Heavy Water & The Torment Of The Lobster: An Interview With Michael Oblowitz

Photo: Brian Bielmann

     She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

     Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.

     It is not.

— from ‘Dante And The Lobster’ by Samuel Beckett

Michael Oblowitz was last in San Sebastián five years ago. It was the annual Surfilm Festibal and he was there presenting his new film Sea Of Darkness, a documentary about surf exploration in the 1970s and the various operations that funded it. Not all of these operations were legitimate, some involved drug-trafficking on a large scale, and it was partly out of this environment that the global surf industry arose.

Oblowitz has been surfing since childhood and directing movies since his early twenties, but Sea Of Darkness was his first cinematic foray into the line-up. It screened at several festivals around the world, picked up several awards — among them that of Best Film here in San Sebastián — and was never seen again. Not on a big screen at any rate, and not on a neatly packaged and professionally distributed DVD; not even on fucking iTunes. Instead, pirated copies were downloaded on the internet by those able to locate a torrent, smuggled from inbox to inbox, stored on pen-drives and passed from hand to hand like illicit, mind-altering substances. Meanwhile the film’s reputation steadily grew, its quasi-mythical status enhanced by suggestions that Quiksilver was in some way responsible for the scuppering of its official release.

Now he’s back in the Basque Country again, this time for the San Sebastián Film Festival proper, and he’s brought with him another documentary — Heavy Water: The Life And Times Of Nathan Fletcher. It’s an “elegiac poem to the sacred,” says an effervescent Oblowitz, his clipped South African syllables rounded by years of forced and later voluntary exile in the States. “And yet it’s an action movie at the same time.” We gave him the ball and let him run with it. Once he gets going, he’s a hard man to stop.

Right, Michael… where to start?

You know how we can start with this, right? Why are my surfing movies always so controversial?

Yes. Why do you think that is, and is that something that’s specific to your movies about surfing, or have all your films had that element?

My films are all pretty dark. I mean if you look at my Sundance movie This World, Then The Fireworks, with Billy Zane and Gina Gershon, it’s really dark, I really am attracted to that material. That doesn’t mean that I intended to make dark surfing movies, although with titles like Sea Of Darkness you might think there was some predilection towards that. I dunno… I think surfing does a good job of trying to sweep all its dirt under the carpet, I guess it’s like any fledgling professional sport. I don’t start out looking for the dark side — these ideas don’t really come as ideas, they come as events. You know, I met Martin Daly [protagonist of Sea Of Darkness] on an aeroplane, and I met Nathan Fletcher in a house on the North Shore, not long after he’d surfed that big wave at Teahupoo, and he was in a pretty interesting place mentally, and that stuck with me — this was two or three years before I actually started making the film. But that impression stuck with me, you know, that he was a different kind of cat. And, when you’re dealing with those kinds of people, there’s always gonna be some kind of curveball coming down the line, I guess, and my penchant is towards those kinds of people.

When you say a different kind of cat…

I mean there’s the clean-cut, athletic presentation of the World Surf League — like Mick Fanning: squeaky clean athlete, could be a rugby player, has a beer with his mates, goes out there, does the same old manoeuvres every time, does them really well… What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to him in the last ten years? He got hit by a shark. Guess what, the shark didn’t even take a bite out of him, you know what I mean? Whereas guys like Martin Daly, or Nathan Fletcher, even the characters in my other movies, always seem to live outside the normal, run-of-the-mill kind of thing. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re a ship captain like Martin, or a really accomplished extreme sports athlete like Nathan Fletcher, or the ghost of a serial killer like Val Kilmer in The Traveler, it’s all the same to me: they’re interesting. That’s why I like reading Conrad, that’s why I like Heart Of Darkness so much.

Is that your favourite Conrad novel?

That’s my favourite Conrad novel, but of course there are a lot of other novels I like. I look for those big seafaring metaphors, you know? Like Moby Dick, Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian — see the Fletchers have it imprinted in their DNA, don’t they? Christian Fletcher, the reverse of Fletcher Christian from Mutiny on the Bounty, a nice little twist to be given by your parents, right? I mean for sure they’re the most interesting family in surfing, by a long shot. And as such I think they’re very provocative. They don’t offer up stereotypes.

