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Sailing With the Captain Ahab of Surfing: “Sea of Darkness” Director Michael Oblowitz

Sailing With the Captain Ahab of Surfing: “Sea of Darkness” Director Michael Oblowitz

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.

“Sea of Darkness” (USA, 2009) World Premiere
Director: Michael Oblowitz
Cast: Martin Daly, Peter McCabe, Jeff Chitty, Shaun Thompson, Kelly Slater, Greg Noll, Bruce Raymond, Bob McKnight, Rory Russel
A modern day pirate tale of exploration, adventure, and the discovery of jungle surf spots off the remote Indonesian coastline in the 1970s. The film also explores the smuggling missions that funded these journeys of discovery and the terrifying price some of these men paid for their passion.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

When I was really young I remember obsessively asking my father to buy me an 8mm movie camera. I have no idea what provoked this desire. I was about 11 years old. I was equally obsessed with magic and slight of hand and made strange home movies in which I attempted to perform magic tricks. I have not seen these films in decades, but I remember them clearly.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

I was directing a TV pilot for a show I had written that was shooting in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The plane was delayed at the airport in Miami and I was sitting next to a bunch of young surfers with their boards, obviously heading to the Caribbean. Suddenly this grey-haired guy shows up, about my age and all the young surfers snap to attention. I immediately recognized him as Martin Daly, the legendary surf explorer and captain of the equally legendary freighter, The Indies Trader, out of Perth, Australia. we ended up sitting next to each other in the first class cabin and as the scotch flowed, Martin, being the true sea captain, a kind of Captain Ahab of surfing, started telling me of his adventures exploring the remote jungle and coastline of Java and of his Indian ocean and South Pacific surf explorations and the many characters who accompanied him. His computer was filled with exotic photographs, and I proposed, on the plane, making a documentary film on him, the boat and some of its passengers. A story that spanned the 1970’s to today…

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

As I had been making genre films for a living for a number of years it was quite a creative release to initiate a project that was totally my own: no movie stars, no studio, no bond company…totally different to the kind of “paranoia television” and “electronic Taliban” process I was having to undergo to pay my rent. Of course that kind of totally independant film-making is a pipe dream and sooner or later one has to reunite with the “system” in order to survive.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

Obviously as the story developed and the exploits of the protagonists skirted the limits of legality, there were names, places and events that needed to be backgrounded or even relegated to the cutting room floor. There is a lot that can be said in a film, with out directly saying it. Of course Martin Daly always encouraged me to “…not let the truth get in the way of a great story.”

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

Many, but working with my teenage son and watching him shoot and surf the really heavy Indonesian waves was amazing. Sailing with Martin Daly and Dave Barnett, real Hemingway characters…watching 1970’s World Surfing Champion Shaun Tompson carve the most powerful waves…almost drowning at G-Land when my editor, Hawaii surfer Rob Taylor, dropped in on me on a massive, exploding wall of water…getting my hand stitched up by the first mate in the middle of the Indian Ocean…

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I have developed so many great scripts over the years that remain unmade, but Thane Rosenbaum and Larry Gross have written an amazing screenplay based on Thane’s novel, Second Hand Smoke. I eagerly await the day we roll cameras on that project.

What other projects are you looking to do?

Something that pays the rent….

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