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Breaking Eggs With Filmmaker Isaac Chadwick

The intake of students at the University of Otago is thick with talented surfers who have had their OE wings clipped by Covid-19. One of them, 20-year-old Isaac Chadwick, has been filming and documenting his mates surfing, the student lifestyle and their rise in the music scene since he arrived.

Isaac is a musician, surfer, writer, filmmaker and he’s doing his BA in Film and Media. But he has found himself in the middle of a thriving culture that has tapped his creative flow. Last year he produced Bask: Volume I – a no-holds barred insight into the surfing students’ lives. It was as raw as it was honest – a departure from mind-numbing storyless wave after wave surf films – instead made fresh with the lifestyle dial turned right up. It feels as if you’re actually there at the party throwing darts at your mate’s hand.

He probably doesn’t realise the full gravity of it, but Isaac’s documenting a generation that’s living some of its best years against a background of chillingly good waves, while creating music that’s going to live forever.

We caught up with Isaac at his dodgy, cold flat (that’s available to rent for $700 per week next year if you’re keen and come with a puffer jacket and hot water bottle). Meet a filmmaker who we hope we’re going to be seeing a lot more of.

Filmmaker Isaac Chadwick at home in front of his student flat, Dunedin. Photo: Derek Morrison

NZSJ: How did you get started in filmmaking and photography?

Isaac Chadwick: I can’t really put a finger on exactly when it was I first became interested in filmmaking and photography. When I was a kid we’d always watch lots of movies as a family. I remember when I first got shown Star Wars when I was about seven or eight. That really captivated my attention and imagination as I’m sure it has with most kids. I guess with that upbringing I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and naturally out of that also came a love for photography. I used to really be into my Lego and one day I convinced my dad to download some stop-motion editing software so that I could make little stop-motion videos with my Lego which were always heaps of fun to put together.

A couple years later when I was around 13 we moved out to the Hunua ranges just outside of Auckland and we always used to get absolutely nuts sunsets and I’d always park up by the window almost every evening and take photos of it. Then when we moved to Tauranga and something just clicked with the whole surfing culture of the Mount. I started taking photos of random surfers and eventually started to get to know the locals and understand the surfing scene.

In 2019 I lived with the Griffins. They are a surfing family – they’ve been in the mount for ages and I would take photos of Luke whenever he went out surfing. He was the one that started pushing me to start taking clips instead of just taking photos and I’ve just been evolving my style and trying to learn as much as I can ever since then. At the moment I barely take any photos, I’m predominantly focused on getting clips.

A couple of the boys back home in the Mount. Kehu Butler, Jacob “Warnzy” and Luke Griffin. I took this photo a week after lockdown lifted and we were gifted with unseasonal good swell. Photo: Isaac Chadwick

NZSJ: You have a US accent – where did you come from and how did you end up in Dunedin?

Isaac Chadwick: I was born in Bloomington, Illinois, in the United States. My mum’s American, but my Dad’s from the Waikato, so we ended up moving back to New Zealand when I was about three. We’ve moved around quite a bit living in Cambridge, Papakura, Hunua and most recently Tauranga. Obviously, I’ve now moved down here to Dunedin now for study, so fair to say I’m a bit of a wanderer. (Laughs)

Dunedin is such a radically different part of New Zealand for me. It feels like it’s an open canvas to experiment creatively and when you’re surrounded by such amazing, brutally beautiful scenery it’s hard not to be influenced by it. Dunedin’s got such a rich history, especially in its music with bands such as The Clean, it feels humbling to be a part of it with our current generation. It really just feels like you’re free to do what you want, make some weird shit and see if anyone’s on the same wavelength as you.

Dunedin is such a radically different part of New Zealand for me. It feels like it’s an open canvas to experiment creatively and when you’re surrounded by such amazing, brutally beautiful scenery it’s hard not to be influenced by it.

Isaac Chadwick

NZSJ: We understand you’re a musician – that must dovetail nicely into your filmmaking?

