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Interviews, Originals February 27, 2024March 9th, 2024

In Conversation with Dav Fox

Photography by Thomas Blair Robinson & Dav Fox

By now we assume you’ve watched Harry Bryant and Dav Fox‘s mind melting feature length surf film Motel Hell.

And if you haven’t then please, for the love of God, stop what you’re doing, make yourself a cuppa and press play below.

In an age of throwaway edits, disposable IG clips and a constant demand for immediate “new” content that can never truly be fulfilled, Motel Hell is a timely reminder of the importance in slowing down and appreciating the time and effort taken in constructing a full length surf film. One that can’t immediately be dismissed after only one viewing. To celebrate we reached out to filmmaker Dav Fox to discuss taking on such a feat.

WT: First off, congratulations. I think it’s safe to say Motel Hell is a modern day surfing masterpiece. How did you and Harry go about starting this project? Did you plan this right after Orb?

Dav Fox: Thanks! I feel like we achieved what we set out to do with this strange film… And had a lot of fun doing it. I lived right near Haz for the last six years or so .. so we’ve shot together a lot. From when he was a little bowl cut grommet on Zion wetsuits to now. This was the first one I edited since Orb, but there’s been a bunch of Haz clips in between. 

I know brands like Vans and Monster contributed but I heard Harry invested a bunch of cash himself. How did you guys go about budgeting for a surf video on this scale?

We pitched the film at a bad time. Just after covid a lot of companies were pulling funding from projects. We hadn’t signed anything and ours was cut within a week after takeoff. We were stubborn as hell about finishing what we started though and kept chipping away wherever possible off our own backs, largely funded by Haz (surf filmers can’t really afford to pitch in more than their own time) along the way. The result of that was that we did everything smaller scale and lived as cheap as possible – but that’s how we would roll anyway I suppose, so I’m not sure how much of a difference that made. The real result of that was that it just took a lot longer to finish than it could have if we had known the budget all upfront.

We are very grateful to Vans and Monster for coming on board and supporting the film. It’s so hard to argue the value of a full length surf film to a company these days. Everyone seems pretty caught up in justifying every expense through numbers like instagram taps etc. Whether or not someone taking 5 seconds to swipe past a video actually means anything at all. And whether or not platforms like Instagram are actually good for the world at large. But there’s nothing that simply quantifies the lasting impact of a slow release full length film so generally it’s much harder to get something like that over the line. I’m stoked Vans and Monster were able to see that.

Tell us about the concept behind the film?

The concept for the film was really born by Harry himself, in a sauna, in the far south coast during covid. Haz rang me with the idea. I loved how off trend and wacky it sounded. I guess we fleshed it out a little – but not too much – and it all just kind of snowballed from there. We’d wouldn’t go to a destination with a plan for the skit we would film .. most of them were just lines made up on the spot. I think you can tell that and I think that’s how it needed to be to have a raw and uncontrived “Haz” kinda feel. Like the old fashioned surf movies that it was inspired by. I think was one of those projects where what we are setting out to achieve seemed pretty ambitious and wacky from the get go. So there’s no space to ever really question any decision.

But for me the concept was also bit of a reaction to the fast release upload culture that seems to be the go for so many these days. I don’t really like that approach – it works as a career for some , it gets lots of views etc, but it really seems to suck so much magic and mystique out of sessions and even places. Like Shipstern Bluff for instance used to be the most majestic, magical and terrifying wave at the edge of the earth. Now it seems like an extension of Cape Solander… I’ve seen every angle of it by 10 am on the day that it breaks. It feels like it cheapens the whole experience and the place. It’s just my opinion of course. But I think surfing is so much of a magical and personal experience that that kind of approach really undermines it for me. I kind of wanted to attempt to inject some magic back into it.

Talk to me about the intro, in particular this whole, redneck desert bar, milk drinking concept? It’s hilarious and horrifying in equal measures. How did that whole idea come about? And how did you convince the locals to participate?

It was really a gonzo take on what its like rocking up to an isolated, two horse town South Australian pub. Something Harry and I have done a lot of over the past ten years or so. The vibe is thick and there’s a sense that you really need to prove yourself to be welcomed.

