Typhoid, dengue fever, heartbreak, madness. Looking behind the scenes of Rob Machado's ill-fated 2009 biopic, "The Drifter."
By Nathan Myers
Light / Dark
The heaviest scene we shot never made the movie.
Rob Machado is lying on a bed in a rundown Indonesian hotel room. Brown and shirtless. Leather muscle and bird bones. Tired eyes and cubist features. Hair like a fever overwhelms a yellowing pillow.
He doesn’t sweat. It’s not in his DNA. Our film crew has rigged a camera to the rafters, spying down through the ceiling fan as it navigates slow, hopeless revolutions. Everyone has left the room and now it’s only Machado and the director, Dustin Humphrey. It’s almost midnight.
Machado stares upward. Irritable. Impatient. Hollowed out and twisted.
“Just think about that other dude making love to your wife,” Humphrey says.
Machado’s eyes narrow.
A moment later he bolts upright from the bed. Like some enraged sleepwalker, he begins smashing the hotel room. He knocks paintings from the wall. Shatters a lamp. Overturns the mattress. He grabs a guitar from the floor. Puts the guitar through the TV.
We’re shooting a scene of course, very Apocalypse Now, for a surf film called The Drifter. Machado is going for an Oscar. A method actor in reverse. His character has become him. He pulls a knife. Humphrey hadn’t known about this particular prop. And that’s alarming. The whole scene feels like a runaway train.
Machado slashes the mattress. Grabs the pillow and disembowels it with one downward slash. Feathers splatter to the floor. He slams the knife into the wall and stares at the wreckage fluttering around him. Not a drop of sweat.
Humphrey’s eyes remain fixed on the monitor, the only barrier between him and the room he’s gotten himself into. Cameras still rolling. There’s no Rob Machado here at all.
Machado picks up the surfboard leaning in the corner, the only undamaged object in the room. He exits through the door and past the crew without a word.
We don’t see him again for the next two days.
The road is long. Longer than most. Three-thousand miles of Chilean coast and we’re looking for waves. Machado is at the wheel. Many a pro surfer would ride in the back and wait for their team nanny to point to the waves. Machado drives.
Filmmaker Taylor Steele rides shotgun. In charge of navigation and potato chips. He and Machado have been doing this together for 30 years. Same seats since high school. The Momentum Generation. Kelly Slater. Shane Dorian. Taylor Knox. Kalani Robb. Machado introduced them all. Steele calls Machado his muse. He calls him his friend.
Stirring conversation, Steele brings up The Drifter. It’s been almost ten years since he, Machado, and I worked on the film together. In the decade since, we’ve developed a long-running debate, half serious, half joke, about making a behind-the-scenes documentary. “Are we ever gonna do it?” Steele asks in the van.
He tosses these ad-libs out like gentle dares. Would you rather?
“You mean, tell people what happened?” says Machado. He’s grinning because that’s what started the trouble in the first place. Telling the truth. Trying to, at least.
From the backseat, Craig Anderson looks up from his book. “Why?” he asks. “What did happen?”
“See,” says Machado. “People wanna know.”
We’re here filming Steele’s final surf film (he claims). Proximity. The concept is to pair similar spirited surfers to see how they inspire each other. Machado and Anderson, for example. Two long-haired, laconic goofyfooters.
We veer off the road, down a dirt track, through a locked gate, and across an empty field to a dusty bluff. There we stand. Once again. Staring at the sea. Trying to align our Google Earth coordinates with the surging storm of reality before us. Big, mysterious lefts ghosting through the fog. Wind and dust.
Eventually, Machado and Anderson decide to suit up and give it a poke. It’s too hard to tell from here. How big? How current-swept? How cold?
Steele climbs to a high bluff and mounts his RED camera with the Civil War-era 600mm lens he’s used for decades. His signature look, he calls it.
“If we did do a Drifter documentary,”
I say, following Steele to his overwatch, “I’m not sure what good it does anyone.”
Steele doesn’t answer. Not for a while. He’s filming Machado and Anderson crossing the beach. Entering the cold ocean. The waves are bigger than they appeared from the hill. They always are.
I was along for the ride on The Drifter. I know as well as anyone what went wrong. I also know it reopens a can of worms best left shut. Depending who you ask, Machado’s 2009 biopic was either an ambitious yet misunderstood surf film…or a parody of itself.
No one knows this better than the director.
“When Rob and I made Drifting,” says Steele, referring to another, less-infamous Machado biopic they made in 1996, “I interviewed him about his family and he actually started crying. That’s how much he loves them. And when his wife left, he was destroyed.”
Out in the water, Machado and Anderson are getting clobbered. Huge sets. Relentless currents. They disappear down the coast.
