of it. I never really like to bro down anyways, so it worked out perfectly with who was in it.
Who was your favorite subject?
Alex DePhillipo: Dean (Randazzo) for sure. It was really humbling to see someone who has so much passion and has gone through with so much. It was rad.
He’s an inspiration for sure. It’s funny because I feel like the full Dean story has yet to be fully told, yet it’s such an amazing story. Any interest in following up DF with a biopic on Dean?
Alex DePhillipo: Good idea, id love to
Fast forward… “Dark Fall” is finished and opens to incredible reviews. You enter and win a bunch of festivals. Do you think the film got the recognition it deserved from the surf industry?
Alex DePhillipo: I guess. I don’t really pay attention to most of the aftermath. I was just stoked to win a couple festivals and on to the next one ya know?
Did you find it hard to find distribution for the film?
Alex DePhillipo: Yes and no. Its still a never ending process because it such an independent surf film.
Who at the moment is distributing the film? Are you doing it independently or are you getting help?
Alex DePhillipo: Doing it independently here in the US. I had help from Mutiny Media. VAS is doing Australia and we are in negotiations with a company at the moment for Europe.
How hard would you say it is as of right now to be making surf films independently? Are you able to recover your costs?
Alex DePhillipo: So hard. We got really lucky. That’s all I’m going to say. Ha!
What do your think the future of surf filmmaking is? It seems like it’s getting harder to make a living off of it as DVD sales slump and there is more and more free content online to compete with.
Alex DePhillipo: Yeah definitely. It’s all about free online downloads; I think DVD sales can happen if you have a great story, but as surf porn, it’s pretty non-existent.
So, how do the filmmakers like you be able to make a living? Is the hope to find a surf company to support your work or do you think there is some other way?
Alex DePhillipo: I make my living mostly doing production work. Any type of production work. The surf stuff is a bonus. I got lucky to hop on the some ASP contests doing web cast production. It’s been really fun. If you can make a living just on surfing, please let me know how. Ha. I started a company with Andrew Gesler, darkfallproductions.tv where I get most of my work.
So basically, the independent surf film is going to be a labor of love for most filmmakers. Side projects. Make your money doing production work and use your spare time to work on your passion?
Alex DePhillipo: Absolutely. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you can make a pretty penny to work on a surf film, but it’s not sufficient unless you have big backing.
And most of the big backing is going to come from either a surf company or a Pro Surfer who needs a private cameraman for their blog and biopic.
Alex DePhillipo: You got it.
What is your current project you are working on?
Alex DePhillipo: I’ll let you know when I sign a contract. Ha! As of right now I’m wrapping up the Vans Triple Crown and then on to some more webcast related projects.
No films in the works? Or is that top secret?
Alex DePhillipo: Just an Idea. Trying to get an idea backed. All I can say its a cold water surf project. That’s all I got. Ha!
Who would you say you look up to in surf filmmaking? Your influences?
Alex DePhillipo: Good question… My favorite movie is The Endless Summer. Bruce Brown is my favorite for sure. That movie made me surf and everything else.
Who amongst the new crop of filmmakers are your favorites?
Alex DePhillipo: It’s funny, I don’t really watch new surf movies. Ha! I couldn’t tell ya. Seriously!
You do a bit of shooting from the water. What’s worse: Shooting form the water at Pipe, or in Jersey during the winter on a huge swell?
Alex DePhillipo: Pipe! I just got wrecked today. It was like a car crash!
What do you think is the most important aspect to making a surf film?
Alex DePhillipo: Story telling is to my preference. I can’t stand surf movies with no stories. It’s just repetitive moves, over and over.
What’s the worst surf film you have ever seen?
Alex DePhillipo: Some Frenchie short film at the NY Surf Film Festival. I forget the name, but it was absolutely shit. It was like handheld with voice overs and guys in speedos. Weird! Ha!
Do you think Dark Fall has given more respect to eat coast surfers outside of the east coast?
Alex DePhillipo: I hope so. People have always misjudged us in the northeast so I think it has helped for sure.
Last question. Does Snookie surf? (Had to do it).
Alex DePhillipo: If I ever saw her in the water, I probably would try to drown her.