The story behind ‘First Love’

The product of a deep-set love of surf and a raw determination to make things work, First Love is no ordinary surf film. We got the low down from director Claire Gorman, about the project that grew from a hobby to a feature length film, that is shown at the Surf / Film Festival in London this weekend!

Words by Posy Dixon, photography by Clare Plueckhahn

First Love is based on the lives of three real-life surfer girls who live on Phillip Island, a rocky island located 140km off the Melbourne coast. Famed for it’s small population, epic wildlife and abundance of sheep, Phillip Island also happens to boast 97km of coastline, 26 beaches and an innumerable number of epic surf breaks. Unsurprisingly many of the young growing up on “The Rock” turn to surf as a lifestyle and form of entertainment, as did First Love’s director Claire Gorman when she grew up on the island herself. “We moved to Phillip Island when I was 13. Naturally, I started surfing because it was what all the other kids were doing. There was one point on the school bus ride home where we could see if there was any swell, then our Mum’s would drive us down to the waves where we’d often just sit in the water chatting, singing and catching the odd wave.”

Always a keen artist and photographer, Claire started making short surf films about her friends in the water during her final years of school. Inspired by the success of fellow countrywoman Steph Gilmore, she wanted to document the incredible rise in women’s surfing that was happening around her. She began shooting local sponsored ripper Nikki Van-Dijk as she surfed various spots around the island. In a predictable fashion Nikki’s friend Jess Laing started coming along for the ride, later to be joined by schoolmate India Payne. A natural surf crew had formed, and at the same time a film and production crew grew in a similarly organic manner, as photographer Clare Plueckhahn and producer Fran Derham joined the ranks and the decision to commit to making a full length movie was made.

Claire explains how the film grew into such a big project all on it’s own, “Fran and Clare brought a lot of energy to the project, Fran particularly had big dreams, I remember she used to say to Clare and I, ‘So, when the film is in cinemas’… and Clare and I would just laugh. The beautiful thing about this film is that we all poured our hearts into it, we had no rules and every one of us has grown with it from the start.”

Nikki surfing on home turf

With characters and a crew in place, Claire began to very loosely script the film, which would capture the experiences of the trio as they travelled from their icy home breaks to surf the North Shore of Hawaii. As Claire recalls, “The decision to go to Hawaii happened way back in the beginning when I thought it would be interesting to compare the lives of girls who surf on an island in Victoria to those who surf on an island in Hawaii, two completely different climates and cultures but both based around surfing.” Claire was keen to step away from the mould of a typical surf film, wanting rather to tell a story capturing the personalities of the three girls and what surfing really meant to them, beyond just riding waves.

“We were all clear from the beginning that we didn’t want to make a typical surf film with top surfers, perfect waves and no story,” Claire explains. “We wanted to make something that people who didn’t surf could relate to, and we wanted to bring a strong positive message to the audience through the themes in the film – friendship, sticking at something and seeing it through, following your heart and living a healthy lifestyle.”

The crew spent a full month in Hawaii, filming in and out of the water ten hours a day, and joining several of the ASP’s biggest surf stars, Alana Blanchard, Steph Gilmore and Coco Ho, who all have roles in the movie. A huge step-up for everyone involved. “It was Nikki’s first time overseas and India had only been to Hawaii as a baby, so they were both excited and nervous going over there,” remembers Claire. “I’m sure they felt a lot of pressure, it’s the biggest surf scene in the world, there are pro’s everywhere you look and photographers covering the beaches – quite the opposite to Phillip Island.” However everyone involved, crew and cast, took the whole experience in their stride. “Jess and Nikki’s surfing improved dramatically over the few weeks that they were in Hawaii, and we as a crew really enjoyed working with the pro-surfers in the film, we were quite surprised, and grateful with how easily they let us into their lives.”

In parts the coming together of this film seems almost too good to be true, but it wasn’t all plain sailing as Claire recalls. “Funding was hard to begin with, we all worked other jobs while making the film, and called upon our parents for support.” Financial backing was something that had to be fought for, “we certainly had a fair share of knock-backs and there were a lot of people who didn’t take us seriously, being three girls making a film for the first time.” The first whiff of support came aptly from Philip Rock itself in the form of sponsorship from the local Pyramid Rock Festival. Later, much to the joy of Claire, Rip Curl came onboard as the title sponsor, allowing the film to reach it’s full potential.

Three years in the making, First Love was undoubtedly worth all the triple shifts, begging emails and late night edits. Now being premiered in Australia the film is earning massive recognition and praise from local press. More importantly as Claire adds, the film is making more girls want to get out in the water. “So far the response has been amazing. Everyone loves the film, loves the three girls and wants to either take up surfing or keep surfing more. Overall I think people have come out really inspired.”

Inspiring others is surely all a filmmaker can wish to do. With this project under her belt Claire’s moving on to make a film about women’s big wave surfing in Hawaii, whilst pitching for a women’s surf TV show with Fran and Clare. The Philip Island trio, Jess, Nikki and India, are back surfing the rock, with a newfound fame and an even bigger appetite for success in the Pro Juniors they are entering this summer. The story of First Love is one of dedication and an irrepressible desire to do something special, both from the water and from behind the lens. As Claire sums it up, “girls can do anything. We wanted to say it in the storyline, and in the way that the film was made. We really hope the story and the essence of surfing that we tried to capture inspires girls to get our there and do what they love.”

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