Stab Magazine | Nathan Florence Discusses Stepping Into Surf Stardom And The Art Of Being On Every XL Swell
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Nathan Florence Discusses Stepping Into Surf Stardom And The Art Of Being On Every XL Swell

Following the premiere of his first self-released film. 

style // Jul 4, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 10 minutes

It is hard to imagine anyone living a better life than Nathan Florence, North Shore prince and middle member of the Florence Brothers triumvirate.

Nathan’s purpose- and love-filled life involves chasing swells to the heaviest waves on the planet, and almost without exception, each trip leaving a mark with some heroic takeoff, impossibly late drop, and casually creepy-fingered exit. On top of that, Nate recently won his first event as a professional big wave surfer at Red Bull Cape Fear, where the Hawaiian paddled his way to victory at Shipstern Bluff. 

Nate’s got one of the most trustworthy crews behind him, both in his Rat Pack brothers of Koa Rothman, Eli Olson, Kiron Jabour, John and Ivan Florence etc., and in ace lensman Erik Knutson, and perhaps one of the most capable men in all of surfing, Daniel Russo (who has probably saved as many surfers in critical situations as anyone). If that ain’t enough, he’s got Mahina Garcia, the flyest (and sweetest) gal in the game, wearing his chain. 

He has earned it, on so many levels, so it should be no surprise that Nathan’s first full production short film reflects just that: an unrelenting work ethic, an unwavering sense of humor, and a seemingly egoless ambition. 

After spending the weekend poolside with Nathan at Stab High, we caught up about the film, which premiered last night at Pacific City in Huntington Beach (both on the outside main screen for an all-ages crowd, and inside The Bungalow for a, well, looser vibe).

But we couldn’t start the convo without hearing his thoughts in the wake of Stab High.

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Nate didn’t make the Stab High final, but he did land a number of airs and never lost the smile on his face.

Photography

Tom Carey

Stab: We’re still picking up the pieces from the weekend, and you’re straight into a premiere for your movie! Before we get to that, what did you think of your Texas weekend at Stab High? 

Nathan: I. Loved. It. The whole thing was insane. It was just loose and fun enough to make it feel really different, and everyone there was having a really good time, there wasn’t that stress. Everyone was running it pretty loose. 

But it was gnarly. Just watching those guys, I was tripping. The aerial awareness those guys have… it’s a whole different level. I was watching guys go for grabs, then miss and recover and do a different grab and make it. It was nuts. 

They’re like, That’s not working? Change it up, mid-air. I was just… How? It was total improv. 

I think it’s really cool, for all the aerial guys, because it’s given them a totally new, massive platform. Because these guys are fucking legit, truly. They’re full specialists. Even from last year’s Stab High, to this one, those guys get way more flared for shit they’re doing. And they should be. It’s so sick. Like, everyone knew Kalani David was gnarly, but he was stomping everything. He’s so freakishly talented. He’s just been doing triple rotations on his skateboard since he was a grom. But the skateboarders like him, Curren, Shane Borland, their mindfulness in the air is next level. The tweaks! So skater-like, like they just went off a hip at a skatepark. 

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Air Camp!

Photography

Conrad Coleby

Alright, so you sent us a first draft of what’s become “There And Back Again” earlier this year. What have you guys been working on to release it as it is now? 

Well, I quickly became aware that there are other factors that go into filmmaking that I was just totally unaware of. Because I was like, “We did the trips. I’ve got the footage. Sick! I’ll put a film out!” 

But then we started realizing, licensing music and coloring and making trailers and this and that… It takes a long time! And it gave me a lot more respect for guys that put films out regularly. Albee, John, Dane, it’s so much work.  

You want to show your raw personality, but you want it to be cinematic, and striking that balance isn’t easy. It’s super easy to sway too far in either direction. 

With the whole VLOG thing and the way social media is going, they want pure personality, shock factor, or humor. If you’re missing those, and just putting out content it’s hard for people to stay tuned. 

So it was interesting making this with all of that in mind. 

The film’s fucking amazing. You get a sense of, not just that you scored a bunch of really good waves on their biggest days, but just how hard you work, that it isn’t easy, and also the group that you guys have together. 

