Catching Up With Joe G, Director of Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La

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Many of us have a fantasy world that exists only in our thoughts, where we travel the world, seeking adventures, and trying exciting new things—not a care in the world, save the whereabouts of the next big thrill. For this reason, Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La can be a bit difficult to watch, especially if you’re the jealous type. A beautiful documentary about a group of surfers in search of paradise (and—spoiler alert—they find it, in bits and pieces, in some of the most incredible places on Earth), Joe G’s latest film has such stunning visuals, it makes you want to burn your new iPhone 6, pack up the necessary belongings, and hit the waves. With an impressive soundtrack, and footage shot entirely on Kodak Super 16mm, there’s no question as to why Joe G is now one of the most sought-after surf filmmakers. Paste caught up with the director to talk strange rituals, surfing in Brazil, and frozen film in Iceland.

Paste Magazine: First off, I have to know if you tried the cobra blood they offered you in Indonesia.
Joe G: (laughs) Of course! We had to try the cobra blood. It’s funny, that particular shot is kind of shaky because one of our surfers was waving it off and I didn’t want to show that. He didn’t try it. But me and a couple of the guys checked it out, and it’s pretty invigorating.

Paste: I believe it!
Joe G: You end up doing some pretty weird stuff on those trips, to make the people who are showing you around happy.

Paste: That makes sense. I know so much of this project was about bringing together a community of surfers and fans. Can you talk a little about your early experiences in the surfing community, and how some of that might still inspire your work?
Joe G: I actually grew up in South Florida. There are tons of surfers there, but there are not a ton of waves. So our crew spent a lot of time thinking about surfing, and dreaming about surfing (laughs), but you don’t really spend that much time surfing. But if you think about some of the best surfers in the world—like Kelly Slater, who’s a couple of hours up the road from me, and some others on the world tour who grew up in similar situations—I think it actually does something to you. You long for it and dream about it for so long, you kind of have a different appreciation than you would if you grew up in a place that was really rich with waves. That helps a lot of the surfers, and—I hadn’t thought about it before—but maybe that is part of what helps me and drives me, even to this day.

I cannot express to you the excitement and the thrill that I get—being with our guys and traveling across the world to go find something. To get in sync with a storm that is sending swells from thousands of miles away, and then to be there the minute that it comes together—it’s just unbelievable.

Paste: There was a piece that you wrote for Bali Belly, where you talked about shooting in film. You wrote, “Life isn’t perfect and I love the thrill of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen with my film.” Were there any major surprises when you started developing the film for Shangri-La?
Joe G: There were! We got off to a pretty crazy start. The first trip we went on was to Iceland. We did that one first because we knew it would probably be the hardest, as far as getting good surf. It’s something people have tried to do for years and years. It’s a very difficult place and, obviously, it’s really cold and relatively unexplored. But it was this really incredible adventure. And we finally found this spot, at the foot of a glacier, and there were literally icebergs in the water. But the downdrafts that were coming off of the glaciers were so cold we didn’t realize it. The ambient air temperatures were okay, but the downdrafts actually froze my camera!

Paste: Wow.
Joe G: There weren’t, like, icicles on it, but it was just so cold it contracted the metal, and pulled the film away from the gate. So I shot a whole roll of film in this surreal, beautiful place, and I had no idea while we were shooting. But, we even ended up using one of those shots in the film—it’s kind of fuzzy and grainy. It’s one of those things where, the shots we get are so amazing and beautiful, and the ones you lose are kind of heartbreaking. But I still think it’s worth it—not having everything buttoned up and perfect.

Paste: Speaking of Iceland, I thought it was so interesting watching the surfers go from there to Brazil. I assume their bodies had to make a big adjustment to the shifts that came with each new location. For you, as the director, did you find yourself having to make big adjustments as you set up in each new place?
Joe G: Yeah, I had to try to stop from getting frostbite, to then try to stop from getting heatstroke.

Paste: Sure.
Joe G: And it’s true. You have to gear up differently. The traditional way of surf filmmaking—and I don’t know if there is a traditional way of doing it—but we’ve always put such an emphasis on performance. You end up going to the same places over and over again. That’s one thing that we wanted to avoid—we wanted to do something to break out of that box. It was a challenge that we weren’t used to facing. I didn’t even consider that we were going to a place where my camera might freeze. And in Brazil it was pretty crazy because we went in January, and that’s the height of their summer. You’re right on the equator, and it is so unbelievably hot.

And maybe it’s my lack of professionalism, but we weren’t prepared! It was so hot, you get to a spot and you’re like, “Wait a minute. How am I gonna stay conscious on the beach for eight hours?” When the waves are good and the condition is right, we all know that we have to stick it out.

Paste: Let’s talk a little about the music. How did you start working with the Dukes of Chutney? The soundtrack to this is really perfect.
Joe G: The Dukes of Chutney are John Paul Jones and Dustin Lynn. They’re two friends of mine, and we all worked together at a little independent surf film production company called Poor Specimen down in San Diego, probably ten years ago. We all worked on a few little projects here and there, but eventually went in separate directions. They started working together on their own music, and I just became a fan. For this project, I thought it’d be cool to have some original music. We ended up using some original stuff, and mostly stuff where they worked with us to find things on a consulting basis.

Music is such a huge part of surf films, obviously. There ends up being a lot of action or scenery juxtaposed with the music. It’s a big, big part of the process.

Paste: You had some beautiful women in this film, especially when we got to the scenes Brazil.
Joe G: (laughs) Yeah! I wonder how that happened.

Paste: Is there any chance you’ll get some women surfers for the next project?
Joe G: It’s funny, I was just out on the water surfing the other day and one of the girls was out there, surfing alongside me. And that exact thought hit me. She said some really nice things about the film, and she asked me the same question. I thought, “That’s crazy! How has this not happened?” So yeah, it’d be really fun to do that..

Paste: Speaking of future projects, are you working on anything right now that we should know about?
Joe G: We’re still doing the final things for Strange Rumblings. But one thing that was proposed to me—I don’t know if it’ll actually happen, but I’m super excited about it—was a 70 mm surf film for IMAX. I think it’d be the most amazing thing ever. Probably the biggest headache ever, but so amazing.

Paste: Well, this film was such a cool experience. It was like going on a really rad vacation, without leaving the house.
Joe G: Thanks! I know how crazy our lives are, and my life goes from being a crazy office-type life in L.A. to these adventures. That’s what I hope the movies do—inspire people to look and say, “Wait a minute. This world is gigantic and beautiful. I better get some people together, and go explore it.”

Paste: I think it will definitely have that effect, and I’m looking forward to more of your work. Thanks so much for this!
Joe G: Thank you!

Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La is now available for download on iTunes.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.