1970, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium: Stacy Peralta, a 12-year-old boy with sun-bleached hair, sits in the audience waiting for the surf film "Cosmic Children" to start. He watches in disbelief as people file in, hundreds upon hundreds of them, filling the seats. They all have the markings of surfers: flip-flops, Pendleton shirts, straw-blond matted hair.
Frisbees fly around the room until the lights go low and the film begins. On screen are the images of surf luminaries Jeff Hackman and Barry Kanaiaupuni riding the swells, painting the canvas of the wave with their boards' contrails. The crowd whoops like a pack of howling dogs--in tribute to the magnificent maneuvers--and the aroma of marijuana fills the air.
Stacy is thrilled. For the past couple of years he has felt like an outcast in his ardent pursuit of surfing. But here are all of these people, adults no less, who share his passion. He feels for the first time as if he belongs to something bigger than himself, a community of surfing brethren.
Thirty-two years later in a Santa Monica diner, Stacy Peralta sits at a table wearing a gray baseball cap and a Sundance Film Festival fleece sweatshirt, his face creased with age. He relates this moment as if it happened yesterday, a tone of boyish wonder in his voice. "It was a culture shock that left an indelible print on me," Peralta says. "As if you're in sub-Saharan Africa and you've never seen anyone outside your own tribe, but once a year all the tribes from hundreds of miles around come together. We all look the same and we're all sharing this similar interest. That made me feel like I belonged to something."
Now, after his directorial success with the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," about the '70s skateboarding scene in the Venice-Santa Monica area, Peralta is planning on making his dramatic directing debut with an adaptation of "In Search of Captain Zero" by Allan C. Weisbecker--a surfing-themed book that is a cross between "On the Road" and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." He also is working on a documentary about big wave surfing.
These newest ventures seem to make sense considering Peralta's past. Yet, when pieced together, his career has been a strange and unlikely trip that has led him full circle, back to his childhood passion.
Stacy Peralta began surfing when he was 11. By 13, it was his obsession. He followed the weather reports. He kept tabs on the wind and constantly monitored the tides so he would know whether he should go to the beach before or after school. Life revolved around catching that next wave, thinking about what he would do next in the water. Surfing was considered antisocial behavior and frowned upon by his teachers at Venice High School. But while hanging out at the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Production Surf Shop in the heart of Dogtown, he found a sense of belonging that reinforced his notion to learn a trade that would provide the time and freedom to surf.
"I thought that I was only qualified to be a plumber," Peralta says. "If you were a surfer and skateboarder back then, it was accepted that you're not gonna go to college, that you don't really show any specific talent that fit in the mainstream. So I was just looking for a way to make a living." At 16, Peralta became a sponsored member of the Zephyr surf team, a significant event that meant he received discounts on boards and a team T-shirt. The Zephyr skateboarding team was a secondary activity: taking to wheels was originally done on days when the waves weren't adequate.
As destiny should have it, the unthinkable happened and skateboarding, thought of as a child's pastime, exploded in popularity, with the Zephyr team's surf-influenced style at the cutting edge. Peralta took advantage of the opportunity. A skateboarding sensation at 18, his sponsorships earned him more money than both of his middle-class parents made. He traveled the world performing skateboarding exhibitions; at stops in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and the Virgin Islands, he made sure that he took time out to surf at the hottest spots.
In 1978, Peralta left Gordon & Smith, one of the biggest skateboard companies of the time and the manufacturer of his pro-signature boards, and partnered with engineer-turned-skateboard designer George Powell. Peralta took a massive pay cut, living at a subsistence level to construct his own vision of a skateboard company--from creating the boards to advertising. Powell-Peralta's revolutionary "Bones Brigade" videos wove action sequences with a loose storyline, breaking new ground for marketing in the fledgling industry, and Peralta discovered new skills in the process, directing and producing the videos himself.
As Powell-Peralta grew into one of the top five skateboard companies, Peralta became acutely aware of how companies took advantage of young minds with manipulative advertising. "We were doing $30 million a year and I was in a powerful position as far as my influence over a lot of kids," Peralta says. "I did everything I could not to abuse it and I wanted to do the best I could to inspire kids."
In 1991, after 13 years at the company, he and Powell came to an impasse. Peralta thought that the company was becoming "institutionalized" as it attempted to protect its position in the industry. His business plan included taking more creative risks and giving sponsored skaters greater independence with their own product divisions, but he didn't see it happening. He saw himself performing the same job five years down the road and stagnating.
Opportunities had been opening up for him in Hollywood since the second "Bones Brigade" video in 1985. Here he could work in a more adult setting, exploring ideas and telling stories that he found interesting. So in late 1991, he walked away from the company and the industry he had helped build.
