Mark Jeremias is perhaps one of the most enduring and endearing action sports filmmakers of our time. His production company, Build Worldwide, has released titles such as Single Fin Yellow, One California Day, Stylemasters 1 and 2 and Drive which have gone on to be iconic films in both the surf and Skate world. Some of those titles still remain at the top of the DVD and download sales. Mark’s discipline and ability to plan and follow through has made him and his films some of the best selling surf and skate films of all time. His belief in a good story will always find an audience has made him stand out from his other contemporaries and his now set to release what might be his greatest film to date, The Tyler Warren Experiments. The Tyler Warren Experiments is co-directed by John Smart. The film centers around Tyler Warren and the shapers that have influenced his life and surfing. The Film is set to be released this summer through a film tour that will also be a traveling surfboard gallery of the shapes that were ridden in the film. Mark is extremely knowledgeable about the film industry and has a unique gift of articulating what he thinks makes a successful film as well as great insight into the future of the action sports film business and the craft of filmmaking.
Tyler: How did you get into filmmaking?
Mark: Lets see, growing up my dad always had a Super 8 camera that he used to make home movies. I guess I kind of started picking that up and playing with it and then in junior high. One of the classes required that we make a Super 8 movie. My first one was a two-part stop frame animation about a guy that races motorcycles and then paddles out and gets eaten by a shark.
My brother, friends and I all surfed in the WSA contests and so we also used to film our heats.
That was sort of the introduction and it was largely to document our surf and skate adventures. In high school I was actually much more interested in becoming a weatherman, because I surfed and was so into weather. So, I went to college and studied broadcast journalism. I ended up switching to television production when I realized that I was more interested in making things than being in front of the camera.
My brother and his friends also made an epic called “Wonder Weekend” that I was in with them. It was about a sleepover at a friend’s house that turned into a road trip to San Onofre! That was all back in like 1980.
It’s pretty hilarious. But, I can’t take the credit for that one, that was my brother and his friends class project. I still remember I was pissed because they didn’t put my name in the credits! Plus I only got three waves in the film.
Tyler: When did surf filmmaking become a priority for you?
Mark: While at Pepperdine I started working for a famous producer and his family (Brian Grazer). That was sort of my first introduction to the real world of filmmaking/entertainment. After college that was kind of the route I wanted to take, but after working a couple jobs as a PA, I kind of just started doing things on my own and trying to forge my own path. That led to work in the music/commercial world as a director.
In the late 90′s I was approached about getting involved with a new action sport startup called Bluetorch. I directed a TV spot for them, and after that decided to take an in-house position as creative director and executive producer of the TV division. So that’s kind of when my passion for surfing/skating and filmmaking got combined into one.
Tyler: I remember Blue Torch. There was some incredible content on there. When they folded in the early 2000′s was that when “Singlefin Yellow” came about?
I had left Bluetorch a few months before it went under and formed my own company “Build” with the mission being to create compelling story driven action sports content. My first film was with professional skateboarder Mike Valley called “Drive”. After I released “Drive”, Jason Baffa (who also worked at Bluetorch) came to me because he wanted to make a surf film, which was “Singlefin Yellow”. So, my company Build co-produced and released “Singlefin Yellow”.
So yes that was around 2003
Tyler: It seems like “Singlefin Yellow” had a huge impact on surf filmmaking. Did you realize at the time what a success that film would be?
Mark: My belief was always that there were so many compelling stories that could be told, but most often weren’t. So I always had a firm belief that a good story would always find an audience. Based on the success of “Drive”, it felt that “Single Fin Yellow” was great fit for what I was trying to do and I think Jason did an amazing job with it.
Tyler: You seem to have a great history of working and collaborating with other filmmakers from Jason Baffa to Greg Weaver and Spyder Willis, to John Smart. Do you enjoy working as a team as opposed to solo? Or is it always a team effort?
Mark: Again, going back to “Drive” – I turned that film into a TV series which I directed solo for about 8 years. I was actually doing that show all through “One California Day” and “Stylemasters”, so it was nice to collaborate with others on those projects. I think for me the surf projects work better as a collaboration because surfing is such a moving target.
