Surfing Vancouver Island
Chasing the Lotus - An Interview with Gregory Schell - by Malcolm Johnson
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Gregory Schell made his name in the surf world a few years back with the release of The Far Shore, an elegant documentary about the legendary travels of Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson. In his most recent film, Chasing the Lotus, he turns his attentions to the work of Greg Weaver and Spider Wills, the groundbreaking surf filmmakers who shot some of the most memorable footage from surfingís Age of Exploration. With the inclusion of newly-found original footage from Weaver and Wills, Chasing the Lotus is an important and multifaceted work that pays tribute to two influential artists whose images still resonate in our culture today. Schell is bringing his film to Canada for a screening at the Tofino Film Festival in October, and the trailer is online at chasingthelotus.com .
MJ: Iíve always found the origins of a project really interesting, especially in art or film, because it seems that beginnings and motivations play such a strong part in how projects actually turn out. How did the concept for Chasing the Lotus come about?
GS: Well, itís actually a bit of a roundabout story, but it initially started because I was asked by Fuel to create a 44-minute version of my previous film, The Far Shore, for broadcast on cable TV. They recommended a post house in L.A. where I could do the editing, and I was in there working one day when a producer came in and asked if I was the guy whoíd done The Far Shore. I said that I was, and he basically just said, "well, Iím down the hall in Office 7, and Iíd like to talk to you." So that was how I met Chris Bell, who became the producer of Chasing the Lotus. We started talking, and Chris told me that the girl who cut his hair was dating a guy who was an older surf filmmaker from Newport Beach, and that this guy apparently had decades worth of Super 8 footage. Chris was curious to see if Iíd be interested in taking a look at some of it, and I certainly was. So he got me a copy of five minutes of this footage that had been shot by Greg Weaver. And as soon as I saw it I was instantly blown away; he had stuff of Buttons Kahuliokalani and Rory Russell at Pavones in í70, stuff of Gerry Lopez and Russell from their first trip to Bali in í74, tons and tons of other early exploration footage. So after Iíd seen it, Chris asked me if I thought we could make a movie about it, and I was sure we could. A week or two later I signed a contract, and we started into production two years ago this October.
MJ: The tagline for the film is "the lost reels of Weaver and Wills." Whatís the story of the finding of their missing footage?
GS: Thatís another interesting story, actually. Back in í80 Weaver and Wills were making an effort to amass their highlight reels; theyíd had an idea for a project that would be along similar lines to Chasing the Lotus, basically something that would showcase the best of their whole canon of documentary film. It was sometime around then that Weaver ended up losing this one box that contained all his best reels. It had basically all his A-list stuff. So he was obviously supremely bummed; they couldnít track the box down at all, and eventually they just thought that it was lost to the ether. So when I started working on the film and said "well, letís find these reels," it didnít seem that there was much hope. But it also happened that at the same time we were starting on the film Weaver had started remodeling his garage; one day he tore down this one storage area, and sure enough, there it was. The box had been hidden underneath another box that couldnít be seen, and the reels had actually been in house the entire time. It was serendipitous, I guess, and thatís how the lost reels were finally found. That storyís not actually told in Chasing the Lotus, but that was the how the lost reels came back to the light. And having them made the film just so much stronger than it wouldíve been.
MJ: Obviously youíd been influenced by their work, and youíd been working on Chasing the Lotus already, so what was it like for you to go through the lost reels for the first time? Surely for someone who makes surf films that was a discovery on the same sort of level as finding long-lost tracks from J.J. Cale or some band like Deep Purple in their prime.
GS: Yeah, it was really incredible, and Iím still just so stoked that I was able to be a part of it. That box had 25 reels, and each of those had 15 to 20 minutes of footage. So there was a lot to go through, and the greatest thingóand this is to pay tribute to Weaver and Wills hereówas that back then as young guys they were interested enough to turn cameras on things other than just the waves. So the reels had tons of ethnographic elements: there were African dancers in Mauritius, Balinese locals walking up and down the cliffs, all this other National Geographic type of stuff theyíd cut into the reels. The most exciting stuff to me wasnít the surfing but all this incredible B-roll footage. That stuff, I think, is what really shows the genius of Weaver and Wills, and I included as much footage from those reels as possible, both to do justice to their work as filmmakers and to illustrate what the places they were traveling to were actually like back in the Ď60s and í70s. And it seems strange now, but not much of that footage ever made it into the surf films they were shooting, films like Forgotten Island of Santosha and Pacific Vibrations and a few others. John Severson, to give an example, wasnít looking for that kind of footage for Pacific Vibrations; he only really wanted the surf stuff, so Wills cut the travel stuff out and assembled it in B-reel. So it was that footage I was most interested in, and a lot of what you see in Chasing the Lotus hasnít been seen in any of the major surf films. Shots like the ones of Joey Cabell are an example of that. So that footage was the real gold mine for me; at first Iíd just been dealing with the regular reels, but when we found the lost ones it was suddenly like "o.k, now this is really something special."
