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Calling the Shots

BY Jamie Bufalino and Alison Powell | August 23, 2016 | Feature Features National

Whether it's a world-class surf film director, the brainchild behind some of television's punchiest hit series, or the board members helping guide the Hamptons International Film Festival, many of the most respected, dynamic entertainment professionals call the South Fork home.
IN HIS ELEMENT Filmmaker Taylor Steele on location in Portland in 2015

Surf alert: An exotic specimen has been spotted along the shores of Montauk. After spending the past 12 years in the far more temperate climes of Bali and then Australia, 44-year-old Taylor Steele has recently migrated to the East End. What makes Steele exotic is his position atop the food chain of surf filmmakers. Growing up in Encinitas, Calif., Steele quickly adapted his natural creative abilities to his beach town surroundings. “I started surfing at 10,” he says. “My parents had bought a video camera for us to film Christmases and other family events. I took it down to the beach, set up a tripod, and I would grab two other friends and we’d take turns filming and surfing. Then at the end of the day I’d go home and I’d make a video for everybody to watch.”

Eventually, the childhood hobby morphed into a full-fledged career. In 1992, at age 19, Steele—who had become friends with talented young surfers like Kelly Slater—decided he wanted to put his own signature on the surf film genre. “At the time, there were some really beautiful surf movies, but they were all shot on 16 millimeter film in slo-mo with mellow music,” recalls Steele. “And me, being just 19, I didn’t have the attention span for that. I was watching MTV and I wanted to make something more fast-paced.”

Steele decided to make a virtue of his low-tech camera, opting for a minimalist, cinéma vérité-style approach, allowing the surfers’ performances—rather than fancy filmmaking techniques—to be the star of the show. He also amped up the surfers’ wave-thrashing action by tacking on a pop-punk soundtrack, featuring then-unknown bands like Blink-182. The finished product—a 35-minute VHS film titled Momentum, which Steele personally delivered to surf shops in his pick-up truck—became a hit in the surfing community. “It was so different from what was out there,” he says. “Plus, I was filming a group of surfers who weren’t famous yet, but when I was filming them, they became the top guys. Kelly Slater won the world title when I was doing Momentum.”

Steele has been making popular surf films pretty much nonstop ever since. Along the way, he started a family with his wife, Sybil, who’s a fashion photographer and a film producer. The couple have two daughters: Jaiden, 11, and Milla, 10. After living in Bali and Byron Bay, Australia, the peripatetic clan moved full time to Montauk last September. “Each move we’ve made was intentional for the evolution of our kids’ social growth,” says Steele. “Living in Montauk and being close to New York City inspires their artistic, cultural and competitive sides. It’s like preparing them for the real world.”

At first, the Steeles didn’t tell the kids they were putting down roots in Montauk, but as it turned out, the girls didn’t need much convincing. “We told them we were going to be here for a month and they were going to go to school here,” says Steele. “But then after a week they said, ‘We don’t want to go back to Byron Bay, we want to stay here.’ The Montauk kids were really welcoming, so they felt like they had a great group of friends right away.”

Their dad has been creatively invigorated by the move as well. “I would love to document all the interesting characters out on the East End,” he says. “There are some really inspiring people—you can feel the creative energy out there.”

Right now, Steele is busy putting the finishing touches on his next film, Proximity, due out in March 2017; he’s turning the opening into a multimedia event. In addition to the surf film, he says, “we’re going to have an art gallery installation in New York, where you can see photos, videos, virtual realities, surfboards that were used and other elements from the film.” He also continues to work on advertising projects for companies like Corona, Samsung and Hewlett Packard.

When he’s not working, Steele focuses on family life and settling into his new community. “The nice thing about working in surf films so long is becoming part of the surf tribe,” he says. “Anywhere I go where there are surfers, I get welcomed pretty easily.” Meanwhile, his daughters have fallen in love with surfing in Montauk. “They knew how to surf from living other places, but now that all their friends from school are surfers too, they’re surfing all the time.” And living on the East End has even given their dad a new perspective on the sport. The biggest eye-opener he’s had since moving to Montauk? Says Steele: “Surfing in the snow.” –JB

Photography Courtesy Of: