The Heart and The Sea: An Interview with Nathan Oldfield
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. -RUMI
I came across the work of Nathan Oldfield, somewhat serendipitously, while flipping through a stack of surf films at a local surf shop. I had long since been bored with the typical presentation of surfing that was coming through in the crop of mainstream films. I was hoping to find something that resonated with my heart, speaking to where I was on my own personal surfing journey.
After quickly looking at and discarding most of what I saw to the side, I picked up Oldfield’s second full length film “Seaworthy” on a whim. Not knowing anything of his work prior, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After watching the film I was not only inspired and moved, I found a certain affirmation in this piece of work. I knew surfing was clearly more than a sport, it was an inner journey of awakening, personal, yet shared with others, played out in the realm of the sea. If this truth had been cloaked behind piles upon piles of visuals from the surf industry, “Seaworthy” had lifted the veil, revealing something we all know in our heart if we truly have fell in love with the sea and surfing.
Most recently Nathan Oldfield has released his third film “The Heart and The Sea”, which I consider his best work to date and something I watch at least once a week. Not simply a film, but a work of art and a wonderful narrative of the deeper nature of the act of surfing. A compilation of diverse characters, captivating stories, beautiful cinematography and soulful surfing.
I connected with Nathan to ask him a few questions about surfing, life and his work. While juggling a life filled with family, being a teacher, filmmaker, photographer, surfer and overall creative spirit; I was excited when he agreed to partake in the interview. I was thoroughly stoked on the exchange, so please read on and enjoy the words of one of the most imaginative voices in the world of surfing.
Zappo: Tell me of your earliest experiences in the ocean and riding waves. Is there any particular moment early on that stands out as a defining moment of you becoming a “surfer”?
Oldfield: I started surfing so long ago, when I was just a little kid, so the memories are pretty blurred really. It was this long beautiful transition from sandcastling, playing in the shorebreak, bodysurfing, boogieboarding and finally riding all manner of surfboards. So there wasn’t really that kind of light bulb moment when I thought I’d suddenly become a surfer. Also, my Dad and uncles surfed and made their own surfboards, I’d grown up around that, so I always believed in my heart that I was a surfer. But I do have some special memories from childhood that are stored away in my soul: early days bodysurfing, the first time I stood on a green walling wave without any whitewater, my first completed tuberide.
Zappo: As a kid growing up I watched Blazing Boards countless times. It was somewhat of a ritual each night before I went to bed. I think I was hoping some of the surfing skill would come to me through
what I thought of as a visual osmosis. What are some of the films that really moved you in your early years of surfing? What films get you stoked today?
Oldfield: Surfing films had a huge influence on me growing up. The first was Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer. It birthed in me a longing for a surfing life with all of its good gifts: health, travel, nature, adventure, camaraderie. And also I think it captured the beauty of surfing in a very particular way. It celebrated the joy and grace that are central to the surfing dance, and presented that dance in luscious, saturated celluloid. That film really played a part in fuelling the fire for me. After watching it, I was absolutely enthralled and enchanted, not just by surfing, but also by surf films. Others’ work of course influenced me down the track, most notably the films of Alby Falzon, Jack McCoy, Sonny Miller, Taylor Steele, Andrew Kidman, Thomas Campbell, Chris Malloy, Scott Soens and Joe G. But it was definitely The Endless Summer that had that first and most profound impact.
The films that would play in my head at night when I was younger were Sonny Miller’s series of Search films that he did for Rip Curl in the early nineties. Those films made a big impression on me. I still think they are beautiful to watch. The footage of Tom Curren is just as mesmerizing now as it was when I first saw it twenty years ago.
Nowadays there’s a whole range of films, both feature films and online shorts, that get me stoked and inspire me as a filmmaker. I lean more towards films with a narrative direction, or what you might call a documentary style. Also, I’m interested in a multi-faceted approach to wave riding in terms of equipment, so those films always appeal to me. But I can still enjoy films that just focus on a certain aspect like state-of-the-art high performance shortboarding. Variety in surfing is always good, so I think it should be celebrated in the ways that surfing is documented.
Zappo: I personally feel your films are some of the best out there today.They blend key elements such as top notch production quality, good surfing coupled with thoughtful dialogue, interesting and captivating storytelling, memorable soundtracks and a much more soulful presentation of the surfing experience. What is your overall goal when creating a surf film? What are you trying to convey via the medium of film and what do you feel sets your films apart?
