It’s hard to imagine a surf movie with a more ambitious scope than Chris Gentile’s highly-anticipated new film, “Self Discovery for Social Survival.” After watching the trailer, seeing the impressive range of surfers and creatives involved, not to mention the destinations Gentile took them all to, “Self Discovery for Social Survival” seems like the materialization of a surf cinephile’s most indulgent fantasy project.
There are 16 rippers and cross-steppers featured in the film, who range from alt-craft aficionados like Ryan Burch to seven-time World Champ Steph Gilmore, who chase surf to Iceland, the Maldives and Mexico. The late experimental film legend, Jonas Mekas, narrates the film, his final project before passing away last January. The soundtrack is all original, scored by celebrated independent bands and musicians in a unique and exciting way that Gentile details below.
When he’s not busy creating surf kino and fine art, Gentile is manning the helm at Pilgrim Surf and Supply in Brooklyn, NY. SURFER rang up Gentile, who was kind enough to take several New York minutes out of his day to share with us more about “Self Discovery for Social Survival.” Below you’ll find stills from the film, tracks from the original score and Gentile’s behind-the-scenes stories of travels down sketchy roads and aboard an even sketchier boat.
“Self Discovery for Social Survival” premieres at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles on June 15th, buy tickets here.
One of my favorite elements of the surf cinema classics, like "Crystal Voyager" and "Bali High", is their original soundtracks. I feel like your project, "Self Discovery for Social Survival", strives to capture that magic again.
Absolutely. Those films have played such a big part in my life and in forming me on all sorts of levels. There are moments when I'm out surfing, and I'm sure you do this too, and you get one of those songs in your head and your mannerisms, movements and attitude in the water start to emulate the part in the movie that that song is attached to. It's funny how that works. The music and surf combination is so powerful.
I was thinking about how powerful that combination is and tried to think of a format of soundtracking that hadn't really been done before—at least not on the scale of what we were trying to do. We came up with the idea of taking band members, who are also surfers, along on these surf adventures. The idea was that these musicians would get inspired on the journeys and their experience would form the songwriting for the film within days after returning home. We also quickly threw together an edit of raw footage from the trip so we could project it in the musicians' studio environment while writing the music.
Once the tracks were done and mastered, they were handed back to us and we started editing the film. Everybody's involvement, from the cinematographer, surfers, musicians and editors, was equally important. No one could really make anything happen unless we had all the right material from all the right people. Everything was co-dependent in order to build the film. This took a lot of ego out of it—which for me was really exciting. It was an exercise in relinquishing control.
That seems like a really fun way to make a surf movie. Are you going to have these bands play live when you premiere the film?
Yes. It's been the idea since the onset to try and have a live score. For me it's always been a dream. We're premiering the film at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles. It's one of those old, turn-of-the-century ornate theaters. On June 15th, Allah Las, Connan Mockasin and Andrew VanWynGarden of MGMT will be live scoring the film.
Relating back to surfing, I think that the live score will add a whole other dimension to the film that you don't get when the music is played over speakers. The musicians are going to improvise too, which is going to be super cool. It'll be a moment [laughs].
How about some behind the scenes stories when making this film, any miracles and/or mishaps?
Yeah, every surf trip is an adventure. You run into things good and bad. Dave Parmenter said it to me pretty well one time, "The hunt is more interesting than the kill when it comes to surf." That's a pretty cool way to think about it. The anticipation of trying to find empty waves and the less-explored nooks and crannies is the fun part. It almost makes the waves you're surfing seem better than they really are because you had to work to get them.
When we were in Iceland—which is just magnificent, I recommend everyone go there, it feels like another planet—we were with a great group of people; Stephanie Gilmore, Beau Foster, Andrew Kidman, Lee-Ann Curren, Kassia Meador and Heidar Logi. Heidar is an Icelandic surfer, snowboarder and an incredible yogi—he can like tie himself into a pretzel. His crew and friends were our tour guides and a really cool group.
We had a three-van caravan driving around. Chris Burkard was with us too and a couple of cinematographers. There were a few moments we were driving around mountain passes on icy roads with no guardrails, there were cliffs on both sides. It was a very domed kind of roadway. We didn't have spikes on the tires or anything and we were doing a lot of brake checks. I was in the same van is Steph Gilmore, who at the time, was the six-time World Champion and her sister, Whitney. There were a few really sketchy moments and I'd look over to Whitney and ask, "What do you think?" She was like, "Um, I don't think we should keep going." I agreed, we had some precious cargo and I was like, "Let's turn around, we don't need to go here." It was scary and super dangerous.
