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How to surf from your seat: California surf culture on the big screen this fall

September 23, 2010 |  7:44 pm


As California’s summer south swells wane and surfers pray for a glimmer of last year’s El Nino magic, wave enthusiasts have plenty of options to whittle away the doldrums from the safety of their seats this fall.

Friday evening kicks off the opening of the New York Surf Film Festival, a three-day event, Sept. 24-26, dedicated to the best surf stories of the year at the Tribeca Theaters in New York. Angelenos will find plenty of local talent and turf on display in films including "180 South," produced by L.A. production company Woodshed Films, directed by Ojai native Chris Malloy and exquisitely shot by Los Angeles-based director of photography Danny Moder. The film retraces the 1968 trip by Patagonia founder Yvonne Choinard and North Face founder Doug Tompkins from Ventura to Patagonia through the eyes of Ventura adventurer Jeff Johnson.

Other West Coast films include "Stoked and Broke," by Orange County phenom Cyrus Sutton, and "Thrills, Spills and What Not," by and about Ventura surf star Dane Reynolds, both anecdotes to the slick high budget surf porn that has become all too common in the genre.

Southern California shapers are the subjects of San Diego artist/surfer Richard Kenvin’s short, "The Planning Totem," "A Brief History: Terry Martin" by Los Angeles director Tyler Manson, and "Shaping a Life" by Denise Galvao that profiles Oceanside shaper, big-wave surfer and contest organizer Gary Linden. 

For those craving Northern California rides, there is Joshua Leonard Pomer’s "The Westsiders" about the rise and fall of The Westiders Santa Cruz surf gang and Patrick Trefz’s "Idiosyncrasies," which profiles underground legends, including Harbor Bill Mulcoy and San Clemente iconoclast Christian Beamish, who sails in a handmade boat from San Diego to Baja and surfs a hand made board on the biggest swell of the Mavericks 2010 season.

If you can’t make it to the East Coast screenings, many of the same films will be showing again at the Empire Theaters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the Canadian Surf Film Festival Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.

West Coast film-goers can catch the California Surf Festival at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside from Oct. 6-10, where Trefz’s "Idiosyncrasies" will screen along with a documentary on the original surfer girl, Gidget, and the best of the 2010 El Nino big waves will be on display in a Powerlines Production documentary. If you’re up north you can catch "Idiosyncrasies" again on Oct. 15 at the Pedro Point Firehouse or hold out for soon to be announced surf flicks at the Save the Waves Film Festival at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco on Nov. 12.

Sachi Cunningham, contributor to the L.A. Times blog Framework, recently caught up with "Idiosyncrasies" director Patrick Trefz on his way from California to Friday’s screening in New York to learn more about the lens master’s process. Trefz, a self-taught photographer and filmmaker learned how to surf as a young teen in the North Sea of Holland and Germany. His father lived in Paris, where he also honed his surf and skate style. When he was 18 he moved to Costa Rica and Mexico, then migrated north to Santa Cruz at 23, where he resides today.

Sachi Cunningham: How did you conceive of this film and how long did it take from start to finish? 

Patrick Trefz: It’s always been a dream of mine to document my friends and I always had an appreciation for their style. All of the characters are underground and not truly professional surfers except for Tom Curren, who is not a typical pro surfer. Those are always the kind of people that I hung out with. It’s hard to finance something like that because it’s not a mass media celebration like a Kelly Slater film with clothing manufacturers behind the thing. Those guys get so much hype that it pays to make films out of them. These guys are not in the limelight. 

Teak (the San Francisco production company that represents Trefz) did the editing over four months with five editors. The entire project took three years. It was self-financed through my credit cards. Whatever I did for work went into that. I was also lucky enough to schedule certain editorial trips on some guys through Surfer Magazine (where Trefz is a contributing photographer). The budget was around $50,000, labor not included.

SC: Were you shooting with a crew or solo?

PT: I was pretty much a one-man band with the help of friends that were there.

SC: What kind of camera did you use?

PT: Mostly a Panasonic HVX with a Leica lens.

SC: Did you script the structure and ideas that you wanted to convey in the film before shooting or did it happen more organically?

