Taylor Steele Thought It Would All Be Over When Kelly Retired
SURFING WORLD MAGAZINE | REELERS 2017
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Interview by Dave Rastovich
After a quarter century in the surf movie game, Taylor Steele is embarking on a new project that may very well prove to be his opus. Called Proximity, it pairs dynamic surfing duos in exotic locations with crazy pumping rollers. Phwoar! The roll call reads as you'd expect: Slats and John Floz, Ando and Mob, Rasta and Stephie G, Shane-o Doz and Albee Lazer. Star of the film and long time Steele collaborator Dave Rastovich sat down with the globe trotting filmmaker to discuss motivation, creativity and whether Proximity will be his Citizen Kane.
SW: El Capitan (what we call Taylor on trips), how is it that you’re still so stoked on making surf movies? Whenever I’ve been on the road with you, you genuinely still seem to be having a good time shooting and showing surf films and loving what you do…
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TS: It’s a funny thing Dave, I actually started surfing around the same time I started making surf movies. My parents bought a video camera for shooting Christmas and home movies and I swiped it off them. I’d go surfing with my friends and we started shooting each other. We’d do half hour shifts, in our wetsuits all day filming each other, then come home at the end of the day and watch the footage. From there it naturally evolved into my career. I was friends with Rob Machado and he introduced me to everybody else which really brought me out of my shell and into the world, cause I was a really shy kid. It helped me grow as a person. This was back in the nineties and it happened so seamlessly. I had my place to cover progressive surfing and stay out of its way while documenting and I really enjoyed that, and I don’t know if it was just a part of getting older or if it was the pressure of doing the same thing over and over again but I became a victim of success, in that I began to feel really stifled by the expectations of other people. So I took a break and didn’t do anything for a while... Well kind of, I produced stuff and helped with projects like the Drive-Thru series but in a back seat kind of role on other people’s projects. When my wife fell pregnant I became really inspired to show our kids the world, in a romantic kind of way, at a time when they would be old enough to appreciate it. I wanted to show them places that were perceived as supposedly dangerous. Countries like Egypt and Morocco and so many others. I wanted to show them the other side of the world, the beautiful and the human side. It was during this time that I really fell in love with making films again. The one consistency with that rebirth into making surf films is that I never rush into them, I do them when they feel right and I make sure I am one hundred per cent present and soaking up every moment of them. I am stoked that the feeling translates into these trips and everyone shares the experience.
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Are there any experiences in particular that sit at the top of your memory bank?
The fun thing about these projects is that you’re learning from people on the trip and you’re also learning from people who aren’t on the trip. In your travels you observe how people live and what brings them joy and I definitely try to take away positives from this experience. And as far as specific people you know… Chris Malloy is one of those people, when we worked on the film Shelter I learnt so much from him. Chris is such a visionary, he approaches work differently to me but I just love how he thinks so deeply about things. I learnt from him to have heart and a message behind the images. Another person would be Dustin Humphrey. When we started working on Sipping Jetstreams together we would sit down months before a trip and talk about all the different aspects of beauty in travel. Those two aspects of approach are what I’ve tried to unite with the performance side of surfing.
Do you think other people in our surf culture making film projects are also into collaborating in this way?
I’m sure they are, but I do feel like some of us can get in the way of things, like directors who really get into the idea of ownership and wanting to own all the ideas, I don’t really agree with that. I feel like that’s just ego getting in the way of art. I really try not to do that. I try to keep in mind what’s best for the project.
Have you ever experienced hard times to get to that point of clarity with your style of filmmaking?
In the nineties I didn’t feel that worthy to be a part of the group. It was all friends but they were such a force as a collective... Shane, Kelly Rob and Ross. I felt more passive in that circle. When I started to do work outside of surfing, commercials where I needed to lead I came out of my shell more and I realised I wanted to create an environment that’s fun, because a lot of time on shoots people are so stressed and running behind the clock in an intense way. My mentality is like hey “We’re not curing cancer, we’re not doing anything that is that world changing so let’s just enjoy it. Don’t take it so seriously.” I’ve never been much of a dictatoral director. I enjoy making films so I try to lighten the mood of the work with that attitude.
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What’s it like to bounce between your own projects and projects for others? Is there an emotional pressure that comes with that?
The more I learn and grow the more I feel fulfilled, and even if I’m shooting a commercial for a car or a computer I try to deliver a filmmaker’s point of view where I can learn from the experience, then I really enjoy it. I’m not the best filmmaker but on the sets it seems like everybody is having fun.
You’ve watched the most celebrated and technical surfers of the past few decades surfing at the height of their powers. That a few different eras now…
(Laughing) What are you trying to say, Dave? I’m like the Forrest Gump of surfing?
Yeah man, I got a sweet ride-on mower here, you can do laps around my property if you want. Seriously, you’ve filmed the best of the best for years now, what have you learned about surfing?
I would say that the guys having the most fun usually have great styles, and you can tell they’re vibing off the waves and that translates to more of the rhythmic side of surfing. But then the most aggressive, addicted guys who are the most frothed out, they tend to push the limits of progression a little more perhaps.
Which crew have been the most fun to travel with on your surf films?
