Kai Neville’s Second Best Film: Dear Suburbia

On the eve of his new release, Cluster, let's examine Mr Neville's second-greatest film after Lost Atlas… 

Oh, to be young and in America and in your suitcase is a master copy of your new film, a film that has the sweetest and most golden of glows (even if it’s kinda eerie!), and at open-air premieres all over the continent, strangers are hollering and punching the sky, at your film! Young men in sleeveless shirts, sweaters shucked on these warm summer nights, moving together as a whole, swaying, stiffening, hypnotised.

For one month in 2012, the Dear Suburbia entourage hit the west coast of America from San Francisco to Encinitas and, then, the east, from Jacksonville to New York City. But, to get from west to east, requires a two-day non-stop run through the dark heart of North America. It’s all electro-cute when you’re in the theme parks of Austin or Marfa in Texas or when you hit the Franco-influenced Louisiana, but to get that far, you have to cross New Mexico.

And, if you’ve ever watched a classic road film, you’ll know about New Mex. The high plains. The mountains. The desert. The overwhelming claustrophobia of emptiness. The overwhelming… strangeness. Well, hello Quentin Tarantino!

“It is like an American horror movie,” says Kai. “Literally, you swing into a truck stop and it’s like a scene in The Hills Have Eyes (2006). The creepiest, most desolate towns you’ve ever seen… We went into one truck stop and they had the shittiest breakfast you could ever have and, seriously, it was like everyone there was plotting against us, to murder us. This almost good-looking guy served us coffee and then he smiled and he had no teeth. It was… so… creepy.”

The question you ask a filmmaker like Kai Neville when he tells you something like this is, how many rolls did you shoot?

“Eight. It’s the sickest stuff.”

I recorded this interview with Mr Neville two years ago in the city of Angels where Mr Neville was tying the final bows on his Jordy Smith profile movie, made under the command of Red Bull, the Thai-Austrian energy drink.

BeachGrit: What were you trying to do with Dear Suburbia? Can you describe your journey from Modern Collective to Lost Atlas to this?  

Kai: Well, I was chasing a vibe, a certain vibe, this ambience of time on the road. After working with this core group of guys that I started shooting with Modern Collective and Lost Atlas, I wanted to showcase how rad what we get to do is. I wanted to portray spontaneous jaunts around the world, compared to the usual suburban life. I want to inspire people to get on the road and to try something different.

There’s a seriousness about Dear Suburbia. Lost is upbeat; Mod’s electro. The opening desert chapter, with Nick Cave, is particularly eerie and suburbs, and suburban life as we both, are the eeriest things ever… 

I think it’s cool that you can see that. I definitely wanted to try and have a cinematic feel about the movie. That’s why I shot on Red (ultra-high def digital camera) and had a lot of water angles and it’s why I slowed it down. I really wanted to stay away from all the shit that’s online. There’s so many web clips and so much bullshit. All that candid raw stuff worked for Lost Atlas but as soon as I started editing Dear Suburbia it felt like a web clip. Like, fuck, I’m just editing another web clip here. Why would people even pay for this or watch this again? I wanted something that was purely visuals and music-based and had cinematic undertones.

What parts of the film do you think were particularly successful? 

The desert trip was the most successful trip I’ve been on: the quality of waves, the vibe of the guys and the shots that I got. that was the first trip I’ve ever shot on Red and it brought a whole new look and feel. We went in blind on that trip. I was expecting ramp-y kind of waves and we had these real beautiful waves with the best backdrops you’ve ever seen. Straight off the bat, working on the film, it had a new feel to it. A really good way of setting the scene for the movie and segueing into the other trips. It really changed our direction.

After the upbeat web clips, y’think people were a little confused when the movie starts and it’s a little ominous, a little scary? 

It had a lot of people confused. The first few prequels, people thought they were the actual film, and that it was just going to be released online. It’s a good departure from the early teasers.

Anything you’re not so happy with? 

I’d love to shoot Japan again. That was before I was into the theme of the movie and we followed a typhoon to Japan and I shot it on 7D (Canon digital SLR). But, at the same time, it kinda works cause that section’s really raw and fast and it’s  a good shift away from all of the slower stuff. If I shot it again, I’d have so much slow stuff I wouldn’t know where to cut it or what to do with it. It’d probably be a little film in itself. If you shot that stuff slow-frame, like John John in the barrel, it would’ve looked… fucked up…

How do you get through the hours in the editing studio, mowing through all the slow-mo?  

