In Frame: Beth O’Rourke

The creator of SeaLevel TV discusses her foray into making surf documentaries

In today’s realm of surf cinematography, there’s no shortage of hi-fi, hi-shredability, action films. Admit it, each time you go online or check your Instagram, you’re watching some new clip or full-length film filled with hard-charging surfers hunting down yawning tubes or lightfooted aerialists chucking themselves six feet above the lip. But when Beth O’Rourke, one half of the duo behind SeaLevel TV, dipped her toes in the world of surf filmmaking, she decided to focus on the surfers themselves and the interesting life stories many of them carry. In the past few years, O’Rourke has produced beautiful documentaries about surfers of many different walks of life––narratives that keep you interested from the opening scene to the closing number. And while she’s worked with more well-known characters like Skip Frye, Marc Andreini, and photographer Sachi Cunningham, O’Rourke also aims to tell the stories of lesser-known surfers who make our sport the interesting melting pot that it is. We caught up with O’Rourke recently while she was working on a few projects at home in Ventura, CA.

How did you get into surfing?

I moved to San Francisco in the late ’90s from Boston. At the time, I was into bike racing, and one day after a training ride, I was cruising down the bike path at Ocean Beach, and I looked out at the ocean. It was a really pretty day and the lineup wasn't crowded at all, and I saw two people out getting nice rides. It occurred to me that I could go across the street, buy a wetsuit and a surfboard at Wise Surf Shop, and start surfing, and get that same slide and drop feeling as I did from skiing. A few weeks later, I paddled out and got my ass handed to me over and over again, but I kept at it until I caught that first green water wave and I was hooked.

Tell me a little bit about how you got into filmmaking.

I graduated college with an art degree, so I've always made stuff. I was an illustrator in the early days and then I got sucked into the world of advertising. I was coming up with ideas to sell other people's products and create compelling ideas. I was an early employee at this place called Clement Mok Designs, and Clement was an incredible storyteller who could create beautiful assets for different clients. So it was there that I learned to sort of tell stories visually and began working with motion as a communication medium.

What made you switch from advertising to the surf world?

A few years ago, I left a corporate job and moved to Ventura. It was a good point for me to re-examine the types of films that I wanted to make and the types of ideas that I wanted to put out there. The ocean has always been such a big part of my life. I think there is something that has captivated me about the sea and I feel that it has endless spiritual and therapeutic value. People are naturally drawn to it, but there's also a lot of mystery there. That mystery is kind of what drove me away from working in the more commercial realm, which I did for around 20 years, into the realm of making documentary films.

Two and a half years ago, I said to Jeff Den Broeder (my partner at SeaLevel TV), 'What do you think about creating stories of our own?' He liked the idea, so we originally started SeaLevel TV as an experiment. Now, a few years on, our short docs have been selected for film festivals. We're beginning to be recognized, and it's felt fantastic to be validated by audiences all over the world.

Most surf films focus on high-action shredding, and it seems like there's a small number of filmmakers focusing just on producing narrative-driven surf films.

Exactly. When we were first putting SeaLevel TV out there, I think our intention was to stand out in a sea of high-action surf films, which are mostly adrenaline driven and radical and energetic. Which I love! I watch that stuff too–who doesn't want to see somebody get the most insane barrel of their life? But I think Jeff and I recognized that the actual storytelling part with a beginning, middle, and end, and some kind of journey telling a life story or doing a short doc-bio, was missing from the repertoire of surf films.

So I know that you’re the team captain of the Malibu Surfing Association. How does your love for longboarding and your familiarity with Malibu influence the stories you seek out?

Malibu is obviously an iconic place in the history of surfing. Just getting more involved with the Coalition of Surf Clubs and the community has exposed me to many, many more stories. For example, I was down in San Diego two weeks ago. I was shooting a piece about Josh Hall and his mentor, Skip Frye, about the "big board" movement. Moving closer to Southern California has enabled me to get to know my brothers and sisters in the surf community even more than just seeing them a couple of times a year.

With so many different stories and characters in the realm of surfing, what makes you choose one story or character to focus on over another?

I like to work with people who haven't had an opportunity to tell their stories. I'm working right now with this woman named Demi Boelsterli who lives up in Santa Barbara. She's won the Rincon Classic like a thousand times. She's an amazing surfer, a great skater, an artist, and runs her own brand called Friday Night Amateurs. Her story really isn't being told. She's rough around the edges, funny as shit, and honest. She’s herself. So that's what I think I'm most interested in: characters not living the life that other people tell them that they have to live.

I just rewatched the clip you made with 13-year-old Malibu local Brooke Carlson for a couple of clips. Besides exuding a lot of style and stoke at such a young age, what draws you to someone like her?

Brooke is clearly driven, very gifted, and really wants to excel and become a standout. I grew up competing in different sports, so I really relate to that drive to train and get results. Being that focused at such a young age is something you want to support, guide, and nurture. That's why it's so important for me to be there for young girls and women. I just turned 48, and somehow I'm lucky enough to hang out with women who are a lot younger than me, and I get that insight into their perspective. I really think the world that they're creating for themselves is just excellent. There are far less boundaries for them, and even if there are boundaries, they're far less concerned about them. I want to celebrate people who say 'This is my path, here I am, deal with it.'

Do you feel like there are more women getting behind the lens in the surf world these days, compared to 10 or 15 years ago?

I think so. I'm trying not to be ignorant with my history here and my place in history as I answer this question, but in the past, it's been mostly men telling the stories about surfing. I have zero problem with that, fundamentally. I think if the stories get out there, amazing, great, do it. But I think recently, because of the availability and the simplicity of publishing and distribution mediums and affordable camera equipment, I think a lot more people in general, not just women, are producing more content. But I also think that there are more women wanting to do this and I think it's happening at a much more rapid pace than we've seen in the past, and hopefully will maintain momentum. It's great–who doesn't want more story angles?

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned throughout this process of creating surf-based documentaries?

I used to be so bent on this high production value thing, I thought that was our ticket to success based on my experience in advertising. But Steve Cleveland [the filmmaker who recently created A Paradigm Shift] once said to me, 'Think about all the documentary films you've seen and why they're so interesting. If you get the shot and you're telling the story, that's it. It doesn't have to be technically perfect.' I called him last week and I thanked him, because I always think about that. I'm such a stickler. I want the light to be perfect, I want the framing to be perfect. But that’s the thing about documentaries: nothing perfect at all. Life is messy and we are showing how messy life can be — the beauty is in portraying real humanity.

Is there anyone you’d like to shoot with who you haven’t yet?

Great question. I actually would like to shoot a series about women's logging. Women's longboarding, in particular, has seen such an incredible progression. The women longboarders here in California are a motley crew with a very different mindset. These women are real athletes. They are consistently becoming better and better at single fin longboarding and they have an awareness that what they're doing can influence the entire next generation of people to be a little bit different than what the masses are moving towards. Essentially, I want to tell grittier girl stories. I'm aiming to lift up their actions and voices as a contrast to mainstream media, to give viewers pause when they get a view into this other way of being in the world. That's what excites me, and that's what I think is going to really interest and inspire other people, and hopefully free some minds from the everyday grind.