In the case of “OCD” (One California Day) there was simply too much ground to cover and when you find people that share the same vision, it makes it an enjoyable experience to share the load
Tyler: The surf film business has changed over the last 12-15 years. We have seen Sales of films from VHS to DVD and on to Digital downloads. Do you think it’s become tougher to be an independent filmmaker these days or do you see other opportunities? If so, where do you see everything going and how will filmmakers be able to make a living in this rapidly changing environment?
|Mark: That’s a loaded question. From the creative side, all of the technological advances in equipment have made the necessary tools much more accessible to the independent filmmaker for a much lower cost. So, that is a real opportunity to do higher end work on smaller budgets. On the flip side the technology has also changed the distribution landscape and flooded the market with so much content to the point where it has almost become disposable. So that being said, I think if you are an emerging filmmaker who’s goal it is to simply have your work be seen there has never been more opportunity to make a name. If you are trying to sustain a living, then it becomes a little tricky and you constantly need to balance the commerce and art to have it make sense. For me personally it all comes back to story, and my firm belief that at the end of the day a well-told story will always find an audience and stand the test of time.
The goal is always to make a film that people will reference 10-20 years from now and want to have part of their collection on DVD. Something they can touch and feel. In that I really don’t even view it as just making a film. The physical film is only 50% of it, the other 50% is the presentation of that film through print, theatre screenings, events, merchandise, and further on down the line through the various distribution channels. It’s really more about creating a theme based around a film. I see a huge opportunity right now because in many ways the independent surf film has been slowly dying over the last few years, and I think people are ready to step away from the computer and get back into the theatre.
As far as some of the new avenues of distribution go, there is again both good and bad to the new digital distribution options. On the positive side it’s more environmentally friendly, and there is no longer the need to carry inventory, which definitely helps financially. Also, its created an opportunity for filmmakers to distribute directly to the end consumer much like the Indy music business is doing now. On the negative side, piracy is still a concern, and I think certain films just deserve to be seen in a larger format.
In order to navigate and really maximize all the available outlets, I think it’s important to really know your audience and how they like to consume media. Certain films are going to do more business via download and others are going to do more via DVD. I personally think that DVD is still a very viable format and will continue to be an important part the equation, especially for the type of films that I like to make and the audience they speak to.
What is more important is to have a distribution plan across all the platforms and then just really follow through with it and that means for years. So many films come out and just disappear after a few months. Granted you have to have a film that people want to see, but often times I think people have this big push around a release and then it just disappears two months later. For me slow and steady wins the race. Grow a following and then maximize what you have through DVD sales, download, merchandise, TV licensing etc.. Even though digital distribution is here to stay there are still ways to make money through very traditional distribution outlets.
One California Day in many ways was a huge learning experience on what is possible with a film and the life it can have.
Tyler: What are some of those key things that you learned with “OCD”? It seems like you were able to get a lot of mileage out of that film. Other than “OCD” being an incredible film, do you feel there was something else that helped it stay a top selling film for the last few years?
Mark: At the time that “One California Day” came out there was already a shift happening in the distribution model. Not so much in the core surf market, but definitely stores at the mass market level (Best Buy, Tower Records, Virgin, etc..) were moving away from carrying “Action Sports” related DVD’s which at the end, affects the reach/revenue of these titles. It was also a few years before digital downloading really caught on, so just like now there was some uncertainty in terms of what was possible. So when it came time to release “One California Day” we really put a focus on making the theatrical screenings an integral part of the release. Not just a quick hit tour, but a choreographed 4 month schedule which gave people multiple opportunities to see the film on the big screen, and also allowed for word of mouth to work for us. Too many times a film screens for a night, and people may rave about it, but if someone misses it, its gone. With “OCD” I was able to take a different approach, setting up a week long runs in San Diego, as well as multiple night runs in San Francisco, and New York. Granted it helps that the subject matter about California surf culture played to a broader audience, which made it appealing beyond a core surf audience. That to me is really the key. To make films that stay true and speak to the core audience, but are accessible to a broader audience. In the case of “OCD” that reach went beyond surfers, to people who appreciate documentary films, California, and California culture. So the first lesson was really that the right films can sustain a longer theatrical run that you don’t need to rush to DVD.