You get on the rouge, slap on some good tunes late at night and get into it.

Is there anything the casual viewer might miss upon a first viewing? 

I’m actually really psyched on the intro. I don’t know if it really comes across, but the intro, itself, with the Brian Eno track, is one of the best parts of the film. It sets the vibe.

Where did you find the Brian Eno track? Ain’t that the most obscure thing ever!

I don’t even know! I’ve been buying a lot of my shit through iTunes, like I used to download all the music, but now, fuck it, I’m going to by it, and it’s way easier than spending half the day trying to find some weird torrent. I’d rather spend the money and get some proper albums. When you buy albums they recommend other artists and iTunes is soooo spot on. Like, you buy a Joy Division track and they’re going to recommend more eighties post-punk bands and that’s how I found a lot of tracks, from recommendations on iTunes.

More than anything, I believe your films succeed, because of your ruthless editing. Even the highest level of surfer can watch and not grouse about dud turns, which is something that used to find its way into Taylor Steele’s films who, before you, knew good surfing more than anyone. And, in your lifestyle shots, there’s rare candidness. Therefore, adornments of motifs and whatever aside, the reason your films are so good is because surfers are trying to impress Kai Neville. 

Yeah! I think the boys, they want to step it up. I’ve worked on those relationships over time so those guys feel comfortable with me. And, the other thing I’ve noticed, is, lifestyle-wise, I’ve been shooting a lot of handheld, a lot of 16mm, and the camera’s not so confronting like a big digital RED camera. You stick that in your face and it’s intrusive. The guys are generally interested in 16mm and film cause they shoot photos themselves, so when they see that old Russian thing come out they can be themselves. And, I only noticed that lately cause I went to the Guggenheim and checked out Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch photographer. She’s got the craziest portraits. She shoots random people in the street and the way she got away with it was she had a big, large-format camera, this 1800’s-looking thing, and people are so interested in the camera, they come over, have a little talk, and then she’s, like, “Can I shoot your portrait?” So, part of it, is as simple as shooting with an interesting device.

Lost Atlas introduced us to John John, which was kinda weird since he’d been around for a zillion years, and what impression does Dear Subs leave us with? Perhaps that Reynolds, even now, is still the best surfer in the world? 

Fuck. I totally agree. I’m just stoked that he contributed heavily to the film. It’s cool to see him in a headspace now where he wants to surf with the boys and do trips. I’m lucky I get to document that stuff and people get to check it out ’cause, fuck, he’s the best surfer in the world. Once you see him put a board on rail you’re like, oh my god, the boys can do some pretty wild airs and stuff but that’s real surfing.

Reynolds alternately loathes and loves the camera. How do you work around that? The shots where he’s wrapped in the flag and reflected in the tiny love heart mirror aren’t what you’d expect… 

You can gauge if someone’s going to let you in, if they’re going to understand what you’re trying to get, what you’re trying to achieve with the shot. Dane, he shoots so much film, so many photos, that he’s got a good eye and he’ll know if you’re getting a pretty cool shot. If you’re doing something that’s gay he’ll be the first to tell you, as well.

Has he ever shut you down? 

Not really. I don’t try to do too many setup shots, like, “Dane! Run over there!” I haven’t been totally shut down but… yeah… but if he told me, I’d be like (submissive voice)… okay… cool…

Did he suggest any of the shots? The mirror? 

The idea was, I wanted to get some interesting shots to open the film, to show where they lived and then contrast that with shots of them on the road. Dane actually got his chick to shoot the shots. It turned out way better because he was more comfortable. He sent me the reel and I was, like, this is gold! This is natural, candid home footage.

Dane is to Kai Neville what Kelly Slater was to Taylor Steele. Correct or no? Discuss. 

That’s a completely different dynamic. Kelly’s the ultra-competitor and Taylor was the same way. Taylor was producing the best films for a decade and Kelly wanted to be top guy in the best films. Where I’m at, I’m passionate about making good films but, at the same time, I want to have a good time and travel with the right guys. Dane, I think, is in a similar mind space.

