"[Surfing] is identity. One of the reasons I got into it as a kid was because it was the identity I wanted. I wanted to look like [a surfer] and feel like one, and be associated with that tribe," says 47-year-old Stacy Peralta, director of the big wave surf documentary Riding Giants, which washes into theaters July 9.
Peralta’s rise to stardom is dreamy for any kid who grew up when Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts were not just cool, but essential. Peralta and his Santa Monica surfing buddies of the ’70s were the founders of modern skateboarding, reinventing the sport with a new surf-like style and vertical ramps. By age 19, Peralta and his Dogtown friends were considered the world’s top skaters.
In 1978, as his pro-skateboarding career was winding down, Peralta joined George Powell to create Powell-Peralta, a skateboarding label that specialized in creative boards and sponsored a team of competitive skaters. Then, in 1984, Peralta went behind-the-scenes and picked up the camera to direct The Bones Brigade Video Show, the very first skateboarding video.
Peralta truly laid the ramp for this alternative sport, which has soared in popularity in the past 20 years. Not only has skateboarding become popular throughout the world, but it has also become a financially lucrative industry.
But despite success and Peralta’s leadership, the repetitive skateboarding videos soon became creatively static for the director. "[Skateboarding videos] were more like doing, in a sense, a rock video, where there was no narrative, no particular context," says Peralta. "You are just showing the latest performance skateboarding."
Peralta wanted to tell a more meaningful story. Following this instinct, he began work on documentary films. In 2001, he wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Dogtown and Z-Boys, the documentary and autobiographical tale narrating the birth of alternative skateboarding and the lives of the members of the Zephyr skate team. He has also written the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown, the fictional film based on his documentary, which is due out next summer.
Pro-skater Peralta successfully morphed into pro-filmmaker (with no wipeouts yet!), and with the experience of Dogtown behind him, he began to research this reverent tale of surfing — a sport he admits to love even more than skateboarding.
The result is the awesome Riding Giants, a heartfelt story that answers the age-old question: why do people devote their entire lives to riding waves? The film narrates the history of big wave surfing from Hawaii to California over the past 60 years through the experiences and interviews of three seminal figures in surf history — Greg Noll, Jeff Clarke, and Laird Hamilton — alongside intimate interviews with their peers.
Illustrating the sheer athleticism and mental dedication demanded by the ocean, Peralta’s film depicts the sport’s less obvious, more sensitive side. He explains: "These waves allow these particular surfers to experience an aspect of themselves that they cannot find anywhere else, because when you are out riding a wave with an 80-foot face … you have to be 1,000 percent present. Because if you are not, you can die."
The life-and-death story of Riding Giants took Peralta about eight months to piece together and, for the director, it proved to be as satisfying as finding gold. "The reason I like doing [documentary films] is because of the process of telling a story. I am learning about it myself, so it’s a journey of discovery all the way through," reflects the director. "And coming across these old surfers, it is like uncovering something, like you are taking the dust off of something that people haven’t been paying attention to. It is really rewarding."
Peralta’s attempt to articulate the elation of surfing not only offers an insider’s perspective into the alternative culture, but also establishes big wave surfing as a respectable sport and a true triumph in the ocean. Peralta identifies himself as a member of the surf "tribe" but he also belongs to a select group of masterful storytellers. Peralta uses personal experiences to make his documentaries emotional and honest, which — in a similar way to how he describes surfing — is a "moment of purity" in Hollywood’s often overdone film industry.
Riding Giants releases in theaters July 9.