Bill PT: With the characters, one kind of led to the next. It started with the Mulcoys (the elder of the father son duo, Bill, illegally surfed the Santa Cruz harbor for years before Surfer Magazine outed him in 1985). I had a storyboard, a script and an idea of what I wanted to do. The other characters grew out of that. I knew there was a certain length I wanted to get.

SC: Did you edit as you shot, with one shoot and edit informing the next?

PT: I shot everything first. In the end the editors had around 700 terabytes of footage to work with.

SC: How do you know when to put the motion camera down and when to pick up the still camera?

PT: I knew it was going to be a film project but I love photography so much that there's just no way I wasn't going to take pictures during this. In some cases I had a second filmer so I could take photos. If the waves are not perfect but the lighting is (perfect) I'm not going to film but I might get a nice still shot (of a surfer or wave) doing something cool. Or if it’s overcast and the waves are reeling it makes sense to capture on film, show the whole length of wave and clean conditions. The difference is like a painter who uses acrylics versus oil. In the end it’s the same thing. One is moving and one is still. It’s a similar language but with film you have a lot more depth: the storyline, soundtrack, interview. There are infinite possibilities. With a still book you want to bring a cinematic storytelling style to the table. I worked with designer Tom Adler, who also worked on the “180 South” book.

SC: How has your work has been influenced by the digital revolution?

Leeann PT: The new digital format is very beautiful. I’m not trying to make it look like film but it’s also not ugly and stark and pixilated. For me it's the first time that I adjusted and adapted to digital without wanting to shoot film. In it's own way video has certain warmth that makes it very nice to work with. I also used some 16mm Bolex shots. For years I had trouble adjusting to digital. I wasn't happy with the results but the color (using the 5D Mark II) is very similar to color in analog. For black-and-white shots I still use the Canon EOS III and a Roliflex and Pentax for medium format shots.

SC: How did you film the Christian Beamish scenes?

PT: When he left from the San Diego harbor we followed him for awhile. Then he took off solo. I didn't want to follow him because it was an intimate deal. I then recreated everything with a POV look using different trips that I took in the past through Baja. I also used his still photos. For the surf scene he let us know where he was and we caught up with him.

SC: Do you think there is a California surf style that has endured throughout time and is reflected in your Californian characters?

PT: Tom Curren is from Santa Barbara and his style dictated how the whole world surfed after him. From South Africa to Europe to Brazil, nobody surfed like that before him. He developed the style that was honed on California point breaks. We have a lot of long rights. A lot of the guys have a similar style. But these characters are truly unique in their environments regardless of whether they are in California or not. They are beyond California style. Anywhere in the world these guys would be unique.

SC: What do you think makes a good surf film?

PT: A good surf film has an interesting script with an interesting story that's backed up with really good surfing. You want to have someone like (Kelly) Slater watch it and say,  “this is great surfing,” but you also want a non-surfer to relate.

SC: What do you think makes a good surf photo?

PT: As long as there's something that creates any excitement in me, that's a good surf photo. Something fresh, something new. It’s more of an instinctual thing. The more unseen, the more surprising, the better. That's the ultimate challenge for myself: to create something that I haven’t done before to push myself forward.

SC: Who are your greatest creative influences?

PT: My dad is a still life photographer, painter and artist. He worked for Vogue Magazine in Paris and now owns a gallery in Finland. He introduced me to all different sorts of art at a young age: photos, film and painting and that opened a lot of doors for me and created my critical eye for the arts. Man Ray, Dubuffet, Alberto Jacometti, Basquiat, Barry McGee. I’ve always looked up to the films by the new German cinema wave: Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Fassbinder. Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” and Wenders' “The American Friend” are favorites. The best surf film is ”Crystal Voyager,” (which features a Pink Floyd sound track). The POV stuff he (director David Elfick) invented with a camera strapped to his back.

SC: What was the most difficult part of making this movie?

PT: Nothing. You just have to put your heart and soul into it and go for it.

SC: What’s next?

PT: I have a couple projects in the works (that I can’t talk about). You never know. I used to paint a lot when I was a teenager. I wouldn't exclude anything at this point. Maybe I'll become a ballet dancer (laughs). Just kidding.

Photos: (Top) The Mulcoys surf at the entrance to the Santa Cruz Harbor. (Middle) Harbor Bill Mulcoy. (Bottom) Twenty-year-old Leeann Curren of the Curren surfing dynasty. Credit: Patrick Trefz