Chris Nelius: Director of 'Girls Can't Surf'

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

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...

Sorry, mate.
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 these women have great life stories. There’s a movie there.

Pam and Jodie and Freida and Jorja

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.

Pauline floating

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.

'Girls Can't Surf' opens in cinemas tonight.


Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 4:49pm

Looking forward to seeing this

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 6:40pm

I used to admire Pauline and the fact that she persevered through crippling arthritis. Good surfer, little pocket rocket.

Tyler can take a well earned knee. Those trails have well and truly been blazed.

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Friday, 12 Mar 2021 at 8:27am

A bit of a tangent but here is one of my favourite perspectives on a female surfer - The Late Drop interview of Emi Erickson a big wave surfer who lives in Hawaii who clearly just does it because she loves it. Winning, pro surfing or the disparities in earnings through sponsorship are not much a concern to her compared to looking forward to the next big swell. She fits in with the male dominated and potentially intimidating big wave scene in Hawaii because she is just out there and part of it everyday and they know she loves it.

She, like most of us has a job. Like you and me surfing good waves (for her especially at Sunset Beach) is what matters most.

My point is surfing has always offered something special to those who seek it and can (and should) be an escape from land based social pressures. The waves don't care who you are. Crowds can be an issue but spot choice and timing can solve that one for most in Australia.

But many stresses and issues arise for all participants once you introduce competition and try to make money out of it. This was, and is, much harder for women but the male pro scene is also littered with countless dreams gone sour through poor financial rewards and the vagaries of judging, timing, injury, sponsor preferences and just plain luck. There is nothing logical in expecting that riding waves should be a source of substantial income or wealth for all but a few in any era.

All of us can be inspired by Emi to see surfing for what it can be and to remind us that pro surfing is just a sideshow. The main event is the next good swell and working out how to get in a good session.

Emi waits on tables and works in a shop. Pauline drives a bus. So what?

clif's picture
clif's picture
clif Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 8:01pm

Yeah, the money and competition aspects really mess with surfing. Always been an awkward fit.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 7:50pm

Can we have that Linda Davoli pic at Burleigh again, Stu? It is EPIC

clif's picture
clif's picture
clif Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 8:02pm

The film and interview above raise lots of important questions. Really enjoyed the read. Looking forward to sitting down and soaking the film in.

Interesting how reform is viewed by some people as the sensible pragmatic way forward. Comprehensive social change arguably more often comes from significant breaks to the status quo through activism. Reformism is piecemeal social engineering, in a cumulative way, that often ensures the privileged in a society can adapt and retain their privileges, as well as keeps the beneficial structure in place. That is, not be upset 'too much' so that they can continue to draw out the accruing of any benefits. Meanwhile, those being disadvantaged are supposed to keep waiting for equality as the privileged take their 'baby steps'. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. When should people get tired of waiting? Those who most privilege from a system, of course, prefer reform to activism. They get a seat at the table of 'reasonableness' and get to negotiate based on the terms of the system already in place that is the problem. Activism is by people who are tired of waiting and had enough of the inequality. Reform can actually help to cement power and privilege, a mechanism to slow down change. It's a oft-used strategy by polluting corporations when it comes to 'protecting' the environment. In the end, reform can even mean no fundamental change at all, for many women and others. That’s why maybe we haven't come as far as we could have when it comes to gender equity by now, even in surfing.

The industry is still dominated by men 40 years after the 1980s. While some women at the very elite level can get the same prize money and and command equal sponsorship money further down the ladder I think the differences far more stark, with men getting far more still, (maybe I am wrong here?). Are women still overly-sexualised in surf media?

And the interview made me wonder: is it so bad if we ask people to take ownership of how they were wrong in the past - misogyny and sexism were also wrong and being challenged in the 1980s and 1990s - and by doing so contribute in their own way to changing circumstances for the better now? That is, help others learn from their mistakes. The times were not 'that' different.

A long-winded way to say: Big respect to these women. And Go Taylor! haha

jez's picture
jez's picture
jez Saturday, 13 Mar 2021 at 4:13am

Interesting comment Clif, hope you are well mate :)
Not my area of expertise but isn't the concept of reformism that change can come about owing to democratic processes gradually within a stable political and economic system (i.e. without a revolutionary upheaval/destroying the system)? I would have thought that reformism would then necessarily include activism as a driver of change. This seems to be what has occurred and is occurring in democracies in terms of successful movements of social/political change. Is there another realistic alternative to this to bring about social change more rapidly that doesn't involve some sort of revolution or coup like scenario?

Robwilliams's picture
Robwilliams's picture
Robwilliams Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 8:20pm

epic clif

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster Thursday, 11 Mar 2021 at 8:56pm

I'd love to give Pauline M a big hug if I ever met her. What a little legend who won a world title on the smell of an oily rag with painful arthritis to boot.

Great surfer full of guts and determination. I still remember her getting pitched at 10 foot Margarets in about 1990 and bouncing straight back......all 45 odd kg's of her.

belly's picture
belly's picture
belly Friday, 12 Mar 2021 at 8:53am

Might have to wait til available online, hopefully Netflix.
No love for the Narooma Kinema in the cinema list.

the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn Friday, 12 Mar 2021 at 10:31am

Can I say it's a brilliant film, magnificent.

I saw it Sunday night at a packed, yes packed, house at the Hayden Orpheum. What I loved most was the amount of Dad's there with daughters (as well as Mum's with daughters, but back to the Dad's) who, like me, had a thrill in seeing the complete stoke in a young girl's eyes in seeing other girls, and women, rip and their story in the process. Brilliant storytelling & character identification.

It is a fabulous film and I encourage everyone to see it on the big screen and Wendy Botha's one-liners are stand-up quality. Five Stars.

Ape Anonymous's picture
Ape Anonymous's picture
Ape Anonymous Friday, 12 Mar 2021 at 12:12pm

Sick floater!

Talked about this topic with my feminist German girlfriend - a person who lives and breathes the equality ideologies; born in the heart of the industrial beast; who's mother, grandmother re-built the country with their bare hands, herself a Master in Sports Therapy from a venerated University. Suffice to say, she knows her shit. Surprised me when she said quite plainly 'well, often men are more exiting to watch in sports. They're more extreme, explosive and radical, and that's why they get the sponsorship dollars and paid more'.

Do we all need to be aggressive and dumb like men?

Why compete for the same roles in society?

Maxaway's picture
Maxaway's picture
Maxaway Sunday, 4 Apr 2021 at 8:27am

Saw the film on Thursday night and it's bloody brilliant. 5 stars. Why? Chris says in the interview a good film is about telling story, characters etc, and he does that in spades, elegantly, letting the personal experiences of these women create the narrative without trying to be dramatic. But their stories combined are full of drama because they're all passionate, and battled, both as hungry competitors which is the best, but also against an unfair setup. I remember growing up thinking women's competitive surfing was a bit boring but of course, with them getting the shittiest waves, no wonder. And Mencer is a downright legend and we'd be building a better society for young women and men if she was the 'influencer' they were modelling themselves on rather then the ones filling social media. Thanks for the film, the education and the story.