With ‘Sea of Dearkness’, filmmaker, Michael Oblowitz, delivered a disruptive but compelling twist on the history of surf discovery in Indonesia. In ‘Heavy Water’, which will be showcased this Saturday night at the Byron Bay Film Festival, Oblowitz burrows in on the world of Nathan Fletcher and his North Shore crew, which includes Bruce Irons, Danny Fuller and Grant Washburn.

You may be interested in how a director with a heavy rep and Hollywood experience handles his volatile surfing subjects, or perhaps you just want to see Nathan Fletcher acid drop out of a chopper on to a twenty foot wave. Fortunately both desires are catered for in a film Oblowitz suggests is somewhere between an action film and a documentary.

Below, the colourful director talks candidly about the social climate on the North Shore, Nathan Fletcher’s magentism, pulling off the acid drop and why you can’t see a legitimate version of 'Sea of Darkness'.

Michael Oblowitz on the right of frame with Martin Daly.

Surfing is full of interesting characters. After you made 'Sea of Darkness', how did you come to focus on Nathan Fletcher as a film subject? 
It’s really interesting. I’ve known the artist, Julian Schnabel for a long time. He’s also an amazing film-maker who was nominated for an academy award for the film he did, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’.

We both moved to New York in the 70s. He came from Texas and I came from South Africa. He was a short order cook and I was at college studying photography and we both became friendly because we surfed. He very quickly became this super famous artist and his paintings sold for millions.

One of Julian’s friends was Herbie Fletcher (Nathan’s dad), who he’d known since he was a kid… All three of us were into the art world. Back in the 70s there weren’t a lot of surfers and artists who were in each other’s worlds. We were into serious art, not just like paintings of dolphins. Over the years I would occasionally see Julian at one of his shows and Herbie would be there. And I always saw Herbie as this amazing off the grid surfer. Herbie was the first punk rock surfer, long before there was punk rock.

Julian Schnabel, second from left, with the Fletcher family, Buttons and Bruce Irons.

When did it click that you wanted to work on a project with Nathan?
After I did ‘Sea of Darkness’ I was hanging out on the North Shore working on the Sunny Garcia film. I remember we’d done this really underground screening of ‘Sea of Darkness’ at the RVCA house on a really grainy old TV with waves pounding in the background. Julian was hanging out on the North Shore with Herbie and Nathan’s Teahupoo thing (Nathan’s unforgettable Teahupoo wave) had happened.

They had this weird circus act … heavily tattooed guys were knocking nails into their nostrils and lying on a bed of glass and someone would walk on their stomach­ – it was rad shit. I remember everyone was either kind of high or shell-shocked by the wipeout that Nathan had survived with Bruce. It was not long after Andy had died and the Sion thing (Sion Milosky’s death at Mavericks in a session with Nathan) had happened and it was just a really, really heavy vibe and it resonated inside me. There were these amazing girls running around in very tiny bikinis. You know what they’re like on the North Shore, they’re like savages; they wear almost nothing. Everything was edgey in a really dark and interesting way. I just felt something really primal.

Nathan and I talked and everything about him resonated­ – he was shy and introverted and I remember saying, ‘How did that feel?’ in regards to the wipeout and he was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t fucking know.’

So when did you actually start filming the movie?
I’d keep coming back to Hawaii and running into Julian and Herbie, and at some point I ran into this guy from New York, Doug Kaplan, who’d seen ‘Sea of Darkness’ and he had a bunch of money and he wanted to make some surf movies. I said, ‘Dude, I want to make a movie about this guy, Nathan Fletcher’. By this stage Nathan had started paddling into a lot of big waves.

This Nathan thing just started percolating and simmering, so I said let’s just shoot a couple of things and show it to Red Bull because I’d done a short for Red Bull on Grant Twiggy Baker at Mavericks and they really liked it.

Doug had a crew out on the North Shore who were interviewing some people for a project so I kind of commandeered his crew and said let’s get Nathan over here … Nathan came over and we were filming him. The crew I was filming with didn’t know what the fuck was happening. They thought they were still filming for this other project and I’m kind of assertive.

