Reconstructing The Classic Surf Film With Chris Gentile & Allah-Las
Introducing Self Discovery for Social Survival: the product of combined forces Mexican Summer, the record label, and fellow Brooklyners Pilgrim Surf + Supply, a surf and outdoor brand. Set across three continents with vignettes shot in Mexico, the Maldives and Iceland, Self Discovery for Social Survival (SDSS for short) harnesses the creative forces of surfing, film and music, and melds them into one singular experience. Graced with the prowess of surfers like Creed McTaggart, Ryan Burch and Stephanie Gilmore, SDSS organically blends rich surf imagery set to the fitting music of Allah-Las, Connan Mockasin, Peaking Lights and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT, who all pitched in to create the evolving score.
Just ahead of the film’s June 15 premiere at The Palace Theatre in DTLA, we spoke with Pilgrim founder and SDSS director Chris Gentile, as well as Allah-Las guitarist and vocalist Pedrum Siadatian, about the immense creative effort that it took to create this film.
As director, did you try to dictate all of the creative elements involved in this film, or did you prefer to let things happen naturally?
Chris Gentile: My job was to pull together all the elements, whether they were relatable or disparate. I wanted to let things happen, I didn’t to be too heavy-handed. When we were taking these trips, we didn’t know what we were walking into. Part of the beauty of surfing is that you don’t have control over what’s going to happen. To relinquish some control and allow things to happen naturally was really the spirit of the way we made the film. We didn’t stage anything, we went for two weeks to each of these locations, and we shot and we got what we got. Everything had to be done in the moment – we had to be really open and awake as individuals.
From the first iconic surf films in the 50’s to 60’s, we have a certain expectation of them. With SDSS, what did you want to do differently?
Chris: A good surf movie should inspire you to go surfing. When you engage with music and with surfing, it’s the element of discovery that is always present. We wanted to put an emphasis on the idea that everything is dependent on one another between the way things were shot and how the music was made. That was a differentiator from a lot of other surf films, that the musicians are typically not on, or never on the trips.
The idea of the foundation as a film was that these bands and musicians were taking these trips with these luminary surfers, with the idea that they’re in the waves with [them] and they’re there witnessing it firsthand. They’re also breathing the air, getting the same sunburn, eating the same food, on the same boat. Then when they get back, go right into the studio and start writing and recording this music that was a direct inspiration from these adventures.
So it’s like nobody’s really in control – we were all reacting. As a director, I was reacting in the moment like, “Hey, we should put this camera here,” and the surfers are reacting to the moments we’re all having. Then myself and the editor are reacting to the way the music was created. It was really special… these bands created moods and feelings that are there because of the moments we captured. It was a real joy to work on for that reason, because there’s a lot of surprises.
Was traveling to Mexico, immersing yourselves in this experience, and coming back to record with fresh perspective a large differentiation from your previous recording experiences?
Pedrum Siadatian: There wasn’t as much pressure. it was just about playing together and creating mood-pieces, which is fun for us to do. It was nice getting a break from lyrics and vocals, and just playing.
Each environment contributes a different shade of blue to the film. The saturated warm hues of Mexico contrast with Iceland’s deeper shades by the end. How did you want color to work in this film?
Chris: That was a really important part of post production. We shot on this new system with the idea that we could create these temperatures for each location. Mexico is really dry and the Maldives is like surfing on windex! It set all these really subtle tones – the light’s very cool there. It’s super important to keep it feeling natural, but we wanted people to pick up on that.
What colors do you associate with your music?
What do the classic films do well with the music that they feature?
Chris: You watch these films and a song becomes synonymous with that scene. You see an iconic song in a movie, and the music is so powerful that it’s a time capsule back to where and when you saw that for the first time. To think about music for this film, we definitely wanted to let it be its own thing and kind of redefine what it is to make a surf film soundtrack. I think what’s nice is you get those Allah-Las tracks, and those guys were definitely tapping into some things that came before them, and it feels… it feels right for the footage.
How much space did you leave yourselves to create something that is your own for this project, despite having the “surf rock” sound already paved?
Pedrum: We never set out to have a surf rock sound, and I don’t consider us to have that sound. as a band we were more interested in stuff like Gabor Szabo, Popol Vuh and library music instrumentals than trying to emulate “Misirlou” or “Surfing Bird.”
What relationship do you think there is between creating a contemporary sound, and creating a classic sound? Do you concern yourselves very much with either?
Pedrum: I think no matter how classic you want to sound, you will inevitably sound contemporary in some capacity, whether it’s because of the technology being used in recording, or the style and tone of the songs themselves. For us, our ethos is to make something that doesn’t sound like it’s following whatever production or stylistic trend is going on at the time, and follow our intuitions.
Why is it important to record with analog gear? Is there a creative payoff?
Pedrum: Analog recording suits rock and roll for some reason. There’s an immediacy in the genre that calls for capturing moments, whether mistakes or spontaneous, that show the idiosyncrasies of the band dynamic. I don’t knock digital recording, but the convenience of it allows you to over-correct and manipulate things which can be detrimental to the spirit of the performance.
What creative overlaps do you see existing between filmmaking, surfing and music?
Chris: It’s all about the moment. There’s nothing else where you’re sitting on your board, waiting for the moment. Just like performing, just as soon as you’re engaging with your instrument, that’s it. There’s a lot of similarities, so many that cross over. There’s so many people that I’ve met in New York that have come to surfing so much later in their life and they’re typically brilliant, creative human beings. They understand what struggle is and they know what struggle can do for you, and they fully embrace it. It’s really hard to surf, but there’s a whole subset of people that do it, and they get out there and get their ass kicked! They’re like, ‘I can’t wait to have more of that!’ and it’s really impressive, because they know what the reward is.
If you taste that a couple of times, you get a wave and with the force, you go down the line. I don’t know anyone who has done that and thought it wasn’t that great. It’s cool to see that people are coming to it with enthusiasm and dedication and can fully embrace the capacity to be embarrassed. It’s an exercise in humility. I think that’s some of the shared language of music and surfing as well. It’s like going surfing as a personal, self-fulfilling and humiliating act, and performing and playing music is kind of the same in a lot of ways.
Images courtesy of Laura-Lynn Petric and Chris Burkard, respectively
Stay tuned to Milk for more collaborative art.