“We did The Drifter to give him something else to focus on,” Steele says. “But then things just got weirder.”
Machado and Anderson are gone. Swallowed by the fog and foam of the Chilean currents. A moment later, they reappear. Jogging back up the beach. They trot past their previous entry point and paddle out further up the sweep.
“Whether people liked it or not didn’t really matter,” Steele says. “It rebooted his career. For him, it kind of rebooted everything.”
I remember sumba. I remember Machado waist-deep in muck, pounding a shovel into the earth while the waves were pumping. I remember thinking he’d lost his mind.
But memory is unreliable. We tell ourselves the stories we need to hear. Photos and videos should be less variable, but they lie as well. In my present day interviews into what happened on The Drifter, recollections varied widely. Each narrator suited their own narrative. Myself included. I can only do my best to put these pieces back together in my own broken way.
At the time of its release, The Drifter was the most anticipated movie of its era. A heralded director. An absurd budget. Released at the height of Bali’s next-wave surf explosion with backing from Warner Brothers Studio. The film seemed destined for some level of Endless Summer meets Searching for Tom Curren credentials in the surf cinema pantheon.
That didn’t happen. The ingredients were all there. Stunning cinematography. Hit music. The best surfing of Machado’s storied career. But something about The Drifter left audiences scratching their heads. What did they just witness? Fake reality TV? Bad acting? A mockumentary unaware? In a way it was all of those things.
So they pondered. They quibbled. And then they moved on. The Drifter was forgotten. It was not the greatest movie ever.
But some of us didn’t forget. Some of us knew exactly what happened.
After our trip to Chile, I began revisiting the genesis of The Drifter on the notion that maybe we should make that documentary about our not-a-mockumentary.
It begins with Bali in 2007. For a bunch of West Coast surfers, the Indonesian archipelago offered what our parents had chased to Southern California—an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Huntington Beach photographer Dustin Humphrey had moved there a few years earlier, following initial feral forays with Travis Potter and the Turner brothers. The Steele family relocated to Bali after working with Humphrey on their ambient surf travelogue Sipping Jetstreams. It proved the ideal region to host, film, and entertain pro surfers.
Machado and his Reunion Island-born wife, were going through a rocky patch in their marriage, so Steele invited them to come stay with him for a while. A change of scenery. Machado and Steele each had two daughters and decades of history together.
Machado had just finished a year of working with longboard filmmaker Cyrus Sutton, only to have the project derailed by a legal battle over ownership. While filming for Steele’s new action montage, Stranger Than Fiction, Humphrey recalls talking extensively with Machado about making another film. “That footage is dated already,” Humphrey told Machado. “Why not just start fresh over here?”
Machado stewed on the idea.
“Then Rob came back from a trip,” recalls Humphrey. “And he said, ‘My wife’s gone rogue. What do I do?’”
During the long days shuttling between the once-remote village of Canggu to the waves at Uluwatu, the pair conspired to turn Machado’s midlife crisis and looming divorce into a surf movie. Machado would wander across Indonesia with various friends, facing demons both in and out of the water. It would be the first “dark” surf movie, they thought. And in the end, surfing would save his soul.
“In hindsight,” says Humphrey, “maybe a surf movie about divorce was too big of a leap. But at the time we really believed we were pushing the limits.”
Humphrey is a man of ambitious vision. Inspired by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, he built a reputation for imbuing exotic travel and portraiture into his surf imagery—a rare sense of storytelling in an action-obsessed genre. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he loved to say. It could have been the tagline of The Drifter. But Humphrey had another idea in mind, cribbed from Tolkien’s description of the rootless king of Middle Earth: “Not all who wander are lost.”
At the time, Steele was finishing Stranger Than Fiction. Pure action. Dash of comedy. Nothing new. But if you watch closely, there’s a subtle shift in Machado’s surfing midway through his section. Before his wife left him, you can see the old “competitive” surfer slicing and smashing turns for phantom judges on the beach. Afterward, it’s mostly barrels, in which Machado seems to be more at home inside of than out.
His last ride in particular, out at Uluwatu, doubles up over the shallow inside reef with a closeout section barreling toward him. Instead of pulling out, Machado knifes straight into the heart of it. The wave explodes with 20 feet of whitewater. Then he comes scything out of the foam unscathed. Surfing as though it were an offering to the gods. Surfing as therapy.
Producer Bob Hurley doesn’t recall any mention of “dark surf movies” in the run-up to The Drifter’s production. Considering their history together, the proposal for a Machado/Steele film was an easy call. The only hitch was that Steele couldn’t film it. He was busy with two other movies. But Steele vouched for Humphrey’s vision—his photographic eye and passion for travel and narrative had been the key ingredients to their genre-bending collaboration Sipping Jetstreams—and he vowed to see it through as producer. What could go wrong?
