The Nathan Fletcher Story Is One Of Tragedy, Triumph And It's Heading To The Big Screen
Director Michael Oblowitz talks "Heavy Water," the new Nathan Fletcher doc. premiering tomorrow!
Director Michael Oblowitz is, probably, best known for a film you've likely never seen. Sea of Darkness, a tale of drug smuggling, Indo perfection, and ugly consequences, has long captivated the imaginations of the unfortunate majority who have failed to find an illicit copy.
His latest release, Heavy Water, will not suffer the same fate. Backed by Red Bull, it's found mainstream release- scheduled to hit AMC theaters on June 13th. It's a film that's definitely best seen on a massive screen, where the pictures can capture your total awareness while the sound system delivers the roaring grumble of massive surf deep into the pit of your gut.
We caught up with Oblowitz to talk about his past projects, the efforts involved in making a film like Heavy Water, his relationship with the Fletcher family, and what he hopes the audience will take away from the film.
We first heard about Heavy Water way back in 2015. Why has it taken so long to be released?
When it first came out it didn't really come out. When I first discussed it with Nathan the idea was that I could make a movie about his life story if we could end the movie with his dream of jumping out of a helicopter into an outer reef wave. That was his dream.
I was just interested in his life story. Being a Fletcher family member, with that incredible pedigree. His grandfather was one of the original big wave surfers. Joyce Hoffman was the first professional woman surf champion. His dad is Herbie Fletcher, the legend. His brother is Christian Fletcher, his nephew is Greyson Fletcher. You couldn't have a more incredible extreme sports pedigree than that family.
And then just the stories of his life, which I already knew were amazing. His close friendship with Bruce Irons and Andy Irons. His friendship with Sion Milosky and the tragedy that ensued there...
I had no idea how I was going to get [the acid drop] funded. I had barely enough money to shoot [Nathan], to do the interviews.
He was so profound and captivating... he had a presence on camera that was dynamic and appealing and I knew I had something really good.
I then edited that first draft of the movie into 80 minutes with b-roll footage. I worked with an editor named Carter Slade. He's Venice born and bred, lives in Oxnard. A guy who has a very solid knowledge of the history of surfing.
We made that first draft edit and I submitted it to the San Sebastian Film Festival, where it got accepted…
If you were showing a version of this in 2015, what took so long to get the finished product out?
So the 2015 iteration of the film was just a rough draft. It also got a lot of flack from the Hawaiians because nobody really knew what I was doing and somehow there was a rumor going around that I was making about Sion Milosky, which I was never making and never had any desire to make. It was always about Nathan Fletcher. From day one.
I don't know how that started. There was a lot of shit hitting the fan about the 2015 version, even though it was never the finished version to begin with.
Once we had the deal made with Red Bull, then came the arduous process of actually trying to film Nathan jumping out of the helicopter into this wave successfully. That took a couple years. To get the permits, work out all the logistics. We went through a number of different permutations of water safety and camera crews.
Until I met Darrick Doerner and Dave Walsh and Mikey Bruneau I wasn't really getting a lot of love on the North Shore for doing the stunt. They all thought it was too dangerous and that I'd kill someone. And nobody wanted that to happen.
The two guys who were really supportive were Rusty and Brian Keaulana. That's how I got to Darrick Doerner, through them.
Rusty said to me, when I originally brought up the idea, that the only guy he knows that could pull this jump off successfully, besides himself back when he was young, is Nathan Fletcher. Because of his experience in snowboarding and dirt bike racing and skateboarding... He has so many different extreme sports, and board sports, on tap at a professional level, that Rusty was certain Nathan's calculating intelligence would allow him figure out how to do it safely. And he was right.
This wipeout may be Nate's most famous surf shot, but he's respected worldwide for much much more.
Nathan Fletcher is known for being a bit of an introvert. How do you get a guy like that to sit down and open up to you?
I've known him for a long time. I was introduced to his father through the famous artist and filmmaker from New York, Julian Schnabel. The guy who did the Basquiat movie, who won multiple Academy Awards nominations. Made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and all these other great movies.
Julian was having a show at one of the big galleries in New York and said, “Michael, there's someone I want to introduce you to...”
