Filmmaker Focus: Matt Westcott

MiyazakiVibeAward-winning Canadian filmmaker Matt Westcott plied his trade shooting ski and snowboard movies before turning his hand to surf cinematography. His opening feature, Good Morning Miyazaki, is a high-paced and aesthetically spectacular film showcasing a unique corner of Japan. From single-fin cruisin’ to heavy typhoon-produced beach-break barrels and featuring Japan’s most stylish + accomplished surfers it is guaranteed to get you stoked while delivering fresh perspectives on the Land of the Rising Sun. Good Morning Miyazaki had it’s UK Premiere at the London Surf / Film Festival 2013 so Zac Heisey caught up with Matt about his latest film, what he has learned about Japanese surf culture, and what projects we might be able to expect from him in the near future.

What first brought you to Japan?
I met my wife in Canada in 2006. She is from Fukuoka. I met her at a party and less than a year later, I was in Japan and we were having our first kid. I surfed a bunch prior to ever going to Japan, but limited – sort of two weeks here and there. Living 15 hours from the coast, we didn’t get out much. When I was in Japan for the birth of my daughter, we were only 10 minutes from the beach, so I started surfing a little more regularly and is sort of when I got hooked on surfing.

I only stayed for three months the first time around because I was working for a ski website back in BC and still had some cool things going on film-wise in the ski and snowboard industry. I was at a point where I was pretty stoked to try something different with film so I went back to school for a year and did a post-grad course in Sports Journalism. When I finished that up, I didn’t really want to go back to the snow and had this real urge to surf, so I figured we could make a little bit of a living and surf in Japan. We decided to move back to Japan, and I had heard of Miyazaki from an old surfer I met while I was in Fukuoka the first time around. We’d surf and then sit around and have some beers and he’d talk about Miyazaki, this ‘Hawaii of Japan,’ and it stuck in my head. So I asked my wife, “How about Miyazaki? What’s that town all about?” and we decided to move back over on a whim and came straight down to Miyazaki.

With a background in ski and snowboarding films, what differences or difficulties did you find in making a surf film?
The ski and snowboard worlds are surprisingly far apart in terms of their culture versus the surf culture. Not only that, but surf culture in Japan – I didn’t know the lay of the land or the laws of the rulebook, so it was tricky at first. There was a lot of red tape and mixed feelings. Not too many people wanted us to make a surf film. They didn’t know who we were, and we couldn’t express what we wanted to do, that we weren’t trying to expose their spots to the rest of the world. I was just trying to show them my perspective of what they have in a good way, not in any kind of way to sell them out. It was hard to convey those messages and it took a really long time to get in and get people on the same page.

Other than that, I found filming surfing to be more relaxing than shooting skiing. Sitting up on the beach is pretty enjoyable, but I didn’t get in the water enough. We shot from the water, but I was shooting with a big, hefty Panasonic HVX camera and a really big housing. We had to shoot when it was low tide, standing. I’d say in-the-water videography would be, by far, the biggest challenge.

What is the surf culture like in Miyazaki and in Japan in general? How does it differ from surf culture in other places you have visited/surfed in?

I know for a fact that Miyazaki is in many ways a lot more low key and more down to earth, not a lot of hype. Shonan is the center of the surf universe in Japan, so comparing it to Miyazaki would be like comparing the Gold Coast to Western Australia. It’s all egos and attitudes, but down in Miyazaki you don’t find any of that.

At the same time, localism is pretty heavy, as it is anywhere there is surfing. Miyazaki was sort of down and out of the way in southern Kyushu, and the older generation always has been and still is very protective of what they’ve got here. All in all, it’s a pretty mellow surf scene with a whole range of surf clicks and sub-cultures going on. It’s pretty neat.

One of the first things that got me excited about Good Morning Miyazaki was the following description: “Think Castles in the Sky meets One California Day with a touch of Endless Summer, but uniquely DBFilms and in Japanese.” Can you elaborate on how these (and other surf films) influenced your approach on Good Morning Miyazaki?
It’s funny because I look back and wish I would have been able to truly convey what I love about those films in Good Morning Miyazaki. What I love about The Endless Summer is the narrative, the dry humor. Castles in the Sky, and anything from Taylor Steele, is sort of a visual story telling. I’m big on the visual as opposed to the heavy narrative. I want to make films that are more poetically narrated and set up the story visually. One California Day being sort of location-based, just looking at a specific surf scene, ours being Miyazaki. Looking at one surf community and what they’ve got going on.

What has the response been to the film among the Miyazaki surf community and among Japanese surfers in general?
It’s been pretty good. I think we’re starting to dispel the negative ideas that they had pretty quickly. We started off having the support of the pro surfers, which was the most important thing for us. I got to know them pretty quickly and made a big effort to let them know what we wanted to do. They were quite accepting. There still seem to be a few guys that don’t jive with us at all and who won’t talk to me in the water, but it’s like a 1% kind of thing. Most people have really accepted it.

I see the movie is making the rounds at local film festivals – how has that been going?
We got into Surf at Lisbon (SAL) in Portugal, and I got some really good feedback. Apparently it was well received and everyone was stoked, so things went well in Lisbon. It has also been shown in two different Shonan locations, and then Tokyo over the space of two weeks. We got into the Florida Surf Film recently, and I received a positive response from the London Surf / Film Festival. Then there’s another one in Japan, the Yokonori Film Festival in Shonan, which is the big action sports film festival in Japan. I think we’re the feature surf film there.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the on-going radiation leakage and contamination issues in Fukushima stemming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In your experience, how is this impacting the Japanese surf community specifically?
With the recent reports coming out, it sort of took me down a bit. And then I realized that the people in Fukushima are surfing regardless right now, like they’re surfing 50km away from the power station. They were surfing there today, and they’ll surf there tomorrow. For better or worse, they are going to surf there and that’s a pretty heavy-duty story that I think needs to be told. I think it’s worthy of international attention in all sorts of media, so I want to be able to get that through and get it onto some bigger platforms. The surfers there are saying, “We can’t do anything about it. This is my home. This is my wave. I’m going to surf whether it kills me or not.” I want to tell their story.

What new projects are you currently working on?
I’m going to shoot from the very bottom of Japan, like almost in Taiwan, in the very southern-most islands of Japan all the way north to Hokkaido, sort of canvassing the entire country of Japan and its surfers and surf scene, just looking at the different story angles and threads that are there to choose from. There is a lot, especially with the Fukushima thing now and the uncertainty of the Pacific Ocean in general. Just do a real honest look at what it is to be a Japanese surfer in this day and age in light of what’s going on.

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