When I saw “Musica Surfica” for the first time, I was utterly blown away by the sheer uniqueness of the film and how it explores a deeper meaning of opening your mind and taking risks by using surfing and classical music as a vehicle for that exploration. I was fortunate enough to meet director Mick Sowry when he came through NYC for the World Premiere of his film. Mick struck me as a humble, creative individual who immediately made me feel at ease. He is someone who consciously decided to leave his career as an art director to chase his passions and make an incredible art film that has surfing in it. Although the ride has not always been smooth, he seems to be happier for the changes.
What was the first surf film you ever watched?
Mick Sowry: Hmmm, The first surf film I really remember was on the news in about 1959, and it was some guys out at either Makaha, or Waimea. The first surfing movie was maybe “Morning of the Earth”… Though perhaps that is the first one that stuck in my mind…
What do you think made it stick out to you?
What made it stick out was probably the opening scene. Then the music, and it had my favorite surfer of the time, Terry Fitzgerald. Love that style of his. I tried to imitate him and BK (Barry Kanaiaupuni). I was so far away from his body type at the time it’s not even funny… Of course it’s not so hard now that he is a little portly…
What were you doing before you decided to commit to making “Musica Surfica”?
I was an advertising art director who’d just sold the house and quit his job. I was thinking I was well off enough to do so (pre Global Financial Crisis). I was embarking on a journey trying to revisit an old surfing film forty years later… I approached Richard Tognetti about him working on the film and to do the music, if I got the funding. He counter offered about a month later to come and film “Musica Surfica”. I then did a treatment and said “what about this as an idea”. From that point on my life utterly changed, with a little help from Wall Street. (In the negative obviously)
Had you worked much with film before that? In the sense of anything feature length?
No, not at all. Just a lot of TVC’s and being an art director and sometimes writer/art director for advertisements. I winged “Musica”, with a lot of help.
What was the moment like when the idea for “Musica Surfica” came to you? Was it an instant flash or something that slowly evolved and matured in your mind over time?
My memory is a bit in between. When I first talked about it to Richard, and he mentioned the finless thing, and I asked why? He mentioned something about there being risk in learning… That set me off. The structure I feel happened instantly. This feeling that there should be an interweaving of music, surfing and spoken word. That the film should dance along with the odd bit of quiet. The funny thing is at the end, it comes out and you say, “That’s what it was meant to be”. Of course there was a lot of heartache along the way.
What sort of heartache if you don’t mind me asking?
Well, naturally as you build the thing you go down blind alleys, try things that don’t work, or an idea becomes too precious and you need people around you to be blunt enough to say “that sucks”. To coin a phrase, “You need to have a skin thick enough to accept criticism in the spirit it is given”.
How was the lead up to the filming Musica? Were the logistics of getting everyone together a nightmare or did it just happen naturally and fall into place?
“Musica” was a bit unique. No. Very unique! The Australian Chamber Orchestra had already planned to go to King Island, with the surfers on this wild goose chase to film the action, so that the orchestra could play against this backdrop of finless surfing action. This was a given. The surfers were always going to go… I just devised a way to make a film out of it. It was good fortune Foxtel and Film Australia gave me just enough of budget to do it. Michelle Kerr, Richard’s PA looked after a lot of the organizing. I helped where I could. It is a while back now, so things run into each other a bit but, somehow we all ended up on the island and thankfully the elements fell into place. It really was a bit of a magical mystery tour. It was one of the most amazing ten days of my life. Then of course we had to begin the edit… Then wait to build the filmed performance piece that played on the Bellingen/North Coast tour. That finished up our filming, before commencing the real making of the film… Which happened over the following 8-10 weeks.
Were you nervous when you had to show Derek Hynd and Richard the rough cut?
Hmm. Not really. I really did feel it was turning into something special. I knew it had a long way to go, but their responses at every stage were positive, as far as I remember.
What is it about your film that you think makes it so special? If there was one thing that you want people to take away from the film, what would that be?
I think it’s a one off. It’s more of an art film with surfing in it. When I show Musica, it gets the same reaction all the time. Some have a strong emotional response and some just love it. A few just like it and sometimes some don’t get it. The message in it for me is, “there is another way. That the same as ever is not good enough at all and that there is a lot of beauty out there.” I’m big on beauty in that I think too often there is a massive focus on the violent and adrenaline charged, and those moments of the divine go wanting. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good shoot-em up from time to time. I think in the end there was a basic “goodness” about it in the humanistic sense.