Is Christian in the movie as well?

He’s in the movie. And that’s also why I like Sunny [Garcia], I’ve been working with Sunny for like five years on a documentary. I’ve completed two dramatic feature films during that period and another documentary and some commercials… I didn’t really have a need to do surfing movies, I didn’t do them most of my life, and I’ve live a good chunk of my life already. But I surfed all the time, I never stopped surfing, and it almost became a calling suddenly, out of the blue — running into Martin on the plane was the beginning of it. I’d thought about it for years with my friend who I grew up with in South Africa, Anton Fig, who became a really great drummer — he was the drummer on the David Letterman show, a great session drummer, he did all the Kiss albums, Dylan albums, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ — he didn’t score this movie but he scored Sea Of Darkness, he scored a bunch of my movies and we grew up surfing in Cape Town together, so we always wanted to do a surf movie together. And, as Martin Daly would say, “be careful what you wish for”. That’s a quote from Martin, he always says that. So when the shit started shitting the fan on this one, I called Martin in the Marshall Islands, and all I said to him was, “be careful what you wish for”, and he just cracked up laughing.

Do you enjoy the controversy? I’m not saying you go looking for it, but do you feel like it’s some sort of validation, or is it just a major pain in the arse?

It’s a major pain in the ass. I mean I’m always trying to make the most pure, honest, authentic movie that I can, and to make movies is an organic process, and the movie develops out of its own amoeba, out of its own interior and expands out. It goes where it wants to go, it’s very hard to shape something: it just shapes itself, if you’re being authentic to it. So that’s all I’m concerned about, is making a really good movie. And then I naively think that if I make a really good movie that knocks everyone’s socks off then everyone’s going to say, “Wow, what a great movie!” But the truth is, most people a) have no interest in movies; b) have no interest in great movies; and c) wouldn’t know a great movie if it walked right into them, because that requires education. And, we live in a world where for the most part education is so undervalued, it’s a tragedy. So when you get an educated surfer like William Finnegan, the writer… have you read his stuff?

I haven’t read his book yet…

He’s been writing for years for the New Yorker. He’s just such a brilliant writer, and he’s a devoted surfer. And at a certain level you’re not talking about how good a surfer you are, that becomes a whole nother issue. Obviously I grew up with Shaun Tomson, I mean I could never surf as well as Shaun Tomson right? But it’s not about that, it’s about your dedication, your devotion, what you get from something. Obviously if you’re gonna be the world’s best surfer like Kelly Slater that’s what you do. I wasn’t ever thinking I was gonna be the world’s best surfer… I would have liked to be the world’s best movie maker, I didn’t attain that aspiration but I gave it a good shot, you know? And that’s like all those guys on the ‘QS or the ‘CT, or guys like Nathan Fletcher trying to make it on the Big Wave Tour, or just lone chargers, like the footage of Nathan we saw surfing those outer reefs by himself, with just HankFoto sitting on the jet-ski… to me that was the pinnacle of surfing — to charge that place, right on the frontier of surfing just like his grandfather had done before him, that to me was the epitome of surfing. That’s what really turned me on. That’s the movie.

Let’s go back to Sea Of Darkness, I haven’t seen it…

Most people haven’t, which is kind of a nice way for a film to get famous…

Well exactly, it’s become a legend almost.

It reminds me of a Samuel Beckett character, you know, from one of his plays, which are always… Less is more.

You’re a Beckett fan?

Big Beckett fan, I love Beckett. Beckett and surfing, there’s an odd combination.

What’s your favourite Beckett play or novel?

I love Waiting For Godot, obviously, it just kinda sums up the whole world. I don’t think anybody’s ever come up with a better metaphor for modern life than Waiting For Godot. I love a play of his called Breath, that really gets down to the nitty-gritty. And his novels — Molloy and Malone Dies and all those novels are really amazing…

The Trilogy…

I love that. I also like Sartre’s Nausea. That was a great book. And other weird French novels…

I wrote my dissertation on Beckett. On the significance of testicles in the works of Samuel Beckett.

