A Voyage Into Sight, Sound and Surf: An Interview Of Filmmaker Chris Gentile

Interview by Agathe Pinard

Self Discovery for Social Survival is the surf/music feature film born from the collaboration of Chris Gentile from New York-based surf brand Pilgrim Surf + Supply and Keith Abrahmsson from the record label Mexican Summer. Together they started this ambitious project to connect surf, sound and sight and make a film that would satisfy most senses. World-renowned surfers including Stephanie Gilmore, Ryan Burch, Creed McTaggart and Ellis Ericson joined musicians Allah-Las, Peaking Lights, Connan Mockasin and MGMT ’s Andrew VanWyngarden on this surf journey starting from a secret spot in Mexico, to the southern atolls of the Maldive Islands, and ending in the cold waters of Iceland. The film is narrated by a man who is often referenced as the godfather of American avant-garde, the late Jonas Mekas. I had the chance to talk to the artist, photographer and film director Chris Gentile about the making of his first feature-length film, bringing together artists and surfers, and working with Jonas Mekas.

AGATHE PINARD: I wanted to start by asking about the meaning behind the title, Self Discovery for Social Survival, can you explain it?

CHRIS GENTILE: When we started to conceptualize the film, myself and Keith Abrahamsson from Mexican Summer, we were thinking a lot about music and its relationship to surfing. Surfing is this activity, this pursuit that people engage in and that kind of helps people detach from what they’re do day-to-day, give them some contemplative time to sort of go inward and we were trying to come up with this name, and along the way I came across an old book that was written for climbing, for people who would free climb and climb up mountains. It was basically a book that gave people a pathway to overcome fear. The book was titled Self Discovery for Social Survival. Keith and I both felt like that really resonated with the spirit of what this film was about. Surfers are constantly looking for that open and free space to have a moment in nature, where two forces are meeting each other and the surfers are in the space where the energy that’s coming from nature is dying and being born at the same time. We felt like this title had a lot of metaphoric possibilities and decided to go for it. It’s a mouthful, it’s a big title.

PINARD: This is an ambitious project that mixes surfing, music and animation done by the in house designer of Mexican Summer…

GENTILE: Yes, Bailey Elder but also Robert Beatty, who’s an independent artist and illustrator.

PINARD: How did the idea/project come together ?

It was evolving the whole time we were making the film, it was a very open-ended and experimental process. The one thing that I really wanted to maintain was an open-endedness with everybody involved. So there are multiple points of influence that went into the filmmaking. I didn’t give the surfers any directions while they surfed. We travelled together, we picked these particular places, and they were reacting to the waves that were there for a two-week period of time, and the cinematographers were reacting to the way the surfers were surfing, positioning themselves to get the shot that felt right. I really left a lot of that control up to them. The musicians who were involved were on these trips and they were in the water and surfing the same waves that the professional surfers we travelled with were surfing. They have a first experience and perspective on what was going on. The idea was to let them go back into the studio and have complete creative freedom over the music that they wrote in reaction.

PINARD: What about the animation?

GENTILE: When that came into play, we showed a rough cut to Bailey and Robert. Then Keith Abrahamsson picked a couple of songs that he felt were appropriate to transition from one location like Mexico to the Maldives. To put a song and an animation that would kind of be like a mental palette cleanser, Keith came up with these two fantastic songs. One was an archival song from the seventies, “Void Spirit,” and the other one was a song that was made by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma for the film. Jefre isn’t a surfer, he wasn’t on the trip but he made these beautiful compositions inspired by the idea of being under water, being under the ocean. So, those tracks were given to Bailey and Robert along with the access to this footage, and they reacted and created these animations. Everything was very independent to one another, every aspect of the film. I kind of kept everything on track and helped people when they need my help, but really it was exercise––relinquishing ego and control, and letting everybody’s influence come in and affect the overall project.

PINARD: That’s funny, last week I interviewed Connan Mockasin and we talked about the trip he made to Iceland for the movie, and how he was impressed at the beginning to be around these professional surfers like Stephanie Gilmore who’s a seven-time world champion.

