August 1, 2004|The first time I met Stacy Peralta, it was little more than a month after September 11, 2001. He had come into town for the Denver International Film Festival (which I was covering for the first time for FFC), and I felt daunted by both the mood of the festival and by Peralta's status as a living legend amongst a small, rabid group of extreme-sports enthusiasts. Peralta was there to accompany his first documentary, the much-praised Dogtown & Z-Boys, the success of which led to a few still-kicking projects, including a feature film adaptation of Dogtown directed by Thirteen's Catherine Hardwicke. First appearances spoke volumes: Self-effacing and modest, he was genuinely concerned about what had happened in New York and at the Pentagon. He was able to put his work into perspective in regards to not only life and death calamity, of course, but also in regards to more experienced filmmakers--artists he admires in a medium to which he's still relatively new. The next time I meet Stacy Peralta, it's in the crowded lobby of Denver's Mayan Theater, where he and surf-legend Greg Noll are preparing to do a Q&A with an audience that's just seen Peralta's newest documentary, Riding Giants. The crowd is raucous, Noll is nervous, and Peralta? He's cool as the other side of the pillow in trademark ballcap, sporting a sincere look upon shaking my hand and remembering the conversation that we had almost three years ago now. I sat down with Mr. Peralta and Mr. Noll ("Greg, please, just 'Greg'") the following morning to chat about riding big waves and the siren's call of filmmaking for skate brats and surf hounds. Both men are the real deal, having stuck their irons in hotter coals than junkets and promotional screenings, emerging with the grace to deal with attention and inane questions. They're in the moment, as Buddhists would remark, riding the quiet part of the wave.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What do you think of the junket experience?
GREG NOLL: It's such an out of body experience this whole thing that I'm just stoked to be on the ride right now. I can see where a guy can get grumpy doing all this press, but at this point it's just a completely different life experience that, at least for me, won't ever come again, I'm sure.
STACY PERALTA: We're old guys now, you know, we've taken enough beatings. When you're young, when you're full of spit and twenty, twenty-two, you don't appreciate the ride that much, you take if for granted.
GN: That's true, isn't it?
I wanted to ask you where all the archival 16mm footage came from.
SP: There were four major libraries, there was Greg's library, there was Bruce Brown's library, Bud Brown, and Grant Rohloff--and I picked mostly from Greg's and Rohloff's because I think they've been seen the least. Endless Summer and stuff like that, Step Into Liquid has made it so that most people have already seen a lot of stuff from Bruce and Bud's libraries. Greg had all of this stuff, hours and hours of footage.
Why? Why'd you take all that footage?
GN: Well, I'd taken catwalk-type films along with Bruce. Bud Brown was the first, I was the second, and Bruce came along and started doing it the year after me. They were around ninety-minute films we put together, we'd drive up and down the coast renting auditoriums and charging admission. We actually got five thousand people one time at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, yelling and screaming and stripping the wallpaper off the walls--and after three years of that shit, it was really terrible for me, [so] I put all those flicks in the closet and never wanted to see them again.
What was so bad about the experience?
GN: Just wasn't my scene, man. I didn't want to look at those things anymore, I wanted to be out doing those things, I really never intended to drag them out again.
Did it feel impure? I know that you've never endorsed the surf culture that erupted around you guys: the music, the movies...
GN: I think that was some of it, it was sleeping with the enemy, you know. It took someone like Stacy to come around--a fellow surfer, a guy of conviction who understood about the experience and who'd treat it with seriousness for me to go back to that stuff.
Just lucky that you destroy them?
GN: (laughs) I just forgot about them, that's the good thing about closets.
At the same time though, you're listed as a surf double in 1964's Ride the Wild Surf.
GN: I tell you what happened there. The Hollywood guys, they couldn't rope off the beach and the waves, so they were out there shooting their dumbass movie and I was in almost every shot. They couldn't just erase me, you know, so they had to take what they could get and they had to go back and write in a part for this big guy going up and down. I got three lines and the hook--the honour of the shortest Hollywood career in history and too poor then to be too proud. But until really recently, they've never gotten it right in the movies. Riding Giants gets it right.
Mr. Peralta, besides being underseen, was there something else about Mr. Noll's footage?
SP: The great thing about Greg's footage is that not only did he do a great job with the surfing, he captured all the ancillary stuff: driving to the beach, horsing around, cooking, hunting, surviving in this bohemian colony on the edge of civilization. Greg was really the first great documentarian of the whole movement. More, there was a real artistry--guys with their hands up in the air, backlit against sunsets and breaking waves. He really got the lawlessness of the scene, jumping off waterfalls, doing all that stuff.
Where'd you get the equipment?
GN: I bought a camera off of Warren Miller. When I was a kid, Warren was a surfer, too, and I had a chance to go to Australia and thought I'd take a travelogue so I go to Warren and picked up a 16mm Bell & Howell, and that's how it started.
Was Bud Brown's success what made you think you could profit from your films?
GN: Oh yeah, I saw Bud making all this cash with his films--some pretty packed houses--and the little wheels started turning and I thought, shit, I don't wanna be working some crappy time clock job. I didn't want to work at all. But I knew that if I wanted to go to Hawaii and put a little food on the table at the same time, you gotta have money, I wanted to do something involved with surfing. Building surfboards and shooting movies was what kept me going.