The budget was approved—let’s call it half a million—and Hurley met the crew at the renowned Nihiwatu resort on the island of Sumba to break ground on another project, part of Hurley’s new H2O charity, to build a well for a local village.
Sumba is a primal place. The locals wear swords and use buffalo as currency. They build their villages on hilltops for better defense, and the women march for hours each day up and down the slopes to fetch water for cooking and cleaning. The well would be a salvation for them.
For Machado, however, the well became a shallow grave for his broken-hearted despair. He stood waist-deep in the mud, slamming the shovel into the gray earth with unconscious abandon. The waves were pumping. He stayed to dig. That was the first sign that something was off. Machado doesn’t remember this incident. He looks at the photos of himself plastered in mud and shrugs. “You know that Jim Carey movie Yes Man,” he says, “where he gets cursed and can’t say no to anything? That’s how I was.”
The crew drove back to the hotel to charge batteries, clear memory cards, and eat. Machado stayed behind in his tent. The plan was for everyone to return at dawn to film at sunrise and he didn’t want to pile into a car with the crew anymore. He wanted to be alone. Here on this remote, malaria-addled island, with no transportation and no communication. He warmed ramen noodles over a fire, then crawled into his tent and cried.
“That was one of the darkest points of my entire life,” he says. “Back in America I had this whole vision of how my life was supposed to be. I’d just finished building my dream house on the beach. Wife and kids. Long walks. So I wanted to know how the fuck did it come to this?”
A Little History
The first two minutes of The Drifter bundle Machado’s pro surfing career into a tidy montage. He high fives Kelly Slater at Pipeline. Bitches about crowds at the U.S. Open. Gets chaired up the beach as a Pipe Master. Renowned. Injured. Ousted. Disappointed. And done. Ten years of nonstop travel. Circling the globe. Battling. Competing. Throughout the 90s, the tour had as many as 25 stops worldwide. Hamster wheels and paddle battles. Competition was everything. Machado always finished near the top.
Today people associate Machado with his communion with the ocean. Iconic cruiser. Relaxed and soulful. But in his tour days, he was a weapon. The Momentum crew counted Machado as their best chance of unseating Kelly Slater. His surfing was a quick, surgical attack. Smooth, yes. Chill, nope.
In addition to the tour, there was constant filming for Steele’s annual high-performance releases. Momentum II. Focus. The Show. Loose Change. Campaign. Campaign II. Machado’s time at home was just enough to sticker his boards and feed his pets. Just kidding. No pets. God no. No time for that.
Pro surfing was reborn in the image of the Momentum Generation. Machado’s unlikely circle of friends had taken over the tour, the magazines, the industry. They were starting brands, dictating trends, and dominating headlines. In 2000, Machado finished third in the world. The following year, he broke his hand in the early part of the season. Then the events of September 11th caused the pro tour to cancel the second half entirely. After a decade in the top ten, Machado finished dead last.
At the injury wildcard meeting held that winter in Hawaii, which was decided, oddly enough, by fellow competitors, there were two openings to go around. Kelly Slater, returning from sabbatical, claimed one of them. A vote was held to see who should receive the other, Machado or Shane Dorian. Rumor had it that Machado was burned out and considering leaving the tour anyway. Anticompetition. He’d been documented complaining about it, most notably in Jack McCoy’s West Oz Billabong Challenge film shortly after winning the event.
Supporting the rumor, Machado couldn’t attend the wildcard meeting due to the birth of his daughter. His friend Dan Malloy read a prepared statement on his behalf. The surfers voted. Machado’s competitive surfing career was over.
Nobody told him. The news broke via the coconut wireless. He was eating breakfast with his dad on the North Shore. Someone came over to him at the Haleiwa Café and said, “Sorry to hear about not getting the wildcard vote, man.”
Then his sponsor declared bankruptcy.
No tour. No sponsor. New kid. Now what?
The freedom gave Machado time to think. He reflected on the paths of his heroes. Occy. Tom Curren. Gerry Lopez. They all walked away from competition to accomplish more with their surfing. Over the next few weeks, he took two big meetings. The first with surfwear tycoon Dick Baker at the corporate offices of a newly regurgitated OP. Baker showed Machado a spreadsheet full of carrots. Get back on tour: one carrot. Win an event: two carrots. Win a title: bunch of carrots.
“I never liked carrots,” says Machado. “I’m naturally motivated.”
Next he met with the founder of a new apparel company called Hurley. Bob Hurley asked him, “What do you want to do?”