GENTILE: One of the things that I had to do was to think deeply about the personalities that we were going to introduce to one another on these adventures because most of the people didn’t know each other. And taking a surf trip, you don’t know what you’re going to get. There’s no guarantee that the waves are going to be good, or that the weather is going to be good, or a tire may go flat. You may miss opportunities or you may get opportunities that you would never expect. When we went on these trips I had to think about how the group would feel and I was just going off my own instincts and my own guts. The trip to Iceland was really special because it was a group of really different people. They all had a sincere admiration and appreciation for one another. Everyone became fast friends. Iceland was interesting because we were traveling all over that country chasing these storms and these waves. Sometimes getting them and sometimes missing them, but we spent so much time in these vans just traveling across this incredible landscape. Everyone got a lot of time to know each other, more so than on the other trips because on the other trips it was a lot more surfing, people were getting tired, it was different. Iceland was the one where I think the actual chase for the waves was the beauty in that trip, more so than the wave riding.

PINARD: For the movie you took some surfers and went on a trip to Mexico, the Maldives and Iceland, which one was your favorite ?

GENTILE: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve been to that spot in Mexico so many times and it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I loved the opportunity to go down there with that group of people, but I have to say the Maldives was really unique and special, because we had this group of Australian surfers together that were kind of like a brotherhood. That trip, we were on a boat, the whole entire time, on an old, old boat. It travels really slowly, had a lot of character and a great captain and a great crew. It was not posh by any means, it was kind of a busted boat. But it was so fun because everybody was just excited to be around each other, find waves, fish. The kind of boredom that you experience on these boats, these guys were wild and doing the most hilarious stuff. Some of it we couldn’t put in the movie it was crazy, drunken backflips off of the boat completely nude at like 3 o’clock in the morning. It was incredible, very memorable.

PINARD: The film is narrated by the late, legendary Jonas Mekas, it might have been the last project he worked on...

GENTILE: I know that Jonas filmed his life every day, so I’m sure that that footage is truly his last work. On this project we were so fortunate to have him agree to come and narrate. The words are Jamie Brisick and Jonas read them. It was so special to get to meet him and experience his humility and his generosity, it was fantastic. If it weren’t for Jonas, I don’t think we could have made a film like this. He’s had so much influence on me as a young artist throughout my life. He gave us, me and the rest of the people at Mexican Summer, everyone, he truly gave us the license to make the film. So, to have him narrate it was an honor, it was so special.

PINARD: How did you get him to work on the project?

GENTILE: Keith Abrahamsson is really responsible for that. Keith presented him with this idea and had already been working with Jonas on a couple of other things, helping him with his archives. They had a working relationship together. Keith asked him if he would be up for narrating the film, and explained to him what it was, and I think it was so strange that he thought it was worth doing. It wasn’t very difficult. He got in a recording studio with him, drank a couple glasses of wine, and I think in one or two takes he nailed the narration. It was great.

PINARD: The movie will premiere in LA this Saturday, are you excited? How do you feel about it ?

GENTILE: I’m a little nervous, I’ve never directed a film before. I’ve made a lot of short films, experimental films, but nothing that’s feature-length, and at this scale, and this level of production. I’m so grateful to have the experience. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m really excited to see it in front of an audience, see the reaction, see the bands perform live to it, it’s going to be so special.

Self Discovery For Social Survival will premiere in Los Angeles this Saturday June 15 at The Palace Theatre with a live score by Connan Mockasin, Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT and Allah-Las

The film is out digitally on June 18 and available to pre-order now at https://geni.us/SDSS .

For the Love of Gore: A Conversation With Teenage Filmmaker Kansas Bowling

We met up with Kansas Bowling, the young, bright-eyed filmmaker who is about to release her first film – a “prehistoric slasher film” called B.C. Butcher – at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles. It was the perfect setting for a late night nosh and chat about filmmaking; a not so unusual conversation among the famed booths of the Jewish deli where Bowling’s boyfriend, the iconic DJ and “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” Rodney Bingenheimer, has his own table. And it was at that table where we talked with Kansas about her upbringing in Los Angeles, her early fascination with low-grade horror films and B.C. Butcher, her first feature, which stars the likes of Kato Kaelin and Bingenheimer himself. The film is Bowling’s debut as a filmmaker and is being released today on the famed production and distribution company Troma’s digital streaming service. Troma is known for cult fare such as Toxic Avengers and Return to Nuke 'Em High. At seventeen, Bowling is in for a strange and wild ride with her cinematic pursuits, and being with Troma means that she is already in the right company. What you will learn in the following interview is that Bowling used a combination of production sources to fund B.C. Butcher, which include crowdfunding and a settlement from a car accident. Fate, it seems, stepped in at the right time. While other kids are gearing up for prom or college campus tours, Bowling is getting ready to “spend more money than she has ever spent in her entire life” to create a print of the film to project in movie theaters. In the following interview, you’ll understand that Kansas Bowling is surely a talent to watch.

