A footy-playing kid from the inland western suburbs of Sydney isn’t the most likely candidate for an expert surf filmmaker, especially one who so explicitly conveys the soul and emotion of a life spent in the brine.
For Mick Waters, the captivation of the breaking wave is unrelenting, bewitching, intoxicating, and it is his fascination with the sea and those whose lives are irrevocably devoted to her that has inspired his library of surf movies, beginning with ‘Believe’ back in 2006, followed by ‘Little Black Wheels’ - a road trip journal - in 2009.
Working with Andrew Kidman on 2013’s Spirit of Akasha, Mick has spent much time since on small freelance projects for the likes of Patagonia, Hugo Boss and ONCE.
Based in the Northern Rivers of far north New South Wales, Australia, Mick - along with his family; wife Susan, and kids Ruby, Skye and Sunny - is a perpetual nomad, searching for new horizons, new connections and new experiences across Australia and beyond.
At the conclusion of a three-year journey around Australia and the release of his latest movie, ‘Outdated Children’, we talk to Mick about wandering, ecology, Dr Seuss and the desire to grow old, but never grow up.
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Your son mentions in your latest film, Outdated Children that, “I hope I can do the same as mum and dad when I grow up”; so how were you brought up?
Mick Waters: I had a totally different upbringing. I was born in Blacktown, Western Sydney. My grandmother lived near the beach and my dad would take us up there on school holidays, but if it was the middle of the footy season, we wouldn’t go up. So my surfing was very limited to a block of one or two, sometimes up to six weeks, but it was very disjointed.
Mick's early days on the pitch
In that way, it’s very different, but in other ways, it’s pretty similar because I’ve always liked to listen to my dad’s stories. He was a butcher by trade, so sometimes I would go to work with him. It was pretty hard work, but I was just like a sponge listening to his stories.
My grandfather and grandmother were Polish and Russian. They met in a concentration camp, but after the war, they were sent to Australia and lived in the country in a tent in an immigrant camp for about five years - that’s where my mum and her siblings were born.
Grandad built his own house and a chicken coop, and they grew all their own veggies and recycled their water. So all of those things that are in now, they were just doing it because they had to. I’ve got all of that side of things from him, but the notion of listening to people’s stories from my father.
So I want to pass all of those things onto my kids. I want to teach them, but more teach them how to surf and how to light a fire - more everyday stuff, not like philosophy and chemistry. More life skills I guess.
You’ve obviously got a love of nature and being outdoors - was that born purely of the ocean?
MW: No, no it wasn’t. Even on our trip, while it was mostly concentrated on the coastal fringes and the characters we met there, we came down the East Coast of New South Wales, did Victoria, did South Australia and then my daughter broke her arm, so she had to be airlifted out. So instead of going anti-clockwise to Perth, we had to go up the centre because we needed to be in the hospital within two weeks. We went up to Alice Springs, then did Arnhem Land, Kakadu, and then around the top of Australia, down to Perth, South Australia again and then went to Tasmania.
On the long trips my dad would take us on as kids, driving for four hours in his VW Beetle up the Central Coast to his parents’, he’d stop at this one place if the traffic was bad and have a couple of beers and my mum would have Devonshire tea while my brothers and I wrestled around. But dad bought us all these surfing mags for 10 cents each and just threw them in the back and told us to start reading because we were just going mental. I remember then looking at all the old ads for Dick van Straalen, Terry Fitzgerald shots, articles on Bali, and all this really simple design and imagery. The whole page looked like it had been designed, not just slapped together, and the imagery was really backlit and nice. I’d cut them all out and stick them on my wall and that was my inspiration for a couple of months until I next got to surf.