Machado knew the answer. He explained how he could get more exposure doing magazine trips and film projects. Waves instead of ratings points. Hurley wrote a number on a piece of paper and pushed it across the table. “We’d love to see you just be you,” he said. “Now, I’m going to Tavarua. You wanna go to Tavarua?”
Machado went to Tavarua.
The ripples were already in the water. Artsy, globe-trotting surf films like Litmus and Thicker Than Water echoed the anticompetitive, hippie ethos of the 60s and 70s. The second coming of Free Ride and Morning of the Earth. Free surfing—and getting paid for it. Bingo.
But you needed a project. That was the ticket. To freesurf effectively, you needed a something that was not surfing. The Malloy brothers grew beards and surfed Antarctica. Ozzy Wright painted rainbow bats and sang punk songs alongside his stunt-rock airshow. Eco shepherd Dave Rastovich spoke fluent dolphin. Machado, who already played music, took photos, painted, and grew afros visible from space…just relaxed into his own sideshow.
His first project was filming for Thomas Campbell’s Sprout, alongside Skip Frye and Joel Tudor. If surfing was having a flashback, Campbell owned a time machine. “Thomas called me and said he wouldn’t even film me if my shorts hung past my knees,” says Machado. “I had to have Hurley make some custom.”
In Sprout, Machado rode single-fins and even a longboard—and felt reborn. He didn’t ride a conventional thruster again for years. “I was really taken by something Skip Frye said to me during that time,” he says. “That the perfect ride included everything from the drop-in to the kick-out. Trying to capture one perfect ride… you could chase that idea your whole life.”
The Japanese call it ensō. The art of drawing a perfect circle, again and again. Never quite perfect. Paddle out and try again. That was Machado’s Zen-master mantra.
And so it went. Project to project. Boat trip to boat trip. Wild cards and one-offs. He didn’t film with Steele much during these years. Progression had progressed. Mick Fanning. Andy Irons. Dane Reynolds.
Machado was now the elder statesman. Gracefully maturing toward impending retirement. “Legend” status. He started a foundation. Played in a band. Made another daughter. He bought land and began building his dream home overlooking Cardiff Reef.
In 2006, he won a specialty event at Pipeline. Then he won the U.S. Open in Huntington Beach. Almost by accident, he found himself within striking distance of World Tour requalification. “That freaked me out,” he says. “I avoided entering any more events that year.”
He’d been filming with longboard auteur Cyrus Sutton on a project called Left. As mentioned, that project reached a stalemate. So Machado brought his family to Bali to shoot with Steele and D.Hump for Stranger Than Fiction and Castles In The Sky. After a few months, he traveled with his daughters to visit his wife’s family in Reunion, then rerouted solo to Hawaii to record voice-overs for an animated film about surfing penguins.
And that’s where he got the call from his wife.
“It’s over,” she said.
She’d found someone else.
She sent him a photo of the new guy with their kids.
Machado didn’t leave his hotel room for three days.
Diary of a Yes Man
As much as I knew about his public persona, I had no idea how lost Machado was until he handed me his journal. It was my first day in Bali. I arrived the night before with my world on my back. Quit my desk job at Surfing magazine, sold everything I owned, and moved to the Island of the Gods.
You step off the plane and the tropics just hit you. Jungle heat and motorbike rumble. Third World clutter and sprawl against black-sand beaches and rainbow reefs. Rice paddies and plastic fires. Cockfights and street dogs. Adventure. So much adventure.
I took three meetings my first day, all with the same three people. Machado, Steele, and Humphrey. For the comedy skits in Steele’s Stranger Than Fiction, I wrote a part casting Machado as a witness protection informant exposing pro surfing as a hoax. “Once you pull the wool over people’s eyes,” he confessed, “there’s no turning back.”
For Steele and Humphrey’s Sipping Jetstreams follow-up, Castles in the Sky, I wrote a little fable for Machado’s section: There once was a man who became unstuck in the world. He took the wind for a map. He took the sky for a clock. And he set off with no destination. He was never lost.
And then for The Drifter, Machado handed me his journal and said, “Here.”
It took me days to even open it. He and I weren’t childhood buddies. I couldn’t distinguish “famous Machado” from “human Machado.” I still thought there was a difference.
The journal was full of stuff I didn’t want to know about. It told me that after his wife took his kids and shacked up with another man, after debilitating breakdowns, after struggling just to get up and walk out of his hotel room, Machado entered a paddleboard race.
The Molokai Challenge is serious business. Twenty-five miles of open ocean between Maui and Molokai. Machado had no support crew. No follow boat. No training. No snacks. He had to borrow a board.
