Cyrus Sutton’s work came into my life in a profound way, at a poignant time.
I’d just started university post travelling the world surfing for a few years. Surf culture—the “bros” and “should’ve been here 20 years ago’s”—was getting old, and my newfound academic obligations and surfing were juxtaposed. By chance, I attended a screening of Cyrus’ 2013 movie Stoked and Broke, and it hit me—surfing and thinking about stuff needn’t be mutually exclusive. Set against the backdrop of affluent southern California, the movie sees Cyrus and a young Ryan Burch hike the length of the San Diego coast with not a penny to their name, relying on the charity of others, stopping in with friends, dumpster diving and the like. The film was funny and didn’t take itself too seriously—Cyrus and Burch sampling discarded artisanal dog treats and suchlike—but it also touched on wealth disparity, the various stages of masculinity, self-sacrifice, and a whole heap of other stuff that you wouldn’t expect in a traditional surf flick. Using surfing as the vehicle, literally in the case of Stoked and Broke, to explore all of these other factions of how the world worked appealed to me. Presently, exploring an existence void of ludicrous rent and rich in mobility, I found myself looking to Cyrus’ work again. His shrugging of social norms inspired me then and continues to now, so I figured it’s unlikely that I was alone.
Cyrus grew up in Seal Beach, a “city” in Orange County, California. He describes his high-school years as an exercise in “fitting in”, describing himself as an “oddball”. “My parents separated, I was an only child, my dad left to teach in Japan. So I was just trying to find my tribe y’know, and find belonging. Surfing offered that,” Cyrus tells me on the phone from LA, having recently flown in from the Mexi Log Fest. Due to the logistics of the local breaks, it was a longboarding scene that Cyrus fell into, largely consisting of older surfers. Cyrus progressed to the level where he was contracted to travel and surf at 18, due in no small part to legendary surfer and editor of Longboard Magazine at the time, Devon Howard. Cyrus’ professional surfing career was hindered, however, after hitting the reef on a trip to Samoa. The subsequent recurring staph infection that lingered for a year or so is what prompted him to pick up a camera for the first time.
“I hadn’t really been very creative,” Cyrus explains of the years prior to learning the filmmaking craft, one that would later see him win a Regional Emmy for Best Topical Documentary in 2005. “My mom’s an artist who’s had exhibitions all over the world, and I grew up going to galleries and thinking it was pretentious bullshit,” he continues. “You’re not attracted to what your parents do.” It was a case of kicking against the inevitable however, and soon Cyrus became engulfed by his newfound passion. “I’ve never felt anything like that,” he explains. “I couldn’t sleep, I was just consuming all these college textbooks about film, I cleaned pools to save up money to buy my first camera and one thing led to another.” Cyrus made a movie called Riding Waves, his first, and it gained props from Taylor Steele and various others, leading doors to open. And then things started to drift slightly left of centre.
Cyrus started korduroy.tv, a website that was far ahead of its time. He uploaded the regular edits that he was making to his site, which started off in a traditional surfing manner, before progressing to reflect Cyrus’ blossoming interest in alternative living. When you look through Korduroy’s films you realise that Cyrus was doing the internet just as early as other web-savvy publications in the surf world: sponsored series, how to’s, gear guides. It’s internet content 101, and Cyrus was early to the party. It gained traction too—skimming through the play counts on Vimeo from Korduroy’s early days, the numbers are more than a lot of well-known publications would be enjoying today. Cyrus has a talent for documenting things before they become parts of the zeitgeist—see early Korduroy films on Ryan Burch, finless surfboards of all descriptions, handplanes, even almond milk—and he explains that it was the sudden accessibility and shall we say, affordability, of camera gear that led to Korduroy blooming. “The DSLR just hit, the Canon Mark II,” Cyrus tells me. “There’s a big chain of warehouse retail stores called Cost Co. in America, where they have a 90-day return policy. So we would go in and get these consumer cameras and then return them after 90 days.” This, and the fact that surfers like Ryan Burch and Erik Snortum lived down the street, led to the birth of a movement, and it was around this time that the next great phase of Cyrus’ life began: the phase of living with less.
