Surfing as a Matter of Life and Death; Stacy Peralta on “Riding Giants”
by Lily Oei
Stacy Peralta‘s directorial debut, “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” picked up a slew of awards including audience and director prizes at Sundance 2001. For his next project, “Riding Giants,” Peralta investigated another one of his passions, surfing. As with “Dogtown,” “Riding Giants” is part history lesson, part psychological study, an exploration into the minds of big wave surfing’s holy trinity: Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, and Laird Hamilton, icons who span three generations of the sport.
A surfer before he was a skater, Peralta applied skills from one board to another. As a director, he continues to use those same instincts and sense of anticipation behind the camera. He recently spoke with indieWIRE contributor Lily Oei; Sony Pictures Classics releases “Riding Giants” in select theaters in New York, California and Hawaii on Friday.
indieWIRE: Why make a movie about skaters if you were a surfer first?
Stacy Peralta: I wanted to make “Dogtown” at the time because Hollywood was going to put together a fictional “Dogtown” film, and I wanted us to have a chance to say our peace first. Not to say that I was worried that they were going to bastardize it, but that it was a good time for us to be able to do our thing — and it worked out well.
iW: Now “Dogtown” is going to be a feature with you on board as screenwriter.
Peralta: It turned out to be a good visual aid for the movie that’s going to come out. I came out of Sundance 2001 and the movie sold. The producers that had been trying to buy my life rights came to me and offered me a chance to write the film. I spent time doing that and when that was done, what I wanted to do before I moved any further was something with surfing.
iW: Documentaries are incredibly hot right now and it seems like that every network has a TV series that involves surfing. How do you keep your finger on the pulse?
Peralta: I’ve had pretty good timing in life. But during the ’90s, there was a seven-year period when I couldn’t — it’s like I fell out of time. And I was aware of it — no matter what I did, everything I did, no matter how good it was, it just wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t until “Dogtown” that everything realigned. But it wasn’t until I finished this film that I realized it was a very fortuitous time, and it was like, “Wow.” The same thing happened for “Dogtown.” I didn’t think it would succeed.
iW: So when you conceive an idea, you don’t forecast for some marketplace?
Peralta: You want to get the film out there, you want to get it purchased, hope you’re doing the right thing at the right time, but it can’t be the reason that you’re doing it. Certainly you don’t want to make something that nobody sees. It’s not really about success, it’s about sharing something. And hopefully that people will get what you found interesting about it.
iW: Did you feel a lot of sophomore pressure?
Peralta: I was worried about pigeonholed as just a documentarian, or pigeonholed as an action-sports guy. I was worried if this film fails, critics would say the only reason I could make “Dogtown” was because I was one of those [skateboarding] guys. That it was not going to be good for a feature career if I do this. With all these things in front of me, I explained this to a friend and he said, “Just get it out of your system. Move forward.”
What I lack in technique, I think I make up more for in intuition. I think intuition is underrated and so important in the work that one does in one’s life. And going with intuition a lot of times is very lonely. You’re going on hunches — a little voice in here says, “Go this way.” And your mind is saying, “You’re crazy.”
iW: It sounds like surfing.
Peralta: It is. You’re heart is saying, “No, you can do it” and “I’m with you if you do it.”
iW: Have you seen other surf movies, like: “Step into Liquid”?
Peralta: I haven’t. We were making this and I didn’t want to be affected by (“Step into Liquid”). I have seen most of the Hollywood films, most of which I don’t like and have seen all the surf pornography that comes out of the surfing industry — the trick videos and all that. I just thought there was a middle ground here that nobody’s covering. When I was looking through archival footage in making this film, I couldn’t believe no one had made it. All this had been sitting there for years how was it that I was the one who came across it. Anybody could have done this. Again… timing.
iW: There seems to be a lot of good timing in the making of this movie. Not only did you want to tell the story of big wave surfers but Laird Hamilton wanted to make a movie too.
Peralta: I met Greg [Noll]; he was the one who inspired me to do this film. But I knew that if I had Greg, I had to have Laird on board because they’re the two pillars. And Laird said, “Funny thing is, I’ve been looking for you.” All these little things started happening, clues all saying, this is what’s supposed to be.
iW: Before “Riding Giants,” I always assumed surfers were blond Adonises.
Peralta: The typical impression is that they are these sand fleas on the beach, who smoke pot and have nothing better to do than surf. There’s a tremendous amount of deliberation planning thinking and the mental game of riding big waves. It’s the reason I wanted to do something in surfing, and I thought the canvas of big waves was a great visual hook for the non-surfer. Also, in big-wave surfing you have adventure, discovery, inciting moments, and incidents that changed history of surfing, and you have life and death.
iW: It sounds like classical Greek drama.
Peralta: We decided each generation should be its own act with its own three-act within the film. It was a process of what aspects we’ll cover in each and trying to get into one person per act with an orbiting group around them. We needed a chance to ground themselves to one person at least. That’s something I learned from “Dogtown,” you have to be careful about having too many people in the film.
iW: What IS it that drives people to these waves?
Peralta: It’s a lifestyle. The waves and the relationship these guys have with the ocean, is what has informed their identity. It’s intoxicating experience. Not just riding the wave. It’s the entire act of it. Getting in your wetsuit. Waking up at 5:30 in the morning. Paddling into the water, feeling the cold water on your skin. The mist coming out of the breath. Every wave, every day before it, is different. It’s ephemeral. And if you’re going to become good at it, you must base your life around it.
iW: Even though people surf around the world, is there something quintessentially American about surfing?
Peralta: Big-waves surfers originated out of California. There was a section we were going to talk about in the film on why weren’t there more Hawaiian big-wave riders, but we didn’t have a place for it.
Greg Noll said that these Hawaiians weren’t conflicted with the stuff we westerners were. They have a much more gentle relationship with the ocean. They live in a beautiful Eden, and weren’t out there to prove anything. Whereas according to Greg, these white guys, they need to prove something and have been for the most part the ones that put their footprints on the other side.
iW: What’s astonishing to me is that a bad day can also be the difference between life and death.
Peralta: They know that going out into these things they may not come home. That’s an awareness that they live with. At the same time, it’s that closeness to death that causes them to pay so much attention and constantly be so focused. At times, they experience a transcendent moment and there’s nothing more pure in life than that.
iW: Given that you’ve made movies about skateboarding and surfing, are you looking for a bit of yourself in each?
When you make a film like this, you can’t but help go down roads and avenues you find interesting about these activities that you then reflect back on yourself and your own experiences. So you’re constantly weighing this against personal experience and being curious.