April Fools Day 2004 and Stacy Peralta is down. He is down and outside, in the harsh sunlight of a hazy, hot Santa Monica spring afternoon, pacing nervously around the parking lot of Big Time Studios in Santa Monica, his second home for the last nine months during the production of Riding Giants. Stacy is on his cell phone, talking urgently to someone about something, polishing up detail #124,768,804 to bring his vision of a big-wave surfing documentary to the big screen.
It is April Fool’s Day and Riding Giants is freshly in the can. Two thousand years of surfing history, thousands of hours of surfing footage, hundreds of still photos and hours of interviews have been carefully whittled down to a 90 minute montage of sound and fury which gives a Three Act history of surfing as told through the escalating pursuit of big waves. Riding Giants is grounded in history but thoroughly modern, an ambitious, well-financed project made possible by the success of Dogtown and Z Boys.· And on April Fool’s Day 2004, Peralta was done, a zillion details all laid down and finalized into 95 minutes of what could be the best big-screen surfing project since The Endless Summer. And with all that, Peralta is not looking good. As he comes in from the parking lot and takes a seat in the lunch room, his eyes are veiled. He still has the “one yard stare” that all filmmakers wear after months of gazing into computer screens.
Peralta has a hit on his hands. He should be up, but he ‘s down.
What did the bartender say to the horse?
I don’t know. “Whoa! That’s enough, buddy?”
No. He said, “Why the long face?”
You seem down.
Depressed? You’re on top o’ the world, Ma! You rocked the Sundance Film Festival. Premiere movie! Standing O! You hob-nobbed with Robert Redford. Riding Giants is going to make bank. You’re going to get nominated for an Oscar. You da man. The King of All Action Sports X· Media.
An Oscar? You think?
You heard it here first. Nominated. You won’t win, because the Academy is too PC to give an Oscar to a surf movie. The statue for Best Documentary will go to something about war-torn Lebanon or microbiology. But aside from the subject matter, in terms of structure and story telling and technique and technology and impact, Riding Giants is Oscar quality. And the accent is on quality. With apologies to Dana Brown, no big-screen surfing project has been done this well.
Well that’s nice of you to say. I’ll hold you to that. And Dana Brown’s project was a completely different deal. More power to him. Anyone who can pull off a film…
And yet here you are, looking like your dog left you and your pickup truck died and your wife blew up. I sentence you to be hung by the neck until you cheer up.
Oh I always go through this after a project. Every time. Three years ago I was in the exact same place at the same time after Dogtown.
Post production depression?
Something like that
Well Reader’s Digest is right about one thing: Laughter is the best medicine. These two Jewish Hollywood executives are swimming in the surf in Honolulu. One of them gets caught in a rip and is sucked out to sea. He is struggling and the second Jewish Hollywood executive says, ‘Maurie! Can you float alone?’ The first one says: ‘Sid! Is this any time to talk business?
Wow you are depressed, that was my best stuff.
I need to go surfing.
You need to do a lot of surfing. You need to go to Kelly Slater’s celebrity surf contest in May.
I need that and more.
Did you entirely stop surfing during the making of Riding Giants? That’s not healthy.
No, I surfed when I could, but this has been the worst winter. I surfed a ton before Sundance and got some of the best waves since high school. I surfed Bay Street a lot, which is usually the world’s worst beachbreak, but this winter was great. But that was before Sundance. Since then…
You have been surfing Santa Monica since high school?
This is where I grew up. This is where I learned to surf.
Surfing first, or skateboarding?
Well I was a skateboarder first because I began skateboarding when I was five years old and I started surfing when I was 11 at a place called Toes. It’s just south of Marina del Rey, a wave that used to break up a little creek. The break was called Toes on the Nose and I got my first surfboard and said, “This is it.”
You grew up as a freckle-faced, long, blonde haired surfer and skateboarder during the Roaring 70s? Do you feel lucky, punk?
I wouldn’t trade that for anything. You know, I feel really fortunate to have been a skateboarder at a time when, quote, it didn’t exist. When we did it simply for the pure joy of it. I’ve had some really great years in my life, I’ve accomplished a lot but maybe the purest moment in my life was when I was surfing between the 11th grade and the 12th grade, in the summer, when I was 17. I was surfing better than I ever had. I was getting to the point where I could pretty much do what I wanted to do on a surfboard. I could get up on a wave and position myself wherever I wanted to be.· And the life I was living at that time was probably the purest me I have ever been.
Hear hear. The rest of life kind of doesn’t compare, does it?
