I grew up south of cool, which is to say I grew up at the south end of San Onofre, where I looked anxiously upon the surfers who parked their great, dilapidated transporter vans at the north end of the dirt lot. Resting wheel well to wheel well, the vehicles formed an impenetrable wall before the sea. From my position, I watched as drivers draped in thrift store velour laid beautiful, hand-crafted boards across the berm.
Alex Knost. Robin Kegel. Jared Mell. For many, the alternative craft movement of the late 2000s was a renaissance only transmitted and absorbed through blogs, magazines, and film. But for those of us lucky enough to call San Onofre home, we could stare and listen in the flesh, in broad daylight. Proximity gave us hope for replication. We were not content with admiration but strove for a deeper engagement with our heroes. We too wanted to be cool.
My personal trials included blacking out the logo on my wetsuit, a left-handed haircut, the disposal of my leash, the omission of sunblock, and a dutiful prescription of black coffee to stain my orthodontist’s legacy. Cool, I observed, did not give a shit. And having given a shit for most of my life, I was disappointed to find that much work needed to be undone.
As for that which could not be seen from the peripheral, I turned to cinema. Like many I studied the great Thomas Campbell and revered the lauded Bruce Brown, but when the tattered curtains and dusty windshields of the transporters impeached my vision, I looked most of all to the films of Jack Coleman. Not only did his movies feature the very waves I surfed everyday, but through his perspectives, Coleman worked as an intermediary for those devotees who lacked the audacity necessary to cross the threshold between cool and uncool, which separated us
Once or twice I actually spotted the filmmaker, free to move about the festival of resin, mold, and sweet delice. His platinum hair hung long as he observed and documented. Initially I envied him, just as I envied everyone who had access to that world. Eventually, giving up my hopes of ever being cool, I moved farther down the beach to look for a less precarious fraternity. I must admit, however, even then and even now, never did I break the habit of looking over my shoulder, nor fail to imagine Coleman’s camera focused on my line: a reflection of myself, cropped by a lens and burned into Super 8 Kodachrome played backwards.
Like so many years ago, I’m still waiting, swiveling between scrutiny and anticipation from west to north, between the mediocre windswell and the curve in the dirt road. I meet Coleman in the Sano parking lot on a near-empty, out-of-season Wednesday in January. I expect a spectacle and entourage, but a “Here” text lets me know the filmmaker has arrived without even drawing notice.
Stepping out of a silver 4Runner to shake my hand, he lowers his glasses and exposes his eyes to the flat winter light. His ensemble speaks in discord. It is not fit for winter, not even in Southern California. His unbuttoned floral shirt, gym-cut trunks, and tropic bronze are offset by the only item of his clothing baring a logo: a pair of porous, marine-blue Crocs worn not as a parody but for practicality. His hair is cut short. As he moves clear of the driver’s seat I catch sight of his board lounging through the center of the car: a 9’4″ soft top, its fins replaced with hand-foiled side bites.
Perhaps, I think, my assumptions were wrong. Perhaps, Jack Coleman isn’t that cool.
“Jeez,” he says, turning toward the beach. “I haven’t been down here in a long time.”
The current state of the shoreline is a surprise to anyone (cool or not). An alignment of king tides and solid swell has resulted in steady erosion of San Onofre. Locals measure time no longer by months but by the number of fallen palms.
“There’s only one left,” I say, assuming his reaction (like most people who have spent time away from Sano) is a result of the erosion.
“The palm?” he says. “Oh the palm. Right. Look at that. It’s almost gone.”
Since the release of his debut film, POLYESTER, in 2010, Coleman has produced a new film every one to two years, which is to say he’s been busy. And while all of them retain the same intimate qualities found in his early work, his continuous search for his own representation of surfing has created a filmography that acts something like an unconventional memoir.
From a young age, he tells me, he has occupied a position of synthesis. Fifth child of nine, raised between counties LA and Orange, his first exercise in creating something for an audience involved the same generational merging by machinery he would rediscover 20 years later in motion film.
“Mixtapes,” he says, “that was my thing. I would sit for hours and hours. Fugazi, Minutemen, NOFX, Dharma Bums, The Dead Milkmen. Do you know how precise you’d have to be to get it right? I would give tapes to all my friends. When I found I could give joy in the tapes, it became an extension of myself. It’s funny. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s where it all started.”
The manifestation of Jack Coleman, maker of surf movies, would take much longer to realize and involve a number of stops and starts in personal adjustments.
At first, his attraction to the ocean was the prime influence of his movements. “La Mirada, where I grew up, was too far from the sea,” he says. “As soon as I turned 17, I left home and never looked back.”
“How far is too far?” I inquire.
“Any distance is too far,” he answers.
To facilitate his desire, he attended San Diego State. Living in Mission Beach, he made the ocean his priority. When offered a modeling contract, a disinterest in general education made the decision to drop out rather easy. “I wanted to travel and saw modeling as my only opportunity to do so,” he says.