I’ve only been tinkering with the freelance, no fixed address lifestyle for a number of months now, but it’s been overwhelming the amount of negativity that gets slung your way for trying to do something slightly different. Baby boomers don’t like things they can’t put in boxes, so it’s easiest for them to dismiss not punching the clock as “doing nothing”. Even friends, through a combination of jealousy and insecurity at their own unwillingness to give what they really want to do a genuine crack, can’t help taking aim. It’s lonely. What I’ve experienced is nothing compared to the radical shift in perspective and lifestyle that Cyrus Sutton’s embarked on over the last decade. Cyrus was an early advocate of what came to be called “Van Life”, and like most things he does, he did it properly. His rejection of the renting lifestyle opened his eyes to a whole new world of alternate living.
“It was never planned to try to be attractive for anybody else,” Cyrus tells me of moving into his van and hitting the road. “It was pretty lonely and pretty hard, but I was just driven to not have a normal job and to be in what I felt like was an oppressive situation. As a kid I could just sniff out that most of the people weren’t happy, and so I just was willing to do whatever it took to avoid that.” What Cyrus’ new-found fluidity allowed him to do, was to cherry pick the commercial jobs he wanted and to make films about things that really mattered to him. The list of work that came out of this period is long, but in terms of topics, sustainability (portrayed in films like Island Earth) is recurring.
“Capitalism right now is this beautiful and flawed economic model that’s based on infinite growth on finite resources, on a finite planet,” Cyrus explains. “It’s not sustainable.” Through his films, Cyrus has worked tirelessly to portray the multitude of ways to approach things like food, and it remains one of his passions. “It’s taken many generations for us to lose our ecological literacy and what it really takes to be a human on the planet,” he tells me. “And I think it’s going to take just as many generations to regain that incrementally and there’s going to be fallout in that process. But it’s just like a wave, there’ll be a trough and a new swell.”
There’s a pivotal moment in Cyrus’ film Stoked and Broke, when surf historian Richard Kenvin gives Cyrus some advice, lessons learned in a life devoted to surfing:
“There’s nothing better than you could get out of life, than having a family unit… and some sort of security in the world,” he says “If you were going to get advice from me, that’s of a much higher value than anything that you’re going to get out of surfing. If you can get surfing to fit in there somehow, then you’re onto of the game. Responsibility really gives you freedom in the end.”
The moment’s a borderline tearjerker in the film, and the advice is clearly something that Cyrus has taken on board at some point. Cyrus owns a house these days, and some land up in Washington State. He doesn’t surf as much as he used to, rather cherrypicking his swells and getting his fix before retreating back to the PNW to work. It’s Cyrus’ version of security, but it doesn’t mean that he’s forgotten the unorthodox path that got him there.
“I went from having zero money to now where I’m saving and I’m investing and I own a house,” he says. “I look at how different my reality is now from what it was 10 years ago, how it influences my thoughts, and it allows me to put myself in the shoes of the older generation. It’s so easy to forget. If it wasn’t so recently that I had nothing, I would forget the struggle and I think as people, one of our flaws is that we’re often just blinded by our subjective view of the world. The older generation has had it a certain way, and they don’t see and feel.”
Searching for a fitting epitaph for what was a most enriching and thorough conversation, I ask Cyrus what he’s seen, read, watched, anything that’s filled him with optimism of late. He pauses, then explains that the way the young loggers at the Mexi Log Fest carried on—not glued to their phones, not being jaded, helping each other out and having a good time—was something that filled him with hope. “I know how much sacrifice it takes to do something that is not valued by greater society, something like surfing,” he explains. “It’s testament to how sensitive and awake kids are. They’re more interested in living in the moment because they feel that the systems that took care of their parents aren’t going to be there in the same way for them. And I think that’s probably spot on.”