Someone said, “Do you want to enter this paddle race?”
And the Yes Man answered.
His plan was to follow the pack. Maybe bum some of their food. Four hours into the race, he found himself utterly alone. Unsure of which direction to paddle. He got sideswiped by a swell and lost his water bottle. “After that I just sat on my board crying,” he recalls. “I was so tired. Total rock bottom. Just thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”
He survived. Somehow. Then a friend asked him to join a six-man sailing canoe race from the Big Island to Maui. “The last place I wanted to be was alone with my thoughts,” says Machado. “So I would just say yes to any suggestion.”
The race was two days and 80-miles long. “I kept wondering why they even called it a sailing race,” he says. “All we did was paddle.” Even this was better than returning to his new house in Cardiff. The empty bedroom. Empty kids rooms. Sad sunsets beyond his bamboo picket fence.
“It was like a trap I’d built for myself,” he says. “At night I’d turn off all the lights, cover the kitchen table in giant pieces of paper and just doodle. Song lyrics. Cartoons. Sometimes just circles. Endless circles. People thought I was losing my mind. I’d be like, ‘Yeah, grab a pen and jump in.’”
He’d board trains with no destination. Forget to eat. Talk to strangers. At dusk, he’d paddle toward the horizon. No idea if he was coming back. “I’d paddle until I could barely see the land anymore and just sit there under the stars for hours,” he says. “A friend saw me heading out after sunset one day and was convinced I was committing suicide.”
At least he had surfing. No matter how dark things got on land, he could always paddle out. Then he broke his ankle at Seaside. That was bad. When it healed, he flew to Bali. Now here he was. A total mess. Handing me his journal.
The pages terrified me. Letters to his daughters. Confessions of his despair. He was in the deepest hole of his life. And we were going to capture it all on film. The first ever “dark surf movie.”
All we needed was a script.
Lights, Camera, Action
At this point, Humphrey had lived in Indonesia for more than a decade. And this was the worst surf season he’d ever seen. But the budget was approved. The deadline was set. Steele flew off to America to release Stranger Than Fiction. And D.Hump was in charge.
Every ripple of Indian Ocean energy was scrutinized and dissected by an unprecedented brain trust of veteran archipelago tube hunters. Balinese local Rizal Tanjung. Intrepid swell-chaser Mikala Jones. Travis Potter. The Turner brothers. They all calculated the wind, tide, and swell angle over a span of some 17,000 islands and rolled the dice.
Humphrey wanted The Drifter to traverse the entire archipelago. He knew its in and outs as well as anyone. It was tattooed on his arm, in fact. He had detailed mood boards for Machado’s clothes, his boards, his hair, and, most of all, his custom motorcycle. He ordered one of the first-ever RED cameras (unit #9). He imported Steele’s longtime, Hollywood-trained cinematographer (and the secret weapon behind Sipping Jetstreams) Todd Heater, along with assistant cinematographers Jeff Bastion and Roman Bellisario. There were new trucks, packed Pelican cases, board bags, itineraries, and budgets. A dozen imported crew members had taken up residence in Humphrey’s house, cohabitating with his one-year-old son and Indonesian wife.
And then they pushed.
Up before dawn. Back after dark. All day drives and overnight ferries. Machado rode the motorbike whenever possible, partly to create personal space, and partly because he was fast becoming the character in the film. He’d surf all day, then ride back to his tent on the lawn behind Steele’s house. But the swells were fickle that year.
“When you’re scoring waves,” says Humphrey. “Everyone’s spirits are high. Everyone’s high fiving and buying each other beers. When the waves are bad, it’s hard to celebrate anything.”
They chased a swell to Sumatra with Timmy and Ryan Turner. Using only narrow wooden fishing boats to capture the true spirit of Indo travel, they bashed a huge broadside swell to reach a cluster of outer islands, only to find the swell gone missing. For days. Instant noodles and smelly eggs. Make your own shade. Barely enough room to sleep in your boardbag.
At night, they’d tie the boats together to keep from floating off. They’d drift apart, then crash back together. All night long. Finally, Machado jumped up in the dark, fired up the ski, and threaded a keyhole in the reef by the light of his headlamp. He dragged his boardbag up the beach and slept in the jungle.
“The only shots we got on that trip were of me losing my mind,” he recalls. “And we had plenty of those already.”
If The Drifter contained great waves, it’s only because Humphrey wrung every drop of swell out of that season like water from a fistful of cactus. And because Machado surfed them all like a man possessed.
Each trip included friends. Fellow freesurfers wandering. The plan was to ask each of them to help Machado heal and overcome his tragedy through the therapeutic power of barrel riding. But without good waves, these sessions assumed an uneasy agenda. Money spent. Time wasted. Reality TV. And the awkward ghost of Machado’s divorce.