Most of the guys in the opening scene are bar flies from a renowned pub near half an hour from home. We just fronted up with a 16mm camera a couple of lights and bottle of milk one afternoon and Haz managed to sweet talk a table full of really intimidating characters into acting in the film. They turned out to be the biggest legends and really took to the milk! In fact one of them ended up vomiting a bunch of milk while running to the toilet and got a life ban from his favourite pub. Luckily the ban was revoked a few weeks later or he might not have been so stoked to be in the film.

We also got a pretty big time Australian actor David Field in to play the barman. He was like the one person I would get – if I could get anyone in the world to play the role. Fortunately Fieldsy lived in the same suburb as me for years . And even more fortunately he thought I played in a band he liked (Shining bird) which I don’t! I’m just mates with the guys. We’d have random conversations about the band at coffee shops or servos when i’d run into him around town. I think that may have really helped get him over the line to do this absurd roll. It was a pretty hilarious scene in the pub with him, the bar flies and a bunch of surfers on shoot day. But everyone got on like a house on fire.. Fieldsy has even been calling in at Harry’s place when he’s driving down the coast.

Some of those guys are so good, it’s like they’re trained actors. How many takes did it take to get those scenes done?

I’d say they all had their charm… Dion, Eithan, Shaun.. but for me it was Goodall. Every time you roll tape on him he’d go above and beyond… which is lucky because there was mostly only room for one take wonders. Generally everything in the movie was a one take wonder.. with a few exceptions if someone really fucked it up or got the giggles too bad. I thought they were all pretty good actors until shooting Fieldsy at work though. The whole room was blown away every time he’d drop a line.

There’s so many great cameos. How did you go about choosing who to feature and who’s idea was it to put Eithan on a donkey? 

We let that happen organically really. Since the initial funding blowout kind derailed any deadlines  didn’t feel we had to rush anything and just would do trips organically with whoever was keen at the time.

Likewise we didn’t really go out of our way to chase the skit side.. we let them come to us. Eithan was just chilling on the beach near me when the little donkey broke free from its handler and came right to us. He grabbed the reigns and I sprinted to the car to get the Bolex. The handler also had a camel and it all just played out perfectly on my last roll of 16mm.

How many trips did you guys do in total and which one was the highlight for you? Both in terms of waves and the overall vibe?

It’s hard to pick a highlight, we had so many good times on every trip. Easier to identify the low lights haha. We did a bunch of South oz trips and they are always incredible, its such a haunting and beautiful part of the world. You really get to feel a powerful sense of isolation in a way that is largely no longer possible in our digitally connected world. You really feel like you and your mates are the last people left on earth when you’re there camping in the desert.

Low lights would be one of the places in Morocco where the rubbish and pollution was an issue (dead dogs floating down the river etc) and locals were a little less willing to share waves. Probably the only places we surfed with actual crowds. Some really great people there but a lot of obnoxious and angry people in the water too. 

Any outrageous stories you wanna give us the exclusive on?

Hmmm too many to mention. Traveling for surf trips like that is always a rollercoaster but always a good time with friends. Except maybe for when Wade got stuck in an underwater cave and nearly drowned in Ireland and then again in SA.

Our mate Thomas who came to shoot photos for the trip smashed his face on a rock riding a novelty sized small bodyboard one day in Ireland. It was a big surf club presentation and Thom didn’t want to miss out on the party so he proceeded to walk around the town looking like he was at a Halloween party. It worked in his favour as a kind young lass decided to come around in the morning and put several stitches in for him.

An example of the rollercoaster that seemed typical of one of these Motel Hell trips is the last time we did the 24 hour drive to South Australia. Haz threw his neck out of alignment driving so it wasn’t looking like he was going to be able to surf. Then he bought a dim-sum from a roadside truck stop somewhere along the way and ended up outside of his swag throwing up all night. The motion of vomiting somehow put his neck back into alignment which was a godsend. Unfortunately though, his dog Barry decided to eat his vomit… which gave Barry explosive diarrhoea .. something that became apparent while we were sandwiched between two trucks on the Eyre Highway and we were unable to pull over. He sprayed down all of our bags and jackets, and Dion Agius blanket that had accidentally been packed into the car. The scent was horrifying and for the next two minutes I had an out of body experience. By the time we stopped everyone was throwing up as we rocked off to go in and remove soiled items. For the rest of the trip we were all short on jackets and blankets.

