Interview: Jack Coleman On Filmmaking, Spirituality, Performance Surfing, And More - Stab Mag

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Interview: Jack Coleman On Filmmaking, Spirituality, Performance Surfing, And More

I want to make pure performance movies, and that’s what I hope I accomplished with ‘Natural High.’

// Dec 15, 2022
Words by Christian Bowcutt
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Note: ‘Natural High’ is now playing on Stab Premium. Watch here.

“If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do,” the rebellious photojournalist Bill Cunningham said. 

Jack Coleman decided not to take the money years ago. 

Coleman is an eccentric surf filmmaker who has managed to do it all with no commercial affiliations or outside funding. His films have become cult classics and won awards in various film festivals around the globe.

But the real reason I reached out to Jack was because his new movie, ‘Natural High’ made me feel something.

The film stars some refreshing faces: Ryan Burch, Derrick Disney, Stephanie Gilmore, Bryce Young, Ari Browne, Robin Kegel, Tosh Tudor, Gavin Beschen, Leah Dawson, Andy Nieblas, Mainei Kinimaka, Mananalu Chandler, Justin Adams (who you don’t know), and newcomer Kobe Hughes (who you soon will). ‘Natural High’ takes all of the exuberance and naive joy we felt in 2016 and injects it into our post-apocalyptic 2022 landscape.

I rang Jack to talk about the film, but our convo quickly turned to Jimi Hendrix and the acid era, Steph Gilmore riding Ryan Burch’s Pickle Fork exquisitely well, why we hate the word hipster, how he discovers music, and why film really should be dead after all.

Stab: ‘Natural High’ features John Peck, the first regular footer to get barreled at Pipeline. He’s got quite an interesting philosophy. Can you talk about that? 

I think John is a national treasure for our culture. A lot of people don’t know who he is, so it’s cool that this film will open that up. He’s so humble and tapped into what he calls “divine source energy”. Having him as the narrator of this film — or the main guru that guides us through it — was a dream come true. It was so fun doing it and there’s so much that didn’t make the movie. I’ll probably include him in the sequel to ‘Natural High.’

Wasn’t he part of the whole Brotherhood of Eternal Love in Laguna Canyon in the ‘60s? And he was friends with Jimi Hendrix, right? 

Yeah, he was there. I was tripping when I found out Jimi was one of his musical mentors. John was an older teenager when that was happening and he really went through the whole gamut — he experienced the hippie era and then a dark time through the ‘70s and ‘80s and now he’s kinda rebirthed.

He’s just living as pure and as simple a life as possible and that’s why I’m attracted to him. That’s what I’m trying to do with my movies — keep them pure. 

The winningest female surfer in history, experimenting with fashion and function. Frame: Jack Coleman

For me, one of the most special moments of the film is Steph Gilmore riding a Ryan Burch shape in Mexico. How did that come about? 

I’ve been friends with Ryan for a decade now. And then my best Australian friend, Harry Henderson — who I run 88 Surfboards with — has been Steph’s partner for the last two and a half years. I started seeing Steph around and thought, ‘Wow it would be so sick to have her in a movie, riding a board that she wouldn’t ride in a contest’ but it didn’t work out for a few years because she’s always globetrotting and obviously really focused on the Tour.

And then I had the idea of getting Steph on one of Ryan’s Pickle Fork boards. I thought it would be an absolute dream combo. The first time we met up to film with that board was at Barra, but we ended up taking two separate trips. All-in-all it was a 4 year process making that happen. [laughs]

A lot of people look at your films and say they feel “hipster.” But to me, they just feel timeless. Is that your motive with filmmaking — to have something that endures?

Exactly. I’m trying to make a real pure movie that lasts longer than I’m here. That’s the ultimate goal. I’m making these movies for when I’m not around, cause no one is documenting people like Justin [Adams] or trying different things with Steph. 

I always like to have those no-name unsponsored surfers, too. The Derrick Disneys, Ryan Burches, and Bryce Youngs — they are weaving their way through professional surfing and doing their own thing. And Robin Kegel is similar to what Justin Adams is — they’re underground folk heroes. Each person brings their own little flavor. 

Mana Chandler, welcoming us all to Flavortown. Frame: Jack Coleman

Yeah, and it’s not like your movies are full of slow-mo shots and people soul-arching all over the place.

My movies are about performance surfing. That’s why I think the films are a good bridge for people who are into hi-fi surfing like a lot of the Stab audience is. I really want to keep the pace up. I grew up shortboarding and watching those movies. 

My stuff is “action art” at its core. I want to make pure performance movies, and that’s what I hope I accomplished with ‘Natural High.’ People don’t realize there’s lots of shredding in the movie [laughs]. Even Ari Browne with the finless board is doing really incredible surfing in his own way. I don’t want to have a boring movie. I want to keep it up beat and fast.