MJ: It seems that one of the strengths of Chasing the Lotus is that itís not a static piece of film. It was obviously a conscious choice to talk to some of the well-known surfers from our current culture, and Iím curious about what your thought process was when you were deciding which of todayís surfers you wanted to involve.
GS: Thatís a good question for sure. I think I tried to find guys who were on the freespirited and freesurfing bent. I think the soul surfer type of guys are closer than the guys on tour to what Weaver and Wills were documenting a few decades ago. So I knew I wanted to bring in guys like Rob Machado, whoís got such a great perspective on things from having seen and experienced both sides. Donavon Frankenreiter as well, whoís just such a complete soul freak-out kind of guy. And Sunny Garcia was really incredible to talk to as well; I interviewed him before heíd gotten into tax trouble, and it wasnít the competitive side of his life that I was interested in but his upbringing on the West Side of Oahu. That was one of the first times anyone had asked him about that on a serious level, and he really lit up when we talked; most of the time, he said, people just stuck a microphone in his face and asked him what it was like to surf Pipeline or some question like that, so he was really stoked that I was interested in his background and what it was like growing up at Yokohama Bay. Iíd also gotten a hold of some great footage of Sunny surfing there in his teens, so that was obviously another reason to interview him. Randy Rarick was another example of a guy on that level who, like Weaver and Wills, had also done a huge amount of exploration. And of course we knew that we needed to interview the guys from the Ď60s and Ď70s: Lopez and Russell, Corky Carroll and Herbie Fletcher. But the reason that I chose the current guys was that their lives seemed so in line with what Weaver and Wills were shooting. Wingnut was another guy along that line. I also knew that I wanted to show a different slice of the surfing population; I didnít have a lot of interest in a film about Kelly and Andy and Bruce, or something with Laird and Jaws. That stuff just gets too saturated, and I really didnít think the world needed another video on Teahupoo or Mavericks or Jaws. I definitely donít say that degradingly, though, because the guys who make those films do it really well; Iím thrilled by those guys and the stuff they do, but with my own work I really wanted to transcend the stereotypes. I think the surf audience is intelligent enough to start digging deeper into more meaningful things, and what I really want to do is to show the different backgrounds, different pursuits and different styles of surf culture. Iím interested in the deeper aspects of the tribe of surfers, this group of connected people who are still so varied and diverse in their beliefs and what they do.
MJ: So how do you see the work of Weaver and Wills relating to whatís going on today? What are the strains of our current culture that you see as some sort of continuation of what they were doing?
GS: Itís funny, you know, because there are people out there who think that everything has been found and mapped and Google-identified, but the reality is that there are still so many unexplored areas and so much uncharted ground. With enough determination anyone can go out there and find empty waves. Itís just a matter of being willing to put in the time to do it. The torch, I think, passed from guys like Kevin Naughton and Craig Naughton and along to guys like Lopez and Russell. That was the ethic that Weaver and Wills were shooting. And now, I mean, just look at the Long brothers, or Brian Conley deep in Baja, or the Malloy brothers at some remote slab in Ireland. Those guys all live by that same philosophy. The things that Weaver and Wills were doing have definitely transcended into today, but it comes to loggerheads when you compare that side of surfing to what goes on with competitive surfing and the WCT. The competitive side is just one aspect, and I find it interesting but not even half as compelling as the travel and exploration side. There are guys who want to go paddle out at Malibu and spots like that, they want to be seen and be in the scene, but then there are all these other surfers who you never even see, the guys who are off surfing the remote spots. But thereís always a dilemma that comes along with that, which is how much you show and how much you expose. Because if you film a place enough, itís guaranteed that people will find it. And it was the same, actually, for Weaver and Wills. Thereís a moment in Chasing the Lotus, for example, where Weaver is talking about how he was shooting on the West Side of Oahu and this huge local guy pulled over and got out of an old Chevelle. The guy had a big long goatee, total black trunks guy, and he walked up and said, "hey, what you doing, we donít like stuff in magazines here." And Weaver basically responded that he wasnít with a magazine but was shooting film for a movie; and this is pretty classic, but the guy looked at him and said, "well, then you shoot me." We show some of that footage in Chasing the Lotus, and what was so crazy is that when I was interviewing Randy Rarick he said "oh, thatís Warren Hoohuli. I know that guy." So we got his phone number and ended up finding him, and we have him in our film talking about that incident 30 years later. You have to see it to see how it turns out, but Hoohuli was one of the warlords of Yokohama Bay for almost 50 years, and during that time he went from being one of the young thugs to being one of grandfathers there. But he has this incredible attitude about it all; after the Ď80s things were really bad there, people were getting murdered on the West Side, and all the violence had basically reached a point where people saw it was futile. So for him, at least, it became much more about aloha and giving, and now heís one of the patron saints of the West Side, which is a really unique and really rich part of the Hawaiian Islands.
