By Steve Barlotti
Photos by Kanoa Zimmerman
Twilight, Micronesia. Given Goodwin – tan, golden-tressed, and 3 years old—executes a practiced handclap sync for the camera and quickly moves out of frame. Quiet on set. A four-man film crew clad in T-shirts and boardshorts slowly dollies in on Given's mom, Daize, and baby sister, True, pitched up in the lee of the wheelhouse. The scene: taking in the lagoon sunset. Given perches on the lifeboat housing and they instantly form a burnished tableau of surf family serenity. It's the moment of the long breath, the Big Now. We rock lightly in the small swell echoing off the island.
Jess Bianchi, the director, inspects the last take on the monitor. He nods approval, and asks for another. And another. And again. And once more for safety.
"We about done, guys?," asks Daize. It's not really a question. True is bored and is threatening fussiness. So is Daize. The wind's dropped and she can see the tide's filled in enough to cushion the shallow reef beneath a little left breaking in the nearby channel. Daize Goodwin, formally Daize Shayne, is a two-time Women's World Longboard Champ and original Roxy Girl from the early 2000s. These days, however, she finds precious little time to surf, despite consistently traveling to decent log-worthy waves. The incessant demands of raising two young children on a 14-month global road-trip pretty much limit her water time to half-hour therapy sessions wedged between feedings.
Jess indicates a wrap and Daize promptly hands True off to husband Aamion who's up from below decks but somewhat groggy from his post-session nap. I catch up with Daize on the dive step as she's prepping her grape-colored longboard.
"So far, we haven't had really great surf in all the places we've been, so surfing hasn't really been an issue between Aamion and me," says Daize. "But on this trip we both want to be in this amazing water and we both don't want to be on the boat with True crying. So that's been a hurdle to figure out how to meet in the middle. For Aamion, it's tough because he's being pulled in so many directions right now. So we do what we do best. Aamion surfs for the film and True wants me because I'm the one with the boobs."
The Goodwins sleep in shifts these days, especially now that True, age 10 months, is teething and just recovering from the same Peruvian stomach bug, aka "runny bum," that's taken down most of the film crew to varying degrees. The stifling nights below decks have been tough on everybody, especially the kids, and both parents are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation.
"This trip, while amazing, is a constant challenge," confides Aamion, as Daize heads off. "My wife is a Ferrari…always doing something, projecting about what needs to be done. Me, I'm more about adapting to the conditions on a day-to-day basis. It's all real and it's all happening. But our biggest conversation on this project is about staying in the moment."
It's been over five years since I last saw Aamion. He was dropping into a sizey California beachbreak near Cardiff and we had a brief catch-up out in the lineup. Three years before that we were exploring the arid southern coast of Madagascar for uncharted waves. A decade earlier we took a couple warning shots over the bow from the nervous survivors of a religious massacre in a forgotten corner of Indonesia. That was pre-30s, pre-marriage, pre-kids. Since then he's matured, looking rangy and weathered, his lank hawkish aspect recalling a gunfighter dandy or pirate in his prime.
"Often it comes down to a simple choice," Aamion continues, while rocking a whining True. "I can surf right now or I can take the time to be with my amazing son or daughter on their level. It's almost like being in the barrel where you're able to just forget about everything else. On the other hand, I always want that next wave. So, I weigh each situation."
I like Aamion. For starters, he's a big, capable guy, resourceful to a primal degree. He dives, hunts, fishes, builds fires without matches, and fashions elegant beach shacks from driftwood and plaited palm fronds. He's interesting too. Aamion, nicknamed "Oma," holds an atypical pro-surfer backstory that rivals something out of a Jack London novel. Born in a Mexican mud hut, raised by an itinerant artist father in a remote Fijian village, Aamion spent his childhood traveling around the Pacific Rim and living off the grid in tree houses, boats, caves, and even a converted school bus. As a teenager on Kauai he was a gawky hippie kid who wore tie-dyed T-shirts and drove a purple scooter his step-mom had plastered with a glitter sticker that read "I Believe In Angels." A mensch, and a good man to have your back when being boarded by Uzi-toting soldiers who don't look much different in patched fatigues and flip-flops than your standard-issue Malaysian pirate.
And he's a phenomenal surfer. A throwback progressive who alchemizes power and style into an alloy so unique you can spot it circling the pack a hundred yards out. One of those rare surfers paid to be watched, not scored. "He's the kind of guy who only comes into his own at places like Cloudbreak and Teahupoo, where his huge frame and Kauai childhood and preternatural calm put him in the freakiest pits," wrote novelist Dan Duane in a 2007 Surfer's Journal profile.
