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The multiple phases and phosphoric energy of one of the last in the lineage of the late, great surf filmmakers.
By NE Kachel
Light / Dark
Kai Neville might be nervous.
We’re bouncing around Byron Bay in his utilitarian four-wheel drive, looking for a quick surf before starting our interview. It’s a bright, oddly cool Saturday morning just before Christmas, and the infamous holiday town is uncharacteristically quiet. (Interest rates and post-property-boom blues are the culprits, reckons Neville.)
A combination of devil wind and swell direction has limited the options to one of two disparate spots. The extra drive time is a good chance to break the ice: We’ve only just met in person. The conversation is off the record and free flowing. The soon-to-be father of two is every bit as engaging as I’d hoped.
So maybe nervousness isn’t the best way to describe it. Neville’s not one to be daunted. When he was 23, he was handed the keys to the biggest surf-film production house in the world and promptly dropped his magnum opus, 2009’s Modern Collective, without batting an eye. He’s spent half his life working in surf media. Some bleary-eyed writer who’s just driven six hours to interview him should be managed with ease.
Still, as we weave our way through the sedate Byron streets, talking family, friends, and life, I can’t help but notice a sideways glance here, a pause before answering there. I decide it’s something to do with being on the other side of the camera, so to speak. This is the first time he’s ever really been the subject of such an in-depth profile. The watcher has become the watched, et cetera.
It’s getting warm. I wind down a window as we head back to surf the first spot we checked, soaking in the breeze of a Northern Rivers morning.
“It’s sort of weird to think you can meet somebody for a few hours and then tell their whole story,” he says, eventually, as we do finally paddle out for our surf.
I agree. To be honest, I’m surprised his story hasn’t been told.
Neville’s responsible for a string of the sharpest, most era-defining films of the last two decades. He’s the person the sport’s most talented and gifted trust to convey their talent to the masses, the lens through which the question of “What’s relevant?” in contemporary surfing is run.
This profile is well overdue. Capturing his life’s work in its entirety would be impossible, I tell him as we come in from the water and finally settle in for our talk in a nearby café, calm and quiet and out of the summer sun. So what I would like to try instead is to help situate his body of work in a broader context: how he’s navigated through a period of incredible upheaval that’s seen him straddle two separate eras, maybe even three, and still keep his place at the top of the pile. How he’s balanced the tightrope of art and commercialism, and in doing so broadened his creative scope.
What I’ll do, if I can, is chart the steady evolution of Kai Neville as one of the last of the late, great surf filmmakers.
It’s hard not to start with Modern Collective. For a debut surf film, it was a damn audacious offering.
Neville had the mid-noughties roll call to work with: Dane Reynolds, Jordy Smith, Dion Agius, Dusty Payne, Yadin Nicol, Mitch Coleborn, Craig Anderson. A voltaic mix of uncut gems and next big things. But the young Australian director didn’t rest on their talent alone. Neville wanted Modern Collective to set the narrative of surfing’s future. The loose threads were there. The world already knew what the likes of Dane and Jordy could do. But Neville cast their surfing in an entirely new light.
“Kai’s such a brilliant brand-maker,” says longtime collaborator Travis Ferré. “He thinks in terms much bigger than just the film itself. Every detail [of Modern Collective], from the blog to the design to the final feature, was accounted for and stylized in a way that he wanted. And I think that’s the genius of him.”
From the opening, strobe-lit scene, Neville made his intention clear. There was the pulsing electro soundtrack. The Cobra Snake–esque art-pop aesthetic. The egalitarian penchant for onshore ramps over airbrushed offshore perfection. The subsequent assault of tweaked, technical aerial surfing. The session-based travelogue narrative inviting the audience behind the scenes to be part of the gang.
For a particular breed of thruster-wielding, air-hucking surfer coming up at the end of the 2000s,
Modern Collective was a generational moment. Revolution in a V-neck tee.
Released under Taylor Steele’s Poor Specimen banner, the DVD hit the surf world like a lightning bolt. The film won the 2010 Surfer Poll Movie of the Year award, set the performance bar for the next decade, and catapulted Neville into the upper echelon of surf filmmakers.
“The editing, filming, music, and crew—it was all just pushing to be different from what was out there,” says Steele. “It’s what every film strives for, but only a few achieve.”
Or, as the breathless promotional copy read on moderncollective.tv: “The future has already happened. You will just be watching the replay.”
