Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele

Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-1
Taylor Steele

What better profession for a man that doesn't like collecting physical things, than a life of collecting memories and passing them on to others through the medium of film and conversation. Taylor Steele and his group of willing talent have left an unforgettable mark on the surfing community, and after spending a few years enjoying broader life, he's pivoted back to the water, and across four different oceans to tell nine stories.

We sat with Taylor while he was staying in an inner-Sydney hotel waiting for the premiere of Proximity, to talk about the eight people he followed and the ninth person that he's become.
Okay Taylor, the first question is after having made so many memorable surf films over the years, is there a time period in which you would love to have been stuck in, kind of Groundhog Day style?
Interesting. Like in my own career or other histories?
I mean, when I reflect back on the films you have made like Momentum, Good Times, all the way up to the new ones, maybe there was a period of time when that you really felt connected with... And obviously, surfing has changed a lot over that period, including a transition of focus between Kelly and John John.
Ahh yes. Making films during the 90s was definitely an amazing time on all levels. The bands were staying at my house and playing pool, and the surfers were all staying there as well, and there was just this crazy synergy of everybody was all invested in it. Then when the movies came out, people watched them over and over again, and sometimes up to the next one, and sort of burned out that VHS tape. I loved that side of it, but it was also a blessing and a curse.
Was it broadly the whole 90s or was there a little bit of a bracket in there?
I would say the early 90s: '92, '93, '94...
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-2
Taylor Steele in Sydney, photographed by Toby Peet
Would you consider yourself foremost a creative or a business person?
Definitely a creative person over a business person.
Is that because you don't love business or maybe you don't mind the business side of it, you just prefer the creative side?
I really enjoy marketing and that element of the business, but to me any part where you're creating things and sparking new ideas I really resonate with. When I think of business, there's a lot of repetition and just grinding it out, and that part of it I'm not good at. I lose my way and I become bored with it. 
Has there ever been a moment when your creative vision has won even though it wasn't the best business decision?
Yeah. My new film Proximity is a good example of that. I fought against a more safe model, to do something that I was really creatively passionate about. 

"It is positive being different and being unique, and everybody's experiences make them who they are, and as a filmmaker you can bring those elements into your films."