For the last 10 years Aamion, age 33, has been Hurley's marquee Hawaiian soul pro, known for extended off-the-map surf adventuring, while at the same time maintaining a slot at Pipeline through infrequent but definitive appearances on the standout days. While never a contest surfer, per se, he understands the game well enough to post respectable, even spectacular showings at selected North Shore events.
Aamion and Daize, who had known each other as teens on Kauai, married in 2004. They bought an old plantation house near Hanalei that they remodeled with help from Oma's father, Aaron. Prior to Given's birth in 2008 they had always discussed going on an extended family adventure similar to the one Aamion had growing up. After Given's birth it became even more important. For Aamion it was vital to pass on his nomadic legacy from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, also a great traveler.
"My dad wanted me to be raised in a simple life, outside of the structure that's been set up by modern society," says Goodwin. "He taught me what was important from a village perspective. Respect your elders, your family, and other people. In a small village you know your place in the world. It works. Even though the world has changed so much since I was a kid, I wanted to do the same with Given. Whether this project happened or not I was going to do it. We never forced anything. It just happened."
What just happened was that Aamion reconnected with childhood friend, Jess Bianchi, after a 15-year break. Bianchi and Goodwin met as young boys growing up on Kauai, where Bianchi, who lived with his single mom, was inducted into Aamion's self-styled tribe of surfing kid-adventurers, a la The Goonies ("We were never cool like Bruce and Andy but we did interesting stuff," he says). Aamion, who is three years older than Jess, acted as a surrogate big brother and pushed Jess to challenge the hazardous fast-breaking tubes on Kauai's North Shore. Although Bianchi left Kauai as a young teen—shuttling between his mom in LA and dad in Italy—he and Aamion remained in sporadic contact.
After graduating film school and settling in San Francisco as a commercial filmmaker, Bianchi occasionally discussed doing some sort of surfing-related film with Goodwin. The concept: a passion project where they could utilize all of their combined expertise, experience, and contacts to create a handmade visual homage to their roots.
"For me, I wanted to show the Italian side of my family about my Kauai surfing life," says the soft-spoken, heavily tattooed Bianchi. "It's a part of me they know nothing about. My dad's family are business people…very Italian, old school, and conservative. Great people, but they have absolutely no affinity for the ocean…scared to death of even small waves. I wanted to show them the magnificence and the poetry that I see every time I paddle out."
In late 2010, based on an afternoon's conversation and a few key phone calls, Goodwin and Bianchi enlisted an executive producer, secured private start-up funding, and greenlit their yet-to-be-named film project under the production company "Avocados and Coconuts." Bianchi shortlisted a minimalist travel crew and then broke out the maps, basing shooting locales on culture, cinematic possibilities, and lastly, surf potential. All up, an ambitious itinerary calling for over 50 locations in 18 countries spanning six continents.
Daize, who was in her second trimester with True at the time, switched out plans for a serene Year One on Kauai and began filling out passport applications for Given and her yet unborn daughter.
"Jess allayed a lot of my concerns because he never downplayed my concern for the kids," recalls Daize. "The only thing that surprised me is when he asked to film the birth."
Their website's current trailer, created on Kauai before travel commenced in July 2011, gives a good taste of the film's message and style. The style, shot on a prototype RED Epic camera is lush, cinematic, and stately…using generous wide shots and high-definition slow-motion to create ultimate resonance and impact. The subjects are prosaic, yet profound: craning up a tree house under construction, panoramic floating heli-shots of a paddle mission along the Napali coast…jungles, chickens, mud, kids, tubes, and a very pregnant Daize longboarding Waikiki (which inadvertently brought on labor). The trailer ends with True's birthing-center delivery (with a notably squeamish Aamion looking on), her first cries, and the tagline: "The Journey Continues."
Back on deck, Given constructs a "job site" from his knapsack of toy trucks and Legos. "Job site" is kid-code for "very valuable equipment" and "I'm working right now." He takes his job site very seriously and in return is expected to respect others. Such as when Jess and his crew are reviewing dailies and offloading A-cuts to hard drives on the crew table below. They are surrounded by a mortgage's worth of high-end cameras, imported cinema lenses, custom housings computers, and video editing equipment. One bad drop, splash, missing cable, or sticky kid's fingers smearing a camera sensor could shut down production for days.
