For the longest time, I’ve wondered about those massage chairs at airports — the sad, vacant pleather kind that rattle around for five minutes in exchange for your spare change. I have many, many questions about these chairs.
Do they even feel good? Is it hygienically advisable to sit in one?
When I first call Aaron Lieber, who I know is checking in at Honolulu Airport, he doesn’t pick up. When he calls me back, he is sitting in one of those massage chairs.
“Is this an okay time?” I ask him. “You must have a flight to catch.”
Aaron assures me that he’s got hours to kill.
If you ask Aaron Lieber what he does for a living, he’ll tell you that he is a surf filmmaker. As a kid, all he wanted to do was make surf films. And now he has realized that childhood dream. However, Aaron is not merely a surf-filmmaker, but a good one.
So far he has made the first ever of its kind released on Blu-ray as well as the only one to hit the number one spot on iTunes Sports. And that is among many, many more.
When his movie Lakey Peterson: Zero to 100 made it to that number one spot on iTunes, the film was barely a week old. A couple months later, Netflix came calling for the rights.
“Every up-and-coming guy has a film about him, so I thought, Let’s do one about a girl. The first girl to land an air in competition.”
The girl was, of course, Lakey Peterson, and Zero to 100 captures her first year on tour in a series of interviews, lifestyle segments, and performance segments. It is easy to understand why people like the film. Lakey is smart. She is charismatic. She is humble. And she rips.
But did Aaron know from the beginning that he had gold in his hands?
“What I’ve gotten good at is making the best with what I’m dealt. Asking the right questions. It’s a lot of sitting in airports and waiting for waves. I did my best to make it not boring.”
Historically, surf films have always cost a lot of money to make with little hope of the surf films, in turn, making any money. The cameras needed to make surf films were expensive. Distribution by DVD was difficult and mostly unprofitable. A surf filmmaker needed investors to make a movie and needed even bigger sponsors to get the movie into the hands of viewers. The barriers to entry were more like mountains, and consequently there wasn’t much hope of getting into the game.
But now it seems that almost every facet of the business is encountering disruption. Decent waterproof cameras have grown so small and so cheap that anyone can afford to mount one to the nose of his board. There’s no need to manufacture Blu-rays at a low profit margin because no one is buying them — they’re streaming instead. Producers don’t even need to hang posters in surf shops to tell people the movie exists. Websites like this one will tell you everything you need to know.
So how do you adapt to a new world order where anyone and everyone can call themselves a surf-filmmaker?
“I think to distinguish yourself you have to tell a powerful story,” Aaron says. “And honestly I could think of so many of them right now. There’s definitely more to tell than I have time for.”
“If you’re going to go the performance route, you better have John John Florence, or a version of him.”
But the truth is there are a finite number of surfers like John John. The more problematic truth for filmmakers is that they are no longer our only point of access to surfers like John John. It used to be the surf community awaited the arrival of a big film with bated breath because it was the only way to see radical, progressive surfing. Now the laptops and smartphones are awash with 15 second Instagram edits, shot by whoever happened to be standing onshore when the John Johns were paddling out. The resultant white noise can be hard to parse.
It is, of course, an oversimplification to assert that everyone with a smartphone or GoPro can make a professional-quality surf movie, or at least one that resonates. The money you need to make a surf movie look good is still more than sits in the average bank account. But, with everything else, that is changing.
When Aaron looked to raise money for Zero to 100, he first hit up the usual suspects: Lakey’s sponsors Channel Island Surfboards, Smith Optics and Nike all chipped in. When it wasn’t enough, he went to a less likely source — the fans. To defray post-production costs like editing, marketing, and music licensing, Aaron launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign. A few weeks and 153 backers later, he had his money.
Was there a unique pressure that fundraising process? Did Aaron feel accountable to those 153 backers?
“Yeah, I want to make the best movie I can for that kid who gave five bucks and all his friends. It makes me way more nervous at the beginning because you’re announcing that the movie is coming. Everyone knows.”
If that was true of the Lakey movie, made in relative quiet about a surfer few knew much about at the time, imagine the pressure he’s under now. Aaron’s next project? A hybrid performance-documentary film about the most popular surfer not on tour: Bethany Hamilton.
Bethany and Aaron took to Kickstarter this autumn to ask for $60,000 to make a movie about a girl who everyone thinks they already know. Nearly 1,500 people gave $116,671, a little less than double their goal.
“I think Bethany feels a little misinterpreted,” Aaron says. “The movie [Soul Surfer] is the story of her being attacked by a shark, but it’s not her story. The more I get to know her… I don’t even want the word ‘inspirational’ in the film because it’s redundant. It’s in every interview and it’s inherent to who she is. The real untold story of Bethany is how good she is at surfing.”
In talking the industry-standard, often much lower that the stories he aims to tell, he is careful not to step on any toes. But the gist of his answer is this: what’s the challenge in training a lens at the ocean and waiting for waves?
“It’s really easy to go to the beach with a camera,” Aaron says. “But [doing only that] degrades the story. It doesn’t elevate it.”
Take the opening sequence to Aaron’s first feature, The Pursuit, as an example. Kelly Slater’s disembodied voice tells us to “dream big, take risks, think differently because the pursuit of life is the pursuit” as his words populate the screen. The effect is similar to watching the opening crawl of Star Wars. It creates those feelings of gravitas and anticipation that are hallmarks of good movies of any genre. The upcoming narrative isn’t simply about the surf. It is more than that.
Good movies need stories. Stories have arcs. They end someplace different than they began. They have a destination.
And Aaron raised the bar for art direction not only for himself, but others who aspire to tell these bigger stories. The opening credits of Joe G.’s Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La roam an illustrated map of the world; like The Pursuit, Strange Rumblings is not merely a surf movie — it is an odyssey film with amazing surfing in it.
In a time when you can distribute the best air of the session in a 30 second clip just hours after it happens, filmmakers like Aaron and Joe G. give us a reason to carry on watching for the other 59 and a half minutes.
“In the story films I am making, it’s a mix of pushing yourself to capture that [performance] aspect of it, but also trying to tell a living story that is completely unpredictable and always changing. It can be stressful at times, but that’s life. And I think sharing these real stories, actually going through the emotions myself and doing my best to capture them makes for a great, inspiring film.”
For the past few weeks, Aaron’s been filming on the North Shore, hanging out with Bethany and the Beschens, who kindly dropped him off at the airport. I hear the garbled voice of security announcements bellow in the background.
I ask, “Do you have to go?”
“No, it’s not my flight,” Aaron says. “I’m gonna put two more dollars in the massage chair.”
I have health concerns about those chairs.
“I spend a lot of time waiting in airports,” he laughs. “Airports are like second homes for me. I take over.”
Life as filmmaker seems to be as much about patience as it is about action, whether it be waiting for flights or waves.
“I have a general idea what I want, but real stories require a lot of adapting. I definitely think it would give a lot of filmmakers a lot of anxiety.”
So why do it?
“I think as a filmmaker the types of films you make and how you make them are a reflection of yourself. For example The Pursuit, Go Brett, Nike: Leave A Message, Lakey Peterson: Zero to 100, obviously none of them are about me, but I am attracted to the idea of inspiring people through film and all of those films have messages of working hard, overcoming.”
When Netflix ended its run of Zero to 100 this January, Aaron was barraged with messages from outraged fans wanting to know when they’d be able to watch it again. It doesn’t matter to them that the waves were mostly small and that Lakey lost a whole lot more than she won. They don’t even care that the story is three years old, because the story is good.
Aaron Lieber is not just a surf-filmmaker making good surf films. He is a filmmaker. And he makes good movies. Period.