Taylor Steele

Tell us a little bit about the film
I do a lot of non-surf stuff, commercials and high-stress, two-day shoots with 40 people on set, and creative directors and a lot of people working on this thing, with a lot of people to please, and so with this project I just really wanted to make sure I felt good about everything in it and felt connected to it and was the voice of it, and not really dictated by what's better for the market or what's better for the kids. If it was just something that felt good to me then I was happy with it, and if people don't like it, then that's fine.
What part of the film do you love the most?
Traveling and filming with the surfers is always super inspiring and it's really fun and light. I really enjoy that component, but when you're in the edit bay and you're creating and having to make decisions I feel super stimulated by it... I feel like every film that I've made up to that point is used at some point while making the new one.
Was there any new film equipment that you used, be that on the editing side of things, of a particular new camera?
Yeah. We used this GSS, a massive gyrostabilizer in really rough seas and it was amazing to have that just for a normal shot. It wasn't a tricky shot, but it just had this really nice perspective and angle that we could get that otherwise we wouldn't have got. To the viewer, it'll just look like I had a nice land angle, but for me it was like that angle makes the spot really "wow."
I assume you’re pretty comfortable travelling a lot these days? 
Especially over the four key locations in Proximity?
Yeah. There are four locations and each is sort of based off of the season
How many frequent flyers do you have?
I'm in the million mile club for one of the airlines
Nice. Then what about the distribution of films over all this time? You talked about the days of VHS which meant literally punching out tapes and sending them to surf shops around the world. I also remember being closely linked with Poor Specimen, which was such an iconic and known brand. How does distribution and Poor Specimen and all that kind of world work for you?
I'm probably not the best person to comment on the current trends for surf films as I'm not really a buyer of them. I ingest them via YouTube and some websites. For me that's the exact opposite of how I wanted Proximity to be distributed. I wanted to go against the webisode mentality of watching it, and then you're done with it. I went into it with the idea of trying to make it last longer, whether it stuck with you mentally or you went to the theatre and saw it first, or an art gallery showing that we do with photos and virtual reality, and just trying to get a reason to have you revisit the film.  My mentality was how do I get back to that 90s of having it last longer for you. If I'm going to spend over a year or two years on this project, how do I make it last more than one viewing? 
What do you think about Netflix and iTunes and Amazon and things like that as platforms?
I think all of those things are completely valid and they're a great way to watch things, but in the end it's disheartening for a filmmaker to feel like your stuff is disposable. I guess I'm fighting that tone or at least creatively trying to solve it so that it's not having that feeling of being disposable, and it has more of a feeling of substance. 
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-3
Scenes from Proximity. Stephanie Gilmore
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-4
John John Florence and Kelly Slater
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-5
Rob Machado in Japan
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-6
Shane Dorian
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-7
Kelly Slater
So what was your main motivation to make Proximity? Obviously, you spoke a little bit about wanting to go back to making films for the right reasons, but deep down is it because you just love...
I'll have to give a little bit of a long-winded answer on this, so just bear with me.
Great, go.
When I started surfing it was right after my parents bought a video camera for shooting home movies, and I just stole that camera and me and my friends would video each other for a half hour at a time. Surf films became just part of my surfing experience in my youth and just part of me, really. Even though I don't do surf films now, I think subconsciously I go back to them every, whatever, half a decade later just to reset myself, and centre my being, and this project sort of stemmed from that. I was doing a lot of commercials, really feeling like I had twenty bosses on every shoot, and I just wanted to just reset myself so that I can move back onto whatever I'm doing next and not really have an itch to make a surf film for a while. Once I started thinking about making a surf film, I wanted to be inspired and have surfers that were deeper and were more than just an athlete, and had something to say.
And then I just let my surf fans guide me on where to go with it.
Do you have an office or a place where you think of ideas, and what does it look like? What's your favorite thing in that space?
We've moved so much that I don't really have a proper office yet. I don't have anything that I really own. I'm trying to own less stuff.
Are you really? Overall in life...
Yeah. Surfboards are my exception though.
Of course. How many do you have?
I have probably 30. 
30. That's solid. What have you learned from other sports' films and what do you think your films have taught the broader sport's community? I’m thinking specifically about films like Travis Rice's, or other Red Bull films.
I'm super inspired by the camera work and the technical side of a lot of those other films out there. 
The work of Brain Farm?
Exactly, Brain Farm blows me away. John John's film, Travis Rice...there's so many. Teton Gravity has a bunch of bike movies that were really dynamic. For me, I guess it's about making a point of difference. People's opinions affect me, and I feel that, but it’s now starting to become my strength, and I'm using that as a way to tell stories. I'm okay with people reacting negatively to something that's maybe could be considered soft or not cool but tapping into my own personal feelings more, is my point of difference. 

"When I think of business, there's a lot of repetition and just grinding it out, and that part of it I'm not good at. I lose my way"

Taylor Steele

Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-8
Shane Dorian.
So you feel like you’re a lot more sensitive these days - Is that because of where you are in life, and from things that have happened in your life? I’m wondering how does that make you feel and how does that even come across into your films?
Yeah. I guess, growing older and having life experiences that teach you that it's okay to be different. It is positive being different and being unique, and everybody's experiences make them who they are, and as a filmmaker, you can bring those elements into your films. I think success has definitely been part of the confidence builder, to know I can take chances.  On a broader life level, having kids show you what's important in life. And that comes across in the films by just owning what kind of feelings and tempo and emotions are in it, and not sort of catering to outside sources on it. I had studios and producers involved, each with their opinions, but in the end, I really had to just look inside and decide, what do I feel? Do I feel anything from that scene? If so, then that should stay. If not, and even though it might be a nice image, if I don't feel it, then I don't care if the producers love it - I'm going to take it out.
Stealing Memories with Taylor Steele-9
John John Florence
What do you think the world needs more of? 
You know, I think the world needs a little bit more confidence - especially when you're young or in high school, and you're trying to fit into a group to feel accepted. I think being different is actually becoming more accepted and embraced by the world, because that's what makes change, and it's just such a freshness to have people that think differently and think from their feelings.
Is there a frustration you have about filmmaking or the surfing industry that you had an opportunity to radically change, what would that be and who would you ring to help make it happen?
Yeah - In my current headspace and on this film I've had to battle some battles to get it into a place I wanted it to be in. So I'm on the other side of it now, and I'm on the happy side of that. But during the '90s, success was my biggest frustration. I felt enslaved to repeating the same formula of the previous film, to the point where it made me hate it and I wanted to get out of making short films because I felt so stifled. And then I made Sipping Jetstreams, and that changed it all for me
I loved that film.
Thankyou. That really liberated me again, and since that liberation, I never wanted to go back to where I was appeasing someone else instead of myself. 
Okay, well thanks for your time Taylor. It’s been a pleasure - Speak soon
Let’s talk later, and thankyou. 

Portraits by Toby Peet
Keynote Talks