Did you have to think a few times before you used (Just Like Honey) and Atmosphere as the closing two songs? They work, of course, the emotional reaction!, but y’aint the first… From Lost Translation to various other films, they are very popular. 

I had the exact same question that you just asked. I used so many different songs for that Just Like Honey desert section and I was, like, fuck, this has been used in Lost in Translation, people are going to think I’m trying to bite that steeze. But, at the same time, like, fuck it, this song works so good, I’m so psyched on it, anything else I use, I’m going to be bummed. It fit the vibe perfectly. I’d be the first to say that closing section in Lost in Translation is fucking awesome so I like appropriating and doing something with the same sorta vibe. I literally tried a bunch of stuff and went, this is not working, that’s it, that’s the song.

Now, who in heavens is Kai Neville? How did you, this little ball of fun from the Gold Coast, become Reynolds’, JJs’, Chips’ etc, master? 

I would not have a clue. Fuck. The lifestyle we lead is so crazy and so fast I haven’t had time to breathe and think about what’s happening. I still don’t. I’m so busy right now that I keep telling myself, fuck, keep rolling with it, keep rolling with it, I’m roling with it! I’ll find myself in meetings with big industry people one day then on the road with the world’s best surfers the next. I like to think I’m pretty addicted to my job, that I put in the hours, so I hope it’s a combo of hard work laced with occasional inspiration.

If you were to die tomoz, perhaps swallowed alive by the pomade with which you shape your unrelenting grand couronne of hair, what would your epitaph read? And, how would you be remembered? 

My epitaph? I’ve been on planes before where you get wild turbulence and you have that feeling in your stomach where you think, shit, the plane’s going to go down, and the first thing that comes into my head is that I haven’t come close to doing all the things I want to do in the world yet. There’s a lot of shit I want to be remembered by. But, Dear Suburbia is close to the surf movie I wanted to make so, fuck, if I died tomorrow, hopefully, people watch the film in a few years and still get a few strands of thrill.

Surfing operates on a very superficial moral plane. The films rarely reflect what goes on. Discuss. 

Obviously, there are a few films our there that are fucking awesome, like Busting Down the Door. That is such a cool insight into surfing.  But, it all happens 30 or so years after the shit actually went down. It’d be cool to tell the real story now. Whether it’s about the tour or shit that happens in surfing. Skaters, in their films and documentaries, talk about real shit from having benders on ecstasy to hitting a mega ramp. Everything you see about surfing is the same.

Now, let me ask you something. No one has made a great pro tour movie, a graphic, honest film about the tour. Derek Hynd came close with Pro Land but, technically, it was very weak. And, you’d be one of the few people who could do it, a filmmaker who has proved to be a cultural shifter…

The sorta shit that goes on on tour, you discover that surfing is actually really cool. I don’t know why people don’t want to showcase it for what it is. I don’t understand why brands don’t let em be themselves and portray ’em as they are.

You can do it! You have the ability!

I’d hope so, but even I, it’s so scary. There’s so many things you don’t want to do because you don’t want to piss people off. You want to make sure you can pay the mortgage, you don’t want to piss the brands off. If you really went all out and you wanted to show something and truly be yourself, even I’d find it so daunting. I can see where surfers come from.

It’s true. Pure  genius leaves that person penniless, friendless and usually suicidal. You have to sacrifice so much! 

So much! And, is it really worth it? Because, even me, all I want to do is surf. As long as I can work in a fun job and I get to go surfing, I’m stoked. I don’t want to jeopardise a lot for a little. I don’t know how far it gets ya.

Jamie O'Brien with turtle
Turtles are like ponies, says Jamie O

Modern Technique: Switch-hitting with Jamie O’Brien

Who doesn't love a red-headed, slightly paunchy switch-hitter!

Jamie O’Brien, the thirty-ish surfer who lives almost beachfront at the Pipe, is among the three best surfers at Pipeline. If John John Florence and Kelly Slater were to be magically evaporated by a sharia gang patrolling the North Shore, say, he would be number one.

Jamie started surfing Pipe switch because he “felt like he needed a challenge out there.”

At first, he’d get smoked and then he learnt to set his rail. “Choose the right wave and Pipe’s as easy as any wave in the world,” says Jamie. “Choose the wrong way and there’s nowhere as dangerous.”

