Jack McCoy's face fills my computer screen (God love Skype), and once again I'm reminded that the man is imposing. Heading toward imperious. Yes, he has the easy, summery drawl that is the birthright of any postwar American-born surfer, but don't be fooled. He is Patton with just the lightest glaze of Rob Machado. I love bastards like Jack McCoy. I love guys who have been in the game as long as he has (almost 50 years, going back to the days when he was hanging posters for MacGillivray-Freeman), and who never, ever phone it in. I aspire to those levels. Call me the Jack McCoy of surf writers, even if you're half-joking, and I will die a happy man.
McCoy turns 66 today. It was a pleasure and an honor to talk with him.
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Your Billabong gig, starting in the early '90s, was probably the best filmmaker-patron deal ever in terms of great movies. Bunyip Dreaming, up through the Billabong Challenge movies, The Occumentary, on and on. How did that whole thing start?
I was invited to go on a trip north with the Billabong team in 1989, which was basically Gordon Merchant sussing me out. Munga [Michael Barry] was in there, Ronnie Burns, David Cantrell. Dougall Walker was the team manager. We came back, and all Dougall could do was tell Gordon that I'd blown his mind in terms of how I worked. How I motivated the guys.
"Motivated." There was an interview with Munga a few years later where he made it sound like you were standing over everybody with a bullwhip.
Basically, surfers are lazy. They're fuckin’ lazy. They're getting paid to surf, but unless the waves are perfect, most of them are laying around doing bong hits. And making ten times as much money as I'm getting. Put it this way, I never did anything to any of those guys that was remotely unfair in terms of a how a regular person might go around his or her job. Yeah, I made 'em work. And you know what the funny thing is? These days? Every one of those guys has come up to me and some point and thanked me and said how much they appreciate the way those movies came out. How good I made 'em look, in other words. How stoked they are to show those movies to their kids.
Bunyip was the first one?
Yes. We did a few more team trips, then Gordon gave me a small budget to make a film. I'd just had a baby, and I was looking for a paying gig, so to help push the thing along my wife and I put ten grand of our own money on top of Gordon's, and we put Bunyip together. Gordon and Bob Hurley were at a trade show in California when it arrived. They put it in the VHS player, watched it five times in a row, called me up and said, "Start the next one."
You shot film, went high-end all the way, and even on VCRs the quality was popping off the screen. But meanwhile, that whole down-and-dirty surf video thing was just blowing up. Were you kind of rolling your eyes at all that? Or just ignoring it?
[McCoy thinks a moment; shifts into diplomacy mode.] Well, horses for courses, right? I did what I did. Those guys did what they did. My whole deal was quality. It's a beautiful sport; do the sport justice. [Diplomacy begins to falter.] Water shots, OK? Just for starters. Put the viewer in there. Put the viewer where Bud Browne put me when I was a kid. I mean, basically, I think you're a hoax if you're not swimming out there and getting water shots. Get up under the lip. Take a few on the head, you know?
It must have been gratifying when all the video kids, a decade or so later, starting more or less trying to make movies the way you'd been doing it all along.
They kind of had to. One day you wake up, and realize you're either going to take the work seriously, or you're not.
Why do you think the Billabong partnership worked so well for you?
A lot of it came down to creative freedom. The company just more or less turned me loose. Gordon trusted me. He had input along the way on a couple of things, but basically he let me make the movies I wanted.
Could that happen now, do you think?
Maybe. I don't know. Probably not. It's so much easier and cheaper to just hire some kid to go out there and make the same movie every other kid is making. There are a hundred kids out there that, you buy 'em a plane ticket around the world, and they'll make your movie. And for that price, you're not going to get anything that's going to last, or be anything that people want to look at 25 years from now. Or even next year.
Let's talk about Occy's comeback. I never get tired of that one. You had a big hand in that whole amazing episode. How did it start?
After the Green Iguana shoot in 1992, I put Occy on a plane to Europe, and I just knew he was in a bad way. Really bad. And sure enough, in France, that's when things went off the rails for Mark. Then he comes home and lives on the couch for three years. A lot of credit here goes to Gordon, because during that whole period he kept Occy on the Billabong payroll. One day Gordon and I were talking—there was a long period there, years, where Gordon and I talked every day, without fail—and I said "I think it's time Occy got off the couch. Why don't you send him to me and we'll see what we can do." Mark was married then to a woman named Beatrice, and she had a lot to do with him going; she was great. Very warm, gentle person, but very persuasive; "Honey, it's time for you get out there."
You were in Western Australia at that time?
Yes, in the southwest. I was living there with my brother-and-sister-in-law and, they had a big farm, four kids, I had two kids, and we're all kind of living the hippy lifestyle—good food, plenty of sleep, plenty of work to do around the farm. I'd spent a lot of time with Mark during the Bunyip–Green Iguana period. He loved my family. He trusted me. Really, at that point, he was looking for a mentor.
And a father figure, probably.
Absolutely. But mostly, you know, we just had a really strong friendship. Everybody by then had kind of bailed on him, except Gordon and myself. So Occy came and lived with me for six weeks, and that was the beginning of his road back.
What did you guys do?
A lot of it was just diet and exercise. And just surfing. Every morning we'd walk two kilometers down the beach, lugging my cameras and stuff—which right away, you know, was good for him.
He was pretty huge?
Huge. Huge. Yeah. There are a couple of shots of him in The Occumentary that give you an idea.
The program worked.
It did. Six weeks later, I mean, nobody was thinking world title or anything, but by that time Occ totally believed in himself again. And the weight was coming off. He just took it from there.
Weren't the Billabong Challenge contests designed partly to show Mark off to the world?
Partly, yes. But also…Gordon at that point was just so sick of the World Tour. Just putting all that company money into this stupid tour only to have the finals at, I don't know, Manly Beach on a Sunday afternoon regardless of what the surf was doing. So we came up with the idea to give Occy an opportunity to take measure of where he was at and do a different kind of contest. A better contest then what we were seeing with the ASP. The original idea was to put Occ out there with Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, and Martin Potter. Just those four. Two weeks at G-land for the first contest, then two weeks at Jeffreys for the next one. We wanted to do it in secret, and surprise everybody. Right? Can you imagine? We actually thought we could pull that off. You wouldn't even dream of that today. But we hit some roadblocks, and long story short it ended up being Sunny Garcia, Kelly, Machado, and Shane Powell, who were the four top-rated ASP guys at that moment, plus Johnny-Boy and Paul Patterson. And we did that first one at Gnaraloo instead of G-land.
Occ ripped that thing.
Yes! Ripped it! And ripped the next one, too, at J-Bay. And, not patting myself on the back, but I think those two events gave him the confidence to get back on Tour full-on and then take the world title.
That whole story still kills me.
I know. Amazing.
Jack, before we say goodbye, I have to ask. Mid-'80s, around there, you had this big beautiful mustache, and seriously you were the spitting image of Tom Selleck. Was that thing magic for you?
I grew up in Hawaii, and my good friend Roy Mesker, Big Roy, he was a couple years older, and he worked as a male model. Gerry Lopez got all his style sense from Roy. So when I'd go back to Hawaii in the '80s, Roy and I would go out to dinner, and he'd pick some place where the lights were low, and he'd introduce me to people as Tom Selleck.
You played along?
Did you ever sign an autograph as Magnum PI?
I really don't want to…
You did! You met ladies that way!
[Long pause] There was maybe a time or two where I didn't say I wasn't Tom Selleck.