Back in Bali, things grew tense. Humphrey had nowhere to hide in his own house. He was working around the clock. Directing and shooting photos. Managing multiple crews. Crying baby and silent wife. The pressure he put on himself…this debut film…this grand, dark vision…it was unbearable weight. One night he had a fistfight with one of the cinematographers Machado brought into the project, fueling a power struggle between director and star. An unspoken distance.
That was right about when Rob’s wife showed up in Bali. With the kids. Honey, I’m home.
She looked at her husband: skinny, dirty, same clothes every day, slumming around with these B-listers on a not-quite-Taylor Steele film. She called Bob Hurley. “He’s living like he’s gone feral over here,” she said. “This needs to stop.”
Humphrey had his back against the wall. “Hell no I didn’t want to see them patch things up,” he says today. “That would undermine my whole movie. I was stubborn.”
He booked the crew on an extended trip to West Java, with Dane Reynolds and Dan Malloy. Once again, the waves proved underwhelming. There were ten guys sharing rooms in a porcelain townhouse in an abandoned suburbia in the overgrown backwoods of Cimaja. Plastic furniture and moldy walls. Cowboy coffee and squid rice. Each night, a local screamcore band would rehearse in one of the abandoned houses nearby, sent by the gods to push everyone over the edge once and for all.
Machado and Humphrey were no longer speaking. Couldn’t look each other in the eye. We were still attempting to film intimate conversations with Malloy and Reynolds, but it was mostly just, “Can I go yet?”
Maybe if there had been waves…
“I was feverish and exhausted,” says Humphrey. “Like my body was just shutting down on me and my only response was to push harder.” When he finally collapsed, doctors diagnosed him with both typhoid and dengue fever. Potentially fatal.
With little further discussion, the entire crew dissolved in ambiguity. What now? Machado flew back to Bali. He pitched his tent on the Steele’s lawn again and called his old friend in America, where he’d been busy releasing Stranger Than Fiction.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he told him. “I think it’s over.”
Cooks in the Kitchen
There’s a scene in the film where Machado confronts his own visage on a billboard. And when I think about The Drifter being finally released, I think about that scene. Two Robs. One real. One imagined. Questioning each other’s existence.
With the director hospitalized and the star in emotional paralysis, the team retreated to our respective corners of paradise. We went surfing. Bali was a nice place to be, we remembered. Surfing is fun. A week later, Steele landed. This was his cluster to unfuck. He met with Humphrey first. Heart to heart. Offered him an exit. Take your name off the project. Pretend this never happened. Humphrey pulled the rip cord and checked himself into therapy.
Next, Steele met with Machado, who was becoming concerned this whole “divorce surf movie” might cost him his kids if and when things got ugly. His ex was still hanging around Bali, trying to make nice. Machado was keeping to his tent.
Finally, Steele called the remaining crew into his office. On a big white grease board he drew a tiny cartoon of Machado riding a motorcycle and wrote: W.W.W.A.D.
“What would Wes Anderson do?” he asked us. “I’m not going to make a dark surf movie. Especially if it puts Rob’s family at risk.”
Thus far, as the writer, I’d been keeping version numbers on each new draft. They’d tell me stuff. I’d script stuff. Then different stuff actually would happen. “Confusing, I know,” they’d say, “but just rewrite it again, okay.” We were up to draft number 13, and only getting started.
The memories get jumbled here. Rough drafts. Rewrites. Reenacted half-truths and slipshod surf acting. We shot new scenes. The film was a comedy now. Quirky! Machado tossed a wad of cash into the air for a street vender. He put himself through an airport X-ray machine. He discussed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship with a Sumatran villager.
When asked which parts of The Drifter Steele filmed, he answers, “Anything that isn’t Rob moping around in the distance—that was probably mine.”
He flew in Emmy and Academy Award-winning editor Bill Haugse, of The Basketball Diaries, to edit a way out of this mess. Haugse locked himself in Steele’s edit cave and no one was allowed inside for three days. Everyone held their breathe waiting for him to roll away the stone.
When Haugse emerged, he suggested we keep the divorce narrative—and was promptly flown home. The Drifter’s truth was just too tightly entwined with its fiction.
Hurley HQ demanded a viewing. They were not happy. “What’s up with Sad Rob?” they asked. “That’s not the Rob we know. Change everything.”
We threw a wrap party and got appropriately drunk. We rode motorbikes on the beach and bungee jumped at a nightclub. Machado packed his boards and flew home. Nothing was wrapped. His house was sad and empty. He considered pitching his tent on the lawn, but this was America.