Coleman did catalogs, runways, and showrooms. In a reversal of his progression shoreward, he then relocated to Europe. “For about a year I lived in Milan, building my book,” he says. “By no means setting the industry on fire, I was usually cast as ‘The Cali Surf Guy.’ Totally low level work. From Milan I moved to Munich, Germany, where the Eisbach River wave became my sanctuary. I spent days sitting and watching, borrowing boards when I could.”
Coleman found much more exposure in Germany than Milan, landing a few television gigs. But in all three years spent working abroad, the most important moment came when one photographer suggested Coleman should try making his own photographs. He purchased a “little point and shoot” and began experimenting.
“At first I wanted to be a portrait photographer,” he says, recounting his early tendency to focus on the subject. “Maybe there’s some kind of a correlation between my initial interest to the way I shoot surfing—trying to show the surfer’s personality in a non-narrative way.”
His love for the “other side of the lens,” combined with an acute need for the ocean, inevitably drove him to abandon his modeling life. “At the end of my days in front of the camera, I did a five-month stint in New York, scraping by and living on the floor in the back room of my agency. By that time I just missed the beach too much and had to pull the plug.”
With a new plan to pursue a career in photography, he returned to Southern California where he found residence in Huntington Beach. Then, waking one morning to find his roommate’s girlfriend staring blankly with a syringe dangling from her arm, he scrapped Huntington for Newport/Costa Mesa, which would serve as his home base and test lab for the next twenty years.
“At the beginning,” he says, “I was the total working photographer. I shot watches, models, fashion. Everything.”
During that process, however, Coleman became increasingly sensitive to his limited understanding of the camera. “On a whim, I submitted my portfolio to the Art Center in Pasadena and they actually said, ‘Yeah, we want you.’”
For next three years, he juggled an education alongside the rigorous grind of commercial freelancing and his love for surfing. It was a recipe for stress but, as usual, Coleman would find the key to one door laying under the welcome mat of another. Thanks to observations made on commercial shoots, he began to shift from still to motion photography. “It’s much harder to make a situation look natural and perfect when it’s allowed to move, and for this reason far fewer people were attempting to capture video content at the time.”
In 2009, at the conclusion of his junior year, he traveled to southern Costa Rica on a surf trip. In his luggage, he decided to pack several of his Super 8 cameras. Recording his journey through the lush jungles of Mato Palo, Coleman was ambushed by epiphany. “One day a tree spoke to me,” he says.
I look from him to the surf to the palm. As though he can read my mind, he immediately triggers assurance.
“It wasn’t a psychedelic experience,” he says. “But the tree really did speak.”
“What did the tree say?” I ask.
“The tree said, ‘Jack, go make surf movies.’ It was simple.”
The trip to Costa Rica provided Coleman with the material for his first surf edit, Sombras. “This was before I linked up with a surfer worth shooting,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t even worried about that. I just loved being out there. Looking back, that was the beginning of falling in love with throwing myself into another culture.”
Though it wasn’t released to the public until after POLYESTER, in 2012, the edit led to Coleman’s decision to leave the Art Center just 20 units from graduation. He also began turning down commercial work to focus as much energy as possible ino the creation of surf films.
“Some of my friends thought I was crazy for giving up that life,” he says. “They were like, ‘Dude you get to shoot pictures of naked chicks! You have the best job ever!’ But once I realized the trappings of the freelance hustle— chasing money and being tied down to an expensive living arrangement—I was over it.”
Trading in his apartment for aroom in a warehouse that served as the practice space for the Costa Mesa band The Growlers, Coleman shot the group’s early years in exchange for rent. “That’s when everything really started to boil,” says early collaborator and subject Alex Knost, referring to both Coleman and the North County artistic climate. “There were these cheap warehouses where people could live, play music, shape boards, and make films. A couple bars let local rock bands play or spin records, groups like The Flying Saucers, Matt McCluer, The Blank Tapes. Robin Kegel moved Gato Heroi to Superior Avenue, and just down the street The Growlers converted another warehouse into an esoteric, squat recording studio. Blackies had just as many teenagers hanging ten and shaping their own boards as 54th street had riding for Hurley. So there were plenty of pranksters, punks, and creatures for Jack to film, photograph, and hone his craft.”
For the next several years Coleman continued to shoot surfing, but spent equal time traveling across the country with The Growlers, gathering material he would later edit in a tiny closet under the stairs. “I’d stop and look in there,” says Knost, “and sort of tiptoe into a layer of Third World music, chain-smoked cigarettes, and footage either from a recent tour or an Animal House-style party they threw three- to five-nights a week.”
Coleman’s eerily nostalgic presentation of the blossoming band coupled with an aesthetic now referred to as “beach goth” gave The Growlers a unique identity. “I could have stayed with The Growlers,” Coleman says, picturing an alternate destiny. “But that’s not what I wanted.”