MJ: It must be an interesting experience to be making a film about filmmakers. How much influence did they have on what you were doing?
GS: Well, it was a really neat process, and what was great was that Weaver and Wills, even though theyíre master technicians, seemed content to let me kind of run the show. I expected them to be more critical during the making of the film, but they werenít that way at all. Weaver is classic; he only said one thing to me, which was "I donít care what you do, just promise me one thing: California has to be green, and Hawaii has to be blue." And that was it. Wills was even less demonstrative: he basically saw it and said, "well, itís just fine. A fine piece of film." In the end, they were really happy about it, and when we premiered at the X-Dance Festival they were just beaming. And that was a really rewarding thing for me, to see that they were being recognized for the work theyíd put in over the years. They were always underground guys, and what I was doing with Chasing the Lotus was trying to bring what theyíd done to light. Itís funny, because at first they didnít even want to be interviewed on camera; that was one thing I was firm on, though, and I kept telling them that I couldnít make a documentary with just their voices. People wouldíve been burning to see what they looked like, and they finally agreed to be seen on film. But thatís how underground those guys were; they shunned the media spotlight, and they always just wanted their work to speak for itself. But the whole film was done with their approval, and it worked out well that way.
MJ: Another thing thatís really apparent in the film is how do-it-yourself things were when Weaver and Wills were starting out. Even just looking at the stills from the film, thereís the shot of Wills splicing together film, or the one of Weaver shaping in a backyard in Hawaii. It was simpler time then, but harder in a lot of ways.
GS: Exactly. There was no industry. The surf industry was nonexistent then. If you wanted to go surf in Hawaii, you were like a frontiersman, going to this strange new island and doing this strange new sport. You were making your own boards, making your own water housings and camera lenses. And that was part of the genius of Weaver and Wills; not to disparage the guys doing it now, especially guys like Patrick Trefz and Scott Aichner who are masters in their own right, but the guys today buy their gear already made. Weaver and Wills were constructing stuff from scratch and cutting and splicing their own film by hand. Now we have digital cameras and Final Cut Pro and tools like that, so who should we respect more? The guys now, or guys who did it all from the ground up? Itís probably unanswerable, you know, and there are two sides to everything, but thatís the kind of question that Chasing the Lotus leaves open. Weaver talks about that in the film when we get to Kauai. His rise to fame in the surf world happened when he moved there; he got in with the locals and started taking pictures of some of the secret spots and publishing the shots with no names. Thatís how he initially rose to prominence as a photographer, and he talks about how hard it was back at that time. Thereís something else that most people donít know either, which is that Spider Wills was the mentor and Greg Weaver the protťgť. Wills had figured all this stuff out already; he and Weaver met in í69 in Hanalei, and Wills basically said, "hey, if you want to learn, follow me." So Weaver gave up everything and started following Wills, and before long he came a master in his own way.
MJ: Despite how everything has changed, though, bringing the film in person to places like Tofino is a highly traditional thing. Whatís it been like being on the road with Chasing the Lotus?
GS: Itís been an incredible time. Itís had ups and downs, just like life, but itís been a remarkable experience. It was something I did on purpose; I knew I wanted to travel with the film myself, just to feel what it was like to be Bruce Brown or Hal Jepsen or Albert Falzon, traveling around campuses and film festivals, doing interviews, going on radio shows. Iíve been able to keep at it for a long time, and next month will be one year that Chasing the Lotus has been on the road. Itís been a trip for sure. There were places I didnít think anyone would show up, like Albuquerque, and sure enough there were hordes of people there in the middle of the desert. And there were others where I figured itíd be a sure thing and instead there was barely anybody there. The first night in Santa Cruz was like that, but I guess the word got out and the next night everyone showed up. The Santa Barbara show was the same night as the last game of the World Series, which wasnít exactly the best luck, but overall the timing has been really good. October of í06 was one of the best falls that California had seen in probably ten years; there were back-to-back swells with offshore winds, and while I was working my way through Monterey and Big Sur and Santa Barbara pretty much every spot was perfect and firing. Iíve traveled a lot of places, but that was hands down the best month of surfing Iíve ever had. Places that donít even break were breaking; the swell angles were all just right. That north swell was just so picture perfect that you honestly couldnít imagine any swell ever setting up better. But to bring it back around, Iíve gone on tour with the film for historical reasons, basically to pay homage to the guys that did it before us and experience the same things that those guys did.