When you have an experience like that in your life it rings forever. There have been times in my life where I wanted to shed surfing out of my life because I couldn’t stand missing swells and this and that and I just got fed up with it and I said, “That’s it, I am stopping this. I can’t deal with this obsession.” The early 80s were one of those times, but right when I did that my next door neighbor-D. David Morin-returned from Australia and he said, “Hey, I just bought one of Simon Anderson’s boards and it’s this new board called a Thruster. This is his personal board and I don’t want it do you want it? I’ll sell it to you for a hundred and fifty bucks.” So I bought it and rode it and flipped out and I actually said to myself, “God this thing thrusts when it turns.”
Skateboarding’s the same way. You see an empty pool: this belongs to you. You use it as long as you can and then you leave. We never thought we were doing anything that was interesting, except to ourselves. It’s hard to think it’s going to turn into something else when everyone is telling you that what you’re doing is wrong — “This is wrong. Leave.” Our parents didn’t understand it because there was no context to understand it. They looked at us and thought, “You’ll outgrow this.” It had the respectability of a yo-yo. Or a hula-hoop. They didn’t realize that what we were doing was physically demanding, took a lot of pre-thought. And they didn’t see the beauty in it. It was developed very clandestinely.
– From an interview with Cynthia Fuchs on www.morphizm.com in 2002.
If you had to chose between the two…. No that is a stupid, Trans World question.
Surfing. The answer to the question you didn’t ask is surfing, if I had to choose between the two. There was a time when I was on my way to becoming a competitive surfer. Think of guys like Chris Barela and Mike Benavidez.· The Levy Brothers. Semi-professional surfers for the time.
That was my peer group and that is the direction I was going with Nathan Pratt, Tony Alva and Jay Adams, but we chased the opportunities in skateboarding instead.
Please excuse my ignorance. I was pretty involved in skateboarding way back when, but my knowledge of skateboarding ends around 1981 and starts up again a few years ago. In 10,000 words or less, where does Peralta fit into all that.
In the skateboarding world? You want that from me?
Well your honor, this line of questioning leads to the rumor that you were the first person to produce an action sports video. skateboard video, which I have heard was the first sports video of any kind.
(He sighs) The years from late 1979 to early 1983 were skateboarding’s dark ages.
It dipped. It cycled down. All the skateparks from the 70s closed. If you look at the 70s for skateboarding it’s analogous to the shortboard revolution of the 1960s. In three years there were all these design revolutions going on and no one really knew what a surfboard was going to become. And there were all these experiments done and a lot of really bad boards were made. Terrible boards.· The years from 1975 to 1979 were similar in skateboarding. Decks were changing dramatically all the time, every month they were getting bigger, wider and longer. Wheels, same thing. Ball bearings and trucks. There were a lot of casualties and a lot of people lost a lot of money, especially people who invested in skateboard parks. There were dead skateboard parks all over the country and all over the world because they were so poorly designed and no one really knew what a skateboard park should be. When skateboarding cycled down it hit pretty hard but we kept at it and kept at it and finally in 1983 my next door neighbor-the same guy who sold me the Simon Anderson Thruster said, “I’d like to make a skateboard video for your company and I will charge you $5000.” This was just when the VCR revolution was starting to come on. Now I had made a skateboard video two years prior to that offer. It was a teeny little thing called Skateboarding in the 80s. I think we sold 7 of them. But D. David had bigger ideas and it was going to cost us $5000, and I said okay.
This was D. David Morin?
Yes. He was a very successful TV commercial actor at the time and did videos as a side project.· The first day we were set to shoot, he couldn’t make it because he had a TV commercial to do. So he sent someone in his place to Lance Mountain’s ramp to shoot Lance, Caballero and McGill. I didn’t get along with the guys shooting the film and I fired them after the first day. So from that day forward I got a three-quarter inch camera and a recorder.
One of those shoulder-mounted beasts?
One of those big ones, with a separate recorder that connected to the camera with a big pipe cable.
How far we have come.
I also got a little teeny 58/50 tape-to-tape editing system installed in my Hollywood apartment. I started shooting and shooting and I shot about a hundred hours of material. Eight months later we had our first hour-long skateboard video: The Bones Brigade Video Show, which I am told was the first Action Sports Video.
Well it was the first skateboard project not made to go into an auditorium. It was made for living rooms.
This was 1983?
I finished it in 1983 and it premiered in the spring of 1984 in the living room of Tony Hawk’s parents.
You shot the whole thing.
I shot the whole thing and edited the whole thing.