You're one of the most successful surfboard manufacturers in history. I wanted to talk about the art on the early surfboards--was it mostly Polynesian? Graffiti? Protest?
SP: I really wanted to do that--I wanted a whole segment on the sources of the graphics because there was such a beautiful, rich visual style. But it was one of those things that we couldn't do just because of length and because, frankly, it's a whole different off-shoot. It would have required a whole other movie to talk about that. One of those decisions we had to make for the sake of the film, but a painful one for me. The aesthetic to those trapezoidal things--all that--I'd still like to explore those themes.
Did the graphics speak to the spiritual aspect of the sport?
GN: People dissect stuff now, they wanna call it different things. To us, though, we were just stumbling around doing shit, we were just a bunch of knuckleheads, man. We didn't consider the experiences we were having at the North Shore as any big deal--didn't put much thought--I didn't, anyway--in what went on the boards either. I was chuckling when you guys were talking about it because I'd seen it all. When I was a kid there were cartoons that used to go on boards like Daffy Duck, or Sylvester the pussycat. Then there were the different stages of the psychedelic deal. There were glossers in the room that would work all night, trippin' on whatever, and I'd come in in the morning and see all this bizarre shit all over the boards, but I was like, Whatever, man. (laughs)
SP: What strikes me is the freedom that these glossers had--they literally had free reign to do whatever they wanted to express themselves. There was no adult supervision. They were in a business created by kids, serving kids, they were making stuff for their friends.
GN: Yeah, I just turned my glossers loose. If it sells, have at it, man.
How do you look at modern surf culture? Is that feeling of lawlessness intact?
GN: Y'know, it's there. It's subdued to me when I compare it with my experience--there was a period of time when it was totally unharnessed, when society was groping to try to get a handle on their stuff and we dropped out--we just went crazy, we founded a new religion. We took radicalism as far as it was fun and somewhere along the line the contests come in, the sponsorships come in, and it can't possibly be as pure. Little by little you suck the essence out of the thing. But you can't get away from it completely with surfing because there's freedom in it--man, coming up on that beach and sucking sand up around your chest--it's a lifestyle, it's spiritual, you strip away all the bullshit and you can still find that perfect day. The stoke is still there.
You wrote in your autobiography that the giant wave you caught in 1969 was the last one--you moved to Alaska not long after. What happened?
GN: That was a mistake, what I wrote, in a way, because people ask me why that was my last ride. What I meant was that more in a metaphorical sense, you know, that wave for me was a moment of transition. Prior to that break, I was operating under the premise that I was gonna surf until my arms fell off and they shovelled dirt in my face. Riding big waves takes a long time to work up to that elite point--you're crawling up in inches and suddenly the day came along with the biggest surf in recorded history and you're talking about a difference in feet. I'm not trying to say that it was the biggest wave ever, but for me it was ten, fifteen feet bigger than anything I'd attempted before and that leap of faith...it's geometric, it's not a matter of inches anymore. I took off on a wave, catch it just barely because it was going so fast--came down the face, got my butt kicked, swam in after like twenty minutes. I was cashed--I was spent in every way. It was three days before I could even talk to my wife.
Was it the top of Everest?
GN: Exactly. That's just what it was. I felt like a giant monkey had been taken off my back. I didn't have anything to prove to myself or my friends anymore. Whatever this twenty-year dragon I was chasing, it just went away--or I slew it. I still surfed for two or three more years afterwards, but the pressure was gone. It was just different after that day--I found a little peace, a normal relationship, a sane relationship with the ocean. It wasn't complicated anymore and shit, I had a wife, a couple of kids, and at what point did I want to kill myself chasing the monster? I was done--I kept surfing, I still enjoy the ocean to this day, but that was it. I'd done what I needed to do and I'm not going to be a punch-drunk fighter in the ring too long.
Do you worry about some of the guys you grew up with who didn't catch that tiger?
GN: I do. I worry about them every day. You have to get off the goddamn hamster wheel--you devote all your life to it so that getting off gets harder and harder. You have to drag some of those guys kicking and screaming if you can get them out at all.
You didn't talk to your wife for a while after your big wave, you say--tell me a little about what your wife's gone through throughout your career.
GN: When the surf gets pretty big, these ladies who love big wave surfers have to sit on the beach and watch someone they love paddle out and maybe not paddle back in. My wife, I can just tell you, has suffered through a lot of those times and never once in her life did she try to discourage me from my dream. (long pause) When I caught that big wave in 1969 there were other people on the point and from the angle that they had, they couldn't see where I came up. They were all saying, "He's gone." And she's hearing that, she's having to sit there looking for a head bobbing out there, and she had to look for ten minutes before someone spotted me. And you know, I heard that story from somebody else years later--she never said a thing about it to me, never made me feel guilty, [never made me feel] like a reckless guy, like a stupid guy. That, you know, that's just.... The people who care about you, when they see you do something so dangerous, I think that really speaks to their love and courage to never try to bottle it up--to never keep a guy from pursuing his dream.