He has more…

1. Don’t commit until you know the wave is right. “I’ll be paddling into a wave and won’t know,” says Jamie. “Don’t decide until you know. You want an easy roll-in, not something where you’ve got to air drop. Every time I’d commit even when it’d suck up and every time I’d eat shit, eat shit, eat shit. You need the easy entries.”

2. Feel the beginner jive. The only thing you can bring from your past surfing experiences is your wave and ocean knowledge. For your entire surfing life, your left or right leg has moved to the front of your board and suddenly it’s supposed to go to the other end. “You’ve got to move weight to the centre of the board,” says Jamie. “It doesn’t feel right at the start but otherwise you’ll get lipped in the head because you’re stalling.”

3. Loosen an ego. “I’m not that good at it,” says Jamie. “The most important thing is to set your line. The simplest thing is the hardest. Once you get that you can mow down a wave. You can trim and then work out how to turn.”

4. Y’heart’s gonna race. “It’s scary,” says Jamie. “You don’t know how to control your board any more. You look like a total kook but when you make a tube or a wave it feels… it feels… magnificent.

Lesbian shredders converge on Brazil

Closed-mindedness is so last century.

Surfing is usually all rude and closeted and rude about different people/sexual preference/stuff. I have never, in all my years, seen anyone wearing a rainbow wetsuit in or around the water. But a group of likeminded women in Brazil are seeking to change the paradigm by opening the world’s first lesbian surf camp this May.

The camp will be located in the south of the country, Santa Catarina, and lesbians will be invited to come and shred without judgment. “I surf all the time, and I’m usually the only lesbian out there, surrounded by heterosexual men…” says the camp’s founder Marta Dalla Chiesa “…I see how there really aren’t many opportunities for gay women to get together and learn to surf in a friendly environment.”

Feeling frisky? Check out their website here and sign up today!

John Moore and Kelly Slater
There's gotta be a damn good story behind a brand, says John Moore, OuterKnown designer and Yusuf Islam lookalike. | Photo: Todd Glaser/OuterKnown

Meet the Stud behind Kelly Slater’s new brand

His name is John Moore and he is going to take Kelly Slater's new brand OuterKnown into the stratosphere!

Have you ever thought about why you wear the fashion you do, why you ride a certain craft, maybe even talk in a manner just so? It ain’t because of our so-called freedom of choice or the genetic kink that makes you so special and so unique and beautiful etc.

It’s because there are creatures out there who are the drivers of whatever culture you squeeze yourself into. And, as far as surfing goes, it’s hard to find anyone as influential, as game changing in surf fashion (surf fashion ain’t an oxymoron!), as John Moore, a 5’4″ Manuel C. Caro arc-swallowtail riding pussycat from the City of Angels.

John, as y’might already know, is the stud behind Kelly Slater’s new, and as yet unseen, label Outer Known. He lives in Venice Beach (natch) and has a design past littered with success, which we’ll investigate shortly. Recently, GQ featured him among their best designers for his vintage label M.Nii.

John created Hollister for Abercrombie & Fitch (now worth, and we ain’t kidding, hundreds of mills), was the brains behind Modern Amusement, and his company The POP (Pencil on Paper) Studio was the creative muscle behind VSTR (Kelly Slater’s offshoot clothing label that Quiksilver snuffed, as they did his master) as well as a doz or so other companies.

Recently, John and a pal relaunched the previously dormant Hawaiian label M. Nii. If you like canvas and buttons and sixties stylings, you’ll faint when you punch in the code www.mnii.com. Full-service brand engineering is what Pop do. Now let’s soak in John Moore’s learnings…

BeachGrit: Authenticity (that buzz word!) appears to be your thing. Like, when a brand needs to get back to its roots, it comes to Senor Mas and The POP Studio. How important has it been to your game? Seems you were into the artisan side of things (producing Hollister for A and F) long before it became fashionable.

JM: Yeah, we have that reputation. Probably ‘cause we love true-stories, but in the case of Hollister, authenticity was more of a nostalgic patina ‘cause that was one big lie… just a well-played fantasy.  Hollister, like most good brand concepts, are successful because of the energy created around the brand. It’s all about an incredible experience.  But, I guess that’s the thing about authenticity. It’s an emotional connection versus a reality. Most surfers will tell you it’s about participation in the sport, but the consumer would tell us differently. Look at how bad the surf brands are at creating a good brand experience. If the surf industry is to survive, has to look beyond the endemic competition for clues. I believe our work with VSTR and Quiksilver Women’s is a good indication of this.