It took a while.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Now the difference between an Action Sports Video in my opinion and what was called a traditional surf movie, is traditional surf movies were usually made by film-makers, on film, to project in auditoriums and four-wall up and down the coast. I was not a filmmaker, I was shooting on three-quarter inch video and it wasn’t made for theaters it was made for home living rooms.
You think you’re the first one? Nothing before you?
Not that I’m aware of, but please find out. I’ve always been credited with it but right after me Don Hoffman made another one for Vision Skateboards. But basically George Powell and I owned that market until the late 80s when Santa Cruz started making their skateboard videos.
Did they make money?
Yes they did. Not a ton. We originally made them as a promotional item but we sold like 30,000 a pop. Our distributors worldwide were telling us that we were lifting the tide of skateboarding because one kid would buy one and a hundred kids would see it.
So you’re claiming to be the Godfather of all Action Sports Videos. The face that launched a thousand projects. In some ways that is cool and in other ways that is like claiming Reality TV.
Totally. I have to say this in a way that doesn’t make me look like I am blowing my own horn. And don’t quote me on this, but from what people tell me two of the 10 videos I’ve made-The Search for Animal Chin and Future Primitive-are on everybody’s Top 10 lists of all-time videos. Even Spike Jonez. There was a website that said Animal Chin was his favorite. But having said that don’t blame me for all the guys who followed who have put no context into their videos. I have tried to put some context.
So you were trying from the word go to….
…to show some of the subversive nature of skateboarding and put a little mind into it and not just show action all the time. Stecyk and I played with this a lot. He was involved in this as well and we wanted to have fun making these things.
So all through the 80s you were with Powell-Peralta and selling skate stuff and making videos. What were you doing in the 90s?
You sold your skateboard company?
I didn’t sell it, but it’s a long story. A long long story.
Another Action Sports Story. So you got out of Powell-Peralta and did what?
I started producing and directing television.
What did you do?
A mixed bag of stuff for all the networks, but I really did not like doing it. You’re just making product to hit a certain demographic. A certain audience. A certain number. And it’s not pleasing. It’s creatively unsatisfying. You are dealing with a management system that doesn’t reward creativity but rewards delivering eyeballs. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad but if it delivers eyeballs… So I found out about three years later that it wasn’t what I wanted to do and I had to figure out how to get out of doing it and figure out something else that I felt strong about.
Dogtown was it?
Well I wanted to learn how to write screenplays so I spent four years writing five of them in between jobs and I didn’t get any action on any of them. Dogtown was the first project I did that was made exactly the way I was hoping it would be made.
How did Dogtown come about?
I went into Dogtown at the lowest point of my life creatively and career-wise. I wouldn’t call it do or die, but if it wouldn’t have worked I don’t know where I would have been today. And I wasn’t going back to television.
Dogtown was huge and is huge. Everyone knows Dogtown. It got huge kudos at Sundance and it’s playing in bars and clubs around the world. It’s a phenomenon.
No kidding. It has sold over a million DVDs and more than 700,000 VHS.
Good lord. Did you know that would happen?
I had no idea. Dogtown was done on the cheap and when I was making it everyone though it was cool that I was memorializing that period. And then when it became such a success…
Money changes everything.
I didn’t make any money on Dogtown. Everyone thinks I did, but I didn’t.· I didn’t have any ownership in the Dogtown film. I was paid terribly. What Dogtown did is open doors for me to get Riding Giants made.
A little sidebar here. What month and year were you where you are now on Dogtown? When were you suffering Postproduction Depression after your first documentary?
Almost the exact same time in 2001. In fact it was the exact same time: Spring of 2001.
I sentence you to be hung by the neck until you cheer up. I think you are going to get nominated for an Oscar. I think forget about subject matter, the detail and craftsmanship and technology.
I don’t know if they’ll see that but I appreciate your saying that.
What’s next for Stacy Peralta? You’ve got a screenplay in production.
Lords of Dogtown. They start shooting in a week.
Brock Little is down in Imperial Beach, crashing into piers as we speak.
And beyond that, two projects. Radar Pictures is talking to me about adapting Captain Zero.
You like that book?
Yeah I love it. And Art Linson and Stu Linson who are producing Lords of Dogtown,· have asked me to write a coming of age 50s surf film. Kind of like a Greg Noll crew, California to Hawaii experience. So we are talking about that. Those are the things we are talking about.
All that, and you are depressed.
I need to go surfing.
What about going right now? It’s a lovely spring day and there is surf in the South Bay.
I can’t right now. Things to do.