For the last four years, Ian Walsh has been dreaming up a new type of big-wave surf film, one which puts you in the lineup and right in the impact zone, immerses you in the power and the panic, but also the camaraderie and community amongst him and his growing group of modern hellmen. Showcasing the efforts that go into these days - whether it's the remarkably talented and dedicated emergency response and water rescue teams, or the tight-knit group of brazen chargers they protect - Walsh’s new film, Distance Between Dreams, produced by Red Bull Media House, gives you an immersive look behind the wild world of big-wave surfing today. The film goes on sale December 2, with premiere events announced for Oahu the same day, as well a world premiere on Maui, November 26. We chatted with Walsh about his first feature film, and about the challenges in conveying to an audience what he sees as “the greatest show on earth.”

You’ve worked on some substantial projects before, but this seems like an entirely different animal. This was a serious undertaking. Did you know going into it that this was going to be something big?


This was far and away the longest-term and biggest-scale project I’ve ever worked on. I’ve worked on films before, popping in and filming parts or whatever. But this is the first film that I’ve ever seen through from beginning to end.


So what was the initial vision?


Well, I’ve been conceptualizing the project since 2011. A lot of our vision was a testament to the director, Rob Bruce, who wanted to capture every aspect of surfing in a new creative way. We wanted to show everything from a first-person perspective and a 360-degree view of how this whole big-wave world operates on the days when conditions are incredible. And I wanted people to take away a real understanding of the characters in the film. Rather than just seeing how talented they are in the water, it’s about understanding them as people. I want people to feel an attachment to these guys, and to what pushes them, what their struggles or triumphs have been. I mean, take Greg Long. He lived through that experience at Cortez Bank and had to come to grips with it himself, to get back into surfing big waves.


But yeah, you see the process that goes into these incredible days, all the work and the preparation and the training. Rather than just the few good waves, you get to see the days as they unfold.

A major part of the film focuses on the preparation and training that goes into your trips, especially for the water rescue teams, who rarely get any love.


The advancement of big-wave surfing is directly influenced by the progression of [water safety teams]. Swell after swell after swell, they’re pulling guys from the impact zone, keeping them safe, keeping them healthy, and helping them prepare for what's next. We wanted to show exactly what goes into it and why this is important. Without them, big-wave surfing wouldn’t have seen this incredible spike in progression over these last few years.


Now, obviously a lot of it is a testament to the talent in the water, but it’s also the talent on the skis, minimizing the severe risks as best we can. You can’t control much in big waves—shit’s going to happen, shit’s going to go wrong. But if you can minimize those risks, you should. I wanted to communicate why we go through the training we do, and why we prepare for these days the way that we do. You see why that work is required, and on the payoff, you see why it’s worth it. At the end of the day, we want to push ourselves, but we want everyone to come home at the end of the day. None of it should come at the cost of someone’s life.


Do people recognize how miraculous it is that no one’s drowned or has died at places like Jaws or Mavericks recently? I mean, we’ve seen some of the most historic massive swells in recorded surfing history throughout the last few years, and certainly the most impressive big-wave surfing. That no one has died does seem incredible.


I haven’t really taken a step back to think about that. What a testament to the work of these teams. Greg [Long] drowned, but survived. Aaron [Gold] drowned, but they were able to save him. And that’s all from the ability of the rescue teams to grab someone onto the ski, get them out of the impact zone and somewhere safe, and perform CPR, with a really concise plan in place. Because that scenario - we’ve all been there. We understand how to deal with the situation and how to get these guys to the next level of care.


And a lot of times, the teams don't get the recognition. You don’t see the rescue guys in the mags, you don’t see them in the movies. But they’re out there, putting their lives at risk to save somebody when help is needed.

I mean, it’s a pretty remarkable skill-set, someone who’s comfortable in and familiar with heavy conditions, who knows how to drive a jet ski like a stuntman…


…and who’s confident as a First Responder, who can assess the severity of a situation—Is it a head injury? Is it massive bleeding? Is it an airway problem? That, coupled with the ability to understand surfing. A lot of it comes down to the fact that a lot of these guys are really good surfers in big waves, too. They understand, almost before it happens, when something bad goes down. As a surfer, you see someone falling and you recognize if it’s not a normal fall. You know if it’s a bad one, or if it’s in a bad spot - He hit the water weird, he’s not swimming the way a surfer would normally swim when he surfaced, etc. That split-second, intuitive decision-making comes from being a surfer.

A lot of big-budget surf films feel like just really big-budget surf porn. This film seems like it’s trying to do something different.


Some of my favorite parts of the old Taylor Steele movies, or those old …Lost movies, were all the behind-the-scenes stuff. The lifestyle shots of Andy and Taj and Parko on a boat trip. I wanted to see where those guys were staying, what that world looks like. I used to love seeing everything that happens outside the water, not just the surfing and the music. I wanted to pull back the curtain.

Speaking of boat trips, the film has a pretty incredible jaunt to regions we won’t disclose with the current World Champ. What can you tell us about that section?


Well, I wanted to show a good variety of surfing, too. I’m a fan of surfing in every way. Obviously, most of the film is about big waves, just because of what happened last year, and how monumental of a season it was, from a swell perspective. But there’s also one of the best performances of live surfing I’ve ever seen in my entire life: what John John [Florence] put on during a secret one-day strike mission we did to this incredible wave. I wanted to show the performance side of surfing, too, because that’s obviously super important to me, too.


I’d love to do more with John John, just showing how talented he is in bigger surf. Obviously people know that with his Eddie win, and his performances at Jaws, or Pipe, or Cloudbreak, but he is remarkably talented at every variety of surfing. As far as him being a World Champ, I think it’s so fitting that he’s in that seat.

After so many years putting this film together, it must feel good to have it wrapped up. What are you hoping people will take away from it, as you’re gearing up for the premieres?


Some of the things I see on those massive days, and that I see unfold during these sessions - from my eyes, I feel like it’s the greatest show on earth. I wanted to bring that to everyone, from a first-person perspective. Rather than feel like you’re watching it from a cliff, I wanted to put you in the lineup. We have microphones on, in our wetsuits, during the biggest days. You hear the real emotion after a wave’s ridden. You hear if a guy's talking to himself as he’s caught inside by a 50-foot wave. I wanted to put you in the lineup, so you can feel a bad fall. We literally shot falls and POV in the impact zone. I wanted to give people a really good understanding.


I also want this to be a platform for the next generation of surfers who are ultimately going to push big-wave surfing forward. This is a jumping-off point. I want to share everything, with everyone. One of the proudest things I can say about our generation of big-wave surfers is this: we’ve been able to look at things like safety equipment, the technique we use to ride these waves, the boards and fins and leashes that we use on these massive, monumental days, and we've been able to share what we've learned.


Eventually, I hope a 12-year-old kid, who is maybe riding whitewater at Haleiwa, sees this and maybe one day has these images in his mind, of guys surfing Jaws, and he wants to go out and do it. This is what it takes. Nowadays, any kid could work their way up and know, “Yeah, I’ve got my support crew, this safety vest works, these fins work, these boards work.” They don’t have to go through that same long learning process. They’re the ones who are going to push big-wave surfing forward.