The New Surf Film ‘Savage Waters’ Is About More than Riding Waves
Yes, the new documentary Savage Waters is technically a surf film, as there is plenty of footage of world-class athletes riding waves. But the film—which is streaming now on Outside Watch—is about more than shredding gnarly swells. It follows an expedition by British husband-and-wife adventurers Matt Knight and Suzanne Hobbs to Portugal’s Savage Islands, where they hope to find a mythical wave that was documented in a treasure-hunter’s journal from the 19th century. The couple invite big-wave surfer Andrew Cotton and filmmaker Mikey Corker along for the voyage. After reaching and then departing the islands, disaster strikes. The film follows the emotional journey each character pursues as they attempt to return to the remote islands.
Savage Waters was shot and produced by South African surf filmmaker Mikey Corker. We spoke to Corker about the film, and how it wasn’t the story he initially set out to tell.
OUTSIDE: Why did you want to make this film?
MIKEY CORKER: Matt, Suzanne, Cotty, and I all live in the same town and have always gotten on together. Matt told us about the passage in the treasure hunter’s journal, and he was so excited about it, and Matt is an enthusiastic person who just kind of draws you in. I was drawn to the story. It ticked a lot of boxes: a romantic notion, a wild-goose chase, but one that blends surfing, travel, exploration, and getting away from known waves. That’s how I try to travel as a surfer myself. And if I’m honest, part of the appeal of the project was getting to spend more time with the Knight family. When we started we had no money and no guarantees. I weighed it up and said that the worst-case scenario of pursuing the project is I get to spend time with people I really love, get to have an adventure, and shoot something.
What message do you want audiences to take away from your film?
The moral of the story is that so many of us are goal-driven people, and the era we live in is all about attaining success and showing success. But the reality is that things don’t always go your way. For me, this story is about people dealing with adversity in extreme cases, like life-threatening diseases and terrible injuries. The main characters took these setbacks in stride, and so the story became less about them trying to find this treasure, and realizing that everything they needed was right next to them, and all they needed to do was shift their perspective. You cannot predict the outcome when you’re doing a film like this. And now that I’ve had to think about it, if the story had been more predictable, and we had sailed out and found the perfect waves, would it have been better? Maybe. We didn’t get the pot of gold in the end, but that didn’t matter at all.
What was the timeline you followed for shooting the film?
The first conversation we had was in 2015 and we did our first trip in 2016, and I think we shot the final scenes in 2020, so we’re talking about five years. But there were years in there when we didn’t shoot anything. We had three months of shooting, and then Cotty got injured and Suzanne got cancer, and we didn’t shoot much while they were recovering. I actually thought the project was over during that time. People were dealing with these huge problems, and the film felt secondary compared to what was going on in everyone’s lives. At the time, I didn’t realize that those things would be part of the story, because that’s not the film I set out to make. I’d run out of time or run out of money, and we’d deviate from the original plan. To be honest, there were times when I thought I’d never finish this film, but we did. At some point I realized I wasn’t just dealing with some flippant surf story, I was dealing with all of these real-life issues, and these had become central to the story.
What other documentaries or film projects served as inspiration?
The film Meru by Jimmy Chin was a big inspiration, because they set out to climb the mountain, the first attempt is unsuccessful, and then the story goes into the backstory for all the climbers and you get to know them. All of them have incidents that go on in their private lives, but then they close the loop with another attempt. I liked the way that film was structured. Also, I grew up watching the The Search films by Rip Curl in the 1990s, which showed these guys surfing perfect waves. I once did a project with [The Search star] Frankie Oberholzer, and he’d tell us all the wild stuff that went on between the surfing sessions. With Savage Waters, it would have been easier to pursue a more action-driven film. We sail to these islands, find the perfect wave, and boom. But I think the stuff that we did capture was more interesting.
During the duration of filming, both Nazaré and Andrew Cotton became the focal point of the widely-seen HBO docu-series 100-Foot Wave. How did that change your own storytelling?
I’ve been shooting at Nazaré since 2014 and have seen the whole scene grow. Every few months you see a new production teams come in with cameras. But the HBO film took it to a whole other level. I helped shoot one of the seasons, and I’ve been in the HBO camp, so I was right on the inside of it in many ways. I had to juggle Savage Waters with working on 100-Foot Wave. As a freelancer you don’t say no to projects like that. I don’t think it changed our storytelling in terms of Cotty’s story, even though our films cover a same period in his life. We have a bit more of an intimate look at his life because of my relationship with him. I didn’t foresee the injuries, but I also wasn’t surprised when Cotty put his head down and just got through that year of rehab. I felt like Savage Waters balanced his story with that of the Knight family, and Cotty’s story really fits into the bigger story of theirs. I felt like our film and 100-Foot Wave could absolutely exist together.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited and condensed.