Early surfing days
Those times have always been an inspiration to me. I think that early imagery really steered me towards wanting to be in nature. I think I get more of a buzz seeing surfers in really wild places with not many people around. For me, it’s about the whole process of getting there. Sometimes you might not even get the waves, but it’s still beautiful anyway. You can be in three-foot waves, surrounded by cliffs with a beautiful sunset, and it just looks so much better than being in ten-foot waves with a hundred other guys around. It’s just the feeling; everyone’s stoked and it’s just really intimate.
So, I function better when there is the surf, but nature is pretty humbling. It’s not really about us when we go to those kinds of places - I’m pretty in awe of it. Where we grew up, there was lots of farmland and I always liked that; instead of looking at your neighbour’s undies on the line.
My wife can be away from the ocean for months, whereas I’m a surfer - I need to get to the ocean from time to time.
I tried to show that humility of nature in Outdated Children - the people I visited in the context of their environment. For example, the Shipsterns piece, I tried to not show the jet skis and boats and all that business because I wanted to show how minuscule you feel in those places, so insignificant.
When did you leave Sydney?
MW: I bought a property with my wife on the central coast of New South Wales when I was 26. I couldn’t move there full time because I was studying graphic design and illustration at Uni. I was doing four days a week at Uni, just staying in my Kombi van in the car park and making sure I did all my work so I could have a long weekend.
I moved up there full time when I was 28, but it started getting really crowded. When we got married and decided to have kids, we moved up to the North Coast.
I was always the weird footy player. I remember going to art college when I was 17 and had to go to footy training afterwards with my folio. We were doing nude drawing at the time, and all the boys were asking me what work I was doing. “What were you drawing today, a bowl of fruit?” they asked. “No - naked women,” I said! They couldn’t believe it! They don’t realise that it’s totally not sexual - you’re trying to draw the human form and get all the proportions right, but they wanted to go through my portfolio and check out all my drawings!
So I was always a bit different to all of the other footy players.
Was ‘Believe’ somewhat of a preamble to Outdated Children?
MW: I had just moved up this way and had been trying to get into filmmaking on the Central Coast and Sydney, but down there it was a lot more industry, pro and competition-based, and it’s much more of an urban environment. Just before I came up here, I was hanging out a bit with Andrew Kidman. I’d seen (Kidman’s first film) ‘Litmus’, but I never thought, I would be able to do that.
I didn’t know many surfers, and on the Central Coast there were only ten good surfers you could film. They were all younger aspiring pros trying to get on the tour. I wasn’t really from that kind of background - I didn’t understand the comps. I’d much rather film something beautiful. I filmed some great surfing and I was stoked for the surfers and to be able to film it, but it wasn’t really until I spent some time with Kidman and met other people that I was then able to have the belief to do it - that’s why I called it ‘Believe’.
Tube-dodger - photo: Paul Whibley
The film was all about these different characters - Neal Purchase Jr, Kidman, Dave Rastovich, Harry Daily - who believed in themselves and were just doing their own thing.
You might have a hit list of surfers or people you want to film, but then you meet them and it just doesn’t gel. But then you meet other people and get to know their stories and they’re way more interesting. Sometimes I also like to do pieces on people who possibly are doing things that I would like to do but can’t, or never could, or I’m too chicken to do, or simply that I don’t think they’re going to get the coverage I think they deserve.
I haven’t really picked the people that would sell movies for me! It would be good sometimes to have a bit more of a budget, but I don’t know whether the movies would end up the same.
I’ve even had people comment that I shouldn’t have put Mick Fanning in my latest film. I was working with Kidman on ‘Spirit of Akasha’ just before we left on our trip around Australia. Two weeks before we left, we were up at North Stradbroke Island filming with Mick. Two or three months later, I was down in Torquay doing some work with Patagonia. I went for a surf at Winkipop and Mick came racing down the line, did this big cutback right in front of me and I shouted out at the top of my lungs, “Up the Rabbitohs!”, because I support the South Sydney Rabbitohs in rugby league and Mick goes for the Penrith Panthers. I swear to God, he flinched and lost his rail, but just made it. On the way back out he saw me, and said, “I knew it was you!”
