Oblowitz on Nathan Fletcher, Shooting Surf Films, Action Sports Contradiction

Oblowitz’s anticipated ‘Heavy Water: The Life and Times of Nathan Fletcher’ closes San Sebastian’s Savage Cinema

Heavy Water
Photo by Brian Bielmann

Michael Oblowitz’s “Heavy Water: The Life and Times of Nathan Fletcher” profiles Fletcher – a scion of a royal family of surfing and key figure in Big Wave history, a prodigy at 11, burnt out at 16, back in the saddle at 23 scoring two perfect 10s at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, pioneer of the paddle-out movement – and his good friend, the late Sion Milowsky.

Variety talked to Oblowitz whose “Heavy Water” closes this year’s San Sebastian Savage Cinema showcase on Sept. 25. The interview suggests one future for action sports cinema: Movies made by seasoned filmmakers who deploy a sense of both film and sports tradition:

The surfing shots are amazing. How did you direct these shots — were you in the water with the cameraman? What technology and techniques did you use?

The contemporary Hawaiian water photography, filmed in both 16mm and on the Red Camera of Nathan and his peers surfing Pipeline, Waimea and the Outer Reefs of the North Shore and Maui, was filmed by the extraordinary water cinematographers Mike Prickett and Larry Haynes.
The Mavericks sequences were partly filmed by local Mavericks cinematographers, Curt Myers from the jet-ski and Eric Nelson on land. The balance of the Maverick sequences, including the slow motion, close-up wave sequences of giant thundering Maverick waves was filmed by cinematographer Chris Squires and myself, using a small twin-hulled boat equipped with fast, massive Yamaha engines. We had Hydroflex stabilizing camera mounts with two Red cameras. The balance of the Mavericks sequences I filmed myself with a Red camera in an underwater housing from the back of a jet ski piloted by Curt Myers.
The outstanding water cinematography at Tavarua Island in Fiji and during the massive Code Red swell in Tahiti was the work of Chris Bryan whose work on the Phantom camera is legendary. Chris’s cinematography is the piece de resistance of the film, culminating in his shot of Nathan’s epic ride at Teahupo’o that was simultaneously photographed by the brilliant Brian Bielmann. Some of the other great surfing photographers whose work appears in the film, are Steve Sherman and Hankfoto. All masters of their art.

Who filmed the archived footage?

As the film deploys a strategy of building a contemporary narrative on a historical structure, there are many layers of surfing shots in the film. The 16mm archival footage was filmed during the early pioneer surfing era of Nathan Fletcher’s grandfather, and comes from the archive of David Brown, filmmaker and son of the legendary pioneer surfer, Woody Brown.
Nathan’s early snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing video footage derives from the DIY surf video scene that developed in California during the 1980s and ‘90s.

Why did you decide to film the interviews in black and white while most of the other footage is in color?

Originally I was inspired by the black and white portrait photography of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. I wanted to differentiate the interviews from the layered quality of the action footage which derived from so many sources. Although as the film progresses and we arrive at Mavericks, the entire film switches to black and white, with only the sporadic use of color shots for emphasis. The interviews and Mavericks footage were all filmed in ultra high definition 4K. I felt the usage of black and white at such high resolution lent a certain gravitas to the picture.

You talked to a lot of different people. What was the interview process like?

I like to think that my approach to documentary filmmaking derives from the great French documentarian of the 1950s, Jean Rouch, as well as influence from Fred Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and the team of Leacock and Pennebaker. From them I learned to create a style of filmmaking that searches for the truth. To that end, I develop a grid of information that accumulates from the narrative, inherent in the responses I receive from my subjects.
As the process proceeds, the informational grid expands, and I’m able to observe the intersecting narrative tropes. The process unfolds somewhat like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where we see the same story told from different perspectives.

This is your second surfing documentary. Was it easier the second time around? What was different this time?

Making a film is never easy. Each project unfurls its own set of difficulties. My first surfing documentary, “Sea of Darkness,” dealt with characters derived from the 1960’s and 70’s. There was a certain romantic openness to their narrative. Whatever nefarious activities they engaged in had a native utopian goal. This kind of transcendental optimism characterized the hippie era and beyond, even when it had all turned to shit. It was kind of a self-indulgent narcissism that defined the “turn on, tune in and drop out” era.
The contemporary characters of this documentary deal in a different kind of narcissism. Nathan Fletcher is a character who is almost a throwback to the hippie era — a charismatic yet enigmatic character with a care free attitude. However, this belies a rigid disciplinary approach to riding huge waves.
For all his nonchalance and Marlborough smoking, anti-athleticism, he never appears to wipe out on a wave. The precision and control of his surfing is amazing to behold, as is his ability to survive a variety of extreme experiences. As one of the characters comments: “His senses are always sensing.”

Needless to say, the exponents of contemporary extreme sports indulge in the full panoply of extreme experiences. As Danny Fuller remarks: “…they dance with death.” This penchant for extreme behavior is often at odds with the professional attitude that the big lifestyle companies expect from their athletes. Especially when the athletes meet their demise, which is inevitable in all extreme sports. The characters in the brilliant documentary “Meru” come to mind.

It hasn’t been easy for me dealing with the consequences of this film’s narrative tropes.

What did you know about Nathan, Kala, Danny Fuller, Kirk and the other featured surfers before you started the project?

I’ve been a committed consumer of surfing magazines since I was a kid growing up in South Africa. I’ve surfed all around the world and I read William Finnegan, Kem Nunn and Matt Warshaw’s “Encyclopedia of Surfing” religiously. These surfers’ stories are apocryphal.

What inspired you to tell their stories?

I first met Nathan not too long after he had his historic wave in gigantic surf at Teahupo’o, a benchmark ride in modern extreme sports. I heard him tell his tale and I was hooked. To quote “Sea of Darkness”: “…surfing is an addiction…” and Nathan was obviously mainlining his sport!