MJ: So now, when you sit down and watch the film, is there a specific sequence that really sums up the whole spirit of it for you?
GS: There are a couple that really resonate. The epiphany kind of moments. One of them is from the fourth day that Lopez and Russell had been surfing Uluwatu; the swell had been building, and Lopez had to switch to from riding a small board to a Brewer gun. Thereís one shot in particular where Lopez is sweeping across the face of this perfect double-overhead wave, no leash, carving these huge open-face turns, and itís some of the most beautiful surfing that youíll ever see. That to me is the defining moment. The shotís not perfect; itís all green and grainy, and has this weird compressed look because Wills took his camera up the cliff and zoomed all the way in from 200 yards away. It has this one-dimensional, almost storybook feel. He was shooting Kodachrome 25, which has these real saturated colours, and he shot it at a slightly higher frame rate than normal, so Lopez is sweeping along the wave slower than usual, almost slow motion, this Zen trance sort of thing. That shot really transfixed me the first time I saw it, and I think that one wave really says it all. That one moment is what every surfer tries to find, that state of harmonic bliss thatís always out there somewhere.
MJ: The cover for Chasing the Lotus is one of the classic old photos of Lopez, Dick Brewer and Reno Abellira. Was that an obvious choice for you?
GS: Well, we had a couple of ideas in mind for the cover. Weíd gone through a bunch of photos from Weaver and Wills, and then when I was looking through some old Surfer magazines I came across the series from Dave Darling, the Maui-based photographer who took all those photos. Those guys had all gotten together one afternoon and started doing yoga, and Darling shot a whole roll of it. Thereís a more famous one from that series, so the one we used was an outtake. But theyíre in the lotus position, and the shot just seemed to say it all about that time period. It was that Eastern mystic kind of thing, and it was accompanied by the psychedelic element. Those guys were Chasing the Lotus, which basically means they were chasing forms of perfection. The Chinese consider the lotus to be the most perfect flower in the world, and it really becomes a symbol of what we all strive to find.
MJ: Thatís actually a really layered concept for us here as well, because thereís a tradition of B.C. being referred to as ĎLotusland,í which comes from the legend that the Lotus flower would bring you to this sort of forgetful and psychedelic and basically idyllic place. So youíve called it Chasing the Lotus, but did they ever find it? How much of it was real, and how much of it was them being in the business of creating myth?
GS: I think the answer goes both ways. Weaver and Wills were the mythmakers, but along the way they definitely experienced their share of the true moments. But of course that begs the other question, which is how much of a role cosmic consciousness and LSD played in everything. Because all of a sudden in the Ď60s there were all these new drugs, so people were taking psychedelics and going surfing. And some people could handle it, but there were some people who you see in the film who couldnít escape from it and lost their lives. Buddy Boy Keohe is the prime example: he just did too much, it was just too much drugs, and he went from being a standout Honolua Bay surfer in the Ď60s, really an amazing stylist, to being a drugged-out dude who was eventually found in a dumpster in Encinitas. There are some of those tragedies that we highlight in Chasing the Lotus. But there were also those who were able to tap into the higher planes: the drugs unlocked the doors, but the point was that you werenít supposed to need the drugs to actually take you through. The doors of perception were opened, and it was up to you to walk through on your own, but some of the surfers of the time definitely tapped in and came out the other side. Herbie Fletcher talks about it in the film; they were approaching LSD in an almost scientific way, where theyíd do acid and go surfing and imagine the water flow over the rails and then go in and cut down the boards and re-glass them. And that was a huge part of how the shortboard revolution came about. Even a guy like Rarick, whoís super clean, says that he canít deny that Brewer and those guys were really innovative and that drugs were a part of it; those guys were the first guys to really cut down their boards and realize that surfboards should look like a teardrop to hold in at Pipeline. So a substantial part of Chasing the Lotus has to do with revealing those aspects of the surf culture of the time, and that was the world that Weaver and Wills, these real masters of their art, managed to preserve through their work.