It’s a full team effort, and it’s coordinated in a way that, when we get together it’s a really competitive atmosphere. And then you bring in guys like Eric [Knutson] and [Daniel] Russo, and they’re used to filming gnarly shit. They want to see gnarly shit, and you want to make sure that they’re impressed. Same goes for my friends. I want to impress my friends, they’re trying to impress us. 

So with this, we just said: Ok, let’s just not miss a swell this summer.

I don’t care how jet-lagged, how tired I was from traveling, or if I had just got home from a trip and had to leave the next day, or how scary the swell was or what it was looking like or this and that. I was just like, Do. Not. Say. No. 

And it ended up being the craziest summer of swells. Just an insane summer.

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Grab a big board and stuff it.

You guys scored everywhere. 

I mean, we got the biggest Nias ever, massive Tahiti, monster Fiji, one thing after the other. Puerto, Panama… It just came together. 

But there was no plan to make a film at the beginning of the summer. The summer before, we’d had all these insane trips, and we didn’t document them well, and we were regretting that. Like, why didn’t we film that? 

So then we were like, Ok, doesn’t matter if we don’t have a plan, let’s bring a filmer or two filmers on every single trip. It’s worth spending the money. It does get expensive, which is worth mentioning. I pretty much spent my entire salary, doing those trips, paying filmers. It’s not cheap. 

But because we did it that way, there was no stress on timelines or budgets. We were just going swell by swell. Then at the end, we had all this incredible footage, and just thought, Whoa. We can make a film from this.  

And I think that’s a really interesting way to put a framework around working on something like this. You don’t have to lock in timelines, locations, or any sort of concept beyond just, Let’s run it loose and let’s film every swell we strike, see what we have at the end. 

But hit it hard. 

Hit it hard. Send it, on every one. 

Chippa said the same thing about his last film. Basically, just, Yeah, you can decide you’re going to make a film over however long a timeline, and build all these boxes you want to tick, or you can just go chase every single swell non-stop until you suddenly realize you’re sitting on enough clips. Which sounds simple, but in reality, it’s pretty fucking hectic traveling like that. It’s a punish. 

Yeah, guys are constantly filming for these bigger films, just going, Oh, we need to extend the deadline, we need more budget…

TABA NF 2019 1.1.38

Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Regardless of your position, if you’re not a World Tour guy, it seems to me like the A-List as far as free surfers go, they have to sort of follow the Dane Template, and learn how to make surf films… So what’s it like making movies?

Dane and John and Albee. Chippa. They started out really young, putting out really quality short films. They were putting out really quality short films before almost anyone. And consistently. They were really ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. 

What it did for, well, for someone chasing the tour especially, their profile didn’t get buried in the ‘QS grind, if they were putting out quality work. People didn’t forget about them while they were in that grind. Because the ‘QS is gnarly, it’s so easy to get lost before you qualify. 

But I guess to answer your question, making a film like this, it feels way more personal, and you’re a lot more nervous about it. With the Vlog stuff, it’s so loose and raw. I mean, I tell my editor, basically, we’re cutting so much down to get these things to a length that people are willing to watch. 

It’s so easy to go, Nah, put it in, put it in, and people will still watch it on YouTube. But if you want to make a short film, and you want quality cinematography, and that cinematic feeling, with personality, then it takes a lot more work and love and direction with whoever is editing.  

Who’d you work with on “There and Back Again.”

I was really lucky to get to work with A Parallel Sea. Those guys are on it. They know how to do it, they’ve run the course. But I was like, let’s take what you guys are good at, and put my twist on it. And we ended up with this. 

Is this the first movie you’ve done on your own, with premieres and the whole deal? 

Yeah, it’s my first one solo.   

I’m so psyched. It’s been so fun.

In the past 18 months, a lot of people feel you’ve stepped out of John’s shadow and truly become Nathan Florence. I’m wondering if that was an active decision on your end to set yourself apart from John, or if it just happened naturally. 

No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. John is what he is—he’s the champ. He’s the best in the world. I never thought of it being like, “I need to get away.” I’ve always been really supportive of him. Because he’s as big he is, it wasn’t a competitive thing for me. It was more of me realizing that I’m more specialized in this big wave thing. It gives me the enjoyment and satisfaction that I find and I look for in surfing, and I’m just gonna go in on this with everything. 