I heard he was coming to Shipsterns Bluff when I was filming down there, so I wore my South Sydney jersey out on the boat. He was already in the water and was like, “oh my goodness, you just won’t give me a break!”
I was already lined up to interview him about something else, but I changed it at the last minute and we talked about Shipsterns instead, because he was there on the day I was filming.
People tell me I shouldn’t have included him, but he was ready and willing to talk about Shipsterns because that was the first time he’d ever been there. To have his input - somebody who surfs at his level but had never surfed there - and what he thought of it, really added so much more.
It’s just such a heavy spot. Even when I’m filming, I think, “this wave’s going to be perfect”, but then it just crumbles. Then one that I think I won’t even film picks up and does its thing. It’s so unpredictable.
You looked pretty close into the action - did you get into any dicey situations?
MW: The last shot where Mick surfs passed, I actually got taken over the falls there. The water there is really thick; the foam on the water is really thick, it’s heavy, it’s black, so I didn’t know which way was down and which way was up. I got up, just got a breath and then I got washed in around the rocks. The boat that I was on didn’t even know I was missing, so another boat came in and found me. I was down in front of these sheer cliffs and there was no way I could get off there, so they had to come in and take me back to my boat. Yeah - it’s heavy.
The first day I went there because I’d never been there, I took all my water housings, four litres of water, enough food for a day, three lenses and all this gear...then I got there and they all said it was pumping, but I was thinking, “where are the waves?” It’s not like you just turn up and see this massive wave breaking down the point - it just heaves up out of nowhere, explodes and spits into the channel.
From that day, I got a bit addicted to it. I got myself fit - because you need to be fit to walk in there then swim out and shoot. Those guys do it all the time - they love it - but I was just a blow-in. They’re just a breed apart.
You feature ‘soul-surfer’ types, for want of a better cliche. Having interviewed Mick Fanning and many others, do you think that is an underlying aspect of all surfers, regardless of whether they are free surfers, professionals or just surf for the fun of it?
MW: I think everyone would just love to go out for a surf with two or three of their mates at a really beautiful spot - you can’t beat those sorts of sessions. But as your skill level gets higher and maybe you get the chance to surf for the rest of your life and get paid to compete, or on the other hand be a garbage collector and only surf on the weekends - if you’ve got that opportunity, you’d most probably take it. If that means competing, then you’d compete. But I don’t think anyone ever loses that joy of surfing with friends in a quiet, pristine spot. Getting plenty of waves, hooting each other, then coming out afterwards for a feed and a beer and talking about it all, then driving home in the car together listening to good music - that kind of camaraderie just can’t be beaten.
The Kids in Tasmania
I’ve ridden in some boardriders’ comps and I just don’t get it - it’s not me - but put me on a footy field and it’s a different story. I guess everyone likes to do their best and try their hardest, but for me, surfing’s not a competitive sport.
The first film I ever saw on the big screen was [Dick Hoole and Jack McCoy’s] ‘Storm Riders’ at the Sydney Opera House. I liked the bit with Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew, and the bit with Mark Richards down in Newcastle, but when it came to Wayne Lynch out in the desert camping… that’s what got me frothing. Then to see ‘A Day in the Life…’ and watching the Search films with Tom Curren… the best surfing I think I’ve ever seen from Tom Curren is when he’s free; when he’s not in a comp, there’s no stickers on his board - he’s just doing his thing at J-Bay or backside in Sumatra… that’s it for me. It always looks a bit weird to me when they have a contest rashie on.
The reason I surf has never changed, from when I started surfing to now. Maybe that’s just a talent thing. Maybe those people who have that talent get the option to go and compete and then that will pay their bills, and who wouldn’t want to get paid to surf every day?!
What took you off around Australia for three years?
