Filmmaker Focus: Jeremy Rumas
Filmmaker Focus: Jeremy Rumas / Hangs Upon Nothing
Hangs Upon Nothing is an aesthetic masterpiece, lovingly captured on 16mil by artist/filmmaker/musician Jeremy Rumas. This is the culmination of a six year passion project, an ode to Indonesia and beyond and combines sublime surfing, compelling cinematography and an original score by Turbo-fire to Zenith. It’s been described as ‘Channelling the essence of Morning of the Earth and mixing it with the pure vibe of Litmus’. High praise indeed for a first time filmmaker. Hangs Upon Nothing had its European Premiere at the London Surf / Film Festival 2013 where it was awarded an Honourable Mention by the festival screening panel. Chris Nelson caught up with Jeremy Rumas to find out more about the project.
For Hangs Upon Nothing you shot the footage, scored the music, edited the film and produced all the amazing art that goes with it. What led you into such a massive undertaking?
It all started with an idea I got out in the water during my first surf trip. I sat on my board in this crystal clear glistening blue water, looked up and saw a big frigate bird soaring overhead. I could smell cooking fires from the nearby village, and there were small swell lines rolling through. I thought to myself ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. I’d love to make a film about what this feels like someday.’
I kept floating the idea around for quite a while, a couple years. I remember the exact moment when I decided to go for it. I was sitting by myself in a really crummy practice room I rented in Chicago to record music in, just tinkering with music ideas, but I knew I wanted to make something substantial. I hadn’t stumbled upon that one idea yet, but felt really over the cramped city at the time. I said to myself, ‘I’m out of here, I’m going to make a surf film.’
Did you come from a filmmaking background? More and more filmmakers are shooting everything on digital. What lead you to shoot on 16mm – with all its financial and technical differences?
I come more from an animation and storyboarding background, doing various sorts of commercial art, from hand drawn animation to storyboarding to some concept art. I took one filmmaking class in college, and I learned to shoot with a 16mm Bolex there. When I first set off to make this movie, I bought a digital video camera and headed off on a three month trip to Samoa, Tokelau, and the East Coast of Australia and Tasmania. I shot a lot of footage with surfers I met along the way. I got some great footage and met some great characters. But something just seemed a little lacking with my footage – it didn’t feel to me like a movie.
Back in Chicago a friend showed me The September Sessions. I loved the look of the footage and I remember thinking ‘now this looks like a movie.’ I just loved the look and feel of it and instantly decided to sell my video camera and buy a 16mm Bolex. I found one on Ebay that looked as if it had never been used. I didn’t think through all the difficulties at the time, but shooting film is very challenging. Traveling with lots of film is challenging and it’s very expensive. I took some six month trips where I never saw what any of the footage looked like until I got home.
The film avoids the route of allowing a voice-over to tell the story and lets the images drive the narrative. It also gives the amazing footage room to breathe and sink in. Was this a conscious decision from the outset?
This was my original vision. I wanted to make a surf film where the viewer could sit back and feel like they were personally on the journey throughout the film. I did toy with the idea of adding my own narration and when I premiered the film in Hawaii I added some live narration. But I’ve decided that for the official cut, it will be true to my original vision. I feel my narration sort of made the film feel more clunky, like traveling to amazing places with a tour guide. With just visuals and music and sounds of the places mixed in, plus a few stories and recordings of the people in the film, it feels more like going on a journey.
You have some great characters in the film – Chuck Corbett, Mikala and Daniel Jones, Timmy and Ryan Turner. Did you set out with a cast in mind? I understand you spent time crossing from Hawaii on Chuck’s boat – how was that?
I’ll also add the Padma Boys from Padma, Bali to that list, including twin brothers Darmaputra Tonjo and Damrayasa Bleronk. These guys are a riot, they’re good friends, and were so much fun to film with and surf with.
Chuck Corbett is the only character I set out to include in the movie from the get go, everyone else I met while traveling. I had found some postings from Chuck online years ago, and got in touch with him. There was a page that uploaded by someone who knew him, with some descriptions of surf in the equatorial Pacific and stories of surfing them alone for many years. I became a bit fascinated and set out to include him in the movie and ended up spending a total of seven and a half months as volunteer crew on the boat he was captaining, the Tuaraoi. It was the most trying time of my life, and also the greatest adventure I’ve been on. I almost threw in the towel a few times and was tempted to go home to Indiana and not finish this movie. Chuck and I didn’t always see eye to eye, and being on a boat together for that long, it can be a challenge.
When we made the crossing from Hawaii to Kiribati, it was the peak of Cyclone season. Experienced sailors in Hawaii told me they’d never think of going then. If a Cyclone whips up, there is nowhere to outrun it. I had nightmares before we left, of the Tuaraoi as a ghost ship. Chuck is one of those guys who has a sixth sense for the water, for waves especially. So this gave me some confidence. But he also was not very experienced sailing, and he was the first to admit that. Fortunately the worst that happened during the crossing was that the main sail tore in two. I was going to try to film it flailing in the wind, but Chuck’s blood curdling scream of “Where’s Jeremy??!!!!!” got my camera out of my hands and I got to work helping out. I was bummed for a long time that I didn’t get the shot. Another time we narrowly missed the reef, and I remember looking up and seeing Chuck’s cartoonish look of shock as we just missed it. Chuck is one of a kind, and he has a surf story for the ages. It would make an interesting book.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mikala and Daniel Jones when they came down to stay on Chuck’s boat. From then on they became a central part of the movie. The majority of the movie interweaves their travels and adventures with the lives of the Padma Boys. On Chuck’s boat I showed them a bit of my footage and Mikala and Daniel invited me to come film with them anytime. That was really the biggest break I got in making this movie. A chance meeting on an atoll, and that encounter really led to what the film turned into.
The soundtrack really helps set the tone of the film and complements the footage. Was it written specifically for the film, how long did it take to write and record and will it be available as an album?
The soundtrack is an original score by my band Turbofire to Zenith. We really just got together to make this soundtrack. It was a collaborative effort spanning a few years. In between trips I’d take for filming, back home in Indiana we’d jam and work out musical ideas. We met up about once a month, sometimes one of us would bring ideas to the table, or I’d have some main ideas worked out for sections of the film and we’d jam to that. About half the songs came about just by improvised jamming. When we’d kick something out that worked well with a certain scene, we’d revisit it and refine it. Sometimes they were best on the first take. We are planning on releasing the soundtrack as an album. Stay tuned!