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ROOFTOP TALKS WITH DIRECTOR & PRODUCER TAYLOR STEELE

NAME: Taylor Steele

CURRENT HOMEBASE: Byron Bay

OCCUPATION: Filmmaker

Award-winning director and producer Taylor Steele has been making surf films since he was 12 years old. At a time when the surf film industry was relatively nonexistent, Steele pioneered the genre featuring progressive surfers—think Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Shane Dorian—who are now considered legends in the sport. His breakthrough films “Momentum”, “Campaign” and “Loose Change” put him into a league of his own and for the past 20 years Steele has directed and produced more than 40 titles starring the world’s best surfers and musicians.

Perched high above the Waikiki skyline inside the Surfjack’s penthouse, we chatted with Steele about his inspiration, his latest film “Proximity The Movie, and the future of surfing.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU LATELY? I get inspired and I learn new things when I’m surrounded by people I normally don’t hang out with. Both my parents surf and I grew up around such a surf culture that I like being around people who are equally as inspired and driven by their lifelong passions, but ones that don’t necessarily involve surfing.

HOW HAS THE INDUSTRY OF SURF FILMMAKING CHANGED IN THE GO-PRO AND SOCIAL MEDIA AGE? When I started out it was a very conservative place—there were probably three surf filmmakers and I didn’t really think there was a career in it. I just liked doing it so I made some films and they were successful. During the ’90s I was young and I didn’t know how to handle the pressures of appeasing a fan base or an audience so I felt stifled that I had to please a really conservative audience. If I even played a song that had a girl singer I’d get complaint letters. It was very one way and I almost stopped making films because I felt so controlled.

It was a strange and exciting start, and then it sort of became a huge weight at the end of the ’90s. I started making different kinds of films and felt liberated when making travel films—like “Sipping Jetstreams“—that were a little moodier and less about the action. They were less about the rock ‘n roll and more about the feeling of the place. The star [of these films] was the location and it became sort of a new genre for me and I was liberated knowing that I could do different things and didn’t have to stick to one way of making films. Now surf films are not really how I make my money anymore, but I wanted to make another one because that’s where I started. I started when I was 12 and I wanted to come back to it—it’s something that centers me. But then I looked at the market and thought, what is the purpose of a surf film? There’s so many amazing webisodes and the WSL contest series live is just amazing—it has all the drama and action and tension. So for me, making a surf film in today’s world feels almost unnecessary. I really had to do some soul searching on why I thought a surf film has purpose and for me it’s about storytelling and spreading a message and showing a more soulful side of surfing.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW FILM “PROXIMITY THE MOVIE”…I picked eight surfers who I was super inspired by—three of whom I was friends with already: Rob Machado, Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian—then another surfer that I worked with a lot, Dave Rostavich. Those are the guys that I knew already. I picked different genres of surfing that had these iconic people in it and I wanted to have the older guys talk to the next generation. Like John John [Florence] and Kelly Slater—I paired them up and they talked about things that are relatable to you, but also things that are only relatable to them. Then I paired Shane Dorian with Albee Layer, Rob Machado with Craig Anderson, and Dave Rostavich with Steph Gilmore. I was sort of being a fly on the wall just listening to their conversations and each pair represented different things to me: Kelly and John John were travel, Shane and Albee were overcoming fear, Steph and Dave were the feminine side of surfing, and Rob and Craig were going with the flow. Then it was just a matter of getting them to go on exotic trips where they’ve never been so they could bond. I sort of just watched what happened.

ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING SURF FILMMAKERS? My advice is to know the market, see what’s out there and find your own groove that’s different. Be confident enough to be different. Everyone has their own life experiences that gives them the voice that allows them to connect to other people. Allow yourself to be sensitive, or shy, or whatever it is that you are that makes you unique, and put that in your work.

WHERE DO YOU SEE THE SURF INDUSTRY IN THE NEXT 20 YEARS? When I started surfing 25 years ago, surfers were considered to be like Jeff Spicoli of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and they weren’t really respected. They were sort of looked upon as derelicts. So over time, with the help of Kelly Slater and more articulate surfers, we’ve sort of broken that barrier and now surfers have a voice. So in the next 20 years I hope that surfers can continue to be a voice for the environment and protectors of the ocean. I hope that as the amount of surfers grow, their voice just becomes more powerful.

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE TO CONTRIBUTE TO ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES? A lot of times we just sort of give money to organizations, but my advice is to also do your own part. Go to the beach and take two minutes to clean up around you. It’s almost like you tax yourself for going to the beach. Just leave the beach a little better off than it was when you arrived.

Portrait taken at Surfjack by Casea Collins-Wright

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