For those out there who may not know who Taylor Steele is… let us fill you in — art has Da Vinci, literature has Hemingway, and surf movies have Taylor Steele.
Before Taylor Steele came around, surf films were all about hippies and chasing an endless summer. Once Poor Specimen hit the scene, surfing became punk rock, exciting and took a entire new direction creatively. Through films such as Momentum, Focus and Loose Change — or more recent flicks of Steele’s such as the Innersection series and Stranger Than Fiction — surf films have become more production-based. They focus more on film angles, art direction and capturing the new generation of progressive surfing in a fresh and creative way.
Because of the Momentum crew — as Steele and his young talent pool of surfers (Slater, Machado, Dorian, etc.) in the 1990s became known as — the popular appeal in surfing evolved. It went from everyone tripping out over 360s and soul arches, with ambient water shots and ukuleles, to surf fans flipping out over big airs, corky story lines and hard-hitting soundtracks that brought bands such as Blink-182 and Pennywise to surfing and even pop culture’s front stage. Long story short, Taylor Steele is kind of a big deal in surfing and music, both things that we like very much.
It just so happens to be that Steele is in between trips and found himself in Montauk for a bit. Because of his brief residency in our humble hamlet, we recently got the chance to pick his brain when Whalebone Founder Jesse Joeckel locked him down for a chat over a surf check at Ditch. Talk of the past, present and future proceeded as we got to know Steele a little bit, and the words surfing, creative and travel were frequently mentioned making for an insightful and intriguing discussion.
Jesse Joeckel: Alright.
Taylor Steele: Test, one, two.
JJ: First question would be — what brings you to New York?
TS: So, me and my family, we sort of had this plan to… once we had kids, we had a plan that about every six years we’d move to a new country. So, when we had kids we moved to Bali for six years, then we went to Australia for six years. And in between Bali and Australia, we came to New York City for six months, and we fell in love with the city. We were just inspired by the creative energy and just the way that people communicate and sort of share ideas, and you know feed off each other I guess. We always had New York as like a “someday we want to try and get back to New York,” and our next journey was to France — for the next six years. Our kids have been studying French for five years now. Then we came over here to visit some friends in June and we just like flipped the switch, and just came to Montauk. So, we still have a country feel for our young kids, but then be able to jet out to the city if we need to.
JJ: So you’re here, out east, would you say full-time?
TS: I would say right now probably… six months and six months with Australia.
JJ: Any memorable New York moments you’ve had so far, since you’ve been here?
TS: This trip? Uh, this weekend is coming up, so it will probably be pretty memorable, but not on this short trip. Not yet.
JJ: What are you up to these days, now that you’re in New York. Are you filming commercial stuff out here or..?
TS: Yea, the beauty of my job is I do all different kinds of film directing, not just surf films anymore. And I do stuff from commercials to short films to working on feature films, and none of it is based from where I live. It’s all based elsewhere, so I can live anywhere and commute to where I need to go.
JJ: And being in New York is a pretty go hub to commute huh?
TS: It’s an incredible hub for commuting, but for me, my parameters for picking places is I need to be around creative energy, so that I am inspired and thinking of new ideas, so I love the fact of New York’s energy being like that. And then why we gravitated towards Montauk was because I felt that same energy was here, but in a slower pace of lifestyle for the kids, but the same creative like top-notch people are here, but they’re just in this slower lifestyle.
JJ: Couldn’t agree more. When did you first realize you were kind of like immortalizing surfers, who are mostly your friends, for generations of kids around the world watching the films that you were putting out?
TS: When did I realize the effect of it?
JJ: Yea, like whoa! We’re doing something special here and people are like really into it…
TS: Yea, It took a little while, you know like three or four years of doing it to really get that affect that it was having on other surfers. So, it took a little while, but (pause) I’m still surprised when people come and recognize me or come up to me to say they love an old movie. It’s pretty rad and it makes me feel welcome, you know, on like a global sense. I feel it really shows me how much of a tribe surfers are and I love that part of it.
JJ: Absolutely. So, you’re —I mean from what I can see — you have a family now and your kind of not so much transitioning away from the surf industry, but you’re doing your own thing. You know you’re on your own, kind of a separate path… is that because of what has happened in the [surf] industry or more of what you’re saying, you’re trying to be creative in your own sense, away from what you’ve been used to doing?
TS: Yea, I guess the best way to describe it would be… I made surf movies for 20 years, exclusively. And it’s incredible and I feel blessed to be able to do that, and have that long of a run. The whole sort of distribution market changed, but I felt like it was a good thing for me to grow as a filmmaker at the same time, and I think change is not a bad thing. Change is how we grow and evolve, and so for me that was a great, sort of you know kick-starter to start pushing myself into other sorts of filmmaking skill sets and grow as a filmmaker and not be sort of just limited to surf films, but ironically I am working on a big surf movie right now, so it’s not out of my wheelhouse, to make surf movies.