The second thing that was really a goal going into the project was to put emphasis on the film merchandise and make it available not only at the screenings but also through retailers and online in conjunction with the DVD. What has been a pleasant surprise is that the merchandise took off and has its own life outside of the film and 5 years after the release of the film is going stronger than ever. I think that fact has been a huge part of why the film is still selling strong as well. The two go hand in hand, and I am certain that there are people who buy the merchandise, that have no idea that the film exists, and also those who may learn about the film strictly through the merchandise.
So at the end of the day the big take away is that in creating a brand/theme around a film you really can give it a life that lives on. I think the perfect example of that is “The Endless Summer”.
Making a surf film is really hard, so it’s really easy to just want to release it and move on. Its important to realize that the film, again, is just 50% of the equation and the follow through is just as important. Even now, not a day goes by that I don’t do something “OCD” related.
Tyler: You mentioned that “so many films come out and just disappear after a few months”. Do you think that is especially true for this new trend of online releases of free films? What are your thoughts on the films that are being released for free online? Do you think that hurts or helps what you are doing?
Mark: Today you have so much content available through the internet for free that it starts to feel disposable. There is always the “next thing” because the distribution is so instant. I think that definitely contributes to the shortening of the life cycle. As I said earlier if your goal is to get your name out there, there is no better way. So having said that, it makes perfect sense for the bigger brands to release films online for free, because at the end of the day they are looking to sell product and the impressions they get help build equity in the brand. I can’t say that as a whole it’s good for independent filmmakers, but its a reality and I think that’s where it becomes important to know your audience as a filmmaker.
I generally look at surf films as falling into 3 categories – 1) Action films – focused primarily on tricks 2) Visual films – films that blend the action with a strong visual style that carries the film and 3) Story based/documentary films – in which the story is what drives the film.
In my opinion, unless you are working with the top “generational surfing talent” (like Taylor Steele or Kai Neville) you are going to have a really tough time putting out an action based film through traditional distribution channels. Primarily because of all the content that is available online for free.
So for the type of films that I like to make, which sort of ride the line between visual/story based, I think there is still opportunity, especially with something very high concept or that has an engaging storyline, because there are simply not very many of these types of films being made anymore. I mean didn’t one of the surfing magazines come out and say that the “independent surf film was dead?”
Call me crazy, but I still think there is an audience of likeminded individuals that appreciate good filmmaking and find value in the independent voice, and so I aim to make films that cater to that psychographic (that I myself am a part of), rather than trying to target a demographic.
And when you think about it that psychographic is actually expanding as surfers get older and surf longer.
Tyler: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers at the moment? What is it about their work that you like and respect?
Mark: I respect anyone who is actually able to pull off making a surf film. There is so much that goes into it, and since by and large we work with pretty limited budgets, it takes a lot of follow through to actualize it.
As for some of the more recent that comes to mind – I really liked “Come Hell Or High Water” for its sheer simplicity, just a well-shot, insightful glimpse in to the life of people who bodysurf.
I also like the trailer I have seen for the film “Tracking” by James Kinnaird. I don’t know when the film comes out, but the trailer has a definite sense of style and conveys emotion.
Tyler: How do you go about working with specific surfers for your films? Do you go in with a certain plan and storyboard when you start to film a specific surfer or do you just go and hope something will present itself to you? Do you plan out shots or is it more spontaneous?
Mark: It’s important to go into any film with a plan. A concept of what the film is about and what the story is you are trying to tell, so in the bigger picture yes there is an idea of specific scenes, how they should be shot, and where they belong in the structure of the film. The surfers are definitely involved in that process as well, in terms of fine-tuning ideas or how they would do something. I don’t ever want them to feel like they are acting. Sure, there are certain establishing shots or insert shots that require a couple of takes, but by and large a lot of the story elements are meant to be shot as if you are a “fly on the wall”.
Its also just as important to allow room for flexibility, because sometimes a storyline will develop that you had no idea would and that in the end becomes an integral or pivotal part of the film. In “OCD” for instance, there was no way for us to know that Velzy (Dale Velzy) would pass during the filming of it, and that really became a critical part in the film in regards to conveying the celebration of the culture, those who paved the way, and the passing of the culture from one generation to the next.
Tyler: What is the thing that you dread most about making a surf film and what is the thing you look forward the most to in making a surf film?