Neville had seized the zeitgeist. He would go on to repeat his success with a string of feature-length follow-ups over the next six years: 2011’s Lost Atlas, 2012’s Dear Suburbia, and 2015’s Cluster.
Viewed now, Modern Collective feels as fresh as the day it was released, I remark to Neville as we work our way through a post-surf breakfast and into our conversation. The surfing, the music, and the direction all still burn with that same phosphoric energy.
Only here’s the rub: It’s 2023, not 2009. The future has happened. Thanks to the algorithm and its infinite scroll, surf films are lucky to stay current for hours, not years. They’re mainly brand-or surfer-driven, and reliant on the whims of only a few monolithic platforms to exist.
The way we consume media has changed irrevocably. Full-length, brand-agnostic, high-performance surf films like Modern Collective are no longer the narrative of surfing’s future but a postcard from its past. Indeed, a body of work like Neville’s—Modern Collective to Cluster—may never be repeated. The zeitgeist has shattered into a million different pieces.
“The landscape was tough,” says Neville when I ask him about the period leading up to the release of Cluster, his final feature-length film from that era. “There was change in the media landscape, and change in the surfing landscape, too. The industry was struggling. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of new mediums. I think at the end of it I was very conscious of the independent surf film’s struggle. It was always going to be a fight to put together, and to fund. Where does it fit? There were all these questions that were working against the format.”
Not that any of this was a worry if we scrub back again to 2009. Surf-shop cabinets were full of DVDs. Distribution systems were still intact. Neville was riding high on the release of Modern Collective after being given the backing by Steele to operate under the aegis of Poor Specimen.
“He had basically said, ‘Fuck it, the next one’s yours,’” says Neville of Steele’s approach at the time. “Like, ‘Here’s a budget. You’re in charge. Don’t go over it.’ And that was it.”
The two had first met in Hawaii a few years earlier. Neville was in the Islands filming covermount DVDs (movies literally glued to magazine covers, another quirky footnote in the history of surf-film evolution) for Australia’s Surfing Life (ASL). Steele was looking for a new production assistant. It was Globe team riders Agius and CJ Hobgood who made the connection.
“It was crazy when those guys told me Taylor wanted to meet me,” says Neville. “I thought they were taking the piss. But next thing you know, I was at his house and he offered me the job.”
Neville would take a leading role in editing and production for Steele’s 2008 classic, Stranger Than Fiction.
“We worked side by side on the edit [of Stranger] for the most part,” says Steele. “What Kai did that stood out was owning the music. He had a very strong opinion and taste that he really sold.” (Music would become a defining characteristic of Neville’s work. “I think it’s so important to what’s on screen,” he says of his soundscapes. “The power of sound can bring a picture to life and generate emotion in an audience. I think that’s huge.”)
While the initial plan had been to continue working together after Modern Collective, Steele could see a generational change happening. He recognized Neville was the one to take it forward. “The original idea was to have him make his stuff under my studio,” Steele says. “Yet Modern Collective was a movement, so it was understandable for him to want the space to be solo.”
So how did a kid barely into his twenties, with only a few covermount DVDs to his name, lay the groundwork to find himself in the position to be anointed by the world’s most famous and influential modern surf filmmaker?
You could trace it back to 2000, and Neville’s film-and-television elective class at Noosa High School. While his classmates were shooting music videos and horror films, Neville cut his first-ever surf clip on a dusty old Casablanca editing system. Featuring a bunch of local Sunshine Coast rippers, the resulting product was frenetic, energetic, raw. Neville fell in love with the process. The song he layered over the top: “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.
After high school, Neville moved to the Gold Coast to study digital video production at Griffith University. It was there that he crossed paths with Tasmanian expat Agius, a budding pro surfer and filmmaker himself, and the two quickly bonded over their love of the craft.
The Gold Coast in the early 2000s was fertile territory for the friends to ply their trade. “We would follow Parko [Joel Parkinson] and Mick [Fanning] and Taj [Burrow] and whoever was in town during the Quiksilver Pro—just hunt them down and get clips,” says Agius. “We didn’t know anyone, so we would just drive around until we saw them. We ended up making a few films like that.”
Neville soon scored a role at ASL under then-editor Jimmy O’Keefe producing the aforementioned covermounts. It was a chance for Neville to not only hone his skills, but also build a relationship with the up-and- coming generation of surfers.
“Working on those ASL videos, everybody got to know Kai as this super-lovable, friendly dude that you couldn’t not get along with,” says Agius. “He was the same age as all these guys coming up, but he was already so good at what he did that the surfers would just really respond to that.”