Then Nathan and I smoked a joint and turned on the cameras and in a heartbeat I had 35mins of interview with Nathan that was just phenomenal and I knew that I had a movie. 

What was so compelling about Nathan?
He was as good on camera as I thought he’d be and I knew that there was a lot going on in there that was very articulate. And just because he’s a Fletcher… Everybody’s smart in that family. Nathan’s kind of like Captain Ahab, he’s really articulate.  The way he looks and talks it’s like he’s out of a seafaring novel.

What about surfing footage?
I already knew a lot of the good filmers on the North Shore like Larry Haynes and Mike Prickett and those guys. I’d worked with them on the Sunny movie so I said lets look for footage of Nathan surfing the outer reefs. And they had all that stuff­ – like 4K red footage that nobody had ever seen because nobody ever asks for it. These guys were collaborating with me and it was if I had a crew filming Nathan and Sion and Bruce for the last few years, but nobody had put all the dots together. Then we cut a 30 min clip and I showed it to the guys at Red Bull and they just tripped out.

How Did Nathan’s acid drop become part of the film?    
When Nathan and I started working together he said to me, ‘I have a dream’. He said it in that elliptical poetic, captain Ahab kind of way.

He said, ‘I have this dream to jump out of a helicopter into a twenty foot wave and surf it. I went ‘Oh that’s a cool dream.’ The plot was laid and then we started working on it.

Nathan Fletcher looking comfortable at Pipeline. Photo: Brian Bielmann.

How long did it take to pull off the acid drop from the chopper?
Well, you know it’s been a dream of surfers for a long time. You know since Ace Cool and I think Taj burrow tried it. It was like the holy grail of combining surfing with skateboarding and snowboarding. The logistics were insane and it was just not easy to do. The first helicopter guy I got was Don Shearer, the guy that did all Laird Hamilton’s stuff. His idea was complex and it was never going to work with him and I found these two young helicopter pilots on the North Shore who were local Hawaiian kids who had flown fighter choppers in Afghanistan. They’d also grown up on the North shore and they all worshipped Nathan. And it was when I got them that the shit really started to look real. …

How did Nathan approach the preparation?
When we were working on the acid drop Nathan was so calculated even in his relaxed stoner, North Shore kind of Orange County kind of way.

He’s very smart and he really sees it all.        

What about the logistics?
We planned for two years to do it in perfect light offshore, outer reef conditions with 50ft wave faces. It took so long to get a permit and when it happened the weather went to shit and it was raining and we only had a permit for that day. A 50ft swell got blown to like 20ft. It was so dangerous, but the fact that Nathan stuck it is amazing.

It had a lot more money behind it than when I made ‘Sea of Darkness’. I like low-fi, but this was a much more hi-tech film. When we shot the acid drop we had three red cameras, a couple of phantom cameras and like 45 Go pros. The main thing is that we’ve done something that hasn’t been done before. The conditions we did it in were insane.

Does the film explore the dynamics of the Fletcher family?
Well, it touches on it but not deeply because that’s their story to tell. But because he has that genetic code from that family that he can do what he does that is so spectacular.  

Who are the other key influences on Nathan’s Life according to the film?
Well there’s Nathan’s relationship with Jay Adams who was his baby sitter when he was like ten or eleven. They would skate together. So you’ve got the trifecta­ – Christian as your older brother, Herbie as your Dad and Jay Adams as your baby sitter … I was with Rusty Keaulana, surfing on the west side one day and he was like, ‘Michael there’s only one guy who do this acid drop and it’s Nathan.’ And that’s because of his background in skating, snowboarding, surfing and motor-cross at such a high level. I touch on all of that in the movie, so you get an idea of where his dream cam from.

What about Bruce Irons? 
The most important thing for Nathan was to bring Bruce into the film because he and Bruce had become the closest friends and they had this relationship where they both had these older brothers who were incredibly powerful – Nathan had Christian and Bruce had Andy and the movie revolves around that sense of brotherhood.