Mark: The thing that I probably dread most about making a surf film is the fact that there are so many variables involved with surfing. It’s kind of a moving target in terms of having all the elements of wind, weather, tide, and waves come together. You simply have to put your time in until you get what you need. The production schedule on these films tends to go on over a longer period of time than you initially might think. There is a pretty serious commitment and follow through required to get it done. Plus, you have to shoot on some days when it sure would be nice to be surfing. That takes discipline as well.
On the flip side one of the things that I really look most forward to is being able to capture that special moment when it happens and knowing that by doing so it will last forever. That can be a perfect day, or just a single wave, or just an interaction between two people. It is just rewarding to be a part of that and then be able to share it with others through these films.
Tyler: If you had an unlimited budget, what would be your top 10 surfers you would have in a film and where would you want to shoot it?
Mark: That’s a tough question for me to answer because the type of films that I am interested in doing are subject and story driven, so choices are made based on what fits and supports those subjects.
There are definitely surfers I would love to work with and build a film around. At the top of that list would be Kelly Slater – not just because of his surfing, but because it seems that there is a lot of layers with his interest in design, approach to surfing, etc… He ‘s just super knowledgeable and has something to say. I don’t think he has done anything definitive. Plus wouldn’t we all really want to get a glimpse into what makes him tick?
I think Greg Long and some of the other big wave surfers also have a really interesting story to tell and I think a lot of the “big wave” stuff that has been done still centers around the act rather than the personal side, and the motivations behind it.
Tyler: What is your favorite Surf Film of all time?
Mark: My favorite surf film of all time is John Severson’s “Pacific Vibrations”. Not only because it captured a time of change, but also because the way the film had a documentary/story line based elements interwoven.
Tyler: Now, Moving on to your current project, “The Tyler Warren Experiment”. How did this film come about? Did you approach Tyler or did he approach you?
Mark: “The Tyler Warren Experiments” is a project that has really evolved over time. The initial concept originated with Tyler and John Smart. After shooting for about two years, John approached me about getting involved in the project. I had known Tyler from working with him on “OCD”, and really enjoyed that experience. Plus I was intrigued by some of the early footage they had captured and released on the internet.
At the time I was coincidentally getting ready to start on my own follow up to “OCD”, but after talking with John and seeing some more of the footage he had already shot. It just seemed like a really natural fit to merge the two projects into one. So I laid out my plan on where I wanted to take it, and the story element that I wanted to further develop, and two years of additional shooting later we have a release date in sight.
Tyler: Was this film independently funded or did you guys receive any help from Billabong or any of Tyler’s other sponsors? Do you ever feel that when a sponsor comes to fund a project that there are certain expectations or rules or limitations you have to abide by?
Mark: The film itself is independently funded. In the past year Tyler has gotten sponsored by Billabong, so we are looking to work with them when it comes time to release the film which will help us create a more unique experience.
It’s important to us that the film maintains an independent voice, and anyone that might get involved with supporting the screenings, release etc…understands that.
As far as sponsor involvement in general – a sponsorship agreement is two sided and has to work for both parties. Its important to have the expectations and commitments in the open so that there are no surprises and everyone achieves their goal. I can’t say I have ever had a bad experience with a sponsor.
Tyler: Can you give me a brief overview of the film and it’s concept?
Mark: The film is about a surfer and the evolution of his craft. Since the start of filming Tyler has really evolved as a surfer and now as a shaper, so whereas originally the concept was more focused on the physical act of riding different boards it has evolved to tell Tyler’s story through the interpersonal working with different shapers and ultimately taking that knowledge and applying it to his own designs and shapes. Within that framework we also learn about each shaper, their influence, and approach.
Tyler: In a sense, this film could be more about the shapers and Tyler and his surfing is the vehicle to tell their story then? It must have been great to cover Terry Martin. How is he doing? (Unfortunately, Terry Martin passed away shortly after this interview was conducted at the age of 74 from a battle with skin cancer. It was a significant loss to the surfing world. RIP Terry Martin).
Mark: Well, its not a traditional biography in the sense that we learn about where he grew up and where he lives now, etc… Rather it’s focused on Tyler’s love of surfboards and interest in design, and it is through that that lens that we not only learn about Tyler, but also the shapers that he works with. So yes, Tyler is the conduit to this world, and his path and interactions tell the story.
