Nathan Oldfield is an Australian surfer, shaper, and filmmaker who creates achingly beautiful and thoughtful surfing films. Lines From A Poem and Seaworthy are the result of his unique vision. Nathan shares with us his life and loves.
What was it like growing up in Australia?
Wonderful. I was born out in the country in the Blue Mountains and basically grew up on my uncle and auntie’s farm doing special childhood things: climbing trees, flying kites, collecting eggs, catching lizards, watching clouds. Dad was a school teacher and a surfer, so we would spend most school holidays somewhere near the beach. Then when I was 10, we moved to the coast to a house (on the top of a hill on the edge of a national park) overlooking the sea. It was perfect because I could run down the hill through the bush every day to go surfing. I spent all my teenage years there and it had a huge influence on me. At the south end of the beach was a right-hand point, just a draining slab of a wave really, that I deeply connected to and fell in love with. It was a fairly heavily localized spot with a strict pecking order, but I persevered and over the years I earned my place out there. So I feel really fortunate, absolutely blessed, to have had the childhood I experienced. My family loved me. I never went hungry. All I knew was peace and health and happiness. I had much more than so many other children growing up around the world. I’m very grateful.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I had always had access to Dad’s old single fins growing up because he made and rode his own boards. But I remember the first surfboard I could call my own was a little swallowtail thruster I got secondhand for my birthday. I was maybe 11 or 12. It was an early eighties board from the transition period between twinnies and thrusters, so the centre fin wasn’t fixed; it had a fin box. The board had airbrushed rails that transitioned from red to orange to yellow, a kind of metallic glitter in the filler coat, crazy early eighties graphics and it was called a “Surface Fish”. Dad and I fixed the dings and polished her up. and she was my pride and joy. Just thinking about that board fills me with deep nostalgia. I think I gave it away years later to some local kid who needed a board, but, geez, I wish I had it with me now.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Because my Dad surfed (and my uncles too), I was exposed to surfing from a really young age, so I don’t have a very clear memory of standing for the first time. I do remember certain things though—really early memories of bodysurfing, my first clean trim on a green face standing up, my first proper turn, my first real tube ride. All those moments became deeply embedded in my soul; they became part of me and drew me deeper into the romance with sea that surfing imparts.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
When I was very little, my Dad and his brothers. I just wanted to grow up and be a surfer and make surfboards like them. As I got older I really looked up to the surfing of Mark Richards, Richard Cram, Tom Carroll and Martin Potter. But my favourite surfer was always Tom Curren. Everyone else surfed crazy good, but Curren danced. His approach had a huge impact on my understanding of what pure waveriding should be. Also, apart from surfers, I was interested in and inspired by artists—poets, authors, musicians, photographers, filmmakers.
What inspired you to begin shooting images/film?
I’ve been taking photos ever since I was young. Dad found an old 1960’s Canon SLR that had been his and passed it on to me. I was hooked. I used to pore over old copies of National Geographic and study the shots: composition, light, angle, subject. So I’ve always taken photos, and I guess the move to surf photography and then the transition to surf filmmaking was a natural extension of that activity. Dad taught me to always be a do-it-yourselfer; he taught me to make my own surfboards when I was about 15 or 16. So surfboard building has been a part of my life for 20 odd years, and in lots of ways photography and filmmaking are similar. They’re just part of what I do as a surfer.
What was the inspiration for your latest film, Seaworthy?
I made my first film, called Lines From A Poem, with no formal training and no idea of what I was doing basically. But the goal I had in mind was to make enough money to buy a new camera. After about a year, I saved enough to get a semi-professional camera secondhand and I began gathering footage. I was taking my time and relaxing with it and still getting my thoughts together about where I wanted the film to go, but I didn’t have any solid ideas or direction.
Then our daughter, Willow, was stillborn and I was suddenly and shockingly hurled into a whole universe of grief. Losing a child isn’t something I would wish on anyone. But as I began to travel the grief journey, I felt the need to tell Willow’s story. I came up with the idea of making a board in honour of her memory, having lots of friends ride it and documenting the story in a film. That board became a little 5’5” quad fish I called Noelani, and in lots of ways it is the centerpiece around which Seaworthy revolves. So Willow, really, was my primary inspiration for making Seaworthy. It has been one of her gifts to me.
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?