Oh well there you go. Did you read ‘Dante And The Lobster’? There’s a good surfing story for you, ‘Dante And The Lobster’. Maybe that’s what you should call this interview.

Maybe I should.

I used to catch lobsters in South Africa when I was a kid, growing up on the beach. We grew up right on the ocean in a really idyllic beach set-up in Cape Town, and I’ve never really enjoyed living too far from the ocean ever since. Even though I lived in New York and LA, I’ve always been within striking distance. I mean this hotel I’m staying in here, it’s further from the ocean than my house in Los Angeles!

I don’t really feel comfortable eating lobsters, partly because of that story. In fact I don’t eat them.

Well that’s the irony. The discomfort you feel from Beckett is also the comfort. He’s got all these contradictions… it’s Hegelian dialectics. “You must eat the lobster, you must eat the lobster…” You can imagine one of Beckett’s characters saying that over and over; but he cannot eat the lobster, but it’s all he has to eat; now what can he do? Boil it live, watch it suffer? It’s suffering is his survival. That’s a bit how I feel here. Should I feel guilty for making the lobster suffer so I may eat?

There’s no real other way to cook a lobster is there, than boiling it alive?

That’s the way we learnt. When we were kids in Cape Town, there was a bay right down the road from my parents’ house called Bantry Bay — a huge deep bay, freezing cold water — and we used to wear these gardening gloves, white gloves with little black stipples on them, so you didn’t get your hand ripped, with a mask and a pair of flippers. And we’d just dive right down, 20-30 feet down and grab the lobster — we learnt it from the old black lobster men there — pull the lobsters off the rocks and take them up, and we’d have a big tin can on the beach, make a fire, and use seawater — that’s the best way to cook a lobster, in the seawater it’s actually lived in — and we’d listen to them squeal… You know, we were kids: we kind of enjoyed the torment of the lobster. And maybe that’s why I make movies. I enjoy the torment of the lobster.


…and I am the tormented lobster.

The tormented lobster and the lobster tormenter.

I am both. It’s a little dialectical contradiction… that’s why I mainly keep away from documentaries… too many lobsters. So I never did documentaries much. I made one when I first fled South Africa during apartheid. I took a South African government propaganda film that was designed to get white Europeans to invest in South Africa. And I re-edited the whole film using an interview with an expatriate South African refugee who’d just come out of Robben Island — he was talking about Mandela who was still in prison — and I re-purposed the South African propaganda film so it became an anti-South Africa propaganda film. I did that in about 1978 or something, it was in the Melbourne Film Festival. That was the first time I was ever in a major international film festival, and I won a prize, and I was really young, and I went, “Oh fuck dude, I should be doing this”.

But of course true to my antithetical nature I didn’t do another documentary again until much much later, I went off to do narrative films. But when you’re doing a documentary you’re dealing with a lot of people who aren’t trained actors, so you’ve gotta get a believable interview out of them that’s really the same as a performance — it’s a performance right? [……] I’m the transparent lens, I’ve never acted in a film, I never want to be… you know some of those documentaries where you have the guy’s voice [adopts Australian accent, for reasons unknown]: “Hey Charlie, what did you feel like after you poked Freddy in the eye?” That kind of shit, I hate those fucking talking directors’ voices from the side of the screen kind of thing. I like it much more seamless. There was that 1950s director, a French guy, Jean Rouch, who did Chronicles Of A Summer, a great documentary about summer in France. The other one I love is the famous one that Richard Leacock and Don Pennebaker made on the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues. The politics of that’s exactly like one of my documentaries in as much as the Rolling Stones commissioned it, everyone was on board, they had total access, the film is one of the best movies — never mind documentaries — ever made, and yet the Stones did everything in their power never to have it seen ever again. So they ended up with this strange deal with Pennebaker, whereby once every ten years it gets played at a film festival, otherwise you can’t see it in its unexpurgated version. And it so happened — and this is my fate — that in 1979 I was at a film festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival, with a movie that I made called Minus Zero, and guess who was on the plane with me? Fucking Don Pennebaker, the guy who’d done Don’t Look Back, the Bob Dylan documentary — another perfect documentary — and Cocksucker Blues… It was crazy, I was really young, in my early ‘20s, feeling a little bit like Bob Dylan myself at that point, on a fucking plane going to Edinburgh with some crazy movie that I hatched up in my basement, or the basement of Columbia University in New York. And Pennebaker was going to do a screening of Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones documentary that everybody had heard of but nobody had got to see. So I have a classic photograph of me that Pennebaker took at that Edinburgh Film Festival, where I got to hang with him and watch Cocksucker Blues. Which was insane! I mean there’s stuff with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in the dressing-room with these huge stiletto knife blades, putting them into massive mounds of cocaine before they go up on stage; Keith Richards lying naked in bed with some super hot fashion model chick who’s jabbing needles into him… It’s crazy. It’s really something to see.