For Jordy Smith—whose 2012 biopic, Bending Colours, Neville would eventually direct—it was the filmmaker’s ability to get the best out of his surfers that helped him become such a popular collaborator.
“He would pump up your tires, in a way, to where you would be like, ‘Fuck. I’ve got to keep pushing. This is insane. I’m surfing really well,’” says Smith. “On those trips with Kai, he would fully back you. It made you want to go even harder.”
The rapid-fire trilogy of releases that followed—Modern Collective, Lost Atlas, Dear Suburbia—showcased the results of that mindset. A Kai Neville film was the medium in which the world’s best surfing was performed and consumed. Jordy, Dane, Dion, Craig, and the crew were joined by the likes of Kolohe Andino, Julian Wilson, John John Florence—a brand-blind free-for-all.
For Reynolds, the chief protagonist in those early films, Neville’s biggest talent was his ability to assemble a group of surfers who would push each other past their perceived limits—though his interpretation of the filmmaker’s approach differs from Smith’s.
“He’d have a sort of psychological aspect to it, where he’d make everyone feel like the others were outperforming them,” says Reynolds. “It was in the most indirect way, but he’d play it super cool when you did something good, and talk up someone else’s surfing. It was a head trip, [but] it would push us all to perform our best.”
No matter the technique, it worked. Surfers knew to save their best moments in the water for Neville’s cameras. His cinematic eye, unsparing editing, and eclectic sense of mise-en-scène would do the rest.
“Through that period, I was bookmarking and ripping out pages from a lot of magazines, like art magazines, fashion magazines,” says Neville. “I was looking at things like styling, backdrops, textures. I just thought, Why aren’t people doing this in surfing? That’s what I was drawing from, just taking loose ideas and running with them.”
Amp-up surf movies are hardly considered high art—nor should they be. But Neville’s splicing of interstitial moments and visual motifs among the high-octane surfing invited those influences into his films and became a much-imitated trademark. A review at the time in this magazine praised him for “defining the aesthetic of now.”
There wasn’t always unanimous praise, however. One review described Dear Suburbia as “the complete and final victory of style over substance,” though the author later added, “It was sometime during the second half that I realized I was falling in love. The fucker’s got me.”
By the time he started working on Cluster, featuring a new school of talent led by young Australians like Noa Deane and Creed McTaggart, Neville could already sense another generational change approaching.
“I had done four feature films back to back, which is a toll of travel and creative output—trying to reinvent yourself,” he says. “Plus, these guys were full of such youthful energy. All of a sudden I was like the old boy.”
The shift wasn’t confined to the water. The irony of Cluster’s cover being a picture of a VHS tape summed up the rapid evolution of the medium. Social media had gone from a niche promotional tool to the platform for distribution.
“Whatever Dane Reynolds does, says, and thinks,” said Stab magazine at the time, “will direct surfing into the future.” The world of surf films was no different. Led by the success of Reynolds’ Marine Layer Productions blog, audiences were expecting premium content online, immediately, and for free.
Meanwhile, surf media outlets were being decimated. The entire distribution model disappeared almost overnight. “I was still operating in a world where you could just make money from selling DVDs and digital purchases,” says Neville. “But their numbers were dropping big-time. I let the distributor handle it [for Cluster] and luckily they were pretty supportive. But the next one, they were like, ‘Fuck, yeah. We’re not giving you an advance again. We’re not making money.’ Things changed quickly.”
Neville had already been dabbling in shorter web edits between shooting Dear Suburbia and Cluster, taking note of Reynolds’ approach. “Dane was way ahead of the game,” he says. “He paved the way for a lot of web content. I was feeding off it. It was a kick up the bum, too. Like, ‘Fuck, I need to pick my game up.’”
It was around this time that Neville also started working for commercial clients. Understandably, it can be easy to turn a nose up at the dirty c-word: Neville, the generational talent, forced kicking and screaming into the corporate world to make ends meet. But to write off the paradigm of short-form, commercially backed productions altogether would be disingenuous—since we all seem to keep consuming them, for one. Plus, the body of work Neville produced post-Cluster, operating primarily in this space, has inarguably matured.
His direction became more meditative, more expansive, despite the shorter running times. Experimenting with structure, direction, and sound, pieces like Sonic Souvenirs for Vans and Ceremony for Neville’s own label, Epokhe, both released in 2021, have themselves reset the bar for surf cinematography.
