Words by Chris Nelson
Chris McClean is sitting huddled on an overly cold, air conditioned bus, hurtling towards the Outer Banks in the US, while avoiding the elbows of a large sleeping lady seated beside him.
As the countryside blurs past through the overly large windows, a mix of agriculture and ribbon development, he tries to focus on the screen of his laptop. This is a snapshot of life for the Lincolnshire-based filmmaker, who juggles family and an itinerant work schedule that sees him regularly hitting the trail in search of - usually cold – waves.
His movies have spawned a whole new genre of surf film – crisp cinematography, dark looming landscapes and hard charging surfers. Films like Uncommon Ideals, Beyond the Scars and Edges of Sanity have swept awards across the film festival circuit, been screened on terrestrial TV and can be seen as inspiration for myriad films projects based around the cold water surfing genre.
Chris’s latest project, Translate, is a sumptuous audio visual journey through Europe created with long-time friend and collaborator – the award winning composer /musician CJ Mirra. This feature-length visual masterpiece set to CJ Mirra’s rich ambient score was created to be performed live onstage as an immersive experience before its release into the wider world.
Translate has its world premiere at the 9th annual London Surf / Film Festival on Saturday October 12, see HERE for tickets.
We catch up with Chris mid journey to find out more about Translate and its origins. I start by asking how he first came to collaborate with CJ MIrra.
CM: “When I first started working on films I was searching for music and I came across a band called Swimming. I dropped the manager a line to see if I could use the track and that evening I received a call from CJ (the bands lead singer), we chatted for a age and the end result was him creating the sound track for Beyond the Scars.”
Chris has produced many multi-award winning films so I wonder, out loud, how Translate differs.
“Translate differs on several levels, firstly it’s my first ever feature length project. Secondly it’s been shot and developed as an audio visual project from the outset. But not just an a/v project, it will have several layers of content from the live performances to an online film and theatrical release, vinyl, book and short films all feeding down from the live version.”
I know Chris has been filming elements for the film on and off for a few years. I ask how long the project has taken to come together.
“A really long time. I made trailers in 2017 announcing it was coming that autumn, it was tough balancing a project like this and real life. But I was determined to get the right footage rather that rushing to get something out there.”
Translate has a very European feel, and as we dip in and out of signal, I find myself shouting to be heard, ‘Is this a conscious result of the turbulent times we are living through?’
“It was actually intended to be created as a love letter to Europe and released in the build-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. That always frustrated me I never got it ready in time - but then we never thought three years later we’d still be discussing the result. The project has definitely gotten darker as the years have past. The mood of the whole process is reflected in it, and it’s certainly been delayed as long! My original though was to showcase certain European festivals and events and juxtapose them against European free-surfing. It’s certainly not a political film but I do feel it’s an interpretation of our time.”
The project has a very immersive feel – with the live score and incredible visuals. I wonder how he and CJ Mirra work together to produce such a seamless and engrossing experience?
“We have a very flexible working relationship. Sometimes CJ will send me something and say ‘this might work for this’ or I might send him something and say ‘do you think something like this would work?’ I like to edit to the music, but that’s not always been possible with this. With Chasing Zero all the visuals and music was created previously so it was like a remix album, but this time we’re bouncing stuff around creating, connecting dots from scratch and sending each other new stuff daily. We’ll then get in the studio together for a week and nail the final nails in both visual and audio at the same time together.”
Chris has assembled a great cast of surfers for the project. There’s Benjamin Sanchez, Kepa Acero, Nic Von Rupp, Mick Fanning, Lee Ann Curren, Fergal Smith, Noah Lane, Tom Lowe. How has he juggled aligning with such a talented crew?
“That was something I wanted to do from the outset – try and connect with surfers I really wanted to work with and ones I had previously worked with who I enjoyed hanging out with. I wasn’t always successful with schedules, swells and work getting in the way. It grates me that there isn’t a Portuguese section in the film, but overall I’m happy with the result.
There was also a lot of good luck. Whilst in the Canaries on a job a huge swell came through so the day the job finished I drove to the airport and instead of getting the plane home I flew to a Fueventura to shoot with Sancho and Lazi
"There was also a lot of good luck. Whilst in the Canaries on a job a huge swell came through so the day the job finished I drove to the airport and instead of getting the plane home I flew to a Fueventura to shoot with Sancho and Lazi. That trip led to not just big heavy waves, but perfect ones and Sancho surfs a finless board for the first time which unexpectedly turns out to be one of the highlights of the film.”
I ask Chris if he feels that the work's live element evokes the ephemeral nature of the surfing experience?
“We create quite an intense atmosphere, which can be what surfing is about. It’s graduated between being quite fierce and spellbinding to more dreamy and floaty. The great thing with a live band is they can play to the viewers emotions and build certain parts up to embrace an audiences reaction - rather more than say a traditional film which needs the audience to be on the same wavelength as the film, were as we’re in a constant state of flux. The idea being that we connect with an audience’s more elemental nature creating a more immersive experience. That’s the plan anyway.”
And with that the coach hurtles on, up the ruler straight east coast highway toward the Outer Banks, Chris avoiding the now listing, sleeping lady, mind filled with thoughts of the Hurricane that is spinning its way up the Eastern Seaboard towards his destination.
9th Annual London Surf / Film Festival is hosted 9th – 12th October 2019 at the iconic Regent St Cinema, bringing to the UK a hand picked line up of the very best films from across the globe that represent the pinnacle of contemporary surfing right now. Accompanied by ‘Audiences with…’ some of the most exciting surfers and creatives - from icon of our times Alex Knost to award winning filmmakers, plus live music, good times and more, it’s a celebration of the cream of cinematic surf culture.