You can’t really pair the music that you choose with slow surfing. You had that Shigeru Suzuki song in the film, which sent me down a rabbit hole like, ‘What even is 1980s Japanese R&B/City Pop?’ What is your process to find such esoteric music?

It’s something I’ve enjoyed my whole life. I’m lucky to have friends that are music intellectuals. They sent me on my way, like, ‘Check this out, here’s Turkish rock from the ’70s’ and that led to where I’m at now. The genre I’m most into would be considered world music, cause I like songs that aren’t in English [laughs]. 

But I went all in on the soundtrack for this one. I’m looking for those diamonds in the rough, like the one band that has one trippy song that was cool in 1986 and it just blows you away. There’s a Japanese song in here, and a couple African songs as well. I like songs where you don’t know what they’re saying but you’re just like ‘Yes! This is sick!’ I want it to leave a positive feeling, you know?

You kinda gotta be an angry person to not like the ‘Natural High’ music. It’s a tropical dance party. You can just throw the movie on and have a party with your friends.

Like normal science, except madder. Claymation: Owen Summers

The claymation was really cool in the film. I remember something like it in a Volcom movie a long time ago. Is that what inspired you?

Yes! That was an ode to ‘Magnaplasm,’ which is one of my favorite surf movies of all time. Owen Summers did the claymation for us. He reached out to me a couple years ago on a DM and said he’d love to work together. It kind of triggered in my head like, ‘Wow, we should make Ryan a mad scientist creating the pickle fork in a laboratory.’ Owen is awesome.

You were known for only shooting film or using unique filters. But in this film everything looks a little more normal. Are you still shooting film or have you moved to digital?

I’ve been moving away from film just because the cost has gone up four times and you don’t have that much focal range. I’d have to be able to shoot within a few hundred yards of a break to get any kind of tight shot. I also have too many cameras — I have my over-the-shoulder, I’ve got my water camera, and I’ve got my land camera. No room for the Super 8 or 35mm. 

George Greenough gave me some counsel during a brief encounter in 2015. He was like, ‘Why are you shooting film, why don’t you just shoot digital?’ And I told him I always shoot film… Looking back now, Greenough was right. Go figure.

Derrick Disney and the miracle of digital zoom. Frame: Jack Coleman

I think it goes along with the fact that you’re not reviving the past for the past’s sake. If digital gives you the best end product, you go with that. 

Just imagine: You only have a few days when it’s on and the right surfer has the right board and everything comes together. It’s really hard to do. Not adding the variable of a film camera into the equation is a huge improvement for me.

I also love challenging myself to get attractive angles. Digital has allowed me to really open up. I’m shooting a kilometer away from some spots. There are still few film shots in the movies. I’ll always have that — that’s what I was known for back in the day. But digital is where it’s at for me right now. 

In a previous interview you said something along the lines of, “I know I could make money doing a bunch of other things but I’m going to make a decision to delay gratification, make quality films that I love, and survive off what comes.” How was taking that risk and has it paid off in your mind for you?

That was a decision I made maybe seven or eight years ago. I just wanted to make good surf movies and I knew I was gonna have to change some things in my life. I got to a point with my photography career where it stopped being super fulfilling. I wanted to do something a little more real, something that connected with me a little bit more. 

I kinda shied away from the commercial route. Right now I’m almost totally independent and self-funded, with a little help from Vissla. I decided I’d rather live humbly and have my freedom. And right now, I have the most freedom I’ve ever had. It took a long time but I’m so grateful it all worked out. 

Justin Adams. Folky, heroic. Photo: Jack Coleman

You’ve mentioned wanting your movies to be family friendly. Is your goal to one day raise a family? And are you religious? It seems spirituality plays a role in all of your films. 

I was raised Catholic in a huge family. There are 9 of us. But growing up in a religious family steered me away from religion at first. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been looking into all forms of religions. For me, it’s just about being a spiritual person — connected to source and being in the now.

At this point in my life I’m not “religious,” but I do believe that everything is from a source or from God or whatever you want to call it. So what’s talked about in ‘Natural High’ is not a religion but more a philosophy. It could be classified as karma-based, but it boils down to ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated’ and ‘God will give you what you need.’ That’s kind of how John Peck lives his life. 

And in terms of raising a family, I think that’s one of the reasons we’re put here on this earth. I’m just hoping that it all happens naturally. It’ll be really hard for me to kind of break away from where I’ve set myself up now, cause I have so much freedom. But then at the same time that doesn’t always make you super happy. I’m definitely open to having a kid or two, but who knows?

Gavin Beschen, def connected to a source. Frame: Jack Coleman

Not nine kids, though?

No. [laughs] I actually can’t stand babies; they’re too much work — but if it’s my own I’m gonna have to put up with it. It’s something I’d love to see happen in the future.

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