In the post DVD landscape, how hard do you think it is to make a living as a surf filmmaker? What were your experiences on the business side of things once the film was released?
In the post DVD landscape, even the pre-DVD landscape, my experiences were less than encouraging. The film made very little. Torrent sights ripped it off almost instantly. Agents begged for you, but didn’t do a whole heap once they had the title. In the end too it was a big ask. A film with classical music and surfing? Please… Naturally, there were many, who loved it, but finding them in a big market way proved an elusive target.
Do you think that is a common experience for filmmakers and surf filmmakers these days?
Taking a punt… yes. With exceptions…I think if you have the backing of a major brand, then the surfing film as an advertising vehicle has long legs. The Big Three, plus other players like Patagonia, all do it very well, but I doubt whether those films would really turn a profit from sales. As an independent, hoping to support themselves through this? I suspect the common experience is a lot of love, lots of likes on Vimeo or YouTube, but not much in the bank.
Do you think the future of independent surf filmmaking is looking bleak? Not too long ago, there were guys who could make a living doing this as independent filmmakers. Now, it looks like you have to be in with the big corporations or be a personal filmed for a pro surfers blog.
I was thinking about this last night a bit in anticipation of this conversation. The sharing thing, the nature of the net and the de-valuing of the product through immediate free access and the willingness to pirate anything. “Oh it won’t hurt” mentality means it is robbing the chance to make a living. What I think you will see is more short form for dissemination through Vimeo, etc.… Less of the real surf flicks, unless it is supported. That’s off the top of my head. It’s the way I see it.
Do you think the feature length surf film is going away then?
No, not at all. I just think the feature length surf film will be a very rare beast unless it has corporate sponsorship. And whoever makes one without sponsorship is only doing it for love with no expectation of reward. Or they shouldn’t have.
Would you ever make another surf film again? Sorry, Art film with surfing in it.
Ha ha ha. It seems I am about to embark on another. We are working through the numbers but all things being equal I will be directing “The Reef”, in partnership with Richard Tognetti and Jon Frank next May. Shooting at Gnaraloo in the north west of WA. Deadly lefts and finless boards. Go figure.
Sounds incredible! Any more details you want to let out?
It’s going to be a performance piece to play with a live orchestra. Roughly two-and-a-half hours or so. It scares the life out of me, as it will all be a live event, similar to “The Glide”. Only bigger! The surfers that are going are Richard (Tognetti) and Derek (Hynd), Sage Joske, Tom Carroll maybe, Dane Beevor, Cyrus Sutton and Ryan Burch for nine of the days, plus the weighty locals like Jake Patterson, Damon Eastaugh and his very hot ripping young son. It may never see light of day as a surf film. Though I would like to think we will find a way. Its final performance will be at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on July 23, 2012.
Who is your favorite surf filmmaker of all time?
Favorite maker of all time? Gawd… Tough question. Seeing “Endless Summer” was a blast. I love Alby Falzon for just getting a massive buzz out of one film. Free Ride in 78’ did the job for me because it was so well done and the music was really well chosen, except that Bill Delaney didn’t clear it from what I gather and that is why it has never gone to DVD. Of the modern makers, the little films by Mickey Smith, “Dark Side of the Lens”, and “Power of Three”, hard to beat even if they are big ads for Relentless Energy. The guy has a big heart and a bucket load of talent. Toddy Stewart’s “Lapsed Catholics” short film, and a little film called “Without Thought” from Ollie Banks in the UK. I also think for pure heart Eef and his “Monster Board” short film too.
What is your least favorite surf film?
Least favorite. Long pause. Don’t really have one, as it’s so bad I’ve forgotten it. But then at my age you forget a lot of things.
Do you think you will ever go back to advertising?
Not really. I have a ‘Consultancy’ in that I do freelance work, but I am trying to build a career doing work that may not pay as well but has more heart. I’m looking at starting a magazine, have a couple of projects going with Maurice Cole, and generally trying to stay afloat. Very close to broke through taking that big punt with “Musica Surfica”. All I can say is life is interesting. For financial reasons we are moving to the coast in a couple of months (cheaper rents and better lifestyle). So who knows what the year will bring. One thing is for sure I am quitting the gym membership, as I will have the ocean five minutes away.