It’s so nice to see so much analog footage. How much 16mm did you burn in total on the production? 

I kind of lost track because I shot it over such a long period. But I ran a very tight ship since funding wasn’t always forthcoming. I think working with Haz’s concept it was important that it had suitably unpretentious b grade production value. But I think it needed the magical film look to really take you into that world. It was important to me to shoot on old cameras with old lenses to get that old fashioned and low fi feel.

The Ireland section is beast. So good to see Wade and Lowe tearing it up too. How did you boys enjoy The Emerald Isle? Did Haz connect with his Celtic roots?

Ireland was also a highlight, the people there are so accommodating, so nice and have the best sense of humour in the world . Also the pub culture is the best in the world so it was naturally the first destination on our list as it fit in with the plot. 

Haz grew up across the channel in Cornwall and was completely blown away by the waves, the people, and found a natural connection with the cold weather and warm pubs.

How do you guys go about editing. Is Haz heavily involved in that process too or does he just trust you to do your thing?

This one was actually a fair effort to put together. Its hard when you’ve got a concept to work with. And even harder when you’re trying to soundtrack the whole thing. I just stayed in a room for a month, trying to edit without music at the same time working with Jay and Russ from the M1 and my metal head mates Tim Yatras and Steve Mavrides to bounce back and forth and work on tunes. I think trying to weave any form of plot in there complicated the whole thing exponentially, because it kind of pigeon holed where each section and specific waves could sit. Rather just being able to edit surf sections freeform to what watches best. We then did a bunch of studio time to record the songs … and had to buy a handful of tunes to get to the finish line time wise.

But in answer to your question I feel like I took Harry’s concept and worked to express it in a way that I thought he would like .. then showed him. He was always supportive and stoked really. I guess it was one of those projects where what we are setting out to achieve seemed so ambitious and wacky from the get go that you can’t ever really question any decision. Just let it play out organically and say yes to everything and let that dictate what the end result is.

What movies did you take influence from? I feel like there’s elements of Deliverance and Apocalypse Now in there? But also strong cult classic Australian cinema too. Early Ozploitation cinema, Wake in Fright etc.

Yeah classic Aussie cinema always has this eerie feel.. like horrifying even when there’s no blood and guts. Maybe something about the soundtracks, the isolation and strangeness. I guess its a surf-horror film so I leant hard into those. Especially pub classic Wake in Fright and the synth soundtrack to Razorback is pretty incredible.

What’s next for you guys? Sometimes after such a long and intense project it’s hard to go again. You guys taking a break or straight into the next thing?

I guess as a surf filmer you’re generally chipping away on several projects at once to make ends meet. So I rarely feel like i’ve completed anything and putting the feet up… with the exception of my Hawaii vacation this year where I really let my hair down. I’m not sure if Vans were under the impression I was bringing a camera …but I didn’t. Since then I’ve done a trip with Harry for Chippa’s upcoming film and we’re about to go on a trip to Brazil.

As a seasoned OG in the field, there’s a lot of up and coming filmers producing great work. Is there anyone or any particular video that’s got you hyped in recent times? Who do you think is worth keeping an eye on?

Have to say James Kates. We’ve been mates for years and always working together on shit. His latest film with Noa Deane really captured his unique personality to a tee. Go watch it. 

But I liked every surf film I watched this year. AK’s bitcoin winner on Russ Bierke was insane and refreshingly different sonically. Rest assured Wade Carroll is gonna drop some hammer shit again sooner or later, he’s got the Midas touch… Tom Jenno and Chrissy B are always a cut above. But there’s a lot of lesser known filmers with very little ego and tonnes of talent… Rex Nink is core as fuck and ultra talented – with some stories to tell – in fact someone needs to write an article on him. And Joao Tudella is amazing. Jack Taylor and Jackson Jones also really good at their dark art form. 

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