"When Peralta left skateboarding, he was anguished by how the sport had mutated," says Michael Brooke, author of "The Concrete Wave," a book on the history of skateboarding. "His impact . . . cannot be underestimated. For many he represents purity, style and soul in the sport."
For the next three years, Peralta worked as a television director. He paid his bills and learned a new craft, but he found it difficult to be creative in the medium.
With his skateboard-video background, Peralta could have made a transition to music videos. Spike Jonze had directed videos for Blind skateboards, then moved to music videos for the Beastie Boys and Weezer. But it wasn't an option for Peralta. "It would have been a faster track to get where I wanted to be. I just couldn't do it," he says. "I hate music videos. They're just nonsense and exploitive. The whole medium is propagated to sell product. It's a big commercial and not about the music at all. I think it's hurt modern music more than it's helped it."
He didn't see himself as a director for hire; he had no desire to carry out other people's ideas. So once again, Peralta took his own route. He concluded that he needed to hone his writing skills to bring his own ideas to fruition. In 1996, he set out to write screenplays, waking at 4 in the morning before going to work at his TV job and later taking three months off to write. The completed screenplays were not about surfing or skateboarding, but an issue that had been eating at him--the power of corporate advertising.
In 1998, in the midst of this process, Peralta met producer Agi Orsi at a party in Malibu. Months later, after a story about the Dogtown skateboarding scene appeared in Spin magazine, Hollywood was buzzing about the possibility of making a Dogtown movie. Orsi contacted Peralta, who harbored the idea of directing a documentary about Dogtown. She liked the concept and with the help of Vans shoes--one of Peralta's first sponsors as a skateboarder--"Dogtown and Z-Boys" was set into motion. The film won the Documentary Audience Award and the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance in 2001.
Peralta credits the success of his documentary to people recognizing that '70s scene as a "subcultural event" that predated MTV, when mega-corporations didn't want anything to do with it and skateboarding was about a bunch of kids being creative. Now skateboarding is a staple of soft drink commercials and ESPN's X Games, and last year was an integral part of Tony Hawk's arena tour that combined action sports and live music. "We were able to evolve in this little petri dish of ours, this deranged culture," Peralta says. "Now they've packaged it."
Sitting in the diner, blocks from the site where Jeff Ho's shop stood, Peralta talks about bringing his experience to directing the film version of "In Search of Captain Zero."
The book is a memoir of Weisbecker's journey down the Pacific coastline from Baja to Costa Rica. The narrator travels in his truck-camper, staying in surf camps along the way, testing the waves and searching for a long-lost surfing buddy. At 50 years old, the narrator has spent his lifetime dedicated to surfing in lieu of long-term bonds such as marriage and children. Along the way, he reminisces about his travels to discover great surf, reveling in the spirituality of riding waves and at times questioning the path he has taken.
Orsi, who bought the rights to the book and presented it to Peralta, is to produce with Radar Pictures. Sean Penn, the narrator of "Dogtown and Z-Boys," is considering the lead role. Peralta was skeptical when Orsi gave him the book because he thinks fiction, as well as movies, has portrayed surfers as "idiotic comic book characters." But Weisbecker's book hooked him three pages in. "I liked that surfing wasn't the primary focus of the story, but served as the background and as a metaphor," Peralta says.
Weisbecker and Peralta are the perfect partners in this venture because of their lifelong need to make surfing part of their daily lives. While running Powell-Peralta, the skateboarder built his days around surfing. Later, from 1994 to 2000, he lived in Malibu, where he could simply look out the window to check the waves and paddle out whenever he desired. "I'd stop writing and go in the water," Peralta says. "It was medicating in a sense."
Weisbecker moved to Costa Rica so he could surf where the beaches are unspoiled and the waves world-class. "Surfing used to be tribal, a secret society. The crowded beaches and commercialization of surfing has driven me down here to the end of the road," Weisbecker says, "Suddenly everybody's competitive. There's a saying that goes way back: 'The best surfer is the one having the most fun.' What happened to that?"
While developing the feature with Weisbecker, Peralta is putting together a documentary about big wave surfing going back to the 1950s. He wants to further demonstrate surfing's role in American culture, and how it has changed from the days when Peralta's heroes carved up the celluloid waves at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Peralta mourns that the wave is no longer treated like a canvas. As board sports--skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing--take parallel tracks in their evolution, the wave has become just another ramp.
"We live in the age of extremism," Peralta laments. "Everything's about the thrill. If you look at skateboard videos or you look at ESPN, they no longer show the run anymore, they just show the move. We live in the exclamation-mark culture.
"Where's the poetry? The beauty is not just in the moment, it's in what led up to the whole thing."