Chronicling the ultimate wave riders

`Riding Giants' looks at great surf moments

August 04, 2004|By Katie Leslie | Katie Leslie,SUN STAFF

Ten-story-tall waves are crashing in front of you. The swells are clear blue, murky black or oily green, and all are angry mountains of water. Like wild beasts, they taunt you to try, just try, to tame them. You start getting seasick, or maybe it's the terror gripping your stomach.

Now you're glad that Riding Giants is just a movie, that these waves can't suck you in and toss you around in their spin cycle.

And that's what separates you from the world's greatest big-wave surfers, a league of mortals who live to ride the ultimate wave.

"It's the funnest thing you can ever do, to catch that big wave and ride down it," says surfing pioneer Jeff Clark, 46, who is credited with discovering the now-famous Mavericks surfing spot in northern California, even surfing the 40-foot waves alone for more than 15 years. "I mean, there is the risk of a wipe out, but you don't even think about it. You feel the most alive at that moment. It's like the edge."

And that's exactly where documentarian Stacy Peralta, 47, hopes to take his Riding Giants audience - the edge of their seats. By combining big-wave footage with intimate interviews with the men who surfed them - like Clark, Greg "The Bull" Noll and Laird Hamilton - Peralta attempts to explain the history of surfing from its Polynesian roots to today's radical, extreme-sport status.

"We chose the big-wave format because we knew that we needed a hook for the general public, and that even if people weren't into surfing, anybody looking at a gigantic wave stands in awe," says Peralta, a Los Angeles native most noted for his 2001 skateboard movie Dogtown and Z-Boys. "We wanted to use the big-wave canvas to tell a deeper history of surfing. And also, it had some of the greatest moments of surfing life and death, discovery, adventure ... it was kind of a ready-made story."

Peralta, a surfer since boyhood, teamed with Surfer magazine editor and buddy Sam George to write the script for the documentary, based on the life and times of three of the world's greatest surfers: Noll, the brash yet endearing 1960s surfing legend, Clark and Hamilton, the hunky chieftain of today's tow-in surfing, which launched him to stardom in 2000 after riding what may be the biggest wave ever tamed by man.

"The inspiration for the film was actually Greg," explains Peralta at a group interview with George, Noll and Clark. "I interviewed him for another project and found him compelling, funny, open and very able to tell a great story."

"And foul-mouthed!" interjects Noll, 67, and the men erupt in laughter.

Collectively, they embody classic California beach-style, all in casual T-shirts and flip-flops, largely unstyled hair and tanned skin. Noll is like the lovable and coarse grandfather of the lot, while Clark is present as the soft-spoken philosopher. ("It's like we're astronauts, going into outer space, and these waves are our next planet to discover," Clark says.)

And though Peralta had the vision for the film, George, with his experience in surf editorials, added his expertise in streamlining a story. But it's obvious that the men share more than just a working relationship - their bond goes far deeper, whether it's similar experiences, or simply their love for surfing.

Perhaps the empathy of Peralta, who in his youth was an internationally renowned skateboarder in addition to surfer, is what enabled him to get such insightful interviews from the big-wave legends in the film. Noll, who not only has been interviewed on the sport for decades but also has made his own surfing films, endorses Peralta's abilities.

"The thing that I noticed that was so much different was that I would get to talking to Stacy in my shop, and all of the cameras and booms and all that stuff would [seem to] go away. It would be like two guys sitting down in the sand and talking surf stories," said Noll, who cemented his fame in 1969 by riding a 60-foot swell in Makaha Beach, Hawaii. "He has this ability to get into things."

Peralta explains that he chose his subjects because the three men represent various stages of big-wave surfing, from the seemingly innocent days of Noll and the virgin surfing spots of Hawaii's North Shore, through the Gidget era when surfing went mainstream, to Clark and the discovery of gigantic waves on American soil in the 1970s, and finally, to world traveler Hamilton, who continues to conquer the last of the wave titans around the globe. Though the crashing, tumbling waves in the film are eye-catching, Peralta says he used them as a backdrop to relate the human experience of surfing.

"Sam and I weren't out to reinvent surfing photography," Peralta says. "So many surf films have luscious, beautiful incredible waves shot in a golden light, with perfect offshore winds, but there's no context behind the waves. We were more concerned with what is the story and what are the people about."

And though Peralta and George admit it wasn't intentional, the story builds as the size of the waves grows, through its climax with Hamilton.

Peralta deflects much of the credit for his work, saying, "These guys' stories were so compelling that they were cinematic to begin with." But clearly, Peralta must have done something right. The film became the first documentary to open the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Riding Giants (which rolls into Baltimore on Friday) has impressed even the film's toughest critics - its surfing subjects.

"I've seen every surf movie since pterodactyls were born, and this was one film that really captured the magic of what the essence is," Noll says. "`What's it like to surf a big wave?' people always ask me, and now I can honestly tell them: If you really want to know without putting your [rear end] on the line, go see Stacy's movie."

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