Nathan Oldfield is a humble artist. In defiance of so many modern conceptions of artists as tortured, suffering martyrs, Oldfield pieces together beautiful projects in-between living a full life as a surfer, father, husband, devout friend and nearly 20 years as a schoolteacher. After school hours, Nathan moonlights as a surf filmmaker, crafting films that convey a distinctly reverent cinematic point of view that revolves around the sacredness of the surfing experience. All of his movies, including “Seaworthy,” “The Heart and the Sea,” and his newest, “The Church of the Open Sky,” open by crediting his independent filmmaking venture, “Freefilms”––a reminder that Nathan’s moviemaking is completely unencumbered by any corporate influence. Rather, they are visual offerings of devotion to the sanctity of the surfing life as he sees it.
Nathan’s “editing suite” is a standing desk nestled between the kids’ rooms and the family bathroom. He slaps on noise-canceling headphones and tinkers away at editing his movies as kids stream past and chores wait to be finished. His workflow is a refreshing reminder that making a creative contract with inspiration need not be your job, but a natural part of crafting a meaningful life.
Nathan’s sixth film, “The Church of the Open Sky,” is a rich exploration of the non-competitive surfing experience, featuring an inclusive cast of characters including Dave Rastovich, Belinda Baggs, Alex Knost, Lola Mignot and Tom Wegener. Church takes us to Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka in vignettes that showcase beautiful surfing, but also capture stories with uncommon range and depth––tales about the relentless adversity faced by one of Sri Lanka’s surfing forefathers, a humble trip of shredding dads, and carving boards from native timber in PNG. Like his previous films, “The Church of the Open Sky” is further evidence of Nathan’s poetic ability to capture the beauty of a surfing lifestyle – not only the aesthetic beauty of our aquatic lives, but also the rich blessings it gives us. And ultimately, his movies just make you want to go surfing. We sat down with Oldfield recently to find out more about his background and his new film.
LH: Why moviemaking?
NO: I’ve been passionate about surfing and surf films since I was a little kid. When I was six or seven years old, I remember watching a re-run of The Endless Summer while on Christmas holiday at my cousin’s house in Avalon, and that had a big impact on me. I was just a grommet at the time, bodysurfing and messing around on boogie boards in the shorebreak. But deep down, I knew that I was going to be a lifelong surfer like my dad and his brothers. Somehow I also felt that I had a surf film in me. That dream lay dormant for a long time, until my mid-twenties really, mostly because I was more focused on surfing than I was on documenting it. But a lifetime of photography paved the way for a desire to create moving pictures.
Whose films shaped your early filmmaking?
Jack McCoy’s films impacted my surfing imagination growing up. So had Sonny Miller’s beautiful “Search” films. They were profoundly influential. Eventually, I got my hands on a video camera and began to play with shooting and editing.
Was there a niche of surf movies that you felt weren’t being made when you picked up the camera?
At the time, the genre of surf films was almost exclusively saturated with the model that Taylor Steele pioneered: standard shortboard trick catalogs set to nineties’ punk. There were, of course, some notable exceptions: Andrew Kidman’s “Litmus,” Thomas Campbell’s “The Seedling,” and Chris Malloy’s “Thicker Than Water.” I was especially inspired by the authentic storytelling in those movies. They were the kinds of films that I gravitated towards, and the kinds of films I wanted to make. Also, at a time when most of the surfing world had long been drinking the kool-aid of rockered-out, wafer-thin, hyper sleek and narrow thrusters, I had spent most of the nineties riding old single fins and variations of fish and logs that I’d made in my backyard.
It’s pretty remarkable how much more inclusive our culture is now, even compared to 15 years ago
For groms today, it’s actually hard to imagine how conservative the surfing world was back then. Some stoked old guys would paddle up to me and say they’d never seen anyone under fifty on a log. But generally, the feedback was negative. I’d get called a kook for riding weird boards whenever I paddled out on a short, wide twin fin. I regularly got told that I’d wreck my surfing. But I didn’t care, I actually liked the point of difference, and I just really enjoyed riding those kinds of boards. So I was interested in exploring these kinds of left-of-center surf craft in my films, because that was what I was personally into and because that kind of surfing wasn’t getting any real coverage in mainstream representations.