Just as Knost was subtly observing Coleman at work in his editing closet, Coleman was keeping close tabs on the strange things Knost was up to in the water. “Many times Alex didn’t even know I was shooting,” says Coleman. “Whenever I went to Blackies, I brought a camera and a board.”
If Knost was out, Coleman chose the camera. But Knost was initially hesitant about the topic of working on a project together. “I was surfing everyday,” says Knost, “and I started shaping all my own boards at Wave Tools on Placentia. I would wake up around 4 o’clock in the morning and wrestle with a surform and second quality blank. Then I’d surf Newport, trying out these crude renditions of cut down, transition era boards. I was also getting into smoking weed and I was extremely paranoid. I would avoid giving him an answer about the movie and squirm out of it whenever he brought it up. Then one day he showed me what he was working on. It was fucked up enough to where I wasn’t self conscious, and I liked that it was shot without my knowing.”
Eventually ordaning the project POLYESTER, Knost and Coleman began filming and editing together. The title arrived from their respective working materials: polyester resin and celulose acetate, better known as surfboard resin and movie film. Financing the production out of his own pocket, Coleman spent the next year shooting in Mexico and Southern California.
With their sketchbook quality, POLYESTER and his next film, 2012’s Happy Beach, demonstrated that longboard and shortboard surfing could be successfully fused and presented outside the shadow that is Thomas Campbell. Applying tints and animation to inventive perspectives, Coleman also loosely tied image and sound, allowing psychedelic tracks to bridge separate segments, which broke viewers’ expectations of how a surf movie should be made. Whereas other filmmakers displayed only the best waves, Coleman’s debut movies presented an unprecedented yet tasteful exposition of reality. Not every wave is perfect, not every surfer shreds all the time. Searching for trim is a storyline in and of itself in his films, and one all surfers can relate to. Some critics, however, interpreted his early work as lazy and unjust.
“We would laugh about how much we could slow down moments like a kick out or fall,” says Knost. “It was probably something only we would like, but we didn’t even think about that.”
Bringing up the obvious differences between POLYESTER and subsequent projects like Happy Beach and Secret Sound Underground (2013), versus the far more selective editing of his latest films, Groove Move (2014) and The Zone (2016), I ask Coleman if he has any regrets.
“Regrets?” he considers, crossing his arms. “Absolutely not. But there are definitely some things I won’t repeat. Happy Beach, for example, was my attempt at a shortboard movie. While shooting Alex for POLYESTER, I also collected a bunch of footage of Ford [Archbold] and Andrew [Doheny]. It was fun, but there were some things in there…I was still partying. I wasn’t really considering the potential implications. Surfing is pure and I want my movies to be pure, too. I also started dabbling with digital in late 2013 when I decided to get serious about shooting more surfing. I felt that I was being held back by the limitations of the equipment. But it was a slow assimilation and progression. While shooting for what I thought was my first attempt at a more pure film, Groove Move, I had digital footage that was ready but in the end decided that I still wanted to make an analog movie. After it was released, I knew it was time and I started making digital shorts. Personally, I felt no drop off in how the surfing was being projected and perceived, so it became more and more relevant in my work. It was almost as if people didn’t notice the change. I felt the effect of the film was the main purpose of my early work. When I moved to digital, the surfing became more of the focal point.”
Thomas Campbell, maker of The Seedling trilogy and 16mm stalwart, has accredited Coleman’s success not to the manipulation of analog footage, which he was initially recognized for, but rather to the foundation of all visual art—the eye. “I would attribute Jack’s success to his curatorial abilities,” says Campbell. “He knows who to shoot and the waves to shoot them on. It really comes down to taste, and Jack has good taste.”
Less easy for Coleman has been his decision to phase out certain surfers who once monopolized his lens. He’s recently strayed from the Newport scene, however, to record relatively unknown surfers such as Ari Browne and Rangi Ormond, as well as futurists like Derek Hynd and Bryce Young. Moving forward, his primary focus is now directed toward The Zone Frequency, the second installment, along with The Zone, in what he projects to be
A pause in our conversation comes as the first decent set pushes through the Point. Simultaneously, we pull our wetsuits from our respective cars. I paddle alongside Coleman as he floats well above the water on his soft top. “I never get the opportunity to ride the 9’4″ up in Newport,” he says. “It’s way too dumpy.
Remaining compressed, sliding to his ass, he jumps suddenly to his feet and races the crumbling runaway sections. Like his Crocs, there is nothing sarcastic in the way he sees or participates in the art of riding waves. His approach is anything but self conscious. Sincerity remains central.
I’m reminded of something Campbell said when I brought up the topic of the misconceptions built by surf movies, both in depiction of their filmers and their performers.
“In my opinion,” he said. “Any conception is a misconception.”
Just to be sure, before another set can sweep Coleman down the beach, I decide to ask one final question.
“Have you ever considered yourself cool, Jack?”
“Cool? God no,” Coleman says with a look of disbelief. “When I finally met Derek Hynd I could hardly speak. If anything I’ve always felt like an outsider.”