Interview by Stu Nettle, with thanks to Swellnet
1991 was the year that punk broke, so said the excellent music documentary released by Geffen Records. In '91 Nirvana hit the mainstream and a gritty lo-fi aesthetic infected youth culture. In surfing this manifested itself as Taylor Steele's Momentum, a one-dimensional point and shoot DIY vid that spawned legions of imitators.
Before this, however, there were a few years that aren't easy to typecast; the superficial facade of the 1980s was over yet 1990s disillusionment hadn't kicked in. And into this seemingly empty space Jack McCoy filmed and released Bunyip Dreaming. The Bunyip - as Jack lovingly calls it - was a joyful and optimistic take on Australian surfing. It was beautifully filmed, diligently edited, and cut to an upbeat contemporary score. It stands in stark contrast to the swathes of artless films that came after the revolution.
Very few surf films age well, but McCoy's artistry gave Bunyip Dreaming extraordinary longevity. It's both a snapshot of a particular time and a timeless piece of surf cinema.
It's been 25 years since Jack McCoy released Bunyip Dreaming and Swellnet spoke to him about the occassion.
Stu Nettle: Bunyip Dreaming was your first Billabong movie. How'd that relationship begin?
Jack McCoy: Well the first surf company I worked with was Rip Curl.
For a Day in the Life of Wayne Lynch?
Yeah, and then I did Storm Riders with Rip Curl - they funded Storm Riders. And then I became a shareholder at Quiksilver so I made a couple of little films through them, but then about the same time Rabbit left Quiksilver I did too. Five years after that Gordon Merchant had heard that I had a girl with a baby on the way and he said to Dougal Walker, who was a manager at Billabong, "When you go on this next surf trip take McCoy with you."
Dougal took me up north of WA with Munga Barry, Ronnie Burns, Dave Cantrell, Marcus Brabant, and Magoo [Darren Magee], and I stayed back an extra week 'cos they were sending Occy up there. Then I came back to Sydney and processed the film and did a little rough cut and Gordon and Dougal said "Fantastic, why don't you go on this trip we're doing to South Australia?" So I did that, then they asked if I'd go to the Gold Coast and do a sequence. Pretty soon I'd done all these little sequences and Gordon gave me a budget to make the movie for him.
What a lot of people don't realise is that I did a lot more for surf companies than just make movies. I played a part in marketing and also in strategy, you know, creating credibility in their marketing and advertising. So when Gordon asked me to work with him I'd been thinking long and hard about what it was I could contribute to their company, and at the same time Aboriginal affairs were a big topic. The bicentennial had just passed. My wife that I'd just married was part Aboriginal so I thought that it'd be a really good idea for Billabong to acknowledge where their name came from and also have a little moral within the story.
So I came up with Bunyip Dreaming and we spoke very loosely about the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal worldview, and we had little morals, little messages, in there. Around the same time I encouraged Gordon to do an indigenous surf contest and to sponsor indigenous surfers and I'd like to believe that Bunyip Dreaming was the seed that let people know that Billabong had a moral conscience. It gave them something to tie into current affairs in the sense of acknowledging Aboriginal culture.
And Billabong gave you full control over the message?
Well they didn't know that at the time. I didn’t tell Gordon what I was going to do, I just did it.
Well the message got through because before long Billabong changed their logo - albeit temporarily - to incorporate Aboriginal motifs.
There was all kinds of little things that happened in relation to that. However, if you look at the growth of the company at the time I came on board with the movies and things, the company started climbing rapidly. What I did was finish the movie and my wife and I put in an additional $10,000 of our own money into it, 'cos I wanted to make it a certain way. I finished the movie late one night, did the sound mix, and then I took a copy to the airport and gave it to Gordon who was doing a trade show in California. And he turned up in San Diego and told Bob Hurley, "Oh, I've got the new Billabong move from McCoy."
They wheeled the TV and VHS player out the door and across the street to the hotel room and they watched it five times - over and over. In the middle of the night Gordon calls me up and goes, "Go make the next one!" And literally the next day I started working on The Green Iguana.
