Interview: Ava Warbrick, Director – ‘Stephanie in the Water’

Stephanie Gilmore won her first world championship at age 17 on a day off from high school. Over the next four years she led the sport of surf, claiming consecutive world titles as the undisputed champ, until a violent turn of events abruptly ended her winning streak. ‘Stephanie in the Water‘ is an intimate documentary that chronicles Gilmore’s return to the top and the costs that come along with being a five time world champion.

Born and raised in New South Wales, Australia, Stephanie has dominated women’s professional surfing since she entered the scene in 2007 – winning a world title as a rookie and following with four titles in as many attempts – an accomplishment no other surfer, male or female, has achieved in the history of surfing. Beyond her five ASP world titles, Stephanie has 32 elite World Tour victories. For her triumphs, Stephanie has also been awarded both the Laureus World Sports Award in 2010, considered the most prestigious award in action sports worldwide, and has received two ESPN ESPYs for Female Action Sports Person in 2011 and 2013. Stephanie is considered one of the world’s most stylish female surfers- a leader in women’s surfing, carving out her own path between the highest competition success and her free surfing abilities.

Anticipating the iTunes and VOD release of ‘Stephanie in the Water‘, David Teich sat down with the film’s Director Ava Warbick to discuss the genesis of the film, as well as the surfing industry and much more.

Find ‘Stephanie in the Water’ on iTunes Starting on August 5, 2014HERE

How did you meet Stephanie, and what drew you to her story?
I met Steph in 2009. She was already on my radar as a pro surfer. I live in New York City, and I’d been visiting Australia where my dad lives. He’s involved in the surfing community, and we met through him. And when I met Stephanie, we instantly hit it off. We had a lot of like common interests in film and art and music, and we started coming up with ideas for small film projects we could collaborate on. Then I realized that there were some interesting themes developing that could be sculpted into a larger feature.

You say your dad is involved in the surf community—how long have you yourself been interested in surfing?
I grew up in a small coastal town in Australia that’s known for its surf breaks. So I grew up with the sport of surfing, and I’ve been interested in it my entire life. I’d been living in [New York City] for ten years, so this project was about getting  in touch with that part of my history.

SITW21For people who don’t know a lot about surfing, what are some of the things that set it apart from other sports.
Surfing has a sort of unique space within sport because you’re working with an element that’s outside of your control. The ocean has a giant power, and when you’re surfing you have to connect with nature. There are these unknown factors, and I think that’s something that’s really unique and magical about the sport.

What about Stephanie’s personality draws her to surfing?
Similar to myself, Stephanie grew up with a father who was a surfer and had her in the water at a very young age. And I think that surfing, more than any other sport that I can imagine, complements Stephanie’s personality type. She’s a very poised and present person, but she’s able to connect with factors that are less academic, that you can’t train for. It’s like tapping into the universe in a way, and I think that’s why surfing is her sport of choice. Surfing has that special quality that connects with her je ne sais quoi.

So do you think that, more so than with other sports, surfing requires a degree of innate talent that can’t be taught?
I think that like anything, if you put enough work into surfing you can become very good at it. But when you’re really at that very top, elite level, you have to have talent as well. And that’s something that I don’t think you can train for. Part of the way that surfing is scored on a competitive level is on style. And it’s hard to teach style. Of course you can learn the moves, you can become very fit, you can train, you can know how to do things the judges are looking for, but I think style is something that you either have or you don’t.

SITW2In the film, you talk about how competitive Stephanie is. In her mind, she’s failed if she comes in anything other than first place. Do you identify with that?
That quality in her is very different to me and my personal experience and worldview. But I think it’s very interesting, and it’s part of what makes her an athlete at the top of her field. She wants to be the best, number one in the world. As an artist you enjoy the process of doing things, and who knows what the outcome will be?  But for Stephanie, the goal is not just to experience the sport and the competition as process. The outcome is extremely important.

Stephanie was physically assaulted and seriously injured in 2010. Did you have any difficulty getting her to open up about that?
That occurred after I’d been shooting Stephanie for a few years. When you’re shooting a documentary, you really have no control over external factors, and you can never anticipate things like that. When that happened, I wanted to be very sensitive about how I approached it. But I think at that point Stephanie and I had a mutual trust. I spoke to her, and I asked if she was willing talk to me about on camera about [the attack], and she was happy to work with me on that. It was one of the first times she had really opened up about what had happened. It was sensitive material for her, and it was a challenge, but I think that it was important to include as part of our story. It really highlights a kind change that you see in her, and the way that she approaches everything, including competitive surfing.

So what are some of the ways that she’s different now than she was before the attack?
I think her awareness has changed. She’s really grown up a lot and come into her own as an adult. Directly after her attack and her injuries, I think she had a little bit a of a confidence shift and needed to reassess why she was doing things, what drove her. I think that her goals are the same, but I also think that she motivates herself differently. Everything came very easy to her before, and now she wants to pay more attention to what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.

SITW12Does she appreciate, perhaps more than she used to, just how difficult it is to win at the highest level?
I think that winning [four consecutive] world titles, and then having a year where she didn’t win one, did allow her to reflect on the precious nature of a win.

In surfing, it seems like people age out of the sport at a very young age. Do you think that this time limit is something that Stephanie is keenly aware of, or does she try to put it out of her mind?
It seems to me that other people are way more concerned about the age and career length of surfers than Stephanie is. And women’s surfing is changing so much. Ten years ago there were women that were much older on the tour. Now it seems they’re a bit younger. But as far as how long Stephanie wants to continue competing, she’s the holder of that answer.

Do you think she’s begun to think about what she’s going to do when her surfing career ends?
I don’t know if she’s thinking about it too directly. But I do know that she has a wide variety of interests, so I can imagine that she will pursue any number things if she’s not surfing competitively.

SITW13What are her other interests?
Stephanie is an incredible musician. We both play guitar, so that was one of the first things we connected over. She has interests in fashion and photography. She’s great in front of the camera. So who knows what she might end up doing? I imagine that she’ll pursue something creative.

And surfing itself qualifies as something creative.
Absolutely. And you hear her say that in the movie.  There’s a moment in the film where she’s surfing and she’s comparing it to drawing—how the difference between competitive surfing and free surfing is whether you’re staying in or out of the lines.

The shots that you got of Stephanie surfing were gorgeous. Can you talk about your visual approach to filming?
I worked with a cinematographer [Jesse Cain] who I have known for quite a long time. We shot on 16 millimeter [film]. We share a sensibility, and he has a great eye. And I was thinking about a lot of surf movies that were shot on film in the ‘90s, films by Sonny Miller and Andre Kidman and Jon Frank, which I was absorbing when I was younger. But [Jesse] had never shot surfing before, and I think we definitely brought a different kind of approach.

You once said in another interview that growing up as a professional athlete is kind of like both growing up quickly, and not growing up at all. Can you talk a bit more about that, especially as it relates to women surfers?
These girls are young, but they’re in their careers. My personal history was going to high school, going to college, and starting to work on building a career. But these girls head straight into a career right out of high school, and they’re performing on a world stage with cameras in their faces. So yes, they’re growing up very quickly. But at the same time, they are kids, and they’re traveling together…It feels very youthful and playful.

Do you think surfing is growing in popularity worldwide?
Right now surfing is getting more coverage and people are more aware of it. Back in the day it was considered sort of this counterculture activity, but it’s nice that it’s kind of a bit of both—it’s a lifestyle and it’s also a true competitive sport.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by David Teich

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