“A few days after I got home,” he remembers, “I went to the Surfer Poll Awards, which was the polar opposite of my entire life the year prior. I left after 20 minutes. It was just too intense.”
Edit-surgery continued. So did the big sheets of doodle paper on Machado’s kitchen table. For a while, he tinkered with The Drifter in his own empty house with Drifter cinematographer/survivor Jeff Bastion. Then Warner Brothers onboarded the project, migrating control to a team of “real” editors. With each new cut, the “visiting surfers”—Machado’s friends and salvation—were whittled from the storyline.
Once again, on-screen and in real life, Machado was alone.
Steele remembers The Drifter premiere as the biggest of his career. A grand Hollywood theater. Billboards of Machado along the I-5. Paparazzi and red carpets. Perry Farrell and Johnny Knoxville. A live webcast with Sal Masekela. Warner Brothers producers and assorted surf scum.
We hadn’t noticed in Bali, but the media buildup had been significant. Humphrey’s travel photography—almost an afterthought—had produced a dozen cover shots and magazine features. Hurley had been running ads and paying for billboards for months. The whole backstory of Steele and Machado’s decades-old connection, evolving to the land of the lefts, had ignited a bonfire of nostalgia.
Machado doesn’t remember that night.
But he does recall getting one-on-one media coaching beforehand. The instructors told him, “Look, CNN and Rolling Stone are going to be interviewing you, and sooner or later one of these journalists is going to turn on you.” As preparation, they tossed him a few softballs then asked: “So, where were your wife and kids during all this?”
Machado memorized the script. Learned to dodge those uncertain silences. To change the subject.
Then The Drifter toured the world. After each screening, Machado and Steele would take the stage for Q&A sessions. Up and down different coasts, they played like a comedy duo, deftly ignoring the elephant on the stage with them. Their media training kicking in like triage at a train-wreck.
The film won awards. Dominated festivals. DVDs sold out. With its cinematography, soundtrack, and eight-months-worth of Machado’s surfing, it had all the right ingredients.
The Internet was less impressed.
I have a hard time feeling sorry for Rob Machado. Too bad he has to surf for a living. —reviewer, Amazon.com
Rob’s a nice guy, but he’s no actor. —anonymous, Rotten Tomatoes
As for actual surfing, there is almost none. The majority of the time is either Rob in a tent or a field or on a bike, which unless they went a little deeper psychologically, just ends up feeling like wasting time. —anonymous, surfermag.com
The magazines were more diplomatic, but equally skeptical:
Anyone famous has no right to complain. And that, for critics, is where The Drifter falls down. An ex-pro kvetching over a lost career and the invasion of cameras, while attempting to resurrect said career by inviting a film crew to document his soul search just doesn’t sit well with some folks.—Huck magazine
They were picking the scab. Poking the wound. Despite the hype and accolades, The Drifter was still a surf movie about divorce. Hold the divorce. On-screen, at least.
Off-screen, Machado got divorced.
He kept the house. She took the kids to Reunion.
Life went on.
I cross a wide lawn to a bench overlooking Bali’s most famous lefthander. Machado sits plucking a nylon-string guitar, studying the gathering swell and nothing at all. The tide’s too low.
Up at his villa behind us, his new wife Sophie is playing with their 4-year-old son, Jax, in the pool. Laughter and splashes. Jax looks like his father. Wild little Mowgli child.
Back in America, Machado’s Cardiff dream home is fulfilling its potential. His daughters Rose and Macy spend much of their time there, rapidly maturing into young surfers, models, and artists with crazy heads of hair like their father.
The extended Machado family gathers most nights at the house for big potluck dinners around sunset. Dad, mom, and his brother’s family—nice people. Their California roots extend back to the original Spanish land grants of the late 1700s. Their heritage shows in everything they do.
Each morning Machado drives his van to nearby Seaside Reef, where he and Steele first filmed together. He’ll goof around in the parking lot for a half-hour then appear on the wave of the day. Thirty years of timing.
After surfing, he heads over to his underground shaping bay and spends a few hours mowing foam. His custom one-offs are in high demand. The best experiments become templates for his annual Firewire models. Two decades of hanging around Al Merrick’s shaping bay have served him well.
The walls are lined with historic boards, including the orange-brown painted Biscuit he surfed in The Drifter, tucked among a cluster of strange single-fins, snub-nosed twinnies, and a 3’2″ Batman board he shaped for his son.