MW: I didn’t think I was going to make another film, because I had so much other work with Andrew Kidman and Patagonia and other projects, but then my wife actually said, “I want to go on a trip”. It was actually her idea. “I want to get a caravan and go around Australia”, she said. Once we got all the logistics sorted, we just went, but it was only supposed to be for a year. It was the best thing ever to go on a trip for a year, but then it becomes three years. You plan some things but other things are totally unplanned. For example, we didn’t plan on buying land down in Tassie and building a shack… some things just happen. Some things are unplanned and good - some things are unplanned and just shit! It’s not all the best time of your life - there were five of us in this little 18-foot caravan, so it was definitely challenging. But once you get to a spot and you can unhitch the car and set up camp, that’s the gold - that’s the good times. Getting somewhere is the stressful part.
We had specific places we wanted to go, which we did, but then people would tell us about these other places and we’d end up going there and staying for two weeks.
When we got to Tasmania, it was supposed to only be for two months and then we were going to come back and do the whole East Coast and all of Queensland, but we got down and met some old friends, then we ended up caretaking some properties, my wife ended up getting some work… then we bought the land, built a little shack and were there for nearly two years.
Building the Tassie shack
Did you intend to meet up with the people you did from the outset?
MW: The only thing I had planned at the start was that I was going down to do some work with Glenn ‘Case’ Casey [when Case was still director of Patagonia Australia]. I did a few projects and then worked on the Wayne Lynch film, ‘Uncharted Waters’, so I got to spend time with both of them. That was the only thing that was planned.
A lot of the time, I’d just get a random call and a friend would connect me with someone nearby. Like Addy [Jones, who features in Outdated Children]. I first met Addy when I first moved up to the North Coast, and then he disappeared. I was talking to Case and he said, “you’ve got to meet my mate Addy”. He described him and I suddenly realised that I knew him, so we reacquainted. We were both in Tasmania, so I ended up helping him with some permaculture work for a couple of weeks. I brought my camera gear and did some filming with him and asked if he wanted to be a part of the movie.
Addy Jones & his 100%-recycled creation
Same with Camel. He was another acquaintance of Case’s who I only got to spend a short amount of time with. Heath Joske I spent more time with… it’s a weird way of travelling around Australia, but it all seemed to work.
I’d like to have a specific storyline for a movie, but it’s always happened more organically. I wasn’t even looking at doing a film. I just packed my camera gear in the caravan because I had this little compartment where I knew it was never going to get touched by little hands. If we were, say, at Gnaraloo for a month, I could pull it out and do some filming and then put it away at night, but on the road, I couldn’t really pull it out. Then again, I was there to surf. Sometimes I’d just run into these people and start filming with them, and then sometimes I’d get home and not even really know how to piece it together because I hadn’t even interviewed them or anything. It was all very organic - I never set out with the intention of making a surf film.
Camel dropping in
It’s like with Wayne Lynch. I wanted to include him in it because he was such a big part of the journey. We got down to Victoria and I was spending time with him on his film, then he shaped me a couple of boards on our trip, including this really magic board, which he taught one of my daughters to surf on. Then I’d ring Wayne and tell him I was heading up the coast and there’s a fork in the road and I’m just about to head east. “East?” says Wayne, “Mick, you should be heading west!” When Wayne Lynch is giving you advice on surfing, you say ‘okay’! So then we’d start heading west and get ten days of pumping waves. So I wanted to include Wayne a lot more as an inspiration, but he’s had a few injuries and it didn’t happen, so I just got him talking, which he was happy to do. He’s become a sort of narrator for the movie.
Wayne Lynch, signing his life away
The movie is both about maintaining a youthful outlook in life and a more conscientious approach to environmentalism. Do you see the two going hand in hand?
MW: Well, if you’d said that to me when I was a youth I wouldn’t have believed it, but I think now, in this day and age, I think the youth are the ones who are going to push us forward and save the planet, if we don’t mess it up too much ourselves.
