Steph Gilmore, Creed McTaggart, And The Concept Surf Film Of The Summer
A conversation with Pilgrim Surf Supply owner, director, photographer, and artist Chris Gentile on "Self Discovery For Social Survival."
Any surfer who has put any time in New York City will have encountered Chris Gentile, the owner of Pilgrim Surf Supply, Conde Naste's former creative director, and prolific artist, photographer, and now surf film director.
Since relocating to Brooklyn some twenty years ago, Gentile's left an indellible print on the city, helping define its cosmopolitan scene and catalyzing its grassroots community, while serving as the unofficial cultural ambassador to everyone from Dane Reynolds to Richard Phillips.
Rhode Island born, Florida bred, Gentile grew up obsessively watching surf films, and had his world view shaped by films like Litmus, The Search, Transition Era classics like Morning of the Earth, Evolution, Hot Generation, and of course "the greatest surf film ever made," The Endless Summer.
After decades reverantly celebrating the craft of surf films, hosting some of the most memorable film premieres The City's ever seen, Gentile finally took up the form himself, setting out three years ago to make a film that drew on his deep love for music, cinematography, literature, and left-field, expressive surfing. The end result, Self Discovery For Social Survival, is a gorgeous conceptual effort that we'd rather let Chris explain.
We caught up with him after a sold out premiere at Los Angeles' Galaxy Theater, which featured live performances from several of the musicians that contributed to the film's original score. The film premieres tonight in New York City, at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave, NYC).
Chris Gentile (left) and writer Jamie Brisick introducing the film at the Los Angeles premiere. Brisick wrote the film's script, which was read by the late, great New York artist, filmmaker, and poet Jonas Mekas.
You and I both were obsessive surf vid nerds. I think you might be more of one than I am, actually. What is it about surf films that captures a certain type of imagination? What were the films that did that for you?
Ha! You’re right. I ruined VHS surf and skate tapes as a kid from watching them too much!
The first surf film I watched as a 8-year-old kid was Endless Summer. I remember it playing on network TV as a special. This was before cable tv so you had to “tune in." My uncle was a surfer, and came to my grandparents' house, turned in the TV at 8pm on a weekday and exposed me to that film. I was floored. All I wanted to do from that point on was find and ride waves. It was two decades old when I was eight, but it still captured my imagination and when I watch it now it does the same. It’s the greatest surf film of all time in my opinion and there’s not that much surfing in it!
I think that particular fact was a big influence on our film. The idea of finding great surf, conditions and empty line-ups is a certain kind of fuel, but in reality that fantasy is far outweighed by what you get in the pursuit of the “perfect wave." The Endless Summer was an “adventure film” more so than a surf film.
I truly love so many films for so many reasons. The classic films that I go back to most often are Surfing Hollow Days, Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, Morning of the Earth, A Natural Art, Crystal Voyager, Storm Riders, Many Classic Moments, Bali High, Chasing the Lotus, Searching for Tom Curren.
Then there’s the VHS stuff from my teen years that’s raw and punk like the Run Man series and all the lost videos... And of course the work from contemporaries like Litmus, Seedling, Church of the Open Sky... too many man.
I love Mick Sowry’s film Musica Surfica for its experimental and conceptual approach to documenting surfing. I think that film was in a sense a look at what is possible when one disrupts patterns and expectations when riding waves and making music. Mick’s film reminded me to be as curious with my own surfing as I am with making art.
But when I think about what really influenced this film I have to say it was films like Alice In The City, Paris Texas, Fitz Caraldo, Jonas Mekas’ Lost, Lost, Lost and Koyaanisqatsi.
How did this film come about? Was there a concept or idea rattling around in your brain, or did you just want to make a film after three decades appreciating them, and just started filming and saw where it went?
Keith Abrahamsson from Mexican Summer recordings and I had recently met, and we became fast friends through our love of surf film soundtracks. (His other label, Anthology Recordings started reissuing the soundtracks from Crystal Voyager, Morning of the Earth, Bali High, Evolution and Sea of Joy.)
They wanted to try and make a surf soundtrack with a musical accompaniment, and had tried something once that didn’t pan out. As we started talking more about surf films and music the idea evolved around documenting a journey with a group of luminary surfers and talented musicians (who also surf), then asking the musicians to create and record music inspired by that journey upon their return.
That’s essentially what we did. We used the idea of going to remote places in the three major oceans with three separate groups of surfers and musicians. The trips were two weeks long and we got what we got. It was a risk. We almost got skunked in Iceland and we scored incredible beach breaks in Mexico.
Stephanie Gilmore on location in Iceland.
The SDFSS crew under the Northern Lights.
There’s a lot going on in this film. Jamie Brisick’s writing, the late, brilliant Jonas Mekas narrating, trips to some far-flung locales with Stephanie Gilmore, Creed McTaggart, etc. How did you assemble your cast and crew? What locations was the film shot at, and by whom?
I’m lucky to have cultivated friendships and relationships in my life that have ultimately allowed me to see connections between things that otherwise might be non-sequiturs or incongruent.
I liked the idea of this project being improvisational, where we were all in some way interdependent on each other’s talents. There’s also an element of being out of your element when you don’t get to choose who you’re traveling with. It’s an opportunity to grow and see things through other people’s perspective. I think that relates to the film’s title.
Surfing can teach you a great deal about yourself if you're conscious of that.
Chris Gentile in Iceland, while filming for "Self Discovery For Social Survival."
You’re not one to half-ass any aspect of your creative projects, and that’s reflected in the film's soundtrack. (Or, do we call it a score?) Can you give us the rundown on the artists who contributed to the score?
Keith and I wanted bands and musicians that surfed to be on this trip. It was a natural process, really. Keith works with all these talented people in various capacities, so we spoke about it and pitched them. We ended up with the Allah Las for the Mainland Mexico vignette, Peaking Lights for the Maldives and Connan Mockasin and Andrew VanWyngarden for Iceland.
My job was to fit the surfers into those spots, and I decided I wanted to make sure we had an “elder” surfer on each trip that contributes more than just their surfing tallest to the culture. People like Richard Kenvin, Devon Howard, Andrew Kidman and Jamie Brisick. The down time we had was sometimes like a history lesson. It was special.
"Elder" on the Iceland mission, Andrew Kidman.
So, anyone who has made their way through the New York scene the last ten or so years will have encountered ou, but for those who aren’t familiar, give us a little of your creative background, and pedigree, and how you ended up spending a few good years making your magnum opus surf film?
Well, it was 3 years in the making really. I’m just a guy who came to NYC to make art and ended with a surf shop and now a surf concept film!
I’ve been on a funny path my whole life I guess. I’ve been a surf turkey my whole life, but I have other passions that drive me equally and those are music, art, design, and craftsmanship. I guess this film is a result of allowing all those things to stew, so to speak.
The greatest thing for me about this project is that it really was a giant collaboration between multiple personalities and talents. I was like the driver on the party bus to Rainbow Bridge! Just put those people together and watch them make magic in and out of the water.
A thoroughly pocked Galaxy Theater for the first premiere of "Self Discovery For Social Survival."
You’ve thrown hundreds of surf movie nights. Are you fucking nervous about your very own major debut?
I’ve looked at this film so much, I can’t tell if it’s any good or not! Haha!
I guess I’m a little nervous. I’ve never put something in front of an audience like this. At the same time, I’ve come embrace a certain capacity for embarrassment! Haha! Surfing like making art, films, music, etc. is an exercise in humility. In some ways that is what this film is about.
Ultimately, I hope it inspires people to surf, to take risks and to think about how precious our natural resources are.... Just like so many great surf films have done for me in the past.