Finding Shangri-La

Filmmaker Joe G. discusses his craft and the making of the year's best surf movie

Joe G. (second from left) celebrating his Movie of the Year win with the cast of Strange Rumblings. Photo: Ellis

Joe G. (second from left) celebrating his Movie of the Year win with the cast of Strange Rumblings. Photo: Ellis

When it comes to blending film artistry and high-action, Joe G. is a man apart. He's created some of the most memorable surf films in recent years, not because they always contain the best surfing (though they often do), but because they showcase that surfing in a beautiful and novel way. His latest film, Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La, was no different. After winning Movie of the Year at this year's Surfer Poll Awards, Joe G. spoke with us about his inspirations, the problem with filming among glaciers, and the virtue of sticking it out when you get skunked.

So how is life after winning Movie of the Year? Has fame changed you?

[Laughs] I wouldn't know. I don't think fame has found me yet. But it's been awesome. In all seriousness, I've always looked at winning Movie of the Year as the highest honor for filmmakers in our industry. To win it twice is just amazing.

Your films are different from what we usually see in the surf world because they seem so deliberate. Was there any kind of mission statement that you had going into Strange Rumblings?

At first, it really did have a mission statement. We wanted to go and find this thing—the idea of Shangri-La—by going to places we'd never been and trying to discover something new. It's funny, because in the beginning I really thought that along the way, we'd pick up some information that would lead us to some perfect, undiscovered wave and we'd name it Shangri-La. We'd get there, it would be amazing, and the movie would end. But when we were actually on the road, we found a little bit of that idea everywhere we went. So the movie kind evolved, and we thought, "Wait a minute, this isn't going to be an actual, tangible place."

Early on in your career, you made surf films that were more straight action. Was there a moment when you decided you wanted to break out of that and make surf movies with more narrative?

There was actually a very specific moment. It was when Chris Malloy was making Shelter, and I was working at Poor Specimen. I had worked on more performance-based films with Taylor Steele like Loose Change and Hit & Run, and I really loved those films. But as far as I knew, that was all there was. I wasn't tuned into the whole history of surf filmmaking. But meeting Chris and getting to know him and the inspiration he was drawing from the films of the '60s and '70s kind of blew my mind. I delved into the old films, and started realizing all these possibilities. I thought that the craziest thing would be if you could blend the artistry and the filmmaking savvy of Chris' films with the performance elements of Taylor's films. My goal became to do really beautifully made films that were also on the cutting edge of surfing performance.

You could feel a parallel between what you were doing in Strange Rumblings with what Bruce Brown was doing in The Endless Summer. Was that something that you were aiming at from the beginning?

When we started the movie, I felt like surfing was in a weird place. A lot of people talked about surf films like they were obsolete, and everything had gotten so artistic and abstract that it really departed from just telling a really good surf story. All the sudden that wasn't "cool" enough anymore. But in reality, there's nothing cooler than a good surf story. So before we started Strange Rumblings, we watched The Endless Summer again and Jacques Cousteau's Le Monde du Silence, which is this old oceanography film that's really well shot and has a sort of fun narrative to it. Looking at that time period and that style of film, we just thought, "We need to make a movie like that now."

Let's talk about a few parts that really stand out in the film, like in Iceland when Dion was picking up chunks of ice from the lineup. What was it like shooting in those conditions?

Obviously, I should have known how cold it would be, but I didn't bring film warmers for my camera, and it actually froze while I was shooting at the foot of this glacier. On the other side, it was obviously crazy for the guys in the water. It reminded me of skateboarding, where you might show up to a spot and have to deal with obstacles, like rocks that you have to sweep up or something you have to avoid at the bottom of a staircase. In Iceland, Dion was actually throwing little icebergs out of the way because they were floating into a good section of the wave.

What about that Greenbush session in Indo? I heard that there was an interesting situation where Damien Hobgood kind of went rogue.

So Damien was supposed to meet us at the land camp at Macaronis. He had been looking at the swell and thinking about trying Greenbush, which he had never surfed before. The guides told us it was too west and it was just huge and crazy and a total shit show, but you have to pass Greenbush on the boat to Macaronis, so Damo was like, "Well, I'm just going to look at it." I know Damo, so I was a little concerned.

I see where this is going.

Yeah, so hours went by and we hadn't heard from Damo. We were trying to radio the boat and figure out if they'd gotten lost or if he'd commandeered the boat. Sure enough, Damo comes back and tells us that he surfed it alone and it was huge and super sketchy. The boat driver said that he was trying to just go straight back to camp, but Damo grabbed his board and jumped overboard as they passed Greenbush. I was a little devastated that I didn't get to shoot that session, but the next day was only about a foot smaller and perfect, and Damo was just toying with it. It was cool to see the chemistry in the crew that day, because Damo was the elder statesman, and you could see him really pushing and inspiring the younger guys. I guarantee that session wouldn't have happened if he wasn't there. Dion got the best barrel of his life, and it was because Damo was yelling him into that wave.

Speaking of the younger guys, Creed McTaggart was surfing amazing in the movie. Had you anticipated that?

I sort of knew that he was a talented surfer, but when we went on our first trip, he really blew my mind. He's always been portrayed as one of the "cool guys", and every time I saw a photo of him he was just hanging around, looking cool, smoking a cigarette. That was something that was kind of troubling him even on that trip. He was like, "Man, I don't want to be known as the guy who smokes cigarettes. I want to be known as a good surfer." And every day when he paddled out at Yoyos, he was not only doing the most progressive aerials, but he was also drawing these really classic lines, gliding around and finding the barrel with ease. It was insane to watch, and after that trip I kind of made it my mission to show everyone that Creed truly is a world-class surfer.

How about when you guys were in Mozambique? Did it actually go down as it did in the narrative where you scored that wave at the last minute?

It really did. We went there for a swell, but as soon as we got there we realized that the sand banks were bad. It's tough, because no one is there to check it, so you can't know until you get there. We stayed and just made the most of it, surfing this fun little beachbreak, but then we saw another swell was on the way. It arrived right at the end of the trip and we surfed the point, but it was kind of weird and wonky. So we left and had breakfast, thinking it was a lost cause and that we'd go back to that beachbreak. Before we went, we decided to check the point one last time, just in case. When we showed up, it was just incredible. The guys surfed it for three hours straight before it shut down.

Sounds like the universe was on your side.

We're lucky because our crew really does love traveling together. Even when we get skunked, they'll go off and explore and take it all in. A lot of surfers would have seen that it wasn't all-time and just turned around and left. But we were having a good time and just decided to see it through. If you hang around long enough, odds are you're gonna find what you were looking for.