Nathan Fletcher and Bruce Irons doing running repairs on a big wave sled.

Does the film cover the tragic incident where Nathan and Sion travelled to Mavericks together and Sion died?  
Along the way Nathan really bonded with Sion because I guess he was the guy who was prepared to charge the outer reefs. They went after it together. What I didn’t want to do was make a movie based entirely around Nathan and Sion and I think somehow it got misconstrued as that, but it was never that and it was never intended to be that. As much as Bruce loses Andy, Nathan has to undergo the experience of losing Sion who was a close friend. Both those guys went through very unexpected traumas that really, really rocked their world.

Sion Milosky (pictured) and Nathan became close friends and big wave peers.

The film is not about Sion’s life, but they were close and they surfed together and as Bruce and Nathan both say in the film that traumatic event of Sion’s death; they were both going to stop surfing after that. By encouraging each other to get out of that hole they’d fallen into that’s what led them to go to Fiji together and then Tahiti and ride those amazing waves. Both Bruce and Nathan both saw the tragic deaths of Andy and Sion as provoking them to go to the levels they did at both those spots. At each spot they got two of the best waves ever surfed at those spots – benchmark, milestone waves and you see them in the film beautifully shot by Chris Bryant and Tim Bonython.

Was it difficult to entrench yourself in that North Shore world which is full of volatile, prickly characters?
Very challenging, you know every culture is challenging that you are not a part of, especially if you are making a documentary and surfing is a small world. I didn’t want be tarred and feathered by ‘Sea of Darkness’. I didn’t want everyone to think that this guy is only interested in making drug exposes. That wasn’t a drug expose it was a film about extreme living – people living on the edge. It’s almost the same theme as this movie. It’s about people going to the edge of human experience and living on the margin, but living there with a discipline. For me everything derives from Conrad, from ‘Heart of Darkness’ actually. That’s why ‘Apocalypse Now’ was so great. It was that Kurtzian mission in ‘Heart of Darkness’ to go to the edge of the known world and survive and that’s the North Shore. Obviously you are going to be there, you are going to run into that kind of thing. You know, I’m working with Sunny and these guys if they weren’t the extreme guys that they were why would you want to make a movie? I try not to tread on anyone’s toes because the consequences are heavier than the waves. Probably if I didn’t do interviews like this I would be a lot better off (chuckles).  I’m not trying to bring anybody down I’m just trying to make an honest representation of what I see.

In other interviews you talk about the desire to seek out a kind of greater truth with your documentaries. What is the higher truth in Heavy Water?
I think it’s really a meditation on risk and reward and life and death. I think that’s what it represents for Nathan too.     

Does it portray big wave surfing as a brave and noble pursuit or more of a narcissistic obsession? 
The movie definitely poses those questions. I don’t Nathan really questions that in as much as it’s his vocation and his calling. He’s just very clear about his calling there’s just no ambiguity there… You know narcissism runs through all sports. It runs through anything where you train yourself where you can achieve more than the average person. In every aspect of life you have to have that ability to want to achieve and to transcend and to be transcendent requires a degree of narcissism I think.

Nathan’s really interesting. In the movie you see him get one wave and he says ‘it brought me to tears.’ Then he say’s, ‘I’m done’ and you see him sitting on the jet-ski smoking like the Malboro man. I think he has a real sense of limitations.      

I suppose as someone who purports to pursue the truth in their documentaries you don’t want to be romanticizing violence or people with obvious flaws? 
An artist can romanticize what they want. I’m not living under the thrall of any kind of political censorship, whether it would be guys on the North Shore or feminists. I’m not trying to make politically or socially correct films per se, I’m trying to make interesting films the way that I see them being interesting that are honest to the characters and that the characters feel an honest representation.              

I’m not trying to make an expose, like ‘This is what ISIS did in Morocco’.

