To watch one of American surf-filmmaker Taylor Steele’s epic works (The Drifter, Sipping Jetstreams and Castles in the Sky to name a few) is to surrender yourself to the emotional spectrum that comes with travelling, nature and, of course, surfing. Your heart pounds at the daring antics of some of the world’s best pro surfers, only to then swell at the sheer beauty of a sunset in a remote corner of the world. Self-confessed gypsies, Taylor, his wife and their two kids have spent the past two years living in Byron Bay, where Taylor manages the beachfront artists residency La Casa, passionately tapping into the creative environment to fuel ideas of his own.
I grew up … in San Diego and both my parents surfed. So from the age of five, I would go on surf trips with them once or twice a year to Mexico and Hawaii.
My dad had tried to get me surfing … when I was about two, but I didn’t really like it. I remember falling underwater and being stuck under the board and feeling really scared from it, so I didn’t surf for a while after that.
I remember the first wave I ever surfed … when I was seven years old. My friends had found some surfboards and wanted to go and ride them, so I went with them, only doing it because they were. Meanwhile, my dad was so excited that he snuck down to the beach without me knowing it and watched from the hillside. I was pretty hooked after that.
My parents … were a huge influence on me. They were always really supportive of me doing what I wanted to do and they gave me all the tools they could early on so that I could do it. When I was ten, they bought a video camera to shoot Christmas and holidays and I basically took over the camera. My friends and I would go down to the beach and basically take turns videoing each other surfing, and then we’d make little surf movies from that. All through high school, we made films of each other surfing and acting.
I was lucky … because it was a really organic evolution from me shooting my friends and making little surf videos, to my friends then becoming pro surfers. By the time I was 18, my first movie came out and it was successful.
The greatest challenge has been … going outside my comfort zone. When you make a successful film, it’s sort of a blessing and a curse. I felt like I had to keep those fans happy, which made me more conservative in my early filmmaking days. I started making stuff that I thought they would like because they liked the first one, and those films sort of ended up being copies of the original film. The hardest thing was having to go back and reinvent myself.
I fuel my creativity by … being honest with myself about what I’m actually interested in and not worrying about the success of it all.
Looking back on my films … I realise now that everything that didn’t really work out was sort of a lesson. I’ve had movies that were more successful than other ones, but usually they’re stepping stones to a different sort of comfort and trying new stuff.
I would definitely consider myself a success … but I think there are different stages of success. In the beginning, just making surf movies was my goal – I didn’t know that there was a career in that because there weren’t that many surf filmmakers 20 years ago. So just by being able to make surf movies, I felt like I’d already succeeded. And nowadays, for a movie to be successful in my eyes, it just needs to be different and, hopefully, better than the last one.
I’m proud of the fact … that if you look from my first movie through to my last movie, there’s such a range of differences. I’m always most proud of my last movie, because it’s where my heart just was.
My movies have changed … in the past eight years to become more travel-based movies – and that stemmed from having children. When you turn on the TV, there’s CNN and all these news programs that show the world painted in a negative light. I wanted to show my kids that the world’s a beautiful place and that it’s romantic. And although it might not be an accurate portrayal of my trip, it’s more like a memory of it. It’s like trying to capture that feeling of remembering all the good stuff.
My kids used to travel with me … wherever I went while I was making the travel-themed films. My daughter’s passport was full by the time she was one. But now they’re eight and six, so school doesn’t permit it as much.
We’ve been living in Byron Bay … for two years. My wife and I have a plan for a kind of gypsy-style way of raising our kids – every six years we move to a new country. For the first six years we were in Bali, and years seven through to 12 will be in Australia, then 13 through to 20 will be living on the coast in France. But right now, I feel like there’s no better place for the kids at this age than Byron Bay. There are rolling hills and beautiful great waves, and the people have the right attitude.
The thing I love about travelling … is being inspired by places and then bringing that back home with me, whether it’s the way people live or something else. Travelling really makes you think about everything.
I’ve met so many interesting characters in my travels … One of the most interesting was when I went surfing in India and I met this swami who has an ashram and surfs as a form of yoga – he’s a surfing swami! His ashram does yoga, but they also surf as a way of meditation.
What I’ve learned from my travels … is basically that all people are very similar and their needs, wants and goals are very like-minded – it’s family and friends that make them happy. So while we might have different religious beliefs or political situations, we’re all the same at heart.
Terrence Malick … has been a huge influence on me recently, but I used to be really influenced by Fight Club and just the whole editing style and the way that David Fincher treated the viewer. I loved the raw edginess of it – the whole soundtrack and overall edit were really aggressive. I like films to be challenging like that, both contextually and visually.
Music is … a massive part of filmmaking for me. I would say that it’s 50% of what I do and it has different motives or reasons for each movie. In my early days, music was for action and to keep the energy up, but lately it’s been more emotive and creates the feeling of the situation.
The advice I would give young aspiring filmmakers … is to look at what is currently out there and then be different and find a niche that interests you, because there are so many different styles.
I let ideas grow … by just slowly thinking about them. If the idea isn’t just a fleeting thought that goes away, but rather just sits there and stays with me, I develop it more and think about how to do it. And if I get inspired by that process, then I do it. Some projects take ten years of thinking before I attempt them.
My dream now … is to make feature films that aren’t surfing related. I’m open to different genres, as long as it’s something that has a story that resonates with me. I guess my style is to create more of a romantic view of things, but also creating the feeling of being there – sort of a blend of reality versus a memory.
My wisdom for the world is … to simply treat people how you would like to be treated.