Chris Nelius: Director of 'Girls Can't Surf'
On the eve of its cinematic release, the director of 'Girls Can't Surf' chats to Swellnet about the storytelling and the social dynamics and that underpin his latest film.
Swellnet: ‘Girls Can’t Surf’, it's a great title, did you take it from Mark Occhilupo’s line in Puberty Blues?
Chris Nelius: I think he might say ‘Chicks don't surf.’ We toyed with it being chicks for a while, but we changed it to girls.
When did you come up with it? Was that from the beginning?
No…it was at the very, very last minute. It had a different title for years, and yeah, it was just a big debate amongst us and the distributor. The most harrowing thing of the whole process is coming up with a name. It's awful.
Yeah. We had a different title - which was ‘The Sideshow’ - for a long time, because the women were the sideshow to the men. The change came very late, and there's something about it that's provocative but also gives you a really quick idea of what it's about. And I think that it has an attitude to it which is emblematic of some of the women’s attitudes.
Your last foray into the surfing world was ‘Storm Surfers’, which was a contemporary, action-based film, very different to 'Girls Can't Surf', but do you see any similarities?
'Girls Can't Surf' isn't really a surf movie. It's more a movie about women in sport, women making change, and women as athletes. It doesn't have any surf sequences in it like 'Storm Surfers' did. It's almost like a feminist documentary, but it just happens to be in the world of surfing. And it's certainly a period story; it's a look back and it's an archive story.
So no, it’s not really like 'Storm Surfers', though a way that it is similar is the generation of people involved. Ross and Tom are two legends of 1980s pro surfing. Like, it doesn't get anymore '80s than those two.
We became good friends while making 'Storm Surfers' together, and I think I was always attracted to those guys because they were from the ‘80s. There's just something about that generation, that decade, that forged these characters that haven't been repeated in surfing.
Like, it's pre-internet, the sport was exploding, they didn't know how big it was going to get. They were golden gods. It looked like everyone was rich, even though not really anyone was rich, and there was just so much froth and expectation and all that kind of stuff, which made for really good stories. Like, Ross and Tom would always tell me really cracker stories...
If I can interject, Chris: You're celebrating the ‘80s here, yet the ‘80s was also the time period for ‘Girls Can't Surf’.
Yeah, I was taking the long road back to that point...
So surfing had this wild west aspect to it at the time. I'd hear stories from Ross and Tom about how they would scrap around to get from event to event, and somewhere along the line, I was like, "Well, how the hell did the women do it?" And I kept asking myself that question, I was intrigued by it. Like, "God, there's no way those women were making anywhere near the money the guys were making, so how the hell did they do it? How did they get around the world?"
That was the beginning. That was the first question into it, and that’s the commonality. Like, Ross and Tom are in their fifties, and these women are all in their fifties now. And they're at a point where they can really look back on their careers. It's a healthy time to look back on your life.
So you can trace the genesis of 'Girls’ Can’t Surf' back to that initial question that you asked, but when did you realise that you had a story?
Well I was never interested in making the encyclopaedic history of women's surfing. I didn't want it to be a dry, boring thing like that. I knew that if there was a film in it, it had to come from their personal stories. It was always going to be about the characters and their personal journeys.
So I started digging, I rang Wendy, Pam, Pauline, Freida and Jodie, spoke to each of them for about an hour, and I realised they've all got incredible personal stories. I remember Pam telling me that she was going to the Australian Open, the surf contest not the tennis, and she was wondering if anyone would know who she was.
That was one bit that stuck out for me, where I was like, "Oh my god, really? You're the 1990 world champ. The male 1990 world champ would never think that." So I thought it just shouldn't be that way, you know? Her story needs to be more widely known by the youth today.
And then there was Pauline. When I got to talk to her on the phone and ask what she does now, she told me she was a school bus driver. I think that really got me. I, like everyone else, sort of thought, "Oh, but you're a world champ. You won a world title in 1993, and you're a school bus driver. That doesn't seem right."
There’s just that sense that these women are kind of like Clark Kent; they're walking down the street in plain clothes and people don't know who they are. And Pauline's probably picking up your school kid, and you may not know that that woman won a world title in 1993.
So there was an urge there...like these women have great life stories. There’s a movie there.
What was the driving emotion for you? Was it to right wrongs?
No, the driving emotion, as a filmmaker, is always to ask: Is it a good film? That’s all. A good film is drama, a good film is story, a good film is character. I was asking myself, "Does it have these elements?" And as I dug, the more I dug, the more I thought, "Oh yeah, there's stuff here. There's a story here, there're characters here."