You really tapped into the spirit of the age with those movies.
What a lot of people don't know is that I had a little warm up movie that I'd made three years prior called Surf Hits. It was a bunch of sequences and I worked with my partner Garth Murphy on what we called 'all rocking and no talking'. It was basically a group of sequences with little segueways so Bunyip Dreaming was really an incarnation of Surf Hits.
There may not have been much talking but Bunyip Dreaming had a story.
Yeah it did. You had to remember everything was shot on film and I had no sound recording, and the other thing about the Bunyip is that I shot every shot - land and water. That was my deal at the time, to be able to do everything, shoot every angle, and put a story together. Take for example the Munga sequence in Bunyip Dreaming...
The Supertubes sequence?
(laughs)….well, that's one of the waves. But what people don't realise is that it was shot at five different waves in three different states.
Yeah, that sequence was typical of how I shot. Say I'd shoot a land shot then I'd think about what I needed to get next and I would go out of my way to get that angle. Sometimes I'd shoot looking into the tube and sometimes in front of the wave having the guy go past me.
So you're mentally storyboarding the film?
Yeah. For me, the Momentum-style of shooting, which is go to the beach, set up your camera in one spot and shoot everything from the same angle just pissed me off. I was an editor and I wanted to give the audience something fresh to look at every time. I would mentally note that, say, 'I got a good shot from the land and I know if I pulled in at this angle I could get a water shot'. And I'd go out and shoot it.
So Bunyip was really the start of that creativity in my filmmaking with my water photography and shooting everything.
And it all meshed seamlessly with the music. Did you also have full control over the soundtrack?
I'd pick every song in all my movies. Sometimes I'd get tipped into something. But I'd really listen to music as a form of storytelling. Like with Occy in Bunyip Dreaming [Jack breaks into song]: "With his happy feet and he's wearing them proud."
...or [Jack breaks into song again]: "Stop this car I wanna get off," for the South Australia trip.
The lyrics narrate the film.
That's the idea, and believe me you gotta listen to songs till your ears bleed to find the ones that are gonna work.
I want to speak to you about Occy. You were fortunate to film Occy through his fallow period, some of it shown in Bunyip Dreaming, but also it gave you the footage for when it came time to make the Occumentary.
That trip that I did with Occy was the year before he had his sort of breakdown. At the conclusion of the shooting I sent him to Europe and he had his little sort of breakdown. But the first trip in Bunyip Dreaming was great, and then I did an extra trip with Occy - Shane Bevan was on it too - and Occy turned up with two surfboards, one was an Allan Byrne channel bottom but it was a very old prototype plastic Chinese popout board, and the other one was a Nev that he loved.
When he arrived I looked at the bottom of the board and it had a big crease in the middle of the board. The first decent wave that hit it was going to snap it. There's a couple of shots where he does these cutbacks and you can see him gingerly lifting his foot up so as not to put too much pressure on the board. I told him, "Occy if you fucken snap that board I'm gonna kick you in the ass." (laughs)
So he said [Jacks puts on an Occy jockey voice] "It's OK Jack, I wont break it." And we got through till the last day when he broke it and that's when you see the sequence of him surfing that plastic board at Turtles. He's ripping on it. He's got his foot on the tail going nuts on it.
A quarter of a century has passed since you made Bunyip Dreaming. How does that make you feel?
Blink and you missed it. You don't realise how time flies when you're having fun, I guess.
You're going to be showing Bunyip Dreaming at the Yours and Owls festival in Wollongong. You'll be up on stage as well, is that correct?
Well I thought I'd tap dance to the movie, have a little spotlight with my top hat and tails.
Look out for rotten tomatoes...
Yeah, they've asked me to come down and introduce the show and I'll hang around afterwards if anyone wants to have a yak.
Catch the 25th anniversary screening of Bunyip Dreaming at the Yours and Owls Festival, Friday, October 2 in Wollongong. Friday-only tickets are available for $40 at the door.