Isaac Chadwick: I’ve always been really into music ever since I was a kid. I can still remember hearing Where The Streets Have No Name by U2 for the first time when I was about four or five. When we were living out in Hunua we had a garage separate from our house with a small studio apartment above it which we rented out to Tom and Jen Mepham – a young family we’d met. Tom was originally from Dunedin and had a band with his brother called Black Boy Peaches and I was just transfixed watching them rehearse in the garage. I eventually convinced Tom to teach me how to play guitar. But 14-year-old me decided that was too hard so I ended up playing the bass guitar for about six years before I switched back to guitar. I’ve pretty much been teaching myself to play it for the past three years.
Playing and making music and being in a band definitely rubs off on the filmmaking aspect of my life. When I’m editing, I always want the music to reflect the mood of the clips and I try to edit the surfing to the rhythm of the music I’ve chosen – in a sense creating an audiovisual experience.

Took this one the same day as the campfire photo. Was my first-time swimming out at this location which can have some pretty decent-sized waves, so I was fairly nervous. Got some mental footage as well as a couple of snaps, got hammered on a couple big ones – but that’s all part of the fun. Photo: Isaac Chadwick

NZSJ: Tell us a bit about your creative process and what you’re looking for with your work.

Isaac Chadwick: To me, across my music and my film, I just want to create raw, open art that is true to me and the people I’ve made it with. I don’t want to compromise the vision I have just to make certain people happy. It sounds kind of selfish, but I think you kind of have to be when you’re a creative. That being said I really enjoy collaborating with other people and getting their opinions on what I’m making, especially for big projects such as the Bask films where it’s very much a team effort.

At the end of the day I want what I put out into the public domain to be a reflection of how I understand and see the world. I want to create a visceral and confronting experience for people to immerse themsleves in. I don’t want it to be something you can just pop on in the background and go about your day. I want it to be something that demands your attention and allows you to experience some sort of emotion.

Camping out way down south in the Catlins is always such a fun experience. It feels good to completely disconnect from everything in Dunedin, go to a place with no cell phone coverage and just be in the moment with your mates enjoying yarns around a campfire and cooking waves. Photo: Isaac Chadwick

NZSJ: You’ve become renowned for your grittiness and cultural portrayals and Bask certainly nailed that, too. How did you come to adopt that style?

Isaac Chadwick: I think it’s just a natural reflection of the environment I’m surrounded by. Dunedin can be quite a harsh place at times. Obviously it’s an amazing city, but there is definitely a heaver side to it that I think can get glossed over sometimes. It’s not all partying and good times. It’s freezing cold during winter, most people are living in flats that are the absolute bare minimum, during the middle of winter you’ve only got about eightish hours of actual sunlight and there’s a lot of constant consumption of various substances. It’s an environment that’ll make or break you and that seeps into my work. Trying to gloss over all of this and just show some sick waves for 20 minutes has absolutely no interest to me. I want it to be an open and honest portrayal of what life is like down here when you’re a student in your 20s. It’s the good the bad and the ugly. (Laughs)

I never considered cutting out the partying and dart scene from Bask: Volume I – it was pretty much the opposite. There was heaps of material we ended up either cutting out or not putting in the film because we definitely would have gotten into trouble for it. There’s some pretty heinous stuff from last year lying on my hard drive. But like I said, I want it to be an honest portrayal of what we get up to, so you’ve got to keep funny moments like that in there.

NZSJ: What three things did you learn from making your recent film Bask?

Isaac Chadwick: The first volume of Bask was such a learning experience for me. It was essentially my first proper “film” if you will. It was basically a surf film that documented our lives after lockdown and how it all revolved around the amazing surf we have here in the Otago region.

One of the main things I learnt while making it was how I frame my shots. I work quite a lot with photographer Oscar Hetherington when we’re shooting, and he was constantly pushing me to experiment with setting up my camera in locations and positions that I normally wouldn’t. I’ve actually learnt quite a lot off just being around him when he’s working. Another thing I learnt was that it takes way longer to put together a 25-minute film than you might think. At the start I was editing constantly and was finding that I burnt out really quickly doing that. I now know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint and that I need to pace myself when editing. Lastly I learnt that nothing ever really goes to plan whether its when you’re out trying to find waves or back at home trying to edit everything together. You’ve just got to be prepared for anything and be ready adapt to the situation at hand.