I’m looking for much more off the beaten track material. It just so happens that I’ve been involved with surfing and surf culture since I was young. When I was a kid in Capetown I saw Bruce Brown and Mike Hynson and Robert August filming. I grew up on a beach where the guys who made ‘Endless Summer’ came to film. That was like a destiny of sorts. Even though I like making other kinds of movies I was always going to make a surf movie.

What advantage does your experience with mainstream films give you when it comes to making a surf film?
Well, I know how to tell a story. My stories have beginnings, middle and ends; you can sort of follow them. I think that’s what was so unique about ‘Sea of Darkness’ there weren’t many surf films out that involved regular straightforward story telling. Whether people liked this character or not we followed his story all the way through. One of the great movies is Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’, which tells a story from seven different points of view and there are always different perspectives. A lot of people with ‘Sea of Darkness’ said the whole Mike Boyum story was the wrong story.

Or you focused on this and you should have focused on something else.

In a modern day sense the Sea of Darkness was really a cautionary tale about Mike Boyum, but that’s not what I was setting out to do with this film.  

Why has ‘Sea of Darkness’ been buried, to the point where the only version available is a bootleg copy on the Internet?
I got a call today from an Hawaiian guy who lives in Indonesia and wants to play it in a film festival and I said, ‘I have to ask Martin (Martin Daly who appears in the film and was involved in funding and production).

He said, ‘Why do you have to ask Martin? I can just get a pirated copy off the internet. You know surfers right, you knew it was going to get pirated’. I was like; I didn’t want it to get pirated. Martin and I were very careful and we only went to very well-reputed surfing festivals and someone who worked at one of those festivals did an illegal thing. They illegally pirated the movie.

So what happened with the legitimate distribution deal?
I think what happened with ‘Sea of Darkness’ was very simple; there was a lot of furor and we had a distribution ready to go and then Martin baulked and then he was like we gotta go for it. And we made another distribution deal with Goldcrest the people that made Chariots of Fire… they do big movies and they’re the perfect distributor for it and for some reason they’ve had it for five years and they haven’t brought it out.

I encourage everybody to write letters to Goldcrest in London and New York and speak to the director Nick Quested and ask ‘Why the fuck isn’t this movie released?’ There’s no mystery. The mystery is ‘how did these fuckers who pirated the movie, get the movie?’ I don’t know.

If Goldcrest brings out the original 2k, dolby stereo version –­ my edit, which is a much better edit that was never released. When that comes out that movie won’t get old, it’ll always be incredible… it should be made available and it should be put in movie houses and sold because it deserves it. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of requests for that movie over the years so maybe we should encourage a really big letter writing or twitter campaign or email campaign to Goldcrest to bring this movie out. 

So how will people see the Nathan Fletcher movie, ‘Heavy Water’ if they are not at the premiere this Saturday night at the Byron Bay Film Festival?
Well, we did that test run without the acid drop at San Sebastian and now we want to see how it plays before an audience with the acid drop.

But obviously this time we have a distributor through Red Bull and once we’re happy with it we’ll get it out there.  

Who else helped you put the pieces together for ‘Heavy Water’? 
As he told me things in the interview I’d realise I was missing pieces.
I got this editor, Carter Slade. He was a Venice skateboarder guy who grew up with Jay Adams. He knew all these guys really well and he’d really been deep. You know he’s sold coke with Jay Adams, he was a radical guy, there was no doubt about it. A really good surfer and skateboarder. One of the real Venice O.G. guys. His mum got him out of Venice when he was about 15 or 16 to get away from all that and he’d gotten a good education and he was a professional cutting a lot of reality TV.

So you and Carter cut the first version.  
We cut the first version of it and we took it and did a test screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It was just a test. I still didn’t have the acid drop but I wanted to see what was going in and I could see straight away what was going on. Nathan’s so charismatic and he films so beautifully in black and white.

As the movie evolved what I realised was what I had was a documentary that was an action movie. I brought in this other great editor who cut great action and horror movies and TV series, so that we really polished it up and turned it into something that wasn’t just a surf skate movie but a lot more.