It was like, “I’m going on the Big  Wave Tour, I’m gonna chase every swell, this is what I’m good at, and I’m gonna put everything into it.” That was what happened over those 18 months. It was like, “Where am I gonna go..? Oh, I’m gonna go all in on the big wave stuff, the adventure, the freesurf lifestyle.” Then my personality and everything came out as I was just able to relax. And it just kinda turned into where I am now. 

And like you said with the personality thing, it wasn’t just that you started going harder with your surfing, because I think that stood as one form of merit, where everyone was like, “Whoa, Nate’s been going ham,” but then you doubled-down on the whole thing by bringing a lot of yourself into social media. And I think a lot of people didn’t realize just how funny and goofy you were. 

Yeah [laughs], people that knew me personally did, and I was like, “You know what? I’m not gonna try to act different or play the highlight reel on social media. I’m just gonna be completely myself, and whoever is attracted to following that, that’s fine with me. It seems to have worked out so far, and it keeps it very organic and fun for me. I have a lot of fun with my social media. The fans that follow me are hilarious. I go through the comments and I crack up at some of the stuff they’re saying.

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It cost thousands and thousands of dollars to get here, but Nate doesn’t seem too stressed at this moment.

Was there any reason you weren’t showing that side of yourself before?

Well, I just wasn’t that into social media at the time. I wasn’t super fired up on it, I didn’t understand it, I was just like, “Ah, what’s the use of it?” I just thought everyone was kind of fake on it. 

Then I was like, “You know what, social media is actually a really great thing for surfers.” Because we can take our branding into our own hands. We can promote ourselves. If you’re doing it in an organic way, then it feels natural and fun and not forced on anyone. And I kinda realized that and I realized it brought value to people, especially if you’re not on the CT, then you needed to be consistently showing people, “Hey, I’m movin’ and groovin’. I’m hitting these swells. I’m doing this and that.” And to be able to show that naturally was a huge advantage for anyone freesurfing. So I went all into it. 

Were you inspired to do that by anyone close to you? Maybe Koa Rothman or Jamie O’Brien?

Well, Koa just started his vlog pretty recently, but we both got into Instagram at the same time. We both realized we could use it to our advantage massively. Then Jamie was like, “Guys, you’re using Instagram really well, but you also need to be using this other platform, being Youtube.” So Koa got into it right away, then I followed shortly after.

But with the way people are consuming content nowadays, they want a way more personalized view of you. They want to see what you’re doing. They know you’re a surfer, and they wanna see that, but they also wanna see more in-depth personality—how you react to things, how you act on surf trips, how you deal with stress or pressure. It just gives the fans that much connection to you.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to have more sway with sponsors now because you can bring them Instagram numbers or Youtube numbers or whatever?

Totally. There’s analytics on all that stuff. And all the companies are way more interested in athletes who have a real presence on those platforms.

What’s your plan for this year?

The plan this year is to change it up. We’ve gotten so good at striking these swells with precision. Just forecasting has become so scientific, and with travel these days you can cut it way closer, you can cut it and leave, you can book tickets that day. There were trips we pulled out an hour before going to the airport, because the winds changed or something. But last summer, chasing quality swells, with precision, and scoring them—we got it down.

So now, let’s take that, and blow off all the mainstream spots. Let’s pull up Google Earth and point to that sick looking slab, from satellite view, and try and get there. Where’s the nearest airport? I want to get more obscure, to find new waves—more adventure. 

And we want to bring wildcards into each of these trips. Like, bring someone with our crew. We want a trip with Lucas Chumbo, or with [Eric] Geiselman, or Chippa… Jack Robinson! Just wildcards for all these trips, and I think that’s the template. Grab your step-ups and your big boards, let’s go get the barrels of our lives, we’re leaving tomorrow.

I want to do Africa really bad. I just know how big that place and how much opportunity there is there. And with guys like Twig and Frank Solomon, they have that area so wired, so to do something with them would be insane. I want to do different parts of Fiji and some more obscure islands. I just got back from the Galapagos, and we didn’t get the wave we were looking for, but the trip was incredible. It has possibility, but that was it. Just exploring and looking for a new slab. Because for me, discovering and scoring a new slab, that would be the most rewarding thing.

Isn’t that always kind of been the dream? 

Totally. Still. Always. From the very beginning. Let’s go fucking find our own wave!

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