By Malcolm Johnson
Kai Neville doesn’t need much of an introduction these days. After touring his much-hyped Modern Collective, the Aussie director moved on to Landscape Altered, a web-based series that follows five surfers through the Mentawais as they attempt to log the winning clip for the Kustom Airstrike. Neville’s work is half Pink Floyd and half MGMT, filled with lovely visuals, super-tech rotations and the frenzied activity that comes with being one of surfing's most sought-after creative types. He spared a few minutes to talk to SURFER about Landscape Altered, the state of surf film and what’s coming up next.
The Landscape Altered series is your first real follow-up to Modern Collective, which had all sorts of superlatives being thrown around in the surf media. Since the four episodes are wrapped now, can you talk a bit about how they differed from your previous projects?
With Landscape Altered, I had the intention of just trying to capture some new and innovative moves. There was little emphasis on the location or the personalities on the trip. I just wanted to put the boys in a setting and try to nail some $50,000 bangers. It was a fun concept—Indo is nothing fresh from a creative point of view, but when you're trying to nail new moves it's the world's best playground. It's one of the only locations where you can shoot every day.
I remember you talking about Modern Collective and how you were taking more of a session-based approach. The Kustom Airstrike contest is really a one-hit thing, though, so did that change things for you as a director?
I think Landscape Altered still has that session feel. Doing a trip to the Mentawais, you generate so much content that I broke the project up into four episodes, and each episode is basically a day of surfing. It's rad to check out the day's clips back on the boat, so I wanted to replicate that feeling. I remember watching the Maccas footage with the boys, and we started counting Clay's reverses. He cracked 50 easy in one day.
Some of the guys took pretty serious knocks shooting those episodes. Getting hurt on film trips has been an issue for a while in the snowboard world, but is the level getting so high in surfing now that you have to take that into consideration? Whether a clip is worth the X-rays and bone chips?
Well, in skateboarding or snowboarding or motocross, I think you have to expect to get injured trying moves that have never been attempted. It's how the sport progresses, so there's no reason surfing should be different. If you're not going to throw yourself around trying new moves, you'll be left behind in the progression realm. The groms coming through just launch themselves into all sorts of wild sections. It really sucks when guys get injured, but it's gay seeing guys pull back from sections too.
You've talked before about how the guys you're working with are some of the most futuristic surfers in the world, and the clips you're producing are just so far beyond in terms of performance. The level is so much different than it was even a few years ago, but are there things that you think are still worth looking to in the past?
I guess you have to take the old and put some new spin on it. I was filming the boys the other day in some sick wedges, and they were flying around trying stalefish rotations and didn't end up stomping a thing. The wave had the best backdrop, too, and I remember feeling that we kinda blew that session. Dion came in and said "fuck, couldn't nail one. But what was I supposed to do, try to make another air reverse? Who would want to watch that?"
Innersection is the other big clip-based surf project in the works right now. What's your opinion of how it's going so far?
It's an awesome way for new faces to be discovered in both filmmaking and surfing. There are some rad guys I'd never heard of, and I think it's so cool that they have a platform to be seen. The Internet voting can get weird, though.
Since you're seen as an arbiter of surf performance now, so has there been anything in the Innersection submissions that's really impressed you?
Matt Meola has some flair. I'd like to see more of that kid. Flynn Novak's backflips are just fricken crazy. I shat myself when he stomped one. And Peter Devries's slob rotations in what's basically snow are sick.
It seems that the way things are happening in film, there's this democratization going on where a few people can turn out work that equals that of any big production company. I know the independent ideal is something that's really attractive to you, but do you think it's actually getting any easier to turn out good films without corporate support?
It's so much easier to turn out work that matches what the major production companies are doing these days. Some of the young freaks working on projects just blow me away. I've scraped my films together with literally no budget, so I can't justify the crazy dollars that get thrown around to shoot a one-day helicopter session. I'm excited to hopefully work with a tasty budget one day, but for now I think being independent and working with little really helps the creative process.
I don't know if you see it this way, but from the outside the whole aura that surrounds the Modern Collective scene seems really carefree and exuberant and self-assured. Is there anything that's a bit frightening about the success you're having, or do you still see yourself as simply documenting what the surfers are going?
Well, I'm really stoked on the success and the good feedback towards what we're doing. We've had people stop us all over the world with positive comments. It's still weird to have people come up to me, but I'm glad they support what we do. But the surf industry is tough—it's easy to get ridiculed for trying something out of the norm. A lot of people can write you off. I feel some pressure about maybe working on something that would appeal to a wider audience, maybe tame it down. But then I think 'fuck that, I'd just be doing the same old. Let's get weird.'
Modern Collective, even with the title, had that definite group and collaborative feel. Do you think that's something you're going to be able to keep together? Or will it be more a case of everyone kinda taking that spirit and weaving it into whatever they're doing in their individual careers?
I think it was just perfect timing. The surfers went from hot to boiling hot in their careers. We worked really well with each other, and I guess the creative juices flowed. I think the boys are already venturing into their own creative paths, and they're all major icons in the surfing. It's a generation that I feel will always be known. And hopefully some more fun collaborations will amount in the future that keep the progression moving and still get the kids amped.
When you talked to Surfer towards the end of last year, you hinted at pre-production for a new project. What's up for you now? Are you lying low for a while, or is it straight into the next trip to keep filling up cards?
I'm going to lock myself in a cave for a while and ponder my next movements. And try to squeak out of a barrel or two.