Over the last two decades, Taylor Steele has become one of surfing’s most influential filmmakers. Directing and producing more than 40 films, he’s landed every industry award, a place on Surfer magazine’s Top 25 Most Powerful People list and introduced the world to the likes of Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. No small feat for a dude with a camera amid the $7 billion global surf industry.
On June 20, International Surfing Day, Steele will premiere his latest film, Here & Now. It documents one day of surfing around the world, shot entirely on May 2 by a global network of filmmakers and surfers. I spoke to Steele about the new movie, surf entertainment’s digital shift and why sometimes its best for waves to take a backseat to story.
Where did the idea behind Here & Now come from?
My filmmaking partner Nathan [Myers] had this idea of doing a project that was just about a single day, really trying to capture a worldview of surfing for that day.
Sounds like a logistical nightmare. What was the biggest challenge making the film?
We were on a really tight schedule so that was the hardest part. We handpicked the most talented filmmakers we knew from around the world, and the ones who are best able to handle deadlines, but we still had [hard] drives show up late from Europe and India and all these places that had been lost in the mail for weeks. We’d think we were finished editing the movie and then another drive would come in. And because the movie is structured as a linear day, where we’re contrasting how everyone is getting up, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast and all that, when a new drive came in we had to mix in all the different shots and it affected the entire film, as opposed to just adding on a new section.
Is story a second-class citizen in surf films? Is it important to have an over-arching concept or idea?
I think there just needs to be an emotional attachment to the surfer, however you get that, so that when you watch the surfing you can relate to that person or you’re rooting for them, in a way. In this film, it’s an overall attempt to humanize these athletes and make their lives more relatable. The surfing is almost secondary, in terms of what’s entertaining. It’s just a real intimate view of what these lives are like.
You began experimenting with surf entertainment’s digital shift in 2010 with the user-generated project Innersection. Where do you see the relationship between surf filmmaking, distribution and the web going from here?
It’s still evolving. We’re still trying to figure it all out. A lot of new stuff just isn’t having the same impact as it used to when people would wait for a specific DVD or video to come out and then watch it over and over and over. Now it’s a two-minute clip online and forgotten the next day.
How has this new dynamic changed how you market the movies?
That might be what’s changed the most. Just a few years ago, you’d have to invest in a full-page ad in Surfer magazine months in advance. Now you can really control the roll-out through blogging, even Instagram or Facebook, managing the hype as aggressively as you want on the timeline you want. I’ve changed all my marketing from almost a six month build-up to just a month before and really attacking it.
You’ve been filming and producing surf films for more than two decades. What keeps you inspired?
For me, it’s just evolving as a person. When I started I was 18 and really into punk rock and just wanted the action. Over the years I’ve gravitated towards the travel and experience around surfing and trying to relay that feeling. Going forward, I’m interested in story-driven and personality-driven themes. The next film I’m working on is where we follow a swell from Tahiti to Alaska over eight days, telling the story of how this swell affects the different places it hits and these two surfers who try to surf the same wave along the way. That comes out in September and it’s called This Time Tomorrow.
I’m also working on an upcoming Corona campaign. It’s in a similar style to my surf work but around different subject matter that inspires me. By doing this work it really helps when I go back to my surf stuff.
Taylor Steele lays out his top tips for any aspiring ocean-bound auteur.
Know the market and find a different or new slant on it. Don’t just take what’s already out there and make your version of it.
Only do it if you’re passionate about it. Nowadays a lot of people think too much about how they’re going to make money off it. That’s not the right way to approach anything. If you do it because you love it, then the money will come because you’re putting in so much effort.
Remember it’s a three-part deal. You’ve got the movie, distribution and marketing. All are equally important, so educate yourself on how to do the best you can at each of them.
It’s not about the equipment. Be less concerned about what kind of camera you have and more about what kind of affect you’re trying to accomplish. Finding an original take is much more important than what you shoot it with.