"In film school they say there's several things you don't do," says Bianchi, who lists Amélie and the films of French director Jean Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) as his chief film inspirations. "First, you never shoot without a script. Second, avoid children and animals. And third, stay away from water or anything that's weather-dependent. So essentially we're doing all the big no-no's in one film. But hopefully we're creating something special, which isn't your standard on-the-beat Hero's Journey."
At this point the Goodwin crew are five months and seven locales into the shoot. By the end they will have been in principal photography 14 months, five months longer than it took to film the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on location. The locales thus far: Kauai, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Nepal, Thailand, Peru, and currently this corner of
A yet-to-be released second teaser, framed as Aamion's dream sequence, incorporates choice edits from the trip thus far: longboarding ice flows in Iceland, food shopping in Jerusalem markets, riding elephants in Thailand, snake charmers teasing six-foot cobras, and Given playing with child monks in Nepal. There is a definite homage to non-verbal art films such as Baraka (Blessing) and Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance), right down to lifting a few scenes intact. One poignant cut shows a weathered elephant foot treading the ground that seamlessly cuts to True's hand and her crawling along in pure trumpeting bliss. The project's motto, the sticker you see plastered on production journals and battered camera cases, is lifted from the classic '70s Camel song "Slow Yourself Down." Which works better as a tagline than a production ethic. Early on there were leadership issues between Aamion and Jess and more than a few freak-outs along the way.
Iceland, especially, was challenging. Aamion is a driven surf-trip veteran who will go 30 hours nonstop to meet the rumor of swell. Jess, as a filmmaker, wanted to maximize the stunning landscapes and seemingly endless golden hour at Iceland's high latitude. Eighteen-hour days became the norm. When they missed surf, however, Aamion would get pissed. Jess in turn became frustrated he was producing substandard shots chasing waves. The crew was being taxed and starting to grumble. Daize, especially, was concerned for the kids' physical and mental well-being.
"We had everything we needed," recalls Bianchi. "Great gear, great subjects, great stories. But we didn't really know how to execute it properly."
Since then, the team holds weekly meetings to take the pulse, check the budget, and pitch a bitch if needed.
"I had to release that surf-Nazi mentality," says Goodwin. "That was a big one for me. I don't want to be dragging my family around by their necks. We're a family with kids and we want the kids to be kids, not actors or subjects. This is not a reality show. It's just reality."
From Micronesia, the Goodwin Project will travel to New Zealand to meet up with Aamion's parents for a month touring in a vintage schoolbus similar to the one Aaron lived in with Aamion in the early 1980s. After that Western Australia, South Africa, Senegal, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, and France. Rather than an Endless Summer-style unidirectional globe trot, the Goodwin Project meanders though the high and low latitudes while reversing direction several times. Since neither child is immunized, flying times are kept below eight hours on any one leg.
The production logistics, while small by Hollywood standards, are huge by surf documentaries. The Goodwins are traveling with nearly a half-ton of film gear in 30 cases that include two RED Epic cameras (the same HD video systems used to film The Hobbit and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), precision French cine lenses, a steadycam, a portable jib-boom, and terabyte hard drives the size of a birthday cake. Each piece, 201 in total, has its own bar code that's scanned and inventoried upon each departure and arrival. And six bulging board coffins, despite Daize and Aamion being the only official surfers on the trip. "We're all surfers, so when the surf's good it's important that we all get in the water," says Aamion. "It keeps the creative juices flowing."
Ironically, for a production whose ethos is "Live In The Now," most of the crew is often living in the recent past, constantly reviewing footage from the previous locale, while shooting new footage in the present. The dailies happen in a variety of locales and conditions: guest houses, motel rooms, tents, vans, and now boats. It can be tough going. Today Devin Whetstone, the director of photography, is battling seasickness watching the monitor, while being cooped up on a rolling boat in a hot, stuffy galley smelling of fried bacon.
"This is the real thing," says Whetstone, 28, a seasoned cameraman, who in Thailand came within striking range of a six-foot spitting cobra to nail a heart-skipping wide shot. "I spent the last five years working in big studios under artificial lights and having too much control, to being thrown into a project with hardly any control and few tools to solve problems. It's exciting, but frustrating at the same time. But with that said, I'm definitely enjoying being out in nature and sleeping under the stars for work."