NZSJ: Part of your life right now revolves around your mates and fellow musicians Sam and Ollie Charlesworth and a bunch of others at University of Otago. What is it like to be documenting them at this time in their own careers and watching them grow and evolve?

Isaac Chadwick: There’s really been a bit of a revolution in terms of student bands in Dunedin this year. It has always been a thing, but in the past few years there hasn’t really been much of a student scene so it has been really cool to see it happening again now. It’s super exciting to see this resurgence, especially since they’re all my mates. I’m in the process of getting my own band going at the moment as well. It really feels like we’re a generation of creatives that is starting to find its feet and is making moves around Dunedin. It honestly feels like I’m witnessing this thing grow from its roots. It’s been super sick to see Sam come down at the beginning of this year and start to figure out how everything works. He’s just been going from strength-to-strength and I can’t wait to see where it goes next!

NZSJ: Tell me bit about your philosophy for life and where you’d like to be in this world.

Isaac Chadwick: Can’t say I’ve ever really been asked that before (laughs). Where I’m at, at the moment in my life, I’d say my philosophy looks something like this: Experiment and find what interests you in the world. Everyone’s got something that makes them tick, it’s just about trying to find out what that something is. You’re definitely gonna break a few eggs along the way, but as long as you’re not being a dick and care about the people around you, I say go for it. Make genuine connections with your mates. One of the things I love about Dunedin is that you get to meet so many people from different walks of life. Everyone’s got a different perspective on life, and it can be eye-opening to hear about it. Treat everyone with respect. Absorb as much knowledge as you can from people who have gone before you. They tend to know what they’re talking about.

I’m super lucky my parents instilled these sorts of values in me as a kid. They were always supportive of all the crazy shit I’ve gotten up to over the years. It sounds kind of cheesy, but in terms of where I want to be in this world, I just want to be in a position where I can do what I love, with people I love and am in a position where I can help others who aren’t as fortunate as I am.

Experiment and find what interests you in the world. Everyone’s got something that makes them tick, it’s just about trying to find out what that something is. You’re definitely gonna break a few eggs along the way, but as long as you’re not being a dick and care about the people around you, I say go for it.

NZSJ: You can invite any three people in the world to dinner – where would you have dinner and who would they be?

Isaac Chadwick: Joshua Homme, Denis Villeneuve and Mick Fanning. It’s pretty hard to beat having a feed at Emerson’s Brewery – awesome beers, hearty food and it’s a two-minute walk from my flat.

I’d invite Joshua Homme because he’s the front man for one of my favorite bands, Queens of the Stone Age, and I feel like he’d have so many awesome stories about his career over the decades, from growing up out in the desert, having such a unique guitar style and traveling the world with such a hard-hitting band would make for some pretty good yarns. That and he seems like he’d just be a good person to have some beers with.

Then Denis Villeneuve because he has directed some of my all-time favorite films: Prisoners, Sicario and the soon to be released Dune adaptation. It would be super interesting to pick his mind on his creative process and how he is able to manage such huge productions. I feel like I’d be able to learn a lot from his experiences within the Hollywood film industry.

And then Mick Fanning, because he’s one of my idols. Three-times WSL champion, one of the greatest surfers ever and seems like such a great dude. He looks like he’s managed to find the perfect balance throughout his career where he is able to dedicate himself completely to achieving his goals while at the same time remembering to just live life and experience everything in the moment and have a good time celebrating. The definition of work hard, play hard.

NZSJ: Thanks legend.

Isaac Chadwick: Thanks heaps for this opportunity Derek. Excited to be where I am, with the people I’m with. Big things to come!

This was from a day I’ll always remember. Me and Oscar were in the water shooting solid 6ft Aramoana with all the boys. Was just on the limit of being too big to be swimming in. Didn’t end up getting anything other than this photo, but was still an awesome experience shared with mates. Photo: Isaac Chadwick
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