Stacy Peralta made a big splash with Dogtown and Z-Boys, one of the definitive skateboarding documentaries of recent years. But Peralta loves surfing just as much as skating, if not more, and his followup project is Riding Giants, a surfing documentary that focuses on big waves.
Greg Noll inspired Peralta to make Riding Giants, and he’s one of the film’s key subjects. He was one of the first big-wave riders, and according to Riding Giants, he brought showmanship to the sport of surfing. He’s recognizable in classic surf photos and films by his convict-striped trunks and his gigantic frame. Noll is also the subject Peralta’s next project, a dramatic, narrative biography.
Peralta and Noll are touring the country together to promote Riding Giants, coming to all sorts of landlocked states like Colorado. Away from the sun and air, in a fluorescent basement conference room, they talked about doing research, other surfing movies, the legend of Greg Noll, and Sundance gratification.
- Last of the Mohicans
- Dances with Wolves
- Hunt for Red October
- Spongebob Squarepants
- Chilly Scenes of Winter ("a movie with Jon Heard and Mary Beth Hurt, directed by Joan Micklin Silver. It's hard to find but it's a really great little character movie").
- The Gods Must be Crazy
- No Man's Land
Marty Mapes: There’s a lot of research involved in this movie. You went way back, had historical footage, some of it I don’t think I’d seen. I was looking for something familiar, but I’m not sure I saw any duplicate shots.
Stacy Peralta: No, we really tried to obtain footage that had not been seen before. Plus we were less interested in guys surfing and we were far more interested in the stuff of guys hanging on the beach, shooting down lava slides, doing all the fun stuff — the lifestyle, stealing coconuts and pineapples and stuff like that. That’s what we were really after.
Greg Noll: And my film [footage], I had never made any effort to drag it out and sell it or get any exposure on it whatsoever. When I was done with that goddamn film business I was done. I put the shit in the closet and let the spiders spin webs around it.
MM: You got his [Greg’s] footage, too, it wasn’t just interviews with him.
SP: Being a documentarian, you’re part investigator. You’re investigating the story and you’re investigating where to find the footage. I was aware that Greg had a library. I was aware that Bruce Brown had a library, and that Bud Brown and Grant Roloff had the primary treasure chests of footage from back then. And then I was also aware of where a lot of the photographs were — Leroy Grannis, Tom Keck, John Elwell. So it was a matter of tracking these people down, making deals. Also, I do that legwork myself. I don’t have an assistant do that.
MM: Do you enjoy it?
SP: It’s important because it puts a face on the project. They take it more seriously if they know it’s me. It’s me there, its my handshake, and I’m saying this is what we do...
GN: ...That’s a good point....
SP: Because if it’s an assistant, it’s “who are you?”, and the assistant is speaking for me, and [maybe] she doesn’t know surfing. I know that there’s a sensibility to surfers. You just have to handle things properly, and if you don’t you lose it forever.
Bruce Brown’s Shadow
MM: I’ve seen all of Bruce Brown’s movies. It was interesting to see the trailer and the movie and not see any mention of Bruce Brown.
GN: Bruce Brown is one of my best friends. In fact, we were making surf films together.
MM: ... I was wondering if I saw you in any of his movies...
GN: We just did an interview down at Huntington where we talked together.
SP: I have only respect for the guy. The thing is if I would have tipped the hat to Bruce I would have had to mention Bud Brown, and then Grant Roloff, and all the guys back then. What we tried to do is just deal in that period with the popular explosion and how Hollywood missed it so badly. I got to meet Bruce for the first time, just months ago. Man, what a funny guy he is. He’s just got such an acidic tongue.
GN: We grew up as kids together. And I actually made a movie the year before he started. I was shooting films and he came out with his new camera setup on the point. He says “Greg, what F-stop are you using?” And I said “F-stop? What the hell do you mean?” He says, “the setting on the camera.” I says, “Oh, shit, when I bought the camera 3 years ago, the guy at the store I bought it from set the thing and I’ve never changed it since.”
Have We Seen this Movie Before?
MM: You said you wanted to make this movie because you hadn’t seen this movie before. [I thought] Dana Brown’s [Step into Liquid] really captured the spirit of what surfing was like. So having said that, what do you mean you hadn’t seen this movie before?
SP: I’ve never seen a film that dealt with the history of surfing. And I’ve never seen a film that dealt with surfers talking about.... Something that you typically hear surfers say [is] “surfing’s so magical and so bitchin’ that if you don’t do it, I just can’t explain it. You just have to do it.” And to me that’s a cop-out. As a filmmaker, you’re insulting your audience if you say that. So we tried to take that idea and go “how can we make the guys in the film say that without saying it?” So that’s what we tried to do. And we talk about the technique of what it’s actually like to paddle into a wave, what happens when you wipe out on a wave, what happens when your leash gets stuck underneath. And I’ve never seen this stuff dealt with in a film before. And the rescue situations, and the life-and-death situations, and dealing with a death.
GN: And the sound. I’ve never seen a movie that’s had the sound make you want to grab the armrests of your chair and sink your fingernails in like this movie.
Meeting Greg Noll
MM: How did you hook up? Did you actually know each other?
SP: No, he inspired the film.
MM: Did you know him?
SP: No, no, no. I knew of him. He was one of my surfing heroes. I had met him once previously. I went up to his house to interview him for another project that I was helping a friend on.
MM: And when was this?
SP: This was in 2002. And he was just so good on camera and so funny and so charismatic and such a great storyteller. It was [at] that point I realized I could make a film based on his experiences in big wave surfing.
GN: And we discussed some of the things I just got through talking about. If you make a movie, it would be wonderful, because nobody has ever captured its sound, what it’s like to be sitting in the line-up, the mindset of the guys and what they go through mentally to accomplish their purpose, the way they work out, the teamwork. And I think he’s done an incredible job of capturing all of those things. The biggest question I’ve had asked over the years is “What’s it like to ride a big wave?” You start diarrhea of the mouth trying to explain it; the more you talk about it the farther away you get from what it’s really like. Stacy’s done a really wonderful thing for me because I can just say, “Look, you wanna know what it’s like...”
MM: “... go see Riding Giants...”
GN: ...and I’m not selling tickets here. Sony’s got it. But from my perspective, you really want to know what big wave riding is like, you go sit down, you spend your 90 minutes, man, and if you don’t come out of there wrung out like you’ve been sitting in the line-up, then I’ll pay for your goddamn ticket, because that’s just what it does. ([Smiling] I take that back about ‘I’ll pay for your ticket’.)
GN: I got to tell you when we went to Sundance I was blown away. I had never seen the film up to that point. Holy sh... I really didn’t know what it was gonna be like. When this thing was over with — they had 2,000 people in that film — and Stacy got a minute and a half standing ovation.
SP: No, no, no. He got the standing ovation.
GN: That’s as good as it gets. I’m not bullshittin’ you. We’ve been gone a month here. We’ve showed every place from New York to Dallas, Texas. In Dallas, when we do a question and answer, they wouldn’t let us go. It was supposed to last 10 minutes and we were there for half an hour, 45 minutes, and then another half hour, 45 minutes signing stuff on the way out. And these guys aren’t surfers! And last night [at The Mayan in Denver] was pretty much the same thing. They didn’t rip the wallpaper off like they did in Dallas but they loved it last night. So it’s really gratifying for me to see the story get told. As a surfer I’m proud finally that they’ve done something that tells the story like it should be told, instead of the Hollywood bullshit version.