It was like a mutual admiration society when Stacy Peralta, Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton settled in for an interview at a Dallas hotel about the new surfing documentary “Riding Giants.” It was the last leg of a long promotional tour for Peralta, who co-wrote and directed the film about the development of big-wave surfing as a follow-up to his acclaimed skateboarding documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” and the three stars of the sport whose combined careers span nearly a half-century and together represent its evolution.
“It’s like being there…I’ve seen all the surf movies all the way back to the fifties, and I think this is the first time anybody’s really captured the whole thing,” Noll, whose daring opened the Hawaiian North Shore to surfers in the 1950s and 1960s, opined of Peralta’s picture. Of Noll Peralta said, “He was the inspiration behind this idea, a piece of American treasure that nobody knows about, and he deserves to have his story told.” Hamilton, the undisputed dean of today’s big-wave surfers, said, “We needed this film,” emphasizing that the history of the sport had never been recorded before. And Clark, who discovered the Maverick’s reef locale that became the mecca of California big-wave riding in the 1970s, added, “With this film, you get to feel a slice of our lives.” The surfers didn’t single out only Peralta for praise; they spoke glowingly about each other, too. Noll noted that when Clark first went out to Maverick’s, he did so alone: “He was doing it just for the pure joy of it.” Clark responded by calling Noll “the Babe Ruth of big-wave surfing….He’s the guy that pushed it over the edge–he’s the guy that ignited that little spark in Laird, myself, and the other big-wave guys. It’s always been searching for that next big step, that next level. It’s his fault!” And Noll expressed awe at Hamilton’s accomplishments: “This guy could melt steel if he focuses on it,” he joked. (To which Hamilton replied, “I’ll give you that check later, man.”)
But the surfers also took pains to minimize their personal achievements. “I look at it [the sport] today,” Noll said, “in comparison to what we did, and I can’t believe that guys are able to withstand the wipeouts. If somebody showed me some of the waves that Laird’s caught, I would have said, ‘You’re gonna die.’” Hamilton added: “You’re always a little bit embarrassed about being complimented about something that maybe you feel lucky to have been able to do.” Clark remarked: “When all is said and done, where are we going to go? Surfing! We’re going back to the ocean! For me it’s just, like, my gosh, I’m so lucky to have fallen into this life of surfing, and the joy and the fun and the people you meet–and the laughs.” And Noll expressed his astonishment over the new-found celebrity the film has brought by recalling the screening at the Sundance Festival. “It’s been just like a magic carpet ride,” he said. “There’s Robert Redford watching Greg Nolls. I’m going, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s something wrong with this scenario.’”
Peralta spoke of the genesis of “Riding Giants” by saying, “I started skateboarding sooner than I started surfing, but when I started surfing at eleven, that was it. It was really the lifestyle that I was after and the identity that I was after, it caught me so strong. What I was hoping to become was a professional surfer, but skateboarding came along and, boom, there we went.” That explains why his first documentary was about the origin of professional skateboarding, but also why, after its success, he turned to the history of big-wave surfing. “One of the reasons that the story could be told as effectively as it was, [was] because there was so much footage,” he said. “I told Laird at the start, we could make this film without ever rolling a camera, there’s that much. Now we did roll a camera, but there was so much footage. And we’re not out to re-invent surf photography or to shoot a better wave. We were really focused on how to tell the story correctly and how to really bring these three guys’ stories out prominently…A lot of [the footage] came from libraries like Greg’s. He has contemporaries in the surfing world that were also making movies back in the fifties. He documented what they were doing in Hawaii, because all of his friends back home were interested and eager to see what life was like over there. This footage was like, God, you’re not only seeing great surfing but you’re seeing the birth of a culture right there. It just made the movie possible. And Laird is very similar to Greg, in that he’s been very diligent in documenting the steps that they’ve taken.” (The early days of Maverick’s, on the other hand, are less amply recorded–some still photos and grainy footage are all that testify to Clark’s early endeavors.) The director mentioned only one shot they’d hope to get that didn’t pan out. “We were going to put a camera in [Laird’s] hand” and capture a surfer’s-eye view of a big wave, he recalled. “But we didn’t get the wave.”
That brought up what all considered both the joy and the frustration of big-wave riding–its contingent character. “Every time we think we’ve seen the last big wave,” Hamilton said, another location comes along. “Each has its own character, but I think there are still places we haven’t discovered, and, obviously, still conditions [we haven’t had]. We still haven’t seen a storm like the one in ’69, when Greg rode the great wave at Makaha. We’ve yet to see that in the last forty years. It’s a matter of being able to take advantage of it, being in the right place at the right time and being prepared for it. We’re so conditions-reliant. It takes a long time to have everything come together. It took me forty years to get to the Tahiti wave,” the enormous swell he famously caught not long ago. He added that when an interviewer recently remarked on Hamilton’s patience, he thought about it for awhile and agreed with the assessment, though he’d never thought of himself that way. “You need the wind, the swell, the angle, the tide,” Hamilton continued. “There’s a lot of variables that come together to create this optimum scenario. That’s why it’s precious–that’s why it’s like a precious gem–because you can’t, like, just order it up on pay-per-view.” Noll added, “What’s unusual is that the wave’s got to come to you.” The surfers talked for a while about actually chasing waves as they moved across the Pacific and catching a swell off the California coast after having already ridden it in Hawaiian waters. “Yeah, I’ve done that,” Clark said. “Surf Waimea, then jump on a plane and surf Maverick’s. The same swell.” Noll mused philosophically, “Who knows, maybe you’re riding the same wave–wouldn’t that be wild?”
Noll pointed out, though, that the elements of danger and individual freedom contribute to the character of the sport, too. “The truth is, all through the history of surfing big waves, even back to my time, it’s just been a handful of guys that have basically had the burning desire to do it….When you cheat the grim reaper that closely, life is a gift. And I think that’s the reason that most people that ride big waves do what they do–it’s part of the thrill, the joy of cheating the man,” he said. But he also pointed to the liberating effect of the surfing culture on the post-war generation. “Not knowingly,” he said, “I think we just did radical for radical’s sake. We went to the Salvation Army for our wardrobe, I put dead fish in my pockets and would go to school and eat garlic–just anything we could do, kind of. We’d buy an old hearse and jerk the casket out of it and put mattresses in there and fix it up. You could travel up and down the coast and live in the thing….There was a period of time where it was a complete radical lifestyle due to the freedom, because [surfing] is an individual thing, not any kind of team effort.” Hamilton chimed in: “It’s a very Darwinian setup. You just have to work your way into it. It’s a self-governing society. There’s no lines out there, there’s no goal posts, no rules–it’s governed by the people doing it.” Clark added: “You move into big waves, which is the medium in which this story is told, and it isn’t even the guys in the lineup that are the governors anymore, it’s the ocean.” Hamilton rook up the point: “As soon as it gets big, it neutralizes everybody. We’re all brought down to that we’re just mere men.” And Noll summed it up: “Mother nature is the great equalizer.”
Peralta hopes that “Riding Giants” will be successful in conveying all the varied aspects of big-wave surfing. “It’s a beautiful sport,” he enthused. “It’s got great aesthetics, you know–not only the beautiful waves, but it’s got guys running around with trunks on…and beaches and palm trees.” And as Noll said, “The question always is, what’s it like to ride a big wave? What Stacy has done is, he’s created a film that somebody can pay their four bucks [to derisive laughter from the others], or whatever, and [find out].”