I don’t especially feel qualified to give advice but I’d say this: Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Do it now! I think it’s always important to run with an idea or a dream or a passion you have for something. Making things is a healthy and noble pursuit— whether it’s a film, a poem, a painting, a photograph, a song, a surfboard, a home-cooked meal. Do it from a pure place in your heart, and go for it.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
My first overseas trip was to Western Samoa and it was a beautiful experience. It was about 15 years ago, pre-surf camps and packaged tours and internet forecasts. Just six weeks of adventuring, finding spots, scoring, getting skunked, searching and surfing myself silly. We got incredible surf, but what emerged for me as being most significant was connecting with the people. We stayed in the villages with local families who were dirt poor, but generous with what they had. It was a beautiful experience and I ended up visiting there for a few years in a row. I also really enjoyed traveling around Spain with my wife some years ago before we had kids. I have family there, so it was a kind of homecoming in lots of ways. We did a lap around the country and had a really special journey together. We love it over there and can’t wait to go back. Apart from that, I love the north coast of New South Wales: warm water, long right hand points, rolling green hills. It’s one of the most beautiful places in all the world that I’ve ever been, for sure.
Who/what inspires you?
I’m inspired by creativity. Anyone who makes beautiful things can inspire me: shapers, writers, painters, dancers, poets, musicians, filmmakers. But I’m especially inspired by nature. A bit of solitude in the great outdoors under a clean wide sky helps recharge me.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Life is fragile and fleeting, but it is also sacred and good. Every breath is a gift. I try, but so often imperfectly, to live in a way that expresses gratitude to God for that gift.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Of course! I never understand when people say, “I don’t have any regrets.” Of course I do. I make mistakes and fall short of my potential all the time. I regret them when they happen, and hopefully then I learn from them, grow beyond them and move on.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really, really proud of my wife, Eliza. She is beautiful and creative and passionate and wise. I get stoked when people meet her because she’s just so personable and endearing and positive. I am very proud to have been given the privilege of being her husband. Together we have helped bring four beautiful children into the world: Noa, Willow, Blossom and River. Beyond all the things I can ever make with my hands (surfboards, photographs, poems, songs, films, bonsais), they are the contribution to the world that I’m most proud of, hands down.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
I’ve been surfing for nearly a quarter of a century, so I can’t really remember what it’s like to not be a surfer. It’s helped shape who I am as a human being. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I’m happy to repeat it here. For me, surfing is purely an extraordinary gift. Surfing isn’t a sport; it isn’t just a physical activity. It’s actually metaphysical, an experience of heart and the spirit. Surfing is a way of being and breathing. It’s joy and shelter and desire. Surfing is a place to go to, a place to be, a place to belong.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Quality time with my family. Good, uncrowded waves. Making stuff.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I think we’re at a good place in lots of ways. People are open to new ideas and there are so many creative, inspired, talented people in surfing today. I reckon there are probably too many to name, but they are the surfers who are making films and photographs, painting and drawing, making music, crafting beautiful handmade surfboards, writing, organising festivals, paying homage to our elders, designing t-shirts and boardshorts, keeping blogs, riding a whole range of equipment, celebrating diversity. They’re hard at work, believing in what they do, excited and grateful to be surfers and eager to share that sense of stoke and thankfulness. All that creative activity is really significant and not just for its own sake, but because it helps nurture the heartbeat of surfing today and for the future.
What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board?
Thrusters. Logs. Fish. Alaias. Single fins. Handplanes. Swim fins. At the moment, I’m pretty addicted to a new log I made a few months back, and I’m really enjoying getting to know a little high performance quad fish that Sage Joske just made me.
What is your favorite surf spot?
I have a few places that are my favourites, but the one dearest to my heart is a little out-of-the-way rocky cove tucked away in a national park not far from where I live. It is a special piece of coast, with ancient Aboriginal rock carvings etched in secret caves in the surrounding valley. You have to walk in through the bush to get there, and in the little bay there is a nice right-hander that breaks across a rock shelf that I have surfed and loved since childhood. It’s a sacred place where there are few signs of civilisation, only sandstone cliffs that tumble steeply into the Pacific. It is my favourite place in all the world, but not just because of the wave. It is a little beach that means a lot to my family because it is where we gave our daughter Willow’s ashes to the sea. Whenever I go down there, whether for a bushwalk or for a surf, it’s always with a sense of homecoming.
What’s your favorite meal?
Sushi and sashimi in the summertime. In the winter, a plate of my wife’s curry. And my Dad makes the best paella outside of Spain. It’s legendary.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I’m always on the lookout for new music for films, and just generally excited about music altogether. It’s one of my biggest passions in life. If you asked me this question next week, I’d probably have a new answer. But at the moment … Fanfarlo, Midlake, Small Sur, Sigur Ros, Noah and The Whale.
What are you most grateful for?
My family. My faith. My health. A happy childhood. A surfing life.
What’s next for Nathan Oldfield?
I always want to get better at being a husband and a dad. So that’s something I’ll keep working on. Apart from that, I’m currently working away at my next film, taking photographs, making some boards, some writing, and maybe a couple small projects with friends. At the end of the day, I always want to make things. Hopefully, they can be things that are beautiful, things that I can be proud of.
More information about Nathan Oldfield and his films can be found here.