The Surfer Interview With Jack McCoy

Jack McCoy sees things. He sees music in movement. He sees poetry in positioning. He sees grace amid chaos. Jack McCoy sees color and light and patterns like some people see words on a page. And so lucky for us that this seer of things that can’t be held in one’s hands chose the profession he did. Or, rather that, it chose him.

55 year-old Jack McCoy is the world’s premier surf filmmaker. Since the release of Tubular Swells, his first collaborative effort in 1977, McCoy has produced a remarkable body of work, an aesthetic tapestry woven in 16mm that has spanned more eras than any other surf filmmakers–even the legendary masters from whom McCoy took inspiration. Book-ending this epoch, which began with the bursting vitality of Tubular Swells and its depiction of both the new age of professional surfing and the early, exotic allure of dream-waves like Uluwatu and G-land, is Blue Horizon, McCoy’s newest project, a look at today’s surfing through the shared passion of two equally-talented yet disparate personalities.

The McCoy Look. Which, over the decades since this surf child of the ’60s from the east side of Oahu expatriated to Australia and eventually picked up a camera has come to mean the absolute gold standard in slow-motion water photography. This technical excellence, combined with McCoy’s flair for mining surfing’s rich vein of personality, have elevated his library of films and videos, with titles like A Day In The Life of Wayne Lynch, Stormriders, The Performers, Bunyip Dreaming, The Green Iguana, Occy: The Occumentary, and To’O: Day Of Days into a class by themselves.

As if there is the world of surf videos, and the world of Jack McCoy.

When did it occur to you that you had an aptitude for film making? And when did you start developing it?


When I was a kid growing up on the East side of Oahu I did a lot of bodysurfing and I used to always trip out on what it looked like inside the tube and thought sharing that with people would be very special. Then, in 1967, I met a really wonderful man named Jim Freeman at the Hawaiian premier of MacGillivray-Freeman’s Free and Easy. Greg was at one door taking tickets and Jim was over at the other door. Greg’s door was closest to the ticket office so he had a steady stream of people. Jim was on the other side of the Roosevelt Auditorium at the time and I thought, “I’m gonna go over to this guy and maybe he’ll talk to me a little bit.” And sure enough I stood there the entire time talking to Jim Freeman, and he really sparked my imagination. He told me how cool he thought it all was. He answered every question I had. He invited me back the next night, no charge. I went, “Bitchin’!” and so I went back, and then went back every night after that. I started helping clean up and he gave me a little rundown about the projector and what it did. Freeman was the one that turned me on to it all. Then when they did Sunshine Sea, which started out as Waves of Change in 1968, they went over to Maui to do a shoot and Freeman invited me over. Greg had this new high-speed camera that’d shoot really, really slow-motion and Jim was so stoked. When that film came out, well, Greg wasn’t a brilliant swimmer or really amazing in the water, but he had this camera and he went out on this two-foot day and shot some pictures of Nat Young riding these little tiny waves in slow motion. It was filmed really late in the afternoon with this pretty light and he ended up producing some amazing shots. And I think it was at that time that I thought, “God, if I could just get that camera, imagine some of the places I could take it to.” It was several years until I got my first camera, and I shot a lot of stills and took myself to places with my still camera that I was very stoked about, but the bottom line was that it wasn’t until I actually got a movie camera in my hands and started shooting in the water and getting the results that I felt, “God, I can get some pictures here.”

That must’ve been in, what, the mid 1970s? You first went to Australia in 1970?

In 1970. I showed movies around Australia for about three years, then I moved to Victoria thinking I was going to become a restaurateur, figuring I could surf all day, and serve a few meals at night. That turned out to be a big, rude awakening. The restaurant business is pretty full-on and we worked our asses off. It was a couple years later that I had bad a skiing accident–a head injury that actually caused some amnesia, and so I didn’t really know what I was doing for a time. Dick Hoole, who I had spent a lot of time showing movies around Australia with, decided that maybe it was time we made our own movie. So, Dick put a 16mm Bolex in my hand and said, “We’re shootin’ movies.” And that’s what we did. Off we went.

And off you went in search of Tubular Swells in 1976.

It was actually called Tubular Swells, but when it came to America MacGillivray, who was distributing the film, didn’t like the sound of Tubular Swells, so he changed it to In Search of Tubular Swells, which he felt sounded better.