Writer Chas Smith's infamy as surf journalism's resident provocateur is well earned. Over the course of nearly two decades spinning mostly first-person documentations of surfdom across a variety of publications, Smith's irreverent takes on everything from the training regiments of World Surf League competitors to shark-based fear mongering, are fun, if not stinging, reminders that to take our hallowed pastime too seriously, is to do so at our own peril. Smith's passion for surfing and surf culture, meanwhile, as evidenced by his inside-baseball style oeuvres on his website Beach Grit, is undeniable.
Beyond his gift for gab, though, Smith's a crack journalist. A former war zone reporter for Vice and Current TV, Smith knows a gripping story when he sees one.
"As a writer, when you stumble across something that's un-mined, you jump with joy," Smith told me when I phoned him up to talk about his new documentary "Trouble: The Lisa Andersen Story."
While Andersen's professional surfing success is well documented (four-time world champion, first woman on the cover of SURFER Magazine), the details of her journey from Ormond Beach runaway to one of the most famous surfers of all time are less well-known.
"Lisa had to fight and claw and scratch her way for every single, little bit she got," Smith says. "From a story perspective, it's compelling."
With "Trouble" set to premiere, fittingly, in Florida at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna on June 15 and at Surfer the Bar in Jacksonville Beach on June 16, as part of the Florida Surf Film Festival’s Quarterly Screening, we caught up with Smith to talk about Andersen's impact on surfing and what made Andersen's story interesting enough for Smith to put down the pen and get behind the camera.
You've written about Lisa Andersen before. What was the hook that made you think her story would be compelling for a documentary?
I didn't even know that much about her whole story when I started, to be honest. I just thought in surfing there are so few icons and Lisa is truly iconic. To be able to tell her story was compelling for a couple of reasons. One: I think her story has been under told. Growing up, and then of course through my years in surf journalism, Lisa was always one of my favorite surfers to watch. How she approaches surfing is so beautiful and what she does is so amazing. I felt like her story hadn't been told the same way as the Bustin' Down the Door guys or Kelly, or whatever. There are a bunch of great surf documentaries, but I don't know that there's one about one specific woman. To me Lisa is the one. She should be the first.
And there's a lot of depth to her story, much of it untold, that I'm sure drew you in even more once you began working on the doc.
Lisa's story is fantastic, right? And partly because she is a woman. I just think when she was coming up, you see there were a lot more resources for the men. Lisa didn't have that. She had to fight and claw and scratch her way for every single little bit she got. From a story perspective, that's great.
But, also, to me surfing has always seemed more feminine than it is masculine. The girls should be celebrated as much or more than the guys. It always seems like the girls are encouraged to surf like the guys. But they shouldn't. To me, if women's surfing was left alone, it'd be better than men's. It'd be like women's ice skating compared to men's ice skating. Or women's gymnastics compared to men's. Surfing is essentially feminine. Women just look better surfing.
Lisa surfed like a girl. And Steph Gilmore does that, too. When you see that done right, I think it blows the doors off men's surfing. I love watching high performance surfing and big barrels and whatever. But when you see a Lisa or a Steph Gilmore, the way they approach a line is just so damn beautiful. It's like ballet or something.
For those who may be too young to remember her in her prime, what did Lisa Andersen mean for surfing? How big was she?
She was huge. Girl's surfing wasn't a thing. I don't think it's demeaning at all to say, she was drop dead gorgeous and absolutely ripped. She was the standard bearer before Blue Crush and all the explosion of women's surfing. She was way more captivating to me than anybody else at the time.
How do you feel about the job surf media or surf brands have done representing women? Did Lisa change that?
Oh man, they've wasted a massive opportunity in my mind. Women's surfing should be leading the charge for these brands. In the day and age of MeToo, and this revival of feminism, if you will, how is surfing not at the very front of putting women front and center? Even though the WSL has a female CEO and a strong women's world tour, beyond that women's surfing is still treated like a half time show. Like, 'Oh, the waves are getting shitty, so let's put the women out there." It always seems like an after thought. I don't know that the brands even see the relevance. The surf industry is like a dinosaur when it comes to this issue. We have amazing female surfers right now and these iconic ones with great stories. As a writer, when you stumble across something that's un-mined, you jump with joy. And Lisa's story is the perfect example. All women in surfing just seems like this un-mined vein and it feels like a missed opportunity for the surf industry.
You've done some work with film in the past—Beachgrit's "Girl Goes into Orbit," and "Who is J.O.B.?" What's different about telling a story through a doc compared to writing a long form piece?
Making a movie is the biggest pain in the ass, ever. God bless all filmmakers out there. I love writing. You interview, you gather detail, and then it's you and the story alone together for however long. But filmmaking is way more collaborative. Even setting up an interview. When you're writing about it, you just have your iPhone or recorder and you go. For a film you have an eight hour production of setting up lights. The minutiae of filmmaking is something that I'm not good at or patient with.
A lot of that story takes place in Florida. How do you think growing up in Florida formed who Lisa became and how and why she was able to do what she did?
I grew up in a small town in Oregon, where you have this dream of surf. Lisa had that, I think. Florida has it's own surf history and culture—and it's rich and deep—but it's also not the mainstream version of what surf is. Lisa talks in the movie about going to see surf movies as a kid, seeing Hawaiian barrels and all these waves, and being blown away. Unless you've grown up in like San Clemente, that's almost a universal feeling. It appealed to me that Lisa had this dream or longing to be somewhere bigger than her hometown. But then also, she returned home. Florida still means so much to her. Her mother is still there. Florida formed who she was. And then through her wild journey, it remained the place where she wanted to return.
Given that, I imagine it was important for you to premiere the film in Florida.
Definitely. If I'm going to be true to her story, the film had to premiere in Florida. There's no other option.