Pierce Michael Kavanagh
Pierce Michael Kavanagh is a talented San Diego surfer/filmmaker. His recent film Manufacturing Stoke raises questions about the toxic chemicals used in the surfboard industry and asks us all: How can we make a difference for the environment? Pierce speaks to us about his inspiration for the film and his current obsession for bodysurfing.
What was your life like growing up?
Amazing on one hand and absolutely scarring on the other. I grew up in La Jolla, just up the beach from Windansea. Our house was really close to the beach so we got really good waves but my Mom could also come down and call us in for anything. She would come down to the bottom of the street and just belt it out… “Pierce, Dennis… come in for supper…” Let the heckling begin. Supper? My folks were from the Bronx so they didn’t know any better. It was really fun though. La Jolla was a small beach town with a bunch of big families. Everybody kind of looked out for each other, both in and out of the water. The surf scene is well established, so one learns quickly how to behave.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were younger?
La Jolla has bred some of the most amazing surfers (and a freakishly large amount of brothers who surf together). So here is a shout out to all the brothers who have shared, battled, and grown up surfing together. My brother Dennis (he rips, I do not), the Littlemores, Feighans, Fitchs, Huffmans, Aguirres, Kenvins, Elliotts, Bakers, Guminas, McCulloughs, Kings, Farsons… the list goes on. Oh, and Henry Hunte surfs so good he doesn’t need a brother – cheers, Henry.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Life changing. It may be one of the clearest memories of my life. Matt Feighan took my brother and I to Little Point on one of his rad old Skip Frye single fins with the intention of getting us off our boogie boards once and for all. I was 11 and my brother Dennis was 9. We shared 2-foot peelers all afternoon. I was amazed at looking down and watching the eelgrass sway as I passed over the reef with each and every wave.The water was crystal clear and you could see all the way to the bottom while you were surfing. Nothing has been the same for me since.
Where did you interest in filmmaking come from?
I think it was going over the falls at Big Rock in the wipeout section of Chris Bystrom’s “Son of the Last Surf Movie.” This combined with the fact that film is such a beautiful and evocative art form. My fascination started at a young age with photography and the ability to capture a solitary moment in time. It evolved naturally through my love for surfing and skating and all of the mags and movies from the 80s. We used to wear out VHS tapes at Bird’s surf shop when the surf was flat. Pretty sure I melted “Beyond Blazing Boards” and “Mad Wax” a couple times. Now that I think about it, filmmaking has come full circle for me. I used to shoot VHS from the beach when I was around 13 and after a film degree and several decades later, I still shoot at the beach. Go figure.
What inspired you to create “Manufacturing Stoke”?
Last fall, my wife Petra & I went to the Green Expo at Seaside Reef in Cardiff to watch our friend Gary play music. While waiting for his set we walked around to all of the booths and saw a lot of creative and amazing ideas. The excitement and inspiration that came from the vendors was really refreshing. The festival had a “new guard” industry vibe to it and consisted of Individuals that were striving for a more sustainable surf industry from a grassroots level. One booth that blew me away was *enjoy handplanes.
My new friends Ed and Kipp, are recycling handplanes from damaged surfboards and wetsuits otherwise heading for the landfill. Bingo. I went home and started researching the industry and was shocked about how toxic it still was since Clark Foam closed down. I wanted to do four short films highlighting individuals changing perceptions about wax, board construction, wetsuits and clothing. As soon as we started filming we realized we had something way bigger than we originally thought and shifted gears toward a feature length documentary. And after seven months of hard work, misfit pictures is proud to present… Manufacturing Stoke.
What has been the reaction to the film?
For the most part, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. I am extremely proud of the film but I am blown away when somebody watches the film and then comes up with tears in their eyes hugging and thanking me. I was not ready for that. It is both trippy and so powerful. We all have friends in the industry so it is extremely important that they are safe.
After every screening, I always hear the same questions, though. Where was so-and-so? How come some “green” companies are not in the film? Does Jasper have anything more to say about surfing’s overseas industry?
When you get down to it, Manufacturing Stoke is the film surf industry leaders do NOT want you to see. So yes, some people are going to be pissed, but they can be pissed from their mansion on the hill. misfit pictures gave all the major companies in the industry a chance to be involved and most wanted nothing to do with us. Would you rock the boat if you knew your Guccis could get wet?
