Chris Malloy, director of 180 South, on location in Chile. Photo by Jeff Johnson / Courtesy of Patagonia
A climber and big wave surfer takes a filmmaking journey to Patagonia
In the mid-1990s, the California filmmaker Chris Malloy (see Reviews, p.78, for more on his new eco/climbing/surfing film, 180° South) had a dream pad on Oahu, Hawaii, with his brothers, Keith and Dan. The three — all pro surfers then — would swim Waimea Bay, run the beach, and do a bouldering traverse. Malloy befriended another surfer/climber, Jeff Johnson, who moved in and built a climbing wall. Soon climbers and wave-chasers like Randy Leavitt and Hidetaka Suzuki were stopping in to pull plastic.
In 2007 and 2008, Malloy and Johnson teamed up for a six-month sailing, surfing, climbing, and filmmaking odyssey that began in California and ended in Chilean Patagonia. Malloy, a Patagonia ambassador and big-wave surfer with three surf films under his belt, would direct it; Johnson would be the protagonist and expedition photographer (his shots in the 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless companion coffee-table book truly shine).
Today Malloy, 38, lives in a rental home on a 15,000-acre ranch near Point Conception, California, with his wife, Carla, and kids, Lucas and Pearl. It’s this agrarian, “respectfully work the land” perspective that informs his film, which also recounts the stories of Yvon Chouinard and Doug and Kris Tompkins, and their heroic efforts to preserve the Patagonian wilds through Conservacion Patagonica, 2.2 million acres bought in Chile and Argentina to be turned into national parks.
Malloy usually says he’s a “surfer first and foremost,” though he began climbing in high school, in Ojai, California, with the underground hardcore Will Nazarian. “I was one of the only surfers in this school of jocks, and Will was the only climber,” says Malloy. “So we’d ditch school, steal a six-pack, and screw around on Will’s homemade climbing gym.” (Nazarian had a Crack Machine made from 2x12s.) In 1997, Malloy suffered a catastrophic knee injury at the Pipeline, Hawaii, and transitioned to filmmaking, though he’s never left the waves behind. —Matt Samet
Do you still big-wave surf? Yes. It’s always been my biggest surfing passion. It’s like those alpine climbers, where it’s an addiction almost, an affliction. You don’t pick doing that to yourself — it picks you, and then you’re stuck with it.
How’s the shift to filmmaking been? Great creatively, though missing some of those swells is hard. It’s satisfying to . . . share the way I see things. I’ve always tried to step out of the way and let the experience speak for itself — like in 180° South, when you see those guys climbing the NA Wall or someone getting a big, beautiful wave.
Any climbing filmmakers inspire 180 South? Fred Padula, who made El Capitan. Even though I’d never climbed big walls, the way they shot it, letting shots roll longer, the 16mm, the attention to detail, the music — it just fit. One shot from El Capitan made it into 180° South — of Lito Tejada-Flores on Boot Flake. It’s timeless on so many levels.
Tell me about the significance of 1957. [That June, Royal Robbins, Jerry Galwas, and Mike Sherrick FA’ed Yosemite’s first big wall — and the States’ first VI — the Northwest Face of Half Dome; and in November, Greg Noll and Pat Curren pioneered Waimea Bay’s 30-foot waves, ushering in the Golden Era of big-wave riding.] The surfers and climbers, pretty much unaware of the other tribe, were doing the exact same thing. They were building their own gear, making their own clothes by taking army surplus and Goodwill clothes and hammering them to fit. And they were so self-reliant. They made those quantum leaps within a few months of each other.
How did you prep for filming mishaps? We said, well, if Jeff needs to get from A to B, he’s got this amount of time and these are all the things that could happen. And everything we said could happen didn’t, and a bunch of stuff happened that we never predicted. Stopping on Easter Island for a month to fix the mast, that wasn’t planned. And the FA of Cerro Geezer, that wasn’t part of the plan, but Doug and Yvon were, like, we tried it last year, let’s try it again.
What do you hope viewers will take away? Live for what you love, and protect it. In the Golden Era of climbing and surfing, you could cut and run — take the good part, ignore the bad stuff, and then go to the next spot. Also, that some of the most important places to protect are the places we already live.
Tell me about your conservation philosophy. Doug Tompkins understands that it’s not a 100 percent leave-it-alone mentality. He’s got cattle ranches down [in Patagonia]. He’s farming. He’s using the land, not just buying it and saying to the gauchos, and the farmers, and the fishermen, ‘Beat it — we’re going to turn this into an enviro-theme-park for rich people to come take walks!’ That’s something I feel strongly about — that the [zero-usage] model isn’t going to work over the long term.
Your film points out that we’re too distanced from the impacts of our lifestyles. Have you seen other examples of this? The way I started seeing those connections was, I’d be on a little island chain in Southeast Asia. And I was literally watching the introduction of cigarettes and Coca-Cola. I’d fly home, and 48 hours later I’d hear on the news that X cigarette company and X soda-pop company are doing better than ever. And you go, ‘Well, huh. I know one reason. . . . ’ They’re going to these places where people live as subsistence farmers, and they’re dropping off boxes of cigarettes for free; a few months later, people are selling the farm to get their smokes.
Any other projects underway? That was a four-year project. Now I just want to chase surf for a few months. My wife’s already pissed at me because she sees my notebooks filling back up, and after two or three notebooks are filled, I usually embark on a new film. Also, I just got in touch with Will Nazarian after 20 years. We’re going to go steal a sixer and hit up his Crack Machine.