He returns to Bali every year, usually coinciding with his sponsors’ team trips, but also maintains a “separate check” protocol. He’ll show up at the photo shoot just in time to catch a bomb. Then cruise back to family time and solo sessions with his filmer. “On surf trips,” he says, “you’re usually so focused on chasing waves you kinda glaze over the culture. But when you’ve actually lived somewhere and gotten to know the people, the food…it’s a whole different connection. Bali has a special place in my heart.”
It’s a different island these days. Traffic sweats, plastic pollution, and food selfies. But the things that have always made Bali magic—the people, the culture, the waves—remain unchanged.
Sitting on the bluff, we reflect on our post-Drifter evolutions.
The last screening of the tour was held at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas, the launch pad for every Steele film since Momentum. Machado had assembled a few musicians to play live over some of the unused footage, aware that many of the edited-out surfers he traveled with during filming would probably be in attendance.
The sideshow was a hit and in the aftermath he did the improbable—tunneled back into The Drifter’s leftover components, deciding to cut a second film, going deeper as a means of escape. He rented an empty barn and asked his lifelong buddy, the musician Jon Swift, to fill it with instruments and recording equipment. Together they set about scoring and reediting all the unused sessions, stitching surfers like Dane Reynolds, Timmy Curran, Kalani Robb, Shane Dorian, Mike Losness, and Kelly Slater back onto the screen, rescuing components that fit the quasi-fictional multiverse of The Drifter.
After a month of editing and recording, they sent their original songs and rough cuts to Steele in New York for finishing touches. The title, Melali, was taken from a Balinese word meaning “to go without going anywhere”—to wander without being lost.
A screen full of memories. Happy memories. Slow-motion barrels and sunset motorbike rides. An uncomplicated breeze of music and motion. No pretense. No ambition. No hype. Nothing that might confuse or challenge an audience. A surf movie.
They toured Melali, playing the score live in front of the footage. Somewhere along that journey Machado met his second wife, Sophie, and forgot his old tragedy. The Drifter was gone—finally.
Humphrey is back in America now. After the production, he cofounded a motorcycle company in Canggu, marketing custom-made bikes and handshaped surfboards through beautifully shot surf-travel films. It’s not hard to see the formative romance of his business, Deus Ex Machina, in his vision for The Drifter. But the film remains a scar for him.
It was years before he could bring himself to watch it. “You can’t film Apocalypse Now and edit Life Aquatic,” he says. “But whatever. I guess I’ve learned that a surf movie is just a surf movie.”
Steele’s back in America now, too. He just hoisted an Emmy for the HBO Momentum Generation documentary, which frames The Drifter as a minor footnote in their collective legacy.
Machado and I talk for a few more minutes on the bench. Then, despite the tide, he grabs his board and heads down the stairs to the ocean.
Deep inside the barrel at Desert Point, there’s nowhere to run. Straighten out and it’s bone-dry reef. Dive into the wave, you’ll get sucked over the falls. Dry reef again. The only path is forward. And even that’s a dicey prospect.
Machado’s Grower section at Deserts serves as the climactic action for both The Drifter and Melali. A Rosetta Stone to the whole experience. A kernel of uncomplicated truth.
With swells proving unreliable, he had taken to camping on this dusty whisper of Lombok coastline. He’d pitch his tent outside the village, waiting out the break’s fickle tides with his journal while the crew posted up in a rented house nearby.
The main takeoff at Deserts is a roll-in way up at the top of the point where the crowd sits. From there, the wave is an unrelenting barrel. It grows as it warps down the point, getting shallower and heavier until it’s too shallow and too heavy. The trick is to pull out before it reaches this point.
This is exactly where Machado decided to post up while shooting—the too shallow, too heavy stretch of reef.
The swell was pumping and he charged barrel sections like he never wanted to come out. “It was like a game to me,” he recalls. “I kept pushing my luck, waiting for something bad to happen. When it didn’t, I’d paddle back up and try again.”
Humphrey had carted out 100 meters of camera dolly track to the remote location to capture the sheer length of the wave, then planted 50 small trees to create cinematic perspective down the line. Typically, given the luck on set, his cinematographer lost his glasses on the best day of surf. The dolly footage was out of focus.
Too soft for The Drifter. Good enough for Melali.
Either way, it’s a magic session.
Orange and green. Blood and gold. Bali’s volatile Mount Agung makes a rare cameo on the horizon in the footage. Machado’s driving his 6’3″ step-up through double-overhead vortex cathedrals, looking like he’s meditating. A feather in the eye of a hurricane.
When he finally crow-steps back across the reef, it’s nearly dark. Blood trickling down his shin and ankles. Sparks of lightning in his eyes. A faint smile crosses his lips. There is no camera crew anymore. No film. No divorce. No fear. No past. No future. No fame. No folly. No truth. No lie.