Whether you remain childlike, or you are keeping your dreams from when you were a kid to being an adult, whether your reason is for the environment or for surfing or for your family, that’s a good thing to hold onto because it’s about being childlike but not childish. I think some of our decision-making process, especially within the government, is incredibly childish. I reckon I could go and talk to my kids and they would make better decisions than some of our politicians!
I’m a bit of a contradiction myself. I’m a footy player who likes a beer, but I also know I’ve got to look after my own backyard, so I recycle and I’ve got water tanks and grow my own veggies and so on, but I don’t preach that.
Catching a cold
I guess if we can all be doing our own little thing and looking after our own backyard then that snowballs and it becomes a community thing, then it becomes a suburb thing and so on, as opposed to trying to fight something that is so huge.
I think a lot of people now like to say they were involved in a certain cause, but you go to their house and they’re not recycling and the don’t have solar and they’re not doing it in their own lives, but they’re telling people what to do. It’s a bit contradictory. I believe it’s all just about doing what you can do.
Do you think that the older generations, people like Wayne and Case, are the bastions of environmentalism, or do you think the younger generations have reignited something within them and kickstarted a new environmental revolution?
MW: A bit of both I think. When you look at Wayne, he went through the whole Vietnam period and the world was completely different then to what it is now, but there are similarities. There was that first introduction to environmentalism and being aware and alternatives to what they were being fed. You look at the music from when Wayne was young and the whole alternative, hippy lifestyle - that was really big back then. But I think now, with the way the world’s going, the youth are seeing it because what they are going to take on, with the planet and the environment, is pretty disturbing. So I think they’re quite alarmed and the older generations are alarmed, but there’s a whole middle ground in there who think it will just work itself out because of what they hear on the news.
But you can’t not look after the environment. It is reversible, but is there a tipping point? I think there is, and once we pass it, it will be hard to bring it back. It’s like smoking. If you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for fifty years and find you have cancer, you can’t go back, but if you quit 20 years ago, you could probably avoid it and still be healthy.
I just like nature and like looking after it.
Do you see that as part of the inspiration of your movies? You mentioned teaching your kids life lessons earlier - are your movies an extension of that?
MW: You’d have to ask someone else! I’ve never thought of it like that - I just make films about the stuff that I’m into - so maybe it is.
The South West Cleanup [Tasmania’s annual litter collection and research project] is a good lesson I guess. You go to this place that you can’t get to by road, it would take you days to walk there, the only way you can get there is get dropped off by plane or come in by boat, and yet there’s so much trash there. You’re there all day picking up rubbish and then go back onto the boat and count it, and it’s just so disturbing. There are no buildings, no tourists - it’s just unbelievable that all that trash could be there. I got to go along, we got some waves, so I thought why not show that?
And Addy with what he does is another incredible lesson. He takes compressed bamboo from Venetian blinds, red cedar from reclaimed wall panels, cork floor tiles and foam hot-wired out of the inside of a fridge and, with all this rubbish pulled off a tip, he knows in his brain that he can make a surfboard. And it’s bulletproof - he could potentially surf that board for the rest of his life. His whole world revolves around recycling. He goes to the tip and finds everything he needs - he’s absolutely next level.
Addy Jones - upcycled gold
He’s got his solar panels and his worm farm and he’s even got seawater under glass that he’s evaporating off to get the salt. He harvests seaweed to make mulch for his garden. He’s a full permaculture guru, a design genius - he’s one of those people like George Greenough who you talk to and it’s coming so freely from their brain and you’re, like, five years behind what they’re even talking about.
Everybody has their hidden talents, and for George and Addy, it’s their creative inventiveness…
MW: Yeah, I love looking at people who are really good at what they do. It doesn’t have to be sport, it can be a doctor or musician or whoever. Their skill and their passion come out in their work. You go and watch a shaper or see somebody surfing, or watch a guitarist like Eric Clapton, or Ginger Baker on drums… it’s so incredible to watch someone so good at what they do and passionate about it. It’s obviously what they were meant to do, and they’ve found it. A lot of people will go through their lives and don’t find that.