And there was the legend, Herbie Fletcher. [Schnabel] knew that I was a fan of Herbie Fletcher's from my youth.
And Herbie and I became friends. We've had lots of amazing conversations about surfing and art.
In 2009/2010, when I finished Sea of Darkness, and it had all this controversy attached to it and everyone wanted to see it, Julian arranged for a screening at the RVCA house on the North Shore.
And there were Bruce Irons and Nathan Fletcher. They'd recently returned from Teahupoo. Both of them were still in post-traumatic stress states. Bruce from the death of his brother, Andy, and Nathan from Sion Milosky drowning. They were in very fragile states.
I was introduced by Julian, and Nathan and I just hit it off. Nathan's one of those guys that... he has to trust you. Like Hank Foto says in the movie, “His senses are always sensing.” He has, like, eyes in the back of his head.
He's very skeptical of people he doesn't know.
But once he trusts you he's very loqacious. He's extremely talkative. He's got a lot to say. He's experienced a lot.
I think he was waiting. It was, like psychoanalytic transference. I really think he'd had a lot of his trauma bottled up inside him, you know, and, under the right circumstances, he was ready to transfer it out into the world.
Death is a recurring factor throughout the film...
I'm getting to that point in my life where mortality is something that's staring me right in the face with the savage flaming eyes and smoking nose of a dragon ready to consume me. And there's been so much mortality in surfing in the last ten years, it's extraordinary.
For anyone that thinks, obviously death is something you have to think about all the time. Albert Camus said there's only one choice to make in life, and that's whether to stay alive or kill yourself. And that's very prescient in our day and age.
It's something I thought about a lot and for Nathan, given the extreme nature of his existence, the stuff he did for a living and for his own self-gratification, or self-definition... death features prominently.
He was hanging around with Andy Irons... he was a pretty extreme guy and, in the movie, Nathan describes saving him, when [Irons] was 21, from an overdose.
When you're paddling fifty to eighty foot was back in the early to mid 2000s, when there was no safety gear, no inflation vests... like Todd Chesser did before them, surfing these outer reefs, it's super dangerous. Inevitably, someone is going to die at some point. It's the nature of the conquest. Like climbing Mount Everest, or free-soloing, the odds are not stacked in your favor.
When you couple that with the kind of personality of extreme sportsmen- taking lots of drugs, partying a lot... it's a prescription for disaster.
It was when I found that amazing clip of Woody Brown, the legendary big wave pioneer, and he says, “I just wanted to come close to death and at the last minute, jump back,” when I saw that I had the key to the movie.
So a meditation about death was, for me, the perfect avenue for existential, philosophical, analysis of why people do what they do. What motivates them? What keeps them going? The morality of that kind of behavior. Whether it's a fundamental challenge of the human spirit or if it's pure narcissism.
It's acid drops like this that give Nate all the rights to our little acid drop contest in Waco, Texas.
You've got an AMC release, which is a huge deal for a surf movie...
About 500 theaters, nationwide, and then a few hundred others in Australia and Indonesia and Pakistan and New Zealand and Europe.
Nathan and I are going on a worldwide release tour, as if it were an actual action movie.
I directed action movies for years. I did a couple of really successful early Steven Seagal movies, I did a horror-action movie with Val Kilmer. Action is definitely my bailiwick, I feel very happy in that genre. And this movie is that. It's a documentary posing as an action movie.
When you really get into the nitty-gritty of these guys surfing huge waves, and the price that they pay... I really try to create that drama in the style of an action movie. Especially when you get to the acid drop section at the end, that's dedicated to Jay Adams, who was Nathan's babysitter...
...Imagine having Jay Adams as your babysitter. That's pretty freaky, right? Talk about challenging death...
What really fascinated me about this film is that it's one of surfing origin stories. When you go back to Woody Brown and Peter Cole and Nathan's grandfather, Walter Hoffman, you're dealing with the origins of contemporary modern surfing. Because it's such a powerful origin story it also has all the mythological aspects of an origin story. Drownings, deaths... all of the trials by fire that a warrior has to go through to realize peace and tranquility. To realize his dreams.
And some people die and some people survive. And, luckily for us, Nathan's one of those survivors.
That's the story.