This production, while far from extreme travel, treads an ongoing tightrope balance between family, friends, egos, artistic visions, and the day-to-day logistics of securing food, shelter, and electrical adapters in foreign countries. Despite a generous budget, by documentary standards, this project's traveling style veers toward couch-surfing and Lonely Planet backpacker accommodations.
"From a professional point of view, the best thing to do would be to hire an outside professional film crew," says Bianchi, age 30. "But this crew needed to be good at what they did and be able to hang out as a family as well. It's like a band on a long tour. If somebody's not carrying their weight or allowing their negativity to infect everybody else, it's just not going to work."
Most gave up lucrative gigs in their respective professions to work on this project at indie-film cut-rates. Why? Most cited burnout and a lack of meaning in their work. All wanted some sort of real adventure in an increasingly Disney-cized facsimile of the world. Call it early-onset midlife crisis for Type-A Echo Boomers. Jess talks about his generation being fast-tracked toward a shallow definition of success, heavily rooted in materialism and defining your identity through branded products.
"It's all based on the fear that you're gonna be less-than, that you're gonna be left behind," says Bianchi. "So you make all the 'right' choices and suddenly you ask yourself, 'What am I doing?' I'm in a studio for 12 hours a day creating ads to sell products, but not necessarily a better way of living. I'm pasty, getting a gut, not surfing, and not having any fun. It's Groundhog Day. You get on the five-year plan that says if I do X-Y-Z then I'll be 'there' in five years. But you look at that guy on the plan closely, 'there' doesn't look all that killer."
There's a lot of brave buzz these days about staying present and living in "The Now." Which sounds like a lot of New-Age purple aphorisms afforded by the trust-funded spiritual seeker, until you really grok to the fact that the present is just about the only thing one can truly do anything about.
But surfers have always known this intuitively. Just try pondering dinner options when a heaving 8-foot section is about to unload on your head. Riding a wave solely for pleasure remains one of the last truly authentic acts left in this world, even as the culture surrounding it has become increasingly less so.
So it may seem the height of irony that the Goodwin film crew comes from the cream of high-end commercial advertising, an industry totally devoted to not living in the present. Advertising, the core of our capitalistic system, is based on not accepting the status quo, of dissatisfaction with the present situation no matter how good or sufficient it may seem. It then substitutes someone else's concept of success and happiness for you to literally buy into. Look like this, talk like this, dance like Beyoncé, surf like Kelly.
The Goodwins, and by that I mean the cast and crew, will no doubt catch a fair dose of snarky opinion for adhering to gooey ideals like "be true to yourself," "wait," and "love your children." In truth, art projects like these are rife with paradoxes. Chiefly, can one have an authentic moment while recording it for the cameras? And how does one square these lofty ideals while carrying a branded surfboard?
"People are always critical and will always try to pull you down," answers Aamion. "We just have to stay positive and feel like in the end we'll make a difference. As a surf pro…as a human being…you have to grow and evolve, otherwise the industry will chew you up and spit you out. In the end, I don't want to be a surf god. I want to be a better father, a better husband, and a better friend. Integrity is a big word with me."
So, yeah, you're just gonna have to drink the Kool-Aid on this one.
But, personally, I'm okay with that. From what I can see there is precious little being produced in mass media that doesn't deal with some adolescent fantasy of apocalypse and alienation. Our news has been hijacked by corporate fear mongers who manipulate images of violence as a psychic cattle prod to goad an under-informed citizenry to buy useless crap and manufacture wars. All lenses are magnetized to glossy sex, jackass conflict, and screaming dysfunction because conflict titillates and feeds the ever-needy ego.
But what's tragic is how much of this Koyaanisqatsi has filtered into surf media as a whole. While for generations we thought ourselves immune from the "Legions of the Unjazzed," so much surf imagery mirrored back at us these days is fractured, dumbed down, and downright joyless…the reflections of a broken ersatz culture.
So perhaps it's fitting that this film re-purposes the tools and craft developed from the heart of globalized advertising. It will be interesting to see if a surfing-inspired message of "Slow Down" is strong enough to resonate with a mass audience acclimated to flash cuts, branded subliminal messages, and consuming media in three-minute YouTube clips.
"Part of this film is for people to take responsibility and step up to their dreams," says Bianchi. "To live authentically. To cherish things crafted and hand built. I know this all sounds cliché but the message is as important as it's ever been…even more so."
"We're just trying to come up with a new way of saying it."