Oldfield: That’s a generous compliment. Thank you. I guess when I started out making films, my intention was to make the kind of surf films that I like to watch. I’ve always been interested in films that have an element of human story, films that are meaningful as well as beautiful. And to me those are the kinds of film that have longevity in the genre, because they have a certain timelessness. They have always been the kinds of films I have been interested in.
I guess the style of films I like to make are a deliberate alternative to the hyped-up-energy-drink-sponsored-three-minute-edits that seem to rage around cyberspace like viral bushfires. Surfing is so much more than just inverted airs or heats-on-demand or crew getting whipped into crazy slabs. I actually enjoy watching that stuff in small doses, but it’s a long way removed from my experience of surfing. What I hope to communicate in my films is that there are lots of simpler, subtler moments taking place that are just as valid as those presented in mainstream media portrayals.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was from filmmaker Jolyon Hoff, who made Surfing For Michael Peterson. He told me my films reminded him of Alby Falzon’s work, because he thought they were unpolished and uncontrived, just an honest document of what was happening around me in my own life and in my friends’ lives. Jolyon’s feedback was a huge encouragement to me, because achieving authenticity and humility in my work has always been something I’ve strived for.
My films end up as an extension of who I am as a man, who I am creatively and who I am as a surfer. When I document surfing, it comes out of that personal and even spiritual place, my heart country. I guess that’s why people might describe my films as soulful. I don’t feel that it’s my place to say whether they are or not. It’s up to the viewer how they respond to the films.
Zappo: Your first two films “Lines from a Poem” and “Seaworthy” quickly became some of my favorites of the last ten years. When “The Heart and The Sea” came out, I was quick to order a copy and was nothing less than blown away by the film. With so much of surf filmmaking focused on short online content and even film releases clocking under twenty minutes, you seem to be doing what you want and not following the norm of the industry. Being that “The Heart and The Sea” is about the length of a feature film and it strays from the machismo drenched competitive aspect of surfing, how has the surf community at large received the film?
Oldfield: Overall, I think The Heart & The Sea has been warmly received in a niche of the surfing world that relates to the film’s content and themes. As it tends to focus on left of centre experiences in surfing, the film was never going to appeal to a mainstream audience particularly. And that’s okay, that hasn’t really ever my intention with any of my surf films. So the audience for my work might not be that large, but it’s widespread. The Heart & The Sea has travelled around on the worldwide surf film festival circuit. I’ve had generous feedback both in Australia and overseas. I’m touched and thankful that the film has resonated with so many people.
Zappo: The last ten years or so have seen a re-emergence in what I would consider the roots of surfing, while at the same time redefining what the future fruits of surfing will be. Many people are less interested in competitive surfing, while realizing surfing is more than simply a sport. How do you define surfing in relation to your own life, and where do you see the future of surfing headed?
Oldfield: Really, I’m not sure there has been a re-emergence, because when you think about it there have always been passionate, committed surfers who have had absolutely zero interest in surfing as sport. That kind of understanding of surfing as anti-sport, surfing for its own sake, has been at the heart of surfing since it began. Maybe there’s just a growing movement in surfing where there’s less emphasis on performance and more emphasis on feeling. Perhaps the surfing media is open to acknowledging this more so now than they have been in a long time.
How do I define surfing in my own life? That’s a good question. In some ways it’s difficult to answer because I’ve been surfing since I was a little kid and I don’t know what it’s like to live otherwise. Surfing isn’t my life, but it enriches living. Surfing isn’t everything, but it gives me so many moments that continue to confirm for me my belief in the holiness of the present moment, and the singular, exquisite preciousness of life.
Where is surfing headed? No one knows, really. There are challenges to face in the future, especially in regards to pollution, issues of coastal management and overcrowded lineups. But as long as there is the sea, surfing will always be around in one form or another. Playing in the sea is such a fundamental human activity.
Zappo: Aside from surf filmmaking, you seem to have a plate that overflows.You have a wife and three children, you are a primary school teacher,
you shape surfboards and are a photographer. I’m probably leaving a few things out. In any event, how do you find a balance with so many responsibilities and the fickle nature of a life based around the pursuit of riding waves?
