Doug Pray is not a surfer, or a hip-hop DJ, or a graffiti artist. In fact, he claims to not be “cool” enough to participate in any of the subcultures he’s depicted in his documentary films thus far, which include Hype, the critically-acclaimed look into Seattle’s grunge-rock music scene, as well as the more recent Scratch and Infamy.
Pray’s latest effort, Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family, which premieres in New York on May 9th, chronicles the life of legendary surfer Doc Paskowitz and his decision to eschew societal norms and travel the country in a 24-foot camper while imparting his unique philosophies on health and well-being to his wife and nine children.
After a well-attended screening and lively Q&A at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival earlier this spring, Identity Theory‘s Alexandra Bullen cornered the director, determined to get to the bottom of just how cool-or-not Doug Pray really is.
You mentioned in the Q&A that you were initially reluctant to make Surfwise. Why?
I’m actually often reluctant to do the movies I’m doing at first, because it’s usually a subject I know nothing about. And I thought–surfing is such a sub-culture, it has history and coolness, and I love surfing, but I love it because I think it looks cool.
And I’ve never done a biography of anybody. I’ve never done a portrait of a man or a family. My other films, I’m very proud of them, but they tend to be detached emotionally because you’re not hanging in there with one character. I was so excited to tell one story about one family, that had a beginning, middle or end, you know, that you could involve yourself in emotionally. That was the biggest change.
And was there some fear about doing that?
No, I was really psyched about that. My other reluctance was not wanting to do a tribute film. I didn’t want to just do a “Hey, here’s this great surfer who was a part of the 1930’s original wave.”
Those movies are a specific genre, and they’re boring.
So you were reluctant to do the film because you didn’t know anything about surfing, but you’ve also said that you tend to be the most successful in projects where you are an outsider. Does that apply here as well?
Definitely. For example, if I had gone to surf camp, if I had grown up knowing the family–and there’s a lot of filmmakers who did–it biases you. You can’t really be objective. And I think it’s important to try to be objective. You can’t ever really be, ever. But you can try.
What was it that ultimately convinced you to make the film?
Without question, it was hearing about how tormented the kids felt. That fact that there were two fascinating stories here: There was this happy, incredible, Swiss Family Robinson story. This great man, and these great ideals and philosophies–and then there was the story of, “When is it too much?”
I’m a Dad, I have kids, and it’s like, when are you imposing your will on your children? And when is that beautiful and when is that not beautiful? This film embodied that so perfectly.
In other words, I got hooked when I realized this is a totally universal story. That’s all.
There definitely seems to be some backlash from the kids, now grown, about how they were raised. One scene in particular comes to mind, where David, the eldest son and a musician, plays you a particularly angst-ridden song he’s written about his father. It’s a very powerful moment in the film. How did that come about?
That was the very first day of filming on the entire movie.
Sometimes when you’re interviewing people it almost feels like therapy. Even though that wasn’t my intention and it’s not their goal, when you’re asking people to work through thoughts and histories and memories, you’re bringing them out of their shell–
Well, first of all, the Paskowitz’s don’t have a shell. That’s the first thing. Second of all, it was clear that David had a lot of pain and felt his story was really worthy. And it wasn’t like he told me, hey I want to sing this crazy song for you. We were literally in his office, and–he’s a songwriter, he’s a great, great musician–it just kind of came out.
It was just one of those great moments where I walked out and was like, we’ve definitely got a film. Because I knew that it went to a very disturbed place, and I also already knew there was a lot of happy, surf-camp-fun, inspirational stuff, too.
So you knew from early on that the story was going to take the shape of looking into both the good and the bad.
Absolutely. It had to. I wouldn’t have signed on if it was just going to be surf camp.
What was the process of editing the film like?
What was interesting about the project was that there was a lot of archival footage. First of all, the family was documented by the media throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and second of all, Doc just had stuff. He had 16 mm film of the family, or Super 8 film. They might have been poor but he still had cameras and documented the hell out of the entire experience.
It took forever to edit. The story of making this movie is so much more about editing than it is about shooting. Shooting to me was like going grocery shopping: we just went out, got the interviews, brought them back in. And then we struggled and sweat for a year in the editing room.
Doc clearly has some strong opinions about America and what we’re all doing wrong, but the film manages to walk a careful line the whole way through. You never really veer into Michael Moore territory, for example.
That’s intentional, for sure. I mean, Doc has really strong views on culture and health. His whole view can be boiled down to the word, “Health.” He just feels the whole country is unhealthy and therefore our policies and the way we live are just unhealthy.
But he’s not coming at it from a “green” or a hippie place. He’s coming at it strictly as a doctor saying our country is sick. And we need to be healthy and we need to eat right, we need to eat like animals and we need more sex. We need recreation and exercise. That’s his philosophy, so I wanted to present that.
But none of my films are political. I mean, you’ll find politics throughout them, but never is it an intentional, “I’m going to make a political film.”
You have to be really good to make those kinds of movies, and most of them aren’t. I mean, Michael Moore is the exception, and even he’s controversial.
What was the initial reaction from the family? Was everyone on board?
David was who I thought was going to be the hardest to get, because he was estranged from the family. But it just so happened that he was a huge fan of my other movies, Hype and Scratch, so that just opened that door. It was just plain luck.