Oliver Kupper: I want to talk about your upbringing. Did you grow up in Los Angeles?

Kansas Bowling: Yes. I was born in Beverly Hills. I lived in Hollywood, and then I moved to Topanga Canyon. I moved to Koreatown, then Mid-City, and then back to Hollywood. [Laughs.]

OK: Were your parents a part of the industry.

KB: No, not really. They did extra work, but all the kids do that. But not really. My mom works at Bloomingdale’s, and my dad works for the L.A. River.

OK: So there wasn’t really a film background. You jumped into it on your own?

KB: Yeah.

OK: You have a really interesting name. Were your parents artists or hippies?

KB: My dad’s a bit of a stoner. [Laughs.] They were in a popular grunge band in the 90s, when I was born. It was called Bottom 12. My mom was a backup singer, and my dad was a bass player. He used to get naked on stage.

OK: Was it based here?

KB: Yeah, it was based here. They didn’t have an album come out though. My dad has this big story about, “Oh, we could have made it!”

OK: Growing up, did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?

KB: Pretty much always. Ever since I knew what a filmmaker was. Before that, I wanted to be a firefighter, but that didn’t happen. [Laughs.]

OK: And then film came along?

KB: Yeah. I was a really big fan of Quentin Tarantino, since I was 7 years old. My sister and I would play Kill Bill. We had fake samurai swords. I would always be Lucy Liu, and my sister would be Uma Thurman. We would film it and stuff.

OK: How did you get access to those movies? Not a lot of kids are able to see Tarantino movies when they’re that age.

KB: My parents didn’t really care what we watched. Sometimes, they would introduce movies to us. But a lot of the time, we would just find movies on our own. They didn’t really care. Especially when I was older, like a teenager, my parents had never heard of the movies I was watching. Therefore, they didn’t care what I was watching. I watched I Spit on your Grave when I was 13. They had no idea what that was. It has the most horrific rape scene of all time.

OK: Specifically, the horror film genre—gore, exploitation films—is that what you got interested in?

KB: I don’t necessarily just love exploitation films, but I love lower-budget films. I feel like they have the most heart. Not just horror films, but also American-International Beach Party movies, Annette Funicello. I don’t know, just weird sixties and seventies sex comedies. Doris Wishman, Diary of a Nudist. Stuff like that.

OK: Can you remember the first film you ever saw? Or the first film that made an impact on you?

KB: Probably Kill Bill. And then when Death Proof came out, I liked that even more. I saw it when it came out, and that’s when I found out about those kinds of movies. I started watching Troma movies shortly after that, when I was about 12.

OK: And you started making films after that.

KB: I used to shoot little short films with my friends. It was fun. They were really silly. We’d have mini-premieres with all our parents. There were little red carpets we would set up, and we would take paparazzi photos. [Laughs.]

OK: And your parents were supportive of what you were doing?

KB: Of course. They were always really supportive.

OK: A lot of kids have no idea what they want to do. Or, their parents try to steer their kids into a different direction.

KB: They knew what I wanted to do, and they saw this passion and ambition that I had. They didn’t want to get in the way of anything.

OK: When you started making your first films, you started working with Super 8?

KB: I got a Super 8 camera when I was 13, for Christmas.

OK: Did you immediately know how to use it? Do you have any mentors that you started working with?

KB: It was pretty simple. My sister and I didn’t know about lighting at first. We shot a lot of things indoors at night that never turned out. [Laughs.] But we figured it out eventually.

OK: Let’s jump into the movie, “B.C. Butcher.” Where did that idea come from? That’s your first feature film, right?

KB: Yeah. Me and my friend, Kenzie Givens, wrote it when we were in high school, just because we were bored. I met her in high school because she opened up her locker, and she had a picture of Jack Nance from Eraserhead. I walked up behind her and said, “Oh my god, I love Jack Nance!” She screamed and fell over. [Laughs.] We became really good friends. The next day, we went to Cinefamily and saw the movie Possession together. She’s really in love with John Waters. I’m really in love with Roger Corman. So we decided to make a movie together. I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made something so cheap? All we would have to do is run around in a state park or something, with loin cloths. We could make a caveman movie.” And then she said, “Yeah, or a slasher movie.” Then we were both like, “Oh my god, a caveman slasher movie!” And then we just started writing it together. I was fifteen when we started writing it, and she was sixteen or seventeen.

OK: Did you make it during the summer or the school year?

KB: We graduated at the same time. I graduated my junior year, and she graduated her senior year. She went off to college, so she didn’t get to help me make it. But we said we were going to make it. I didn’t want her leaving to stop me, so I went ahead and made it.