“I think if I had stayed making those same surf movies, I would have grown complacent,” he says. “The beauty of the commercial side is that I got to work with really talented people, and collaborate with DPs and gaffers and learn this whole other side of film. It’s not just me and a camera. I’ve definitely brought a little bit of that into the more contemporary projects I’m doing.”
There were also forays into media with What Youth, the publication he launched in 2010 with Ferré, and the aforementioned Epokhe, the sunglass brand he founded with Modern Collective alumni Agius and Coleborn in 2012.
Not that it’s all been roses. Client work usually involves feedback, differing opinions—the Faustian pact of the commercial world.
“I really do enjoy taking on feedback when it’s valuable,” says Neville. “But a lot of it comes back to what your intention is. I do feel your best work comes from an intention of independence. If you can sort of eject any thought of what the audience or clients might think, you’re going to be better off. If you’re just going into a film to only try to sell boardshorts, it’s not going to have the same impact.”
This writer will not be misty-eyed about the past. Very few of the films our culture has lionized were truly independent. Jack McCoy and Sonny Miller’s best works were brand-driven. Even The Endless Summer was bankrolled by Velzy. All of Neville’s “independent” feature-length films were supported by industry backing. They’re all surf ads, in one way or another.
So should all creative endeavors be immediately devalued if they carry a cent of corporate support? I dunno. I do know you can pry Searching for Tom Curren from my cold, dead fingers.
Contra to popular belief, in many ways the world of surf filmmaking today seems to be in a good place. Touring documentaries are making a comeback. Jack Coleman is spinning magic. The Snapt franchise has taken the amp-up surf flick virtual. Andrew Kidman’s keeping the bastards honest. Profile films like Kolohe Andino’s Reckless Isolation and Noa Deane’s Noz Vid continue to propel the medium forward.
Rallying against the advent of the internet, or commercialism, seems like trying to take the blue out of the sky. But there are real issues with the disposable nature of social media. Those era-defining, replayed-until-death feature films have been swallowed into the swirling mass of online noise, if not lost completely.
Are we missing something? “Someone has got to bring these surf movies back,” says Smith. “I get that it’s hard for brands to identify how much reach they might get on a certain movie, if you compare it to Instagram or social media. But movies like Modern Collective hang around for generations, not just a couple of scrolls.”
2023: Neville has entered a new phase. He’s operating out of Byron, in a new studio co-located with the Epokhe HQ. He was able to time that property boom just well enough to secure his own modest slice of land, not too far out of town.
Three years of COVID restrictions have limited his time on the road. After more than a decade of constant travel, the enforced stillness came as a relief. And well-timed, too. He now has a young child with his partner, Jody, and another on the way.
He’s yet to hit 40. The sun is still high in his sky. There’re new proj- ects in the pipeline, including a follow-up to Sonic Souvenirs with Mikey February, to be shot in Japan. And Epokhe keeps him busy.
Neville also grapples with those questions of social media’s impact on the medium. “It’s great that it’s opening doors for young people to fuckin’ get themselves out there and skip the hurdles of editors and brands and distributors and budgets. But it’s so hard to navigate the amount of content. It’s just up to us as humans. How do we filter our own world? You have to stay away from the algorithm. Filter your own consumption, in a way.”
It’s a common refrain for anybody raised in a pre-internet age. Neville may indeed be the last of that generation as a filmmaker—the end of one lineage. But he’s not surrendering to the tides of history yet.
In addition to his commercial pieces, there’s another project in the works. It’s only early days, but it’s something he hopes will cut through the noise, the sea of content, like Modern Collective did almost 15 years ago, a piece of filmmaking that will stay in our consciousness longer than a few scrolls.
It’s the treatment for a feature-length film, his first in almost a decade. “The basic premise is that it’s more of a snapshot into surfing today,” he says. “Using not only top pros or rippers, it’s also weaving in icons and older statesmen of surfing.”
So this won’t be the Modern Collective era 2.0, but it will still be a distinctly Nevillian production. “Really it’s about what I am interested in,” he says, “which has actually always dictated what my surf films are. I’ve always been interested in people and observing people. I want to create somewhat of a visual collage of what surfing is to this group of people, with my brushstroke across it.”
Calling the project a full circle would denote it as an endpoint to Neville’s career. Yes, it will be a culmination of his work to date, from covermounts to feature films to the commercial world. It might be another breakthrough hit. Or it might never see the light of day. Yet it will not be an epitaph—only another bookmark in time. The evolution will continue.
[Feature Image Caption: Ongoing evolution. Photo by Trent Mitchell.]