And also, I never found the definitive book that could tell me all of this stuff. Like, no-one's written a book. There's no film. No-one's done it yet. And I thought, "It's just a matter of time until someone does this," because it's a huge sport. Women's surfing is massive now. Things have changed immensely, and I want to know what it was like back then.
Did you have any reservations, in the sense of, say, moral relativism, like how ethics have changed over the years?
During the making of the film we debated if we wanted to interview some of those guys that put things on tape back in the ‘80s that they may regret now. Do we want to find out what they think today? And that's a valid question. Yet in the end, myself and my editor just wanted this film to be from the women's point of view. So it's not a man-bashing exercise. It's simply not about the men. But if we gave them the microphone and asked, "What do you think now?" then it becomes a film about the men and how they've changed or not changed, and that's not what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a film where the women got the microphone.
And I'm glad I did, because I think there's not enough stuff out there where you see it from their point of view. And the moral relativism that you're talking about, yeah, it's a super-interesting ethical decision, and no-one names names in the film, it's not really about this guy was bad, or that guy was bad. There's a couple of archive clips where obviously there's a guy saying it, but the only reason they're in there is so that people can empathise and understand what the women were up against in the 1980s.
I want to just double back to something you mentioned earlier, that you were enamoured with the ‘80s charisma, the men and the women. How much of that do you think came from hardships, some of them challenging hardships, that they had to overcome?
Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, that's an even broader question around nature/nurture, and personality and stuff. But the fact that they had to scrap around, and the fact that there was no social media, and there were no athlete managers and stuff like that. Surfing's always been the wild sport, and it's always kind of struggled with its own identity because it doesn't feel like an organised sport.
So I truly believe that, the fact that they had to get themselves from A to B, they had to ingratiate themselves a bit, and they had to do it all themselves, I feel like it made them all really outgoing, gregarious personalities, and really fun people. They know how to have fun.
And I think today, it's more kind of toned down, because there is a media presence, and there's social media, and there's more money, and there is an athlete manager. Probably only two people had a manager back in the '80s.
In an Instagram post late last year, Tyler Wright had a dig at Ian Cairns for “sexism, homophobia, and inequality” in pro surfing. Ian, who's married to ‘80s pro Alisa Schwarzstein, made the point that it's baby steps; it may not be perfect now, but it's way better than it was. That we're on this spectrum where things are gradually getting better.
I didn’t see the post, but do you mean she doesn't appreciate the Pam generation?
No, I just thought it was interesting because it showed the two ways people advocate for change: Become an antagonist, as Tyler was, rattling the cage, or be more practical and slow, create change from within, as Ian was advocating.
Well, when it comes to social change, be it sexism or homophobia or whatever, yeah, absolutely we've come a long way, but clearly Tyler doesn't think we've come all the way. And she's absolutely entitled to be that antagonist, because as you were just alluding to, it's those people that, unless they shake the tree, it'll take another forty years before things change.
You know, Ian's wife even says it in the film, that the women couldn't go too hard, too early, or else it'll just be, "Oh, she's just whining." And I can't speak for them personally, but it must be a difficult position to be in.
So I can see why Tyler wants to jump up and down and say that stuff. Of course it's not perfect - there's nowhere in the world that is. But then I know Ian as well, because he used to run the sport, and he would also be a big advocate for women's surfing, just approaching it in a different way.
I mean, it's what the film's about, you know? Getting the respect that they wanted took forty years, and Tyler's just pointing out that it's not completely done.
Something that Jamie Brisick said, that didn't end up in the film but which I always really loved, is he said when he saw equal pay happen in surfing, he was like, "Bang! There it is. There's the surfing that I fell in love with when I was a little boy." Because here was surfing doing its own thing, and being not about rigid sport bullshit, but actually doing something bad-ass and giving women equal prize money. Like, it's a pretty cool redemption story for the sport, you know?
What have been some of the responses from the women who were in the film?
Super interesting. I've been able to spend the most time with Jodie, Pam, Wendy, and oh yeah, a bit of Layne, and Pauline - obviously with Pauline and her whole thing kind of blowing up. Yeah, they were nervous, and I think with good reason, because before I came along, none of this shit was going to end up on screen, so they just weren't ready for it.
But I think they've been really grateful to sort of have their story told from their point of view, and for younger people to, hopefully, be inspired by it.