OK: Where did you get the funding for the film? Did you crowdsource it or find producers?

KB: I shot one scene to use on Indiegogo. I got the money for that one scene from insurance money from a car accident. It was such a minor car accident, so it was no big deal.

OK: So it was fate?

KB: Yeah, it was definitely fate. I did one scene and put it online for a crowdfunding thing. I didn’t really get my goal, because I was pretty naïve. I thought, “Oh, I’ll put it up, and people will give me ten grand.” But I got $1500. A lot of it was because people started writing articles about it. I went to Monsterpalooza, this horror movie convention, and I passed out flyers to everybody. I passed some out to the right people, and they wrote about it. Fangoria wrote an article about it. This website called Birth.Movies.Death did a big thing that brought a lot of money. It didn’t get me all the money that I needed, but it did get me a lot of exposure.

OK: It’s hard to get a movie made, even a low-budget film. Especially when you’re younger and people don’t know what’s going to come out of it.

KB: Yeah. After that, I still wanted to get the money from my original goal. It took me about eight more months to raise that money, getting jobs and stuff. But I love it.

OK: Your cast is really interesting, specifically Kato Kaelin. How did that come about?

KB: Rodney [Bingenheimer] introduced me to him. They go to IHOP together all the time.

OK: Were you aware of who he was in the nineties?

KB: Yeah, he’s Kato Kaelin. Rodney said one day, “You know who you should have in your movie? Kato Kaelin. Here’s his phone number.” I called and said, “Hey, Kato, this is Kansas. Will you be in my movie?” Kato is so funny and so nice. He’s a really, really good person. He was so professional and cool. He added to a lot of his lines, and they’re the best lines in the movie.

OK: Was it mainly ad lib?

KB: Kato was the only one to ad lib. Kato was only supposed to be in one scene, but we expanded the role to give him more screen time. I told him, “Say whatever you want.” And it worked.

OK: When is the release of the film?

KB: It’s going to be on Troma’s new streaming service, called TromaNow on Friday. That’s available to TromaNow subscribers. The official release date is in March. The DVD is going to come out. We’ll have a theatrical release too. Video on demand, of course. Amazon.

OK: Do you have plans to go to film school, or will you just keep making more movies?

KB: Film school is such a waste of money. My sister is an actress. The other day, she had to go to an audition at a film school. I came with her, and I was waiting outside the room, poking my head into all these classrooms. There was a classroom where the teacher was showing a class YouTube clips of Eddie Murphy stand-up comedy. These kids are paying $100,000 a year to watch Eddie Murphy clips on YouTube. [Laughs.] I’m not going to film school.

OK: You could use $100,000 to make another movie.

KB: Exactly. I could make 10 movies.

OK: Do you want to go in the direction of this type of movie?

KB: Definitely. I don’t like serious movies. I like fun movies.

OK: That’s how some movies should be. There are a lot of serious movies, but people should be able to have fun at the movies too. Do you have any ideas for another film?

KB: I have a bunch of ideas lined up. It was hard to pick, but I did pick. But it’s a surprise. I keep giving hints. It’s going to be a pseudo-documentary.

OK: Is it going to be like Cannibal Holocaust? 

KB: Sort of, but not quite on that level. Have you seen Faces of Death?

OK: I’ve heard of it.

KB: It’s going to be sort of like that, with the narrator standing there. It’s going to be like an education film, but totally fake.

OK: You mentioned Roger Corman as one of your heroes. Have you met him? Do you have plans to reach out to any of your heroes and see if they want to work with you?

KB: I have met Roger Corman once. I just ran up to him and hugged him. I was 14 probably. He thought I was so weird. I was wearing this big, black fur cape and black leather pants and white go-go boots. I saw him at LACMA and hugged him so tight. I was like, “I love you!!!” And he was like, “Thank you.” I think I did the same thing to Jack Hill, who directed Spider Baby. When I was fourteen, I asked Quentin Tarantino to marry me.

OK: What was his response?

KB: He said, “When you’re eighteen, we’ll see.”

OK: Are you a film purist? Do you want to make things on film exclusively?

KB: Definitely. 100%.

OK: What is your advice to other young people that want to make a movie?

KB: Don’t sit around thinking about it. Just do it, because it’ll be worth it. 

You can watch B.C. Butcher, written and directed by Kansas Bowling, on Troma's digital streaming service here. Follow Kansas on Instagram here to stay in loop with her cinematic pursuits. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE