BETH O'Rourke: SeaLEVEl.TV

Interview by Glenn Sakamoto

 
Photo: Duncan McKenzie

Photo: Duncan McKenzie

Beth O'Rourke is a California-based surfer/filmmaker and the founder of SeaLevel TV, a documentary film company dedicated to telling "Salty stories of substance." Her own story is a fascinating path filled with wonder, creativity and taking that big risk. We recently spoke with Beth to learn more.

What was your childhood like?

I was raised by rowdy Irish people in Boston, Massachusetts. Pretty much everything you’ve seen in the movies and read in books is true. Lucky for me, there were a few genteel relatives thrown in the mix that showed me a different way with arts and letters. And I spent a lot of time in and around the ocean, on boats and on the beaches.

In between piano lessons, drawing, riding BMX bikes and building tree forts deep in the woods, I skied in the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire and ran distance races. I think I was eight or nine when I won my first event. Those early years brought me life lessons about the merits of hard work, pushing through setbacks and injuries, and the righteous pride of achievement. These things continue to propel me each day.

Fast forward to twenty three years of age, I picked up a degree in Art (printmaking) and Art History from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Shortly thereafter, I bucked the trend of my all my friends and opted out of moving to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My summer vacation in San Francisco turned into twenty years. It is there that I grew into an adult.

When did you get your first surfboard?

I picked up my first Roger Hinds surfboard and Hotline wetsuit at the ripe old age of 27 from Wise Surf Shop in San Francisco.


Catching my first green water wave was a completely hallucinatory experience that happened on a borrowed board at sunset in Bolinas, California. It all came together for me in that moment— the rush, the speed, the glide, the look of the liquid jewel water under me.


What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?

Let me preface this answer by letting you know that I’d already had an abundance of muscle memory experience that technically approximated surfing. Growing up I regularly hucked myself off a cornice into a steep, powdery bowl or enjoyed the meditative fury of long singletrack, technical switchback descents on my mountain bike.

Surfing a wave felt a bit different because not only was I moving, I was moving along with the kinetic energy of a wave. Catching my first green water wave was a completely hallucinatory experience that happened on a borrowed board at sunset in Bolinas, California. It all came together for me in that moment— the rush, the speed, the glide, the look of the liquid jewel water under me. Getting out, one of my friends noticed that that I had an altered, wild look in my eye — I’d heavily caught the buzz.

What inspired you to begin shooting documentaries?

I’d started making original short films back in the ‘90s and that eventually let to writing and producing TV campaigns later in my career. In advertising, I was always very interested in exposing real stories. I thought by always showing a true human element, with all it’s messy quirkiness in a sea of fictional fantasy, would be refreshing to audiences.

I’d hired Jeff den Broeder (my partner in SeaLevelTV) as a Director of Photography on several commercial campaigns and we just clicked. During our time working together, we began to hatch the idea of telling very personal stories about people that make their lives around the ocean using documentary filmmaking as the medium. The inspiration came from a few places: when we looked at surfy films we saw mostly high-action, tear the top off the wave, shred til you’re dead kind of stuff (which, incidentally, I love watching) and realized that we actually had something to contribute to the genre in the form of human interest stories. We were living amidst subject matter that was a central part of our own identities.

Stil taken from SeaLevel TV film, "The Josh Hall Story."

Stil taken from SeaLevel TV film, "The Josh Hall Story."

Can you explain what your tagline “Salty Stories of Substance” means?

So many of us are drawn to the ocean for so many reasons. As a result of those relationships, we have salty stories to tell. Some are more important than others, some contain ingredients that might be hidden to most. In uncovering those pivotal, life altering, poignant moments, we find substance beyond our corporeal selves. That substance links us all together. That and I’m a complete sucker for that stylistic literary device known as alliteration.


I look for unadulterated intentions unaffected by trend, wrapped in an attitude of DIY, and unwavering conviction that their life’s work isn’t necessarily chosen, rather it’s an unavoidable, everyday act. Self-effacing humor and a punk rock attitude is not a requirement but is always a bonus.


What do you look for in a subject to do a feature on?

I look for unadulterated intentions unaffected by trend, wrapped in an attitude of DIY, and unwavering conviction that their life’s work isn’t necessarily chosen, rather it’s an unavoidable, everyday act. Self-effacing humor and a punk rock attitude is not a requirement but is always a bonus.

Some people possess remarkable qualities that comprise the archetypal story pattern know as “The Hero’s Journey.” This idea was introduced by Joseph Campbell in 1949 via his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Before written language and anything that resembled journalism, oral history was largely composed of traditional myths. Spoken, shared stories explained the inexplicable and dealt with everyday people enduring phenomenal, spiritual events — plunging into the fearsome and unknown darkness — and coming out the other side, transformed.

Suffering is familiar to every single person on earth, regardless of what their social media feed may indicate. Normal people react similarly to this universal feeling of pain. However, there are a select few that have an ability to transcend the most difficult, seemingly insurmountable aspects of life. Much of that transformation is abstract and difficult to capture and show through one medium. Filmmaking is one of those creative forms that allows us deep access to core emotions through the proper balance of of visuals and sound.

Finally, throughout the process I’m constantly asking questions that, in my mind, get me closer to understanding the value of putting that story out there: By representing this person’s story, will others benefit from knowing? Even if someone may disagree with the lifestyle, politics, type of boards they ride, their lack of a plant-based diet, etc, will a viewer walk away feeling like watching and listening was worthwhile way to spend their precious time?

Still taken from the SeaLevel TV short film, "Inside the Mind of Sachi Cunningham

Still taken from the SeaLevel TV short film, "Inside the Mind of Sachi Cunningham

Of the many people you have interviewed, can you share a few things you’ve discovered?

Having a narrow focus, strong point of view, and a personal connection with the subjects of the films allows me to stay on message much more easily than if I were to cover, say something like the ocean’s critical role in the health of our planet. James Joyce summed it up when he wrote, “The particular is contained in the universal”.

I’ve discovered that I’m a “hope-aholic” (appropriated from Gloria Steinham — so corny!) and I’m fine with embarrassing myself. In fact, I do that on a surfboard all the time. Also, in general, humans are a creative, tenacious, optimistic lot. I’ve also learned that it takes a whole lot of trust and emotional investment on both sides to be able to tell a story that best and most authentically reflects all aspects of someone’s life experience. They have to trust that I’m going to accurately and creatively represent their story. That’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously.


I don’t want to sound all zen and mystical because I’m absolutely neither, but there’s something very joyous, serious and intimate about riding a wave really well. You know, these waves could give a shit about us and our frothing ways.


What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?

Surfing has so many different meanings. My friend and retired professor John R. Gillis observed that entering the ocean is crossing a threshold and once we step through, we experience a different realm. He said, as surfers, we enjoy this wonderful experience all the time. He also describes the shore as a “liminal space”, one that’s always shifting and changing, never static. For me, the never ending variations form the basis for the fascination and love affair with the ocean and it’s shores. Surfing tends to be mostly a social activity that shifts my attention away from my romantic love of the sea to more of a bonding around this this love with other like-minded people. I don’t want to sound all zen and mystical because I’m absolutely neither, but there’s something very joyous, serious and intimate about riding a wave really well. You know, these waves could give a shit about us and our frothing ways. The best we can do is complement this wonder of wild nature by performing the most graceful dance possible. Some surf to conquer, rip, slash,shred and tear the top off of of a wave. Mostly I’m looking for the connection to the source of the wave’s power, right there in the curl, where it feels like miracles can happen.

What brings you the most happiness in the world?

Caring for my best friends and family and making things like drawings, paintings, music, photos, films and baked goods. Taking risks is also a huge source of happiness. And If I’m near the beach and I have all that, it’s happiness.

However, I think the human concept of happiness generates a lot of unhappiness, because that ideal is unattainable for so many. I believe it resides in all of us, even if we’re unable to access it when we think we should. There’s a good thread on “Quora” that you might want to check out: “Are people really happy or is happiness just a myth?”. You know that we rely on myths like we rely on food, shelter and clothing to survive both emotionally and physically, so who really knows?

Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?