Let’s talk about your most recent film. How long did it take to piece it together?
Close to two and a half years, from the first shot to the completed edit. I’m not the world’s fastest surf filmmaker. As a schoolteacher, my working hours are limited. Also, if I’m honest, I’m a bit of a tinkerer and a perfectionist. I like to get things just right. A lot of artists will tell you that you never truly finish a painting or a book or an album or a film––you just eventually let it go.
How’d you come up with the title?
The title is a paraphrase of an expression used by Tom Blake––probably the most influential surfer of the first half of the 20th century, after Duke Kahanamoku. For Blake, surfing was a deeply personal and spiritual experience. He was a self-professed pantheist, and coined the equation “Nature = God.” I think that idea resonates with a lot of surfers. He likened surfing to worship under what he called “the blessed church of the open sky.” I always loved that line and one day it occurred to me that it would be a perfect title for the film that I was already shooting. The idea that surfing is a metaphysical activity, and not just a physical activity or sport, is something that I have felt throughout my surfing life. It’s a theme that’s already emerged in other films I’ve made.
Where are some of the locations you shot during the filming process?
The film was shot in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. So it has a bit more of an exotic, island vibe than other films I’ve made in the past and it takes the viewer on a journey through these places. I think a lot of us who have experienced the gift of travel would agree that as we are traveling through places we are also journeying within ourselves. It can be a very transformative experience.
What was the most illuminating moment from making “The Church of the Open Sky?”
Ah, there were so many moments of pure joy in making this film. It’s hard to pick just one. I don’t want to give too much away, but while shooting the opening sequence of the film in remote Papua New Guinea, I was able to witness some kids surfing in front of their village along a little patch of reef in the middle of nowhere. It was the most elemental and pure version of surfing I have ever personally seen. Just flawless, natural, uncontrived play. It was a reminder to me that surfing is so universal and simple and somehow so beautifully human.
Fatherhood and family are strong themes in your work. Is that the case with “The Church of the Open Sky?”
Yes, for sure. My films are generally an extension of my own life. Filmmaking is part of what I do as a surfer, like fixing my own dings or making my own boards or taking photographs of the sea. I think it’s natural for the things that are most precious to us in life––healthy relationships with family and friends––to be celebrated in surf films. Again, these messages in the film are quite subtle, but they are themes that keep arising in my work, almost of their own accord.
You’ve chosen to independently make and distribute the film. Why?
It’s an interesting time to be a surf filmmaker, in this brave new world of digital distribution. It’s almost like I have my feet in both worlds. I’ve printed a limited run of DVDs, available through my website, because I regularly get reminders that some of my audience still like DVDs. They want to hold something in their hands. The film is also available for digital download via Vimeo-On-Demand. It’s a great platform for indie filmmakers like me because it enables us to side-step the distribution middle-man who usually takes a cut of over half a film’s profit. I’m a self-funded, independent filmmaker, so I want to have a shot at being independent in how I share the film with the world.
It must be pretty daunting to make longer movies in the age web clips.
All my life, I’ve had the desire to make things: surfboards, songs, poems, films, tracks on a wave. Surf films nurture that innate longing I have to create things. Also, I value how significant surf films are to surfing culture. I have personally experienced how surfing films can change a life. That was how deeply films like The Endless Summer or Morning of the Earth affected me. So I think you could say that I see my films as a way of giving back to surfing.
And how do you make something last in our culture of disposability?
I definitely want to make films that achieve a level of timelessness. My way of attempting to achieve that is to focus on human stories that will always resonate with people. We are all social animals who gravitate toward storytelling. I also try to focus less on surfing performance and more on emotion. For a lot of us, surfing is a way of feeling our way through life, a way of being in the world. Surfing isn’t about what it looks like; it’s about what it feels like. To capture a sense of that in my filmmaking has always been at the forefront for me.
Mantle Image: Harrison Roach. All photos by Nathan Oldfield