Terry Martin is a big part of that story, and as a filmmaker capturing the dynamic between them was very special, especially given that Terry had been diagnosed with cancer. Tyler had a tremendous amount of respect for Terry and vice versa, so capturing that really ended up playing an important part in the film and this idea of “mentoring and influence” is definitely a sub-theme through out.
Tyler: What locations did you guys travel to for this film?
Mark: A majority of the film was shot in California, simply because that is where Tyler and all of the shapers are based. Surfing sequences were shot in Australia, Mexico, Morocco, and Indonesia. I should add to that…but the locations aren’t noted within the film, because the locations themselves are not really central to the story.
Tyler: What were some of your favorite boards that are being ridden in this film? Did you get a chance to try any of them? Have you thought about the impact this film will have on some of the shapers featured in this film?
Mark: The boards that Tyler rides in the film include (but are not limited to) a Campbell Brothers “Bumble Bee” based on a template from the early 70′s, as well as a 6’9″ five fin modern Bonzer step-up, The “One Fin Pin” longboard and “Quadratic Formula” round pin quad from Terry Martin, a quad fin rocket fish from Josh Hall, 11 foot twin keel glider from Chris Christenson, the “Space Cookie” twin keel from Manuel Caro, Tyler’s Bar of Soap and various others from vintage longboards to a sub 5 foot Pendoflex fish.
Our hope is to have all of the boards at select screenings so people can see them in person.
As for the impact that the film will have on the shapers, our goal is for the film to give people a glimpse into their world and approach to making boards…and hopefully the by-product of that will be a greater appreciation of their individual talents and contribution to the evolution of board design.
Tyler: What sort of soundtrack can we expect from the film. Your films in the past have always had a great soundtrack.
Mark: My approach to using music in films is that, first and foremost the music needs to compliment the scene in order to convey the proper emotion. It’s not about what’s popular, but rather what works in terms of tempo and mood, and the right piece of music can really make a scene come alive. In that sense the music is really used as sound scape meant to enhance the visual without overpowering it.
For this film we are using a fair share of original compositions, and working with a small group of musicians to achieve the sound track. As we have done in the past, we hope to expose people to some new artists that they may not have heard before.
Tyler: What are your plans for touring the film? Will you be touring it all on your own or submitting it to any film festivals?
Mark: We definitely plan to screen the film in theaters starting in August up until the films release on DVD in early November. Those plans are still in the works, but its safe to say we will do 10 – 15 theatre dates in California and other select cities that we will personally do and would be considered a part of the official “screening tour”. Beyond that we will also partner with shops and festivals in select markets to do screenings. I am always open to explore any opportunity that presents a unique way to screen these films, it just needs to make sense financially given that the films are independently financed. You always have to weigh the promotional/marketing aspect of a screening with the dollars and cents part of it, and balance the two.
Tyler: How has it been working with Tyler? What’s been the best thing about working with him and what has been the more difficult thing with working with him if any?
Mark: I have known Tyler for quite some time now, and having worked together in the past we know what to expect from each other. I’d like to think there is a mutual respect for what we each bring to the table.
Tyler’s really good about putting the time in to shoot the setup shots and details that make for complete scenes, sometimes that might mean going somewhere to get one shot at the right time of day to match into another scene. That kind of stuff might seem trivial to some, but as an artist he understands that process, so that is a plus.
Tyler: What has been the hardest part about making this film?
Mark: You know there is nothing specifically hard about making this film, I think it’s just generally hard to make these types of films. The greatest thing about making independent films is they are made with a tight knit crew and you have the ultimate freedom to make decisions without having to answer to a client or a studio. On the flip side, they are a long road to travel and after a few years, having limited resources can get tough. Inevitably, there is that time towards the end when there are still a few loose ends here and there – maybe one shot that’s needed, or one sound bite, or an archive photo… It takes discipline to follow through with it all because it can be overwhelming. As I said earlier, I admire anyone who takes on one of these projects, its not easy, but it is rewarding.
The “Tyler Warren Experiments” is expected to be released in the coming months. You can find out more on Mark and his past work here: //www.buildworldwide.com