Doc was the hardest one. Doc was the one who never wanted to have a movie made about him. He thought it was selfish. He was embarrassed.
He’s never seen the film, and doesn’t give a shit about me. Don’t get me wrong, he’s cooperative. But he’s doing it for [his wife] Juliette.
He’d always tell me, “I’m not doing this for you, Doug Pray. I’m doing this for Juliette.”
He’s still never seen the film?
He went to the premiere in Toronto and stayed out on a bench. The second night: he stayed out on a bench. And finally I started to realize, holy shit! He’s not going to see it.
I think he’s heard what’s in the movie, and I think he doesn’t want to hear that song.
There’s a family reunion that brings everyone together at the end of the film. Was that your idea?
No, it wasn’t my idea. The process of making the film I think made them go, look guys, we’re about to be back out there in front of the American public, let’s get our shit together. I really think they just kind of came together as a family.
People always ask that–not you — but they usually have a touch of cynicism. Like, “Did you just do that because it’s Hollywood?”
But you know, [the Paskwowitz’s] are very, very close. It was mainly just David who was really on the outs. So him coming back in the family was a really big deal.
I don’t feel any cynicism about the reunion happening. But I think a lot of people think documentaries are just sort of these things, like flies on the wall. And that is just total bullshit. People know there’s a camera, and it’s going to affect them. You have a relationship with the subject. Sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it’s very destructive.
In this case, the movie affected the family.
In a positive way, overall?
Definitely. I mean, they’re still battling over other issues. If I could share with you all the emails I get on a daily basis from the Paskowitz family. It’s so funny. It’s like I now have nine brothers and sisters.
The number of times I’ve wished there were just three people in the family. When we were editing I was like, “Whoa.”
How did you come to filmmaking?
I was one of those people who just kind of loved art, loved music, loved acting. But I didn’t like film. I didn’t grow up studying or appreciating it. I never went to the movies, my family just didn’t do that. It just was a way to combine all my other interests.
I went to liberal arts college, studied sociology because it was the easiest major, and then I went to film school at UCLA.
And you immediately started making documentary films?
Not at all. I thought I’d be like a writer or director or something. It’s funny, I never took a single documentary class at all.
When I got out of film school, there was sort of this realization like, “Oh my God, I have to make this happen.”
You don’t get jobs out of film school. Nobody ever says, “Oh, did you go to UCLA? I have a fine position for you.”
So I ended up doing a documentary just because I had some really good connections up in Seattle to the bands up there.
So Hype was your first film?
Hype was my first film. Life is kind of great that way, it’s never what’s in front of you, it’s always, you just back into it. And all of a sudden I was making this documentary, and I got so into it and it took so many years to make, and it did well, you know, it went to Sundance. It worked.
So I was like, well let’s do another one.
I read that your film Scratch happened because you met one of the Beastie Boys. Do you often get ideas for your movies through meeting people, or is it a concept that speaks to you first?
I’ve never come up with the idea for any of my movies. It’s always been a producer coming to me and saying, “We should do this.”
That’s why getting my first film made was so essential. Because I made Hype, I got to make Scratch. I’ve definitely leapfrogged from one project to the next.
When you’re interviewing a person for a film, how do you make them feel comfortable? Like you said, people always know when they’re being filmed. How do you get them to loosen up?
In terms of following people around, there’s just a curve. The first couple hours are always hard but then they get comfortable. You get better footage as shooting goes on.
The second thing is, it’s all about the approach. Everything about it has to be quiet, a quiet approach. That’s my technique, and I think it makes a huge difference.
I’m not trying to screw them over, and that’s why I could never do that bombastic, journalistic type thing, where you’re jumping out from behind the bushes. Never. I’d be the world’s worst hardcore news journalist, because I want to have a relationship with these people from now until five years from now. I still want them to be able to say, you know, that was cool, I’m really glad I did that film. Even if they don’t necessarily like how I’ve portrayed them, I want them to feel like it was respectful.
And has that been the case so far?
Generally. I don’t have any real regrets. But I definitely take grief from other documentary filmmakers who think I’m wimpy, who think I’m not hard-hitting enough. So you pay the price.
Has there ever been an instance where you’re interviewing somebody and you just hit a wall? What do you do when someone shuts down?
Get the hell out of there!
No, I don’t know. Just keep trying. Get them to do something, get them out of the formal interview.
Actually, it’s more like, I’ll just share with them my frustration. I’ll say look, I’ve gone through a lot of trouble to get here, I know you want to be in this movie, I need your help. I’ll just talk to them honestly.
There’s another little trick–and it is a trick–I’ll always say: “This is your interview. If you say anything that you regret, or don’t like, all you have to do is let me know.”
I’ve never been called on that once in my whole career. Nobody’s ever called me and said, “I shouldn’t have said that.” Because from that moment on, they forgot the problem.
So it’s not really a trick, then.
No, it’s not. Because it’s true, and it really goes a long way. It’s a trust thing.
In terms of being an outsider and how it affects your work, is there any subculture you’re too familiar with? Something you wouldn’t want to make a movie about?
That’s really interesting. Yeah: Documentary Filmmaking. They’re the worst interviews in the world. They know exactly where you’re going.