That’s a gigantic question that I’ll try to answer very simply: there are so many “paths” in surfing today. “Shaping a path” I think is a metaphor for progression. You can trace the essential elements of most activities considered “sports” back to when they first began. Those basic cultural, experiential, physical and mental bits remain constant, from inception to present. The evolution occurs when things happen like equipment improvements/technology, leisure time increases, athletes train and push performance levels to new heights, etc. Surfing is no different than any other physical pursuit that takes place in the wild and relies on what nature has to offer that day. The people that are shaping the path for surfing today are cognizant of all this. The more you understand the history, thinking and experimentation at certain critical times in the development, the more you’ll be contributing to shaping the path.

If you look at a kid like Ryan Burch shredding on a block of foam, you’ll understand that it’s less about progression and more about regression. He’s making a statement by moving away from all that technology that we’re supposed to pay big money for to bring us closer to that feeling of mastery and pointing out that you don’t need any of it to surf. It’s truly counter to popular beliefs and mainstream marketing and I love it.

Beyond that, it’s all the groms that I see in the lineup who shred and shape their own wave riding vehicles, studying the old masters and maintaining a positive, humble attitude in and out of the water. I look at them and imagine the future is in good hands.


 I could see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and the cliffs of San Mateo County past Sloat to the south and the city right there in front of me — the place that contained my life for the past twenty years. When I finally got out and my feet touched the sand, I began to sob.


What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?

My favorite short board is my 5-10 Andreini Bullet and my favorite longboard is my 9-1 traditional noserider by Bill “Blinky” Hubina out of Ventura Surf Shop. Both were shaped for me and for that I am grateful. I say these things yet I fall in love with all different types of boards so easily. When I’m surfing with friends I always try to get them to swap so I can see how they are experiencing the wave that day.

My favorite surf spot is Ocean Beach, San Francisco. I moved away from there four years ago. On a recent trip back to the city, I went surfing and caught some really fun left handers with a small group of friends. As they all got out, I stayed in and and watched the sun sink behind me. I could see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and the cliffs of San Mateo County past Sloat to the south and the city right there in front of me — the place that contained my life for the past twenty years. When I finally got out and my feet touched the sand, I began to sob. That was the first place I’d ever surfed, the first place I’d gotten into a legit stand-up barrel, and a place that I thought would drown me on too many occasions. That connection will always be there.

What's your favorite meal?

Ice cream - that’s a meal, right?

What are you currently listening to on Spotify?

S-town (podcast) and a lot of grinding, wall-of-sound style heavy metal.

What are you most grateful for?

First, I’m most grateful for having the privilege of being here on this earth, which might sound corny, but I’m not kidding. After that I’m grateful for my son and my ability to have meaningful, loving relationships with so many different people.

Without the support of all the film festivals and audiences all over the world, my films would be nothing, so I’m eternally grateful for all the people that sustain my ability to do what I love.

What's next for Beth O’Rourke?

I just delivered a short film to Blue Magazine (Japan) entitled, “The Glory of the Glide”, about the San Diego “Big Board” featuring Skip Frye, Josh Hall, Devon Howard, Jen Smith and Erin “Worm” Ashley that’s due out this summer. Thanks to the San Diego Surf Film Festival, we recently screened an edit right there in La Jolla at ground zero. The loud hooting and hollering from the audience led me to believe that I probably did a good job on this one.

Be on the lookout for a podcast by Stacie Vanags (Salted Spirit) in the coming months. I sat down with Stacie last month and discussed creative process, my upbringing and how I’ve become the affable, neurotic, compulsive animal I am today.

Speaking of baggage, I’m involved in a bag collaboration with my good friend, Nate Tyler. Were in heavy prototyping right now and it’s really tough not to spill all of the beans because I’m so excited about how it’s shaping up.

And finally, I’m looking forward to a summer filled with camping in my old Vanagon and travelling to contests up and down the California coast with my surfing family. I’m already a few contests deep into another year of captaining MSA’s comp team. I just got a first in my division at the LogJam! at Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz, so the fire is back and I’m ready to stinkbug stance my way into more finals this season.

Find out more about Sealevel.TV here or follow Beth O’Rourke on Instagram.