SURFER Interview: Stacy Peralta
April Fool’s Day 2004. The surf is up, but writer/director Stacy Peralta is down. He is down and outside, in the harsh sunlight of a hazy, hot Santa Monica spring afternoon, pacing nervously around the parking lot of Big Time Studios in Santa Monica. These two cramped and cluttered offices have been Stacy’s second home for the last nine months during the production of Riding Giants, his latest film, and Stacy is on his cell phone, talking urgently to someone about something, polishing up detail number 124,768,804 to bring his vision of a big-wave surfing documentary to the big screen.
Riding Giants is freshly in the can. 2,000 years of surfing history, thousands of hours of surfing footage, hundreds of still photos and hours of interviews have been carefully whittled down to a 90-minute montage of sound and fury which gives a three act history of surfing as told through the escalating pursuit of big waves. Riding Giants is grounded in history, but thoroughly modern, an ambitious, well-financed project made possible by the success of Peralta’s 2002 skateboard documentary Dogtown and Z Boys.
Riding Giants was a triumph at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, breaking box office records, and the movie was picked up for wide distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. The Peralta crew, including producer Agi Orsi and editor Paul Crowder, then returned to California to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and to finish the movie and get it in the can by the end of March for a summer release. And on April Fool’s Day, Peralta was done, a zillion details all laid down and finalized into 95 minutes of what could be the best big-screen surfing project since The Endless Summer.
But with all that, Peralta is not looking good. As he comes in from the parking lot and takes a seat in the lunch room, his eyes are veiled. He still has the “one yard stare” that all filmmakers wear after months of gazing into computer screens. Peralta has a hit on his hands. He should be up, but he’s down.
SURFER: With everything that’s been going on surrounding Riding Giants I would have thought you’d be doing handsprings right about now.
STACY PERALTA: I’m depressed.
SURFER: Depressed? You opened the Sundance Film Festival to standing o’s. You hob-nobbed with Robert Redford! And yet here you are, looking like your dog left you and your pickup truck died and your wife threw a rod.
STACY PERALTA: Oh, I always go through this after a project. Every time. Three years ago I was in the exact same place at the same time after Dogtown.
SURFER: Postproduction depression?
STACY PERALTA: Something like that. I need to go surfing.
SURFER: Did you stop surfing entirely during the making of Riding Giants?
STACY PERALTA: No, I surfed when I could, but this has been the worst winter. I surfed a ton before Sundance and got some of the best waves since high school. I surfed Bay Street a lot, which is usually the world’s worst beachbreak. But that was before Sundance. Since then…
SURFER: You’ve been surfing Santa Monica since high school?
STACY PERALTA: This is where I grew up. This is where I learned to surf.
SURFER: Surfing first, or skateboarding?
STACY PERALTA: Well, skateboarding first because I began skateboarding when I was five-years-old. I started surfing when I was 11 at a place called Toes. It’s just south of Marina del Rey, a wave that used to break up Ballona Creek. The break was called Toes on the Nose and I got my first surfboard and said, “This is it.” From there I began surfing Santa Monica, Bay Street to be exact. Nathan Pratt and I got kicked out of P.O.P. when we were 14-years-old. Our lives were threatened by the leading Mafioso-surfer. I later surfed the T’s, which broke on the north side of P.O.P. as opposed to the Cove which broke on the south side. I’m goofy-foot so I preferred the T’s.
SURFER: You grew up as a freckle-faced, long-blonde-haired surf and skate rat during the Roaring ‘70s. Do you feel lucky, punk?
STACY PERALTA: I wouldn’t trade that for anything. You know, I feel really fortunate to have been a skateboarder at a time when, quote, ‘it didn’t exist.’ When we did it simply for the pure joy of it. I’ve had some really great years, I’ve accomplished a lot, but maybe the purest moment in my life was when I was surfing between the 11th and 12th grades, in the summer, when I was 17. I was surfing better than I ever had. I was getting to the point where I could pretty much do what I wanted to do on a surfboard. I could get up on a wave and position myself wherever I wanted to be. And the life I was living at that time was probably the purest me I have ever been.
SURFER: The rest of life kind of doesn’t compare, does it?
STACY PERALTA: When you have an experience like that in your life it rings forever. There have been times where I wanted to shed surfing because I couldn’t stand missing swells and this and that and I just got fed up with it: “That’s it, I am stopping this. I can’t deal with this obsession.” The early ‘80s were one of those times, but right when I did that my next-door neighbor returned from Australia: “Hey, I just bought one of Simon Anderson’s boards and it’s called a Thruster. This is his personal board and I don’t want it and I’ll sell it for a hundred and fifty bucks.” So I bought it and rode it and flipped out and I actually said to myself, “God this thing thrusts when it turns.”
SURFER: If you had to chose between the two…. No, that’s a stupid question.
STACY PERALTA: Surfing. The answer to the question you didn’t ask is surfing, if I had to choose between the two. I’m known more for skateboarding, but there was a time when I was on my way to becoming a competitive surfer. Think of guys like Chris Barela and Mike Benavidez. That was my peer group and that is the direction I was going with Nathan Pratt, Tony Alva and Jay Adams. But we chased the opportunities in skateboarding instead.
SURFER: And changed the world, as they say. Aside from the whole Dogtown, Zephyr Team thing you went on to be a big success in the skateboard business with Powell Peralta. And then there’s the rumor that you were the first person to produce the first legitimate action sports video.