Oldfield: Obviously there’s a balancing act in play, and sometimes it can be a fine balance. But I think any parent with family responsibilities, work commitments and a passion for creative pursuits would feel the same way. Being a husband and a father is a constant journey in learning to relinquish desire, rather than being driven by it. I remember being young with no responsibilities and being able to essentially drop everything and surf myself silly. They were beautiful, heady days: living by the whim of waves and tide and wind, never missing a swell. Good times. But the flip side of that coin was that I wasn’t a very generous person, I wasn’t committed to relationships, I was pretty selfish. Being a husband and father and school teacher means I miss good waves on a regular basis, but I’ve also learnt that’s okay. I wouldn’t trade this stage of the journey for anything else. I’ve been married to the most wonderful wife and mother for over fifteen years, together we parent children who we adore with our whole hearts. Everything else – work, surfing, art – all play second fiddle to that.
Zappo: Surfing in and of itself is a creative pursuit. How do you feel your appreciation for and ventures in other artistic paths are fueled and framed by surfing?
Oldfield: I think I’ve always been wired with a need to make things. That creative drive is kind of intrinsically part of who I am as a person. So my surfing life is entwined with all of that, for sure. But I also like to pursue other creative pursuits that aren’t necessarily informed by surfing. I’ve always written poems, always messed around with music, playing guitar and ukulele, and always taken photographs. I’ve also always enjoyed and been inspired by the artistic pursuits of others – whether its words, films, photographs, paintings – that also aren’t necessarily related to surfing. In the future I’m looking forward to exploring filmmaking ideas that are outside of surfing.
Zappo: As we move forward into adulthood, family life, career and the like, our lives drastically change from the carefree days of our youth. As these changes take place, our approach to and mental outlook on surfing changes as well. Some people cannot make it through this process, they may quit or become bitter. I see a lot of beauty in the transformation our surfing takes on as we move forward in life. Tell us about your personal experiences in reference to the way surfing may have changed for you, from being a grom to a grown man today?
Oldfield: I can honestly say that I’m just as in love with surfing now as I ever have been. I’ve never understood how people can quit surfing, let alone become bitter about it. I almost feel like I’m more thankful for those magic days in the water now than I used to be, probably because my opportunities to surf are more limited now. As you grow older in your surfing life there are definitely some growing pains: missing out when your friends are scoring, not surfing as well as you used to when you could surf everyday, dealing with unfamiliar crowds in familiar long-loved lineups. The art is in moving through these changes with grace, good humour and humility. Life moves in seasons. Learning to let go of that unhealthy, tight, needy grip on surfing that so many of us have in adolescence and our twenties – learning to hold surfing a little more gently in open, grateful hands – is a part of growing up gracefully.
Zappo: Do you consider surfing a spiritual pursuit or practice?
Oldfield: Absolutely. I’ve always felt that surfing is clearly more than sport. It’s not just physical, it’s metaphysical. It is an experience of the heart and soul as much as the mind and body.
Zappo: Describe your last surf session.
Oldfield: It was just yesterday, a Saturday morning, and it was precisely the surf I needed. It’s Spring here, and it’s typically pretty ordinary. A lot of devil wind. So I’ve been surfing a few times a week lately, but haven’t scored anything special. Just those surfs that keep you going, that wash work away and give you space to breathe and get you salty. But yesterday I had a feel for a certain rivermouth wave nearby that I’ve surfed since I was a grommet. I got there in the dark and could barely see if it was on, but I decided to paddle out anyway. I ended up surfing for a few hours and it was pretty magical. Long, clean, lined-up peelers, clean water, warm sunlight. I rode my twelve foot singlefin by Paul Joske, which I don’t often get to surf much around here. A few friends joined me after a while, and we surfed for nearly four hours, trading waves and giggling like groms. It was a surf to remember, and it filled up my love tank, which had been running pretty low. I came home and mowed the lawn with a big, silly smile on my face. I can’t imagine a life without surfing.
Zappo: What can we look for on the horizon from Nathan Oldfield? What
future creative endeavors do you have in the works?
Oldfield: I’m at a point in my life personally and creatively where I honestly can’t say. I feel that the future is wide open. I’m exploring possibilities, but it’s too early at the moment to say where they will lead. I’m dreaming.
Zappo: Any final thoughts or words of wisdom?
Oldfield: Only to say thank you for your interest in my work, and thank you for your time.
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