Have you seen it again since?

No, never seen it again, but it was etched in my brain like sulphuric acid. So you know, with those kind of influences… I’m not making clean-cut sports films, never wanted to, have no interest in clean-cut sportsmen, have no interest in clean-cut anything. So there’s a lot of people trying to preserve a clean-cut image, and they’re just living in a “whirlpool of lies” — to quote Dylan. I’m not interested in a whirlpool of lies.

Is that how you see 90% of modern professional surfing?

That’s how I see 90% of modern professional living. It’s just a bunch of bullshit. Since the WSL has come in, surfing has taken a massive step backwards, that’s what I think. It’s just so… predictable. It’s just like a new, more athletic version of the three turns to the beach style, you know, now it’s three aerials to the beach. For me the great surfing competitions are on the North Shore: the Triple Crown is the true world championship of surfing. So in my mind the greatest competitive surfer of all time is Sunny Garcia, ‘cause he’s won more Triple Crowns than anyone, with Andy Irons and Slater a close second, or all neck and neck. Actually the last time I saw the Eddie in 2009, watching Slater and Sunny Garcia and Andy Irons going for it was really something to see. When you really realise how good these guys were… and that’s what I love about Andy Irons, is he had the balls not to be a clean-cut surfing hero. He just did it his way, and I’d hate to see history try and clean up his image, ‘cause he’s a rockstar, and he should stay just the way he was.

Going back to Sea Of Darkness, Quiksilver were implicated in…

I didn’t implicate them, no no no, they implicated themselves. I didn’t ask Bob McKnight to tell the story about how Mike Boyum came to stay with them after, you know, he was on the lam from the cops, and was flying tonnage of God knows what to where. I didn’t say, “hey, Quiksilver was funded on drug dealing money.” I never said that. If people make those connections, I cannot stop the way people read movies or books; the narrative is ultimately the subjective narrative of the viewer, that’s how people read. The problem is I obviously fall foul of the subjective narrative of the viewer because even if people infer into my films things that aren’t necessarily there, whether by dint of their own uneducated inability to really see what is there, or whatever… I’m just as much a victim of my own device.

Is that film coming out soon? I think I heard something somewhere to that effect.

Yeah. Along the way, I guess, Martin Daly’s great Quik/Roxy flagship boat trip “The Crossing” got terminated by Quiksilver, and I believe Bob McKnight and Bruce Raymond are no longer running the show, and Quiksilver’s had some huge bankruptcies… so they were to a degree an impediment, but I can’t say they ever stopped the movie from coming out. What happened was we were offered a few deals, Martin thought he could get a better deal, and then — it took a few years — we got a really great deal with an incredible distributor, Goldcrest, the people that did Chariots Of FireLocal Hero, they did the documentary Restrepo which won an Academy Award I believe, they’ve done a lot of great movies. Very few surf movies get distributed by a company like Goldcrest. I think we’re on target. Martin and I both knew — he knew before me because he lived it — but both knew we had a timeless story. And Martin’s a great collaborator, Martin never dictated to me what I should tell or what I shouldn’t tell. We got hit with a couple of lawsuits along the way, so we had to change or delete things ‘cause we just didn’t wanna go down that path. That’s the nature of documentaries.

So the version that’s coming out, the one that’s gonna get distributed, will that be the same version that originally premiered?