It’s great to see that and document it, just to be a part of it.
People often wonder why I put certain characters in my films, but they’ve obviously got a passion and you can see it in their eyes. They’re going to be doing whatever it is they do tomorrow or the next day whether I’m there with my camera or not - that’s what they’re going to be doing. It’s not for the recognition or anything - they’re just doing it.
Do you see yourself and your family as permanent nomads, or do you think you’re done with life on the road?
MW: No, we’re not going to settle down as such. We’ve still got our land and shack down in Tasmania. It’s funny: because we’ve got three kids and they’re all really sporty, we don’t have much time to plan trips or do spontaneous journeys. My daughter plays touch footy, my other daughter plays soccer and my son plays rugby league, and then they have boardriders' club on Sunday and training on a Tuesday… so the weekends are full. So we usually go away in big blocks. The ‘Little Black Wheels’ trip was eight months, this one was three years. Pretty much every summer holiday, I’ll drive down to Tasmania with my three kids and then my wife will fly down a week later because she has to work. We’ll drive down and get the shack set up, she’ll come down and then we’ll all drive back together, so we could get to spend eight weeks or so in Tasmania. It’s always big blocks for us. We did one two-week trip to South Australia for Heath Joske’s wedding and my wife said, “I’ll never do that again!” It was three days of driving, we were there for a week, and then it was three days driving back. And then all the clothes were dirty and we had to get up the next day for school and work… it was just too much hassle.
Feral kids and donkeys
We’re already talking about when the kids aren’t at school and we can take off again.
Our dream is to have six months a year in Northern New South Wales and six months in Tasmania.
Would you do a major trip overseas with the family?
MW: We’ve talked about it but, if we did, I don’t think I’d take camera gear. We’ve talked about going to New Zealand and Canada and other places, but we can’t do anything right now! Sometimes these trips just happen.
The movie is named for a Dr Seuss quote - do you think he was a philosopher for the 21st century before his time?
MW: I remember reading Dr Seuss when I was a kid but just thought of it as these crazy riddles. I always liked the drawings. It isn’t until you start reading them as an adult, when you get them as gifts for your kids, that you realise the guy was a freak - he was so switched on. And then I think we’ve watched a couple of the films.
But it wasn’t until I interviewed Wayne… I basically had a theme that I was going down, and I asked Wayne what he thought about the quote. Depending on what he said, I was going to go one of two ways - his response was going to dictate how I started the film. He thought it was cool, and I showed him the footage I’d created of my kids and he thought it worked really well.
Maybe Dr Seuss has been in the back of mind for years and I didn’t realise how much of an impact it has had until now. I really liked the quote as well, and using it for the title of the movie. I really like the way Wayne talked about it and the banter that we had. I didn’t want the film to be too serious, so that’s why I included an intro with me bagging him about his age and stuff, so it’s not just serious all the time.
It’s like with Addy; I could have included him without his making people laugh, but that wouldn’t be his true character. Otherwise, the movie would have felt too preachy, if it had just been people talking about the environment and all serious doom-and-gloom.
Same with Camel. I could have made it all about him surfing by himself in a really sharky environment, but then you’ve got to have the other side of him too. I like that kind of stuff - it takes the edge off and stops the movie from becoming too preachy and serious.
If you are trying to get those messages to people, especially surfers, there’s the danger of them just ignoring it as a hippy movie, but if they watch it and there are these environmental messages, but the characters are also laughing and there’s good surfing, they don’t even know they’re taking the messages in.
But if it’s just all environmental, they’d be like, “whatever, fast-forward”. It’s all a bit of subliminal messaging.
* ALL PICS FROM WATERS FAMILY ARCHIVES OR LITTLE HOUSE PRODUCTIONS EXCEPT WHERE STATED