JJ: Not yet?
TS: Not yet (chuckles).
JJ: Any insight on to what that may be? Or top secret still?
TS: It’s still pretty early in the communication time on what I want to sort of leak out, but it’s going to be the biggest thing that I have done.
JJ: Awesome. Best trip of your life? Best place you’ve ever been, whether it’s to film a surf thing or family trip or?
TS: That’s a really hard one to lock in (laughs) but I’ll, how about I’ll go with the most… a really important trip. So, I went to Morocco with my pregnant wife and I/we started a new project and I didn’t really have the vision for that project and we went to Morocco, we went to Marrakech, and we just sort of vibed out on the whole experience. And it really inspired sort of my next 11 years of traveling the world and experiencing all these different cultures and sort of getting off my sort of typical trips, which are more standardized surf trips. They’re still exotic, but they are more um… obvious? So, it pushed me to go to all these new places around the world and see this whole other side of travel that I had never really experienced. And then we ended up moving to all these different countries from it, so that Morocco trip was pretty important.
JJ: So that stemmed your current idea with raising your kids and traveling?
TS: Yea. Then it also was the first trip for Sipping Jetstreams which was a sick surf movie that we did. So, it was a different style of filmmaking too as well, that came from that trip.
JJ: Absolutely. Any thoughts on — since you’re here in New York — the surf scene out here, or whatever you may call it? How do you feel coming from where you’re used to growing up or you know, seeing where surfing is mainstream, and then you come here … what are your thoughts on it?
TS: Yea, my thoughts are um … I’m super excited to learn about this area and experience the waves of fall and winter. So, it’s all about for me, feeling fresh and new, and seeing things with the eyes of a child. And being able to sort of like have a new experience, and this area, I don’t know much about it. So, I’m looking forward to discovering it and being humbled by the big swells that we hopefully get. And then the, you know, meeting all the locals and surfing with them and really having a low impact experience with it all, but having a positive vibe.
JJ: So, Montauk in a few words, since you’re fresh on the scene. What are your first thoughts on it?
TS: My first thoughts would be — it’s country living with inspiring people.
JJ: If you could create the greatest concert lineup ever, who’s playing and where?
TS: (Laughs). The greatest concert, that’s a good one. So is it just one band or is it a festival?
JJ: Let’s just say we can have like a small festival, just a couple of your top favorites.
TS: You know like, for me festivals are about having fun and enjoying it, so I have some friends who are in bands, and so I’d invite those guys. Like Portugal the Man, and (hesitates) … I’ll just go with Portugal the Man, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros … There are so many, you know music for me is everything in filmmaking. It’s emotion, it’s how you tell a story, so I’ll start with those ones, but then finish you with like Pennywise and those guys to end the night and go out with a bang there (the group laughed).
JJ: Exactly! Right, well I’m going to attend. Any filmmakers or artists that you think the common day person should have on their radar or check out their stuff?
TS: Well, you know, there’s obviously like… I don’t know. To me like what Blake and John John are doing is incredible, but I don’t think they are ‘up-and-coming’ filmmakers at this stage. So, I think there’s a lot of talented young filmmakers and for me, like I just love people that just approach things with a fresh take, and so I would recommend actually what those guys, John John and Blake [Kueny] are doing in their new movie, that’s going to be incredible that they are just releasing, but I’ve just been sort of studying different mediums and looking at different filmmakers from across the board and I think that there’s amazing talent in every asset; fashion, film, surf, everything. So, it’s a challenge to even be in the running with those guys.
JJ: They’re kind of looking up to you and you inspired them, and now you’re getting inspired by what they’re doing.
TS: I feel like everything I see is like another notch above, so I have to really like study and kind of try to step up my game.
JJ: And be prepared. It’s a little different from day one right?
TS: Yea, you know, day one we sort of had a little monopoly with the surfers and that crew. You know, so it was a lot easier, but I think also it was a different world. It was a little more conservative of the surf market as far as what people wanted to watch.
JJ: Now it’s pretty saturated so there’s kind of a lot of competition out there, right?
TS: I feel like there is plenty of room for fresh ideas, always.
JJ: Always, in everything. Awesome!
JJ: Alright. Cool, that’s what I got.
TS: Well that was easy! Thanks guys.
A SURFER Magazine video looking back on the Momentum crew.
Photos: James Katsipis | PC
Interview by Jesse Joeckel
Introduction by Pat Fallon