I think we’re gonna improve it. Because times have changed. I made it at that time, I made it very fast because I didn’t have any money. I think there are probably a lot of pirated copies around, so I mean what the hell, I’ve got tons of footage I didn’t use, and I’ve interviewed a few really gnarly guys since then who were part of the operation, so it’ll be new and improved.

So it won’t be toned down at all?

No! It’s gonna be toned up.


That one we’re going for it.

And how about with this one, with Heavy Water?

Well this one is still finding its tone. It’s definitely one of the best titles ever for a surf movie — Sea Of DarknessHeavy Water, I’m really batting a thousand on the titles — and all the metaphorical innuendo of Heavy Water is kind of cool. The problem with that innuendo is it comes with baggage. You don’t get to be a survivor like Nathan Fletcher without a lot of baggage, and baggage is part of the story, and people who become part of the story along the way don’t necessarily want that story told. You know, it’s people’s lives we’re dealing with. It’s not metaphorical narrative, so I’ve got to be respectful of that. I’m not trying to be a bull in a china shop, I’m trying to find the exquisite narrativity that lies within a situation. But I don’t want to harm people, especially people who’ve been harmed enough by life, it’s not my intention to do that at all. So it’s a different kind of story. I just think Nathan is such a charismatic and yet enigmatic figure at the same time, he’s like a cross between Bob Dylan and the Marlboro Man, he’s really something else, dude. He’s a very unique, elusive, mysterious guy, and yet he has such a casual approach to such a dangerous occupation that you’d think he would be the first guy to succumb to all the vicissitudes of what is around him. And au contraire dude, this guy’s living in his little shack with his wife and kid and a second kid on the way, and I couldn’t even shake him up to come out to San Sebastián… He’s just so mellow.

So the fact Nathan’s not here is just because he doesn’t want to come?

His wife’s really about to pop with the kid, she’s that close. How can he come? You know how long a trip it is? From the North Shore of Oahu to Los Angeles is five hours, there are no shortcuts. Then you’ve got to wait to get your connection for about three hours, then you’ve got to fly to Munich, which is twelve hours, then you’ve got to wait another three hours for a connection to fly to Bilbao. In that time, the most… anything could happen, maybe it won’t, but if anything does happen, he’ll never forgive himself. And the thing about Nathan I’ve noticed, is he will always err on the side of caution. I have looked at a lot of footage of Nathan riding waves; I have never seen one wipeout.

Not one?

Not one. I mean there were one or two in the Big Wave Tour, but then they’re flying you in and you’re exhausted, and you’re doing it for the money, you know? But he’s one of the most conservative radicals I’ve ever met.

So he’s a calculated dude? Because when you see him and he’s sitting in the channel at Fiji, smoking a cigarette on one of the biggest days in Cloudbreak history…

That’s him, he’s definitely having a cigarette before he paddles out, and he paddles into 50-60ft waves and he gets those insane rides, that’s all in the movie. But there’s a certain look in his eye when you see him paddling into those waves and it’s really calculated… He’s the most beautiful surfer to watch. He has this amazing arsenal of surfing capability — he can go from riding tiny 2ft waves to riding giant waves, he’s a world-class skateboarder, snowboarder and motocross rider, and yet he’s barely won a competition in any of those spheres. He is surfing’s anti-hero for sure. And he remains it. You don’t expect an anti-hero to show up at a film festival, and not when he’s got a baby on the way.

So he hasn’t pulled a Rolling Stones, and fallen out with you or said he doesn’t like the film…?

Not yet, no not yet. It won’t be him to pull that, it will be other people around there in that area. But you know, I’ve tried to appease everyone. I’m trying to be a diplomatic kind of rebel.

The trailer’s getting pulled, is that right?