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I have traveled far and wide and recently went to Oahu and fell in love with the place. We were invited to the Honolulu Surf Film Festival and my wife and I jumped at the opportunity to go. We spent 10 days on Oahu and had an incredible visit. We scored back-to-back south swells in addition to showing our film in paradise. The beauty, surf, womp, soft sand, great weather, roadside grinds… what more could one ask for? If I could get tan, I would definitely move there. Mahalo to Gina Caruso and the Kelleys.
Who/what inspires you?
My beautiful wife, Petra.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
This is a gnarly interview! I believe we never stop educating ourselves. When I was younger, a part of me wanted me to burn it all down to the ground because I didn’t believe all the bullshit I was fed. Now that I have mellowed with age, I believe small controlled fires are the way to go. Manufacturing Stoke is a small controlled fire. So my approach to things has changed a bit, as I have gotten older. With that in mind, I am curious to see what my thoughts will be 20 years from now. If this makes absolutely no sense, I apologize.
What are you most proud of?
The collaboration involved with the making of this film. We had no budget, no marketing department, and no industry clout. In fact, nobody even knows who we are. Everybody who got behind this project contributed to this film simply because they believed in the project. This film owes everything to the crew, artist and musicians,.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing started for me in front of my folks’ house and has led me around the world. What started as boyhood intrigue developed into a lifelong obsession. Surprisingly, this project got me reacquainted with the often-overlooked nuances of just being in the water. Because there is a lot of water footage in the film (I wanted to put the viewer right in the line-up) I spent a long time examining the clips during the editing process. The ocean is so beautiful and this film celebrates that. There is no way surfing cannot profoundly impact your life. Surfing has definitely made me a better person. In fact, I am taking a break to go womping… I will be back.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Right now. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am thankful for everything.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Lucas Dirkse and Ryan Burch. Both of theses guys rip anything and everything. From longboards to bodysurfing – they have it covered. I am stoked for them and all the kids coming up right now. They have access to more board designs than ever before. There is no right or wrong in surfing, just whatever works.
Carl Ekstrom looks at board design like nobody else. He is not just continuing the shaping tradition; he is on a completely different plane. It is good to see that Sacred Craft is honoring Carl with their “Tribute to the Masters Shape-Off” this October. It is well deserved. There are many others like Danny Hess, Grain Surfboards, Eco Boardworks and Matt Biolos who are utilizing alternative materials in their board construction. Minds are opening in surfing every day.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
My favorite surfboard is a mid-1970s 6’9” Terry Fitzgerald Hot Buttered single fin. It is probably about 3” thick a foot from the nose and surfs like nothing I have ever ridden. Right now it is down at Scorpion Bay and I miss it. If anyone is going down, let me know… I need it brought back.
But my favorite board right now is an *enjoy handplane. I have been riding them for months now and have never gotten so barreled bodysurfing. Besides coming out of barrels you can actually cutback with these things. No lie. I dig the resurgence of bodysurfing. Bodysurfing is the new black. I can’t wait to see Malloy’s “Come Hell or High Water.”
As far as favorite surfspot?
Lowers… tell everyone.
What’s your favorite meal?
Bacon. A close second would be more bacon.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I don’t really listen to my iPod that much. Between the Sony Walkman, punk rock shows and the shorepound, I probably have about 60% of my hearing left. Lately, I have been listening to the Montalban Quintet. Support local music.
What causes/ projects/ organizations do you support?
I support the underground. If I had more money, I would support a lot more things.
What are you most grateful for?
Friends, family and perfect shorebreak.
What’s next for PMK?
Oh, man… we have been really busy. We have been touring around the west with the Manufacturing Stoke Anti-stadium Summer Tour and Expression Sessions and have a few more California shows before we go back east for a stretch. We will have shows in Encinitas, Ventura, Santa Cruz and San Francisco later this month. Our East Coast leg starts at Grain Surfboards Surf Re-Evolution on September 10th and we have about 8–9 more shows lined up. Stops include Boston, Providence, NYC, Brooklyn and Atlanta. Aside from that, we have been in film festivals in France, Germany, Australia and Japan.
I am very grateful for the exposure and great reception that Manufacturing Stoke has been receiving. This film was a labor of love and it is good to see that people are stoked on it. To follow along on the progress, check out www.manufacturingstoke.com
Future projects include helping my wife with a short film she is working on. I also have 2 more documentaries that I am working on as well as producing a couple of other projects. My passion will always lie with documentary filmmaking, but I look forward to anything that comes my way. Who knows? Maybe Manufacturing Stoke II!
Learn more about Pierce Michael Kavanagh and his film here. Top photograph by Kevin Roche. All other photos courtesy Pierce Michael Kavanagh.