There are a handful of people who I would go with on any trip because they are such great travellers and you are just always laughing with them. You are one of them Dave, Steph Gilmore (travel name: Vibes) is now one of them, Machado and Dan Malloy... that’s a short list that I will always try to include in my projects cause you all are key players and classic people that have stories and have lived life. There is a whole lot more to share than just how to do a cutback or an air.
Well cheers El Capitan, I am pretty sure Vibes is the DJ for our future trips from here on out.
That’s for sure!
When you look at our culture and see how it’s changed since you first started, what stokes you out?
On the movies side of things, it seems people are much more open minded these days, open to different kinds of films, whereas before it was just nineties punk and anything different just wasn’t appreciated. It’s the same with surfboards. Back then longboards were not around at all, they were completely wiped out, but now they’re back along with alot of other shapes. It’s also nice that from a wider perspective surfers are more aware of their environment. There is more weight to being a surfer these days. When we started out there was no weight at all, we were just lumped in with the whole Jeff Spicoli stoned surfer stereotype, and that was a big part of what we were trying to undo when we started out with the Momentum crew. We were conscious of it and we were all pretty clean cut, and not really into showing partying or using that in marketing. We wanted to change that negative attitude towards surfers that was around then. Today, it seems that being a surfer can be aspirational for those who don’t surf, and people listen to surfers more than ever before when we talk about our environment or other issues.
How do you see your current surf films fitting into surfing culture. What’s their cultural contribution?
Going back to the films I made in the nineties, they might not have been the most thought provoking movies but there was always this conscious thing of knowing that it was fourteen-year-old surfers who were really into it and so I’ve wanted to be responsible with that. I was really conscious of it as a filmmaker, and I thought a lot about those kids. Moving forward to nowadays I want to learn from different surfers, different generations, what their ethos is and also from places and cultures. My current film has conversations in it, to give a little insight into the kind of people I want to travel with, and the people I want to learn from on the trip.
Do you envision yourself moving in this direction then? You know, making a surf film for a little bit, then moving into some music stuff and some other types of films, then coming back to another surf movie...
Yeah, I think so. I’ve been wanting to make a feature film for some time now, something that’s really inspiring. It’s a goal I have, and by working towards it I feel like I’m improving my surf filmmaking, it’s all in sync. I love doing surf movies when they feel right, when they don’t have any big obligation to them, when they just feel real and authentic.
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It’s a great place to be making surf movies from, considering most people making them are doing so to feed themselves and make some coin to get by. Did you envision yourself being in this position when you started making movies like Momentum?
Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to make more than two or three surf movies. In the past there weren’t that many people who were making lots and lots of surf movies, there were people like Chris Brystrom, and then the Wave Warrior series and a few others that were all in three packs and so I didn’t really see any kind of long career in it for me. Then as it started getting going in the nineties I thought “Oh this will end at the end of the nineties cause my friends like Kelly and Rob and those guys would be retiring sometime around then, ‘cause that’s when surfers careers ended at that point in time. I was just going to wrap up my career when they ended theirs...
Which seems like it’s never gonna happen, Well yeah! They haven’t retired yet, so it’s still true to this day, everyone’s still going! I feel blessed that it’s all gone this way. I don’t make surf movies to make money, I do them for different reasons, and that feels good.
Another part of your life that’s pretty amazing is how you and your family keep picking yourselves up and starting new lives in different parts of the world every few years, first it was Bali, then northern NSW, and now you’ve all set up in Montauk out on the coast from New York City.
We move around for different stages of our children’s lives and it also works perfectly for us too. It feels like every six years or so we all need some sort of change. The tougher it is to move and make new adjustments the more it seems to bring us together. The whole point of it is to have us all grow together as a unit, and I can see how it’s helping us all be more and more open minded. We seem to be able to make friends in each of the new places and I think we feel socially better off from the moves. As far as bringing it back to my trade, I believe the more you travel the more you are going to absorb new ideas, and stay fresh.
It seems like the beginnings of your surf movie making, where you and your friends would switch out and surf and then film each other is still kinda happening these days. When we have gone on trips together there is always a cameraman’s cup, and plenty of surfing to be had by everyone. Do you have any thoughts around what it means to have an ‘off switch’ between work and play considering it seems that most of humanity is working more and playing less these days?
I worry about some of the younger generation of surfers and filmmakers not being able to switch off and appreciate things, I was maybe a little bit like that in the nineties, actually… I definitely was! (Laughs) I think it’s nice to have projects that we get into one hundred per cent and stay really present with, where we are really excited to be there, but it’s important to switch off as well. I think with all the forms of media around now like Instagram, and Facebook and all that, we are constantly trying to keep up with the masses and that prevents us from following what our hearts want us to do, what makes us happy. For me, when I go on trips I dive into them and try to be as present as possible, but on the way back on the plane I try to think about my life back home and how this trip can change me for the better, and that feels good. That feels like I am learning and growing.
*Taylor Steele is judging our short surf film competition REELERS 2017. Submit your surf movies and have Taylor see your work! You'll gain firsthand advice from one of the biggest names in surf cinematography and go in the running for $7500 in cash prizes.
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