No, we’ve got a new trailer, we’ve just updated the trailer. These things change all the time — remember this is the very first iteration of a movie, I mean I walked out of the mixing room onto the plane with a DCP, and even as I arrived I was giving notes to my editors to change things. There have been three or four versions that have come out since then. And Sea Of Darkness had a similar kind of premiere when it was hot off the press, and it went through a lot of different versions, all of which managed to win awards all over the world. There’s no way I’m going to lose the essence of a film. So this is just iteration number one…

It would be nice to get back to making narrative films again — you know, a shooting schedule, everybody knows what the story is, no surprises. Making these surfing movies is a bit like… I watched this incredible movie called Taxi Tehran by the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has suffered severe repression in Iran. He’s been censored by the government, he’s been imprisoned for long periods without trial, subject to lengthy and violent interrogations, forcing him to change the content of his movies, his style of making stuff. An amazing film maker, I think he’s won the Grand Prix Prize at Cannes, maybe the Golden Lion at Venice, prizes at a lot of big festivals. He’s forced to operate on a minuscule budget, he’s shooting with a handy-cam now, he has to do everything underground and smuggle his films out of the country…

I feel that censorship is maybe inherent to the documentary process. I remember when Nick Broomfield, who’s a great documentarian, did that first Kurt Cobain movie at Sundance, and Courtney Love instigated a massive lawsuit to try and shut the movie down, even though he had releases and permissions to make all that stuff… It’s inevitable with a documentary that you’re going to upset people, if you’re making a good one.

Who’s twisting your arm at the moment, if there is anyone twisting your arm? Because it sounds like there is. Who’s unhappy with the way things have turned out?

I just think that, you know, you’re dealing with a movie that talks about death and survival, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is involved in extreme sports. Extreme sports is almost like death by design. And you could be the greatest ever… and usually it is the greatest ever who succumb, because they tend to take the most risks, because their degree of invulnerability tends to grow proportionately with their success at defying the odds. Nevertheless their demise leaves a lot of wounded souls behind — who, you would think, would have come to terms with some of this stuff before they bought into the situation…

By situation are you referring to the film or…

No, the situation of being so deeply immersed in such an extremely dangerous activity… Did you see the movie Meru? A great documentary, it won Sundance, it’s here in San Sebastian as part of Savage Cinema. It’s about these climbers who do an ascent of the most radical mountain anywhere in the world: Mt. Meru. And there’s a climber with a wife and three kids, who’s making these incredibly dangerous ascents. Two of his mentors and one of his closest friends have all died. And they’re interviewing his wife throughout the movie, and she’s extremely aware of the risks that he’s taking and the possibility of his not returning, and it turns out in fact that the children are not his, and that he married the wife of his best friend and climbing partner, who died with him on a previous ascent, and now he’s bringing up those kids. And it reminds me of something Martin Daly said in Sea Of Darkness: “surfing is an addiction, just like a drug or a sex addiction. You can’t get enough of it, you gotta have it, you can’t control it, you can’t own it.” And I think extreme sports is just like that. And however much one wants to paint that profession within the parameters of a normal life, these guys are pushing the limits, and their personalities are pushing the limits. Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, Sunny Garcia, back in the day Reno Abellira… They were the best at what they did, but they weren’t the best at living perfect lives. I don’t think it’s fair to the world to try and rewrite history; that’s what fascist governments do, that’s propaganda. I’m not… a) I’m to not gonna do that, and b) I could be ironic and say I’m not getting paid enough to do propaganda. But you know, who’s interested in it?

What sort of communication have you been receiving from Hawaii, which is where the objections are coming from, right?

I don’t get any communication here — I’m in a shitty hotel miles from the beach with wi-fi that doesn’t work!.. Look, I’m not trying to make the perfect movie, nor do I think I could, anyway. So I think there’s always going to be selective imperfection, there’s always going to be things left out. It’s a delicate balance we’re working with. In a way I’m an extreme film maker, the way these guys are extreme surfers… except what they’re doing is a lot more dangerous. I can get sued; they can die.

And with regard to the version of the film that will play this Friday…?

I’ve made, in the last two weeks, at least five to seven versions, and there were probably ten before that, and there’ll be more to come. Dude, there’s so much tinkering that goes on. Even take Sea Of Darkness, for example, everyone thinks there was this definitive wild-ass version. There was the version that played at CineVegas — I don’t necessarily think it was the best version, and we’re still tinkering with it now. There’s no rule that says you have to stop, with any movie.

I think surf filmmaking — and hopefully I’m spearheading this — is heading into the era of real filmmaking. We’re here in a tier 1, major film festival, and there’s only one surf movie in this festival. That should tell my critics something.

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