You have to tell me about about M.Nii. Some ol gal from the West Side made it in the fifties and you and a pal ressurected it, yeah?

JM: Yeah, it’s a true story. M. Nii was a tailor shop on the west side of Oahu in the 50s. It was a Japanese couple sewing up band uniforms for the local schools, which meant they kept stock of bullet-proof textiles and lot’s of trims and tapes to choose from. So, the early surf pioneers hit them up to create the some of the earliest twill surf trunks known, allowing them to trade in their cut-off chinos for some lace-up trunks. My partner found an original pair complete with the label still intact so we are building a modern version of the M.Nii “Makaha Drowner Short” to the same specs as the original.

What are the key elements in branding?

JM: A good story. Fonts tell lies, so there better be a damn good story behind the brand to create an identity that’s meaningful and lasting.

Ozzie Wright portrait
We're all potentially Christ-like, says Ozzie Wright. We can leave a legacy on this earth no matter how small.

Ozzie Wright: “We’re all potentially Christ-like!”

There's a little Jesus inside every devil!

This is a little weird, so stick with me. The actor and front-gal Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers, Starsky and Hutch, Juliette and the Licks) has this list of questions she used to ask potential boyfriends to get to know ’em better. JL asks about a guy’s dick, about cats, asparagus, knifings, Christ, roller coasters – all the questions a hack interview cowed by his subject would be too terrified to ask.

So, I figured, let’s throw these questions at surfers I like. The first interviewee was Ozzie Wright some years ago. Others include Shane Dorian and Dave Rastovich. But, first, Oz…

BeachGrit: Did you ever stab someone to cut them intentionally with a sharp object? 

Oz: Yeah, I’ve cut myself. One time we were going to a dress-up party and I wanted to be Sid Vicious so I inscribed Nancy into my chest. The pain was fine. No pain, no gain. Plus, when I looked at the photos I looked like a tough nut.

Do you like asparagus? 

Spargle? Yes. That’s what they call it in Switzerland.

Do you have a middle name? 

Billy. I only found out about the Pippen part when I was about 15 (His full name is Oscar Billy Pippen Wright). It was on my birth certificate but not on my passport.

Do cats frustrate you as pets or do you admire their independence? 

I do admire their independence. I admire their athleticism even though they’re pretty lazy. I like them when they spring up, they go boom. Good reflexes.

Did you ever break a guy’s nose? Would you say you’ve won more fights than you’ve lost? 

No, never broken a guy’s nose and I’ve never won a fight. I’ve probably had 10 fights and I wouldn’t say I’ve ever won one. I’ve never really punched anyone. I just get punched and the fight’s usually over. I just try to get out of there. I don’t wanna kill anyone.

Was there a time when you were mystified by the workings of your penis? 

There are times, there are often times.

Do you look more like your mother or father? 

I reckon my face is fifty-fifty. My skin is my mum’s. My hair’s my dad but he was bald and I don’t think I’ll ever go bald. I’ve got a few grey ones, though.

What’s the first image you have of the female body? 

Beautiful and soft.

Does the respect factor drop when a woman has breast implants?

I’ve never really hung out with a girl that’s got breast implants but they’re probably not my cup of tea.

Do you like rollercoasters? 

Yeah. I like the rickety old thing at Luna Park (in Sydney). It scares the shit out of me.

What do you imagine happens to someone after the body dies? And do you believe that you are a spirit with a body or just a mind?

Just dust after death. And we’re a spirit with a body.

How do you explain Mozart writing symphonies at seven? 


Did the female anatomy ever mystify and scare you? 

This girl named Susie asked me out at school and I said yes. I liked her but I was definitely scared of her body.

Did you ever own Birkenstocks?

I did but I lost them in WA. I got ’em from Vinnies (thrift store) and they were awesome.

What was your favourite expression growing up? 

What can I draw? What can I draw?

Do you feel that we are all potentially Christ-like? 

Yes. If you really aspire to be the best that you can be, you can inspire generations. If we try really hard and pursue something that we believe in, we can leave a legacy on this earth, no matter how small. There’s greatness in every man.