On top of that, we were about three quarters of the way through the trip and hadn't really got anything shot. We tried a couple of big, whomping beachbreaks but nothing good. We had a couple close opportunities where we'd get to a spot and the sun would be going down, the wind would switch offshore and the tide would start to drop–but it'd get too dark. We'd stick around for the next day but the waves would be flat. On top of it, there's nowhere to really stay. So we'd have to drive these really long distances to get from one point to the other. We spent a lot of time in the vans. But it was incredible because we had so much to look at.
We finally got really good waves at the end of the trip. We lucked out, but almost got skunked. Iceland is like the Hawaii of the North Atlantic, the weather changes every 15 minutes. It's wild.
Tell me about the boat trip to the Maldives.
There was a lot of fun debauchery on that trip. We went there with Jamie Brisick, Ellis Ericson, Creed McTaggart, Ari Brown and Beau Foster. We wanted an old boat that had "personality," when we got there we ended up finding a boat that maybe had a little more personality than we wanted. It was a wooden, Maldivian-built boat. It was so busted, but it photographed really well.
All these surfers, who are incredible people and dear friends went off, it was so fun and hilarious. I've never seen anyone surf as well after consuming a case of beer as Creed. That guy's a magician, I don't know how he does it. But yeah, they consumed quite a bit of malt beverage and still performed really well. Everyone fed off of each other, and I think that that was my roll—to put these people together who I thought would electrify something, and luckily it worked. Everyone was pushing each other and the level of surfing was really high. There was also this interesting, not really competitiveness, but personal thing they each held onto were they wanted to perform for one another. It was wild to watch. Ellis and Beau were trading off their self-shapes in the lineup. Everyone was riding finless boards, mats, boogies, and there was no pressure from me to get them to do this. There was a very comfortable looseness of this trip that was reflected in the surfing.
That's funny. I've heard that some filmmakers are very particular about getting the footage that they want and will lay the hammer down on their subjects to get it. It seems like your process on this trip was pretty organic.
Yeah, I've seen that before. There are people that have a vision and want their film materialized the way that it's in their head. I think one of the big challenges in my life, that I continue to get better at with experience, is how to manage creatives. If you start laying gnarly pressure on someone that's surfing, which is a fleeting thing that all happens in a few seconds, then I don't think you're getting the best out of it. That's just my opinion. I tried to create a comfortable space for people to express themselves and just let them go, and on this trip, I got to witness what comes from that. I wanted those guys to do the type of surfing that they’re the most excited about because that's what I want to watch…and what hopefully a lot of other people want to watch too.
Well, you've got me intrigued about this boat. I'm envisioning some old and dilapidated, Yellow Submarine-esque vessel cruising around the Maldives. I'm pretty excited to see what it looks like.
It was so slow [laughs]. The boat captain was this wonderful guy named Louie, he’s from Australia. Louie deserves a shout out because he's such a legend. When we got back to the Maldives, Louie's tradition is to have a Long Island Iced Tea at the airport bar. I agreed to have one of those disgusting drinks with him, which I was reluctant to consume, but felt like I had to. Louie owes me for that. We were sitting there sucking these big cups of sugar and alcohol down and Louie's like, "Yeah mate, I think we're going to retire the boat. That was the last trip, we're going to turn it into a floating bar." I was like, "What?" It was so classic.
It made me feel better because the last night we were on the boat, it turned into this drunken, anarchic scene. All the boys were trying to throw each other overboard and were running around half-naked or totally naked, throwing sliced sandwich meat at each other. Ellis was so hungover and was trying to sleep but everyone kept f–king with him in his room. They piled up sliced cheese on his face while he was asleep. Finally we hear this insane noise, it sounded like a giant flame-thrower and all this white smoke started coming from under the door. We thought the boat was on fire. We opened the door and were breathing in all this exhaust and could hear everyone screaming. It turns out, Ellis had lost his shit and pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher and hosed everyone down. There was dust everywhere and all-over our equipment, it was hectic. All I could think about was the deposit and what it was going to cost to clean up. Then Captain Louie comes down with all the Maldivian crew members and everyone just starts laughing their asses off. I couldn't believe it, I was like, "Why are you guys laughing? This is a disaster." So when Louie told me they were turning the boat into a bar, it all made sense.
For more info about “Self Discovery for Social Survival”, click here.
You can order the soundtrack here.
Buy tickets to Los Angeles premiere at the Palace Theater on June 15th, with a live scoring by the musicians involved, here.