In Frame: The Ben Weiland Interview

The scoop on all things arctic surf

Coldwater surf cinematography continues to flourish, as advances in neoprene, swell forecasting, and accessibility have allowed for more rolls of the dice to frosty locations. One filmmaker in particular continues to push himself deeper into the most barren of tundras: Ben Weiland. For the last decade, Weiland has chased that cold feeling to the most unforgiving locations, most famously for 2014's The Cradle of Storms, a two-and-a-half year production that Weiland and close friend Chris Burkard put together.

"It was a once in a lifetime score," says Chris Burkard of the ultimate rugged adventure surf romance: snowcapped mountains giving way to rolling streams, opening onto slabbing 200-yard tubes.

So did Ben peak? 1.5 million views on YouTube is nothing to scoff at in surfing (where most things that do go viral usually involve guest appearances by sharks, or surfing dogs, or both). With his films, Weiland transcended surfing and hit the vein of mainstream audiences with honest storytelling and beautiful, pulled-back cinematic vision, which goes against everything the Internet loves. Where does he go from here?

We sat down with Ben to get to the bottom of it.

Let's talk about The Cradle of Storms. How did that trip affect you? Would you consider that the perfect trip?

It was definitely a freak-out moment [Laughs]. I had just bought a new camera, a C100, and I paid for everything on that trip – my flights, all of it. Halfway through, we hadn't gotten that good of waves, and I was wondering what in the world this trip was going to turn into, questioning the investment I had made.

The next day, we found that slab that Alex Gray surfed, and it all came together. I was super stoked I had upgraded my equipment and had been so well-prepared, because otherwise, I would’ve missed a lot of stuff. It was nerve-racking in the moment, though, taking the risk and wondering if it's going to come out or not.

How do you approach the planning and storytelling for trips like this?

Obviously, as far as planning, there's the gear, and that's all technical. And then there's the story element. That's huge for me. I'm really into the storytelling aspect of these trips. Who are the characters? What are their challenges and what are the risks going to be? What is going to be unique? And then, of course, how are we getting around? Are we using different vehicles? Planning for Alaska, there weren't roads where we were going. So figuring out how to get there and prepare for that trip is a story in itself.

You tend to pick these hard-to-get-to places. For you, what are the perfect ingredients for a trip?

Anything unusual. Showcasing surfing in a place you'd never expect to see surfing, the opposite of "easy to access" stuff. New backdrops, weird accommodations, no hotels, no beaten paths – that's what I'm interested in.

What was shocking 10 years ago maybe isn't so shocking now in regards to surfing in snow. What are the next frontiers? How do you continue to push the envelope?

Yeah, these days the snow, the cold, it's not that interesting. It's even a novelty at times. But the underlying element, and what's more important, is the story you're telling. The culture, the people you come in contact with. There has to be a deeper story about everything you encounter. There are so many crazy locations with people living in ways we would see as unusual. Just going to those unknown regions is fascinating if you haven't ever seen anything like it before.

Is there anyone you'd like to work with? Any characters you want to place front and center in one of your future films who you think would help convey a good story?

I really loved working with Dane and Tanner [Gudauskas] on this last trip in Iceland. Anyone whose mentality is wired toward adventure. It's not always about finding perfect waves, but more about having amazing experiences, and Dane and Tanner on that last trip definitely embraced that outlook.

Tell us more about that last trip. What can we expect?

We made a lot of plans on this trip, and, well, they all kind of went wrong [Laughs]. But it turned out for the better. We were hunting down this very specific wave, and the swell and weather didn't come together. So we ended up checking out this other zone, and we took snowmobiles to get out to the coast. We ended up staying there for three days, in this little farmhouse, and ended up running out of food on the last day [Laughs]. You go into these trips with such great expectations, it's easy to get bummed out when it doesn't go as planned. But that's when something more interesting comes about. This was definitely one of those trips.

How long have you been focused on cold water destinations?

Around 7 years.

What was the craziest experience or scenario you’ve encountered?

Definitely in Iceland, last December with Burkard. We were trying to get to this little never-before-surfed peninsula by boat. No towns, no roads, nothing. On the way out, the worst storm in 25 years blew through without warning. It could have gotten really bad. We were with Icelandic surfers, and even they were like, "Woah, this is heavy." It was by far the craziest scenario I've ever encountered. You want some adventure, but you want it to be safe, and on that trip, we really didn't know what the end result was going to be.

Let's talk about your cinematic vision for a second. You have a lot of originality in your looks. The pulled-back lineups, more on-land, lifestyle stuff—you're sacrificing tight action for the greater good of a deeper story. When there's so much influence with these short edits these days, how do you stay true to your own vision?

Yeah, there's no shortage of surf content or surf videos. I try to think of what makes a particular film unique. Is it the place, the location, the circumstances, the surroundings? I try to do whatever it takes to show that and make a strong statement with those things in mind, and then have the surf be a part of that. Otherwise, it becomes this head-to-head competition with the very best waves paired with the very best surfing, and there's already a lot of that out there. For me, I'm more invested in circumstances and highlighting them.

The surfing is almost a secondary component, then?

Yeah, because the surfing will come, and that is obviously important, but that's not enough. You have to build everything else, too.

Greenland? Antarctica? Any other arctic continents have potential?

There are so many other places out there that haven't been touched. On this last trip to Alaska in November, we were flying over the whole Alaskan coast, all the way to the Aleutians Islands; we flew over a lot of really good waves. Now we just have to figure out how to get back there, and then try to convince someone worthwhile to support us to get us out there [Laughs].