Interviews

Cracking A Warrior’s Code with Troy Powell

A brief history of Volcom's foray into the motocross industry to supplement the production of an underground gem.

At a time when the digital wave was cresting in videography, bringing prosumer camcorders, P2 / SDHC cards, and handicams to the forefront, Troy Powell was standing on the shore with his trusty Canon Super-8mm film camera. Emboldened by his surf roots in Central California’s sleepy coast, Powell used his artistic intuition to deliver a left-hook to the motocross industry: a film shot entirely on 8mm stock at the dawn of this digital era. (2007) A DVD offering in a time where YouTube was just beginning to change the landscape for filmmakers across the globe. It’s a medium Powell is still digesting, exemplified by his surprise that this undiscovered gem has only recently made its way onto the digital waves.

If you haven’t seen this, you can rectify that below. Troy believes this film to be ahead of its time, and I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue.

World of Echo: I read somewhere that you dropped out of art school? I was curious where you attended.

Troy Powell: I wasn’t in art school per sé, but I was an art major at Cuesta College. They had a phenomenal program in traditional design. 2D, screen printing, pen and ink, charcoal, print making… stuff like that. My high school art teacher actually steered me into their program, and I trusted her judgement because she had a significant impact on me. She lectured me on art history, which was painful at the time, but looking back I’m fortunate to have been taught the foundations before exploring my own ideas later in life. I mean, what kid wants to hear about Renoir and Picasso?

Right.

All of that was just to keep my parents off my back, really. I only wanted to surf, since we were 10 minutes from the beach. I built surf breaks into my class schedule, actually. [laughs] My psychology professor called me Spicoli because I would come to class with my hair still wet from surfing.

What did you do after you left school?

I just traveled a lot. I’d work odd jobs here and there, save up a couple bucks, quit, then travel until I ran out of money and got another job. I explored a lot of the coast, from Central California all the way down Baja and back up. I went to Costa Rica a few times as well and some trips to the tropics.

Around this time I had started a local surf contest series, and I pitched that to Volcom and got them behind it. I had no idea but it turned into a huge success as the series went national, then international spanning out to more than 12 foreign countries. Attracting some of the best up and coming surfers in the world, many went on to have successful pro careers on the WQS and the World Surf League tours.

Powell on the waves; Volcom contest series.

How did you make the Volcom connection?

I met some of their people at the ASR trade show, an annual board sports expo in the 90’s and early 2000’s. It was notoriously hard to get into because of how huge it was. That’s how you met everyone back then. We’d use connections with local surf shops to get a spot in the shows.

The surf series, however, was similar to the school situation in that I was just trying to figure out how I could surf more! I was trying to get sponsors to back me and my series, but I was never really top of my class out there. I did enough to keep the sponsors, though! I’d get a few bucks here and there.

I did a lot of brand stuff for Volcom during this time as well. That’s how I started to get more involved with them.

Where did motocross come into the picture?

My Dad rode a little in his day. He rode Huskies, re-built Triumphs and things of that nature, but we had a track in my backyard and I’d rip a little 50 out there. My Dad sold his bikes fairly quickly though, and once that happened I picked up a surfboard and never looked back.

Around the time I had firmly planted myself at Volcom in the early-to-mid 2000’s, that was when I started to pick up moto again. A buddy of mine from out in Hollister took me riding and I was hooked. By the late 2000’s, I was riding way more than I was surfing.

Why did Volcom get involved in motocross in the first place? Do you have any insight on that?

I was involved the whole way! Troy Eckert, (who was the marketing director as well as partial owner of Volcom) his dad was a desert racer back in the day, so Eckert was always into motorcycles.

In the late 2000’s, Volcom was looking to expand beyond their board sport market of surf, skate, and snow, as well as finding another way to grow their audience. During this deliberation period, we were riding all the time. Eckert, Tucker Hall (partial owner and co-founder), Jason Steris (Vice President and eventual CEO), and I would all meet at Starwest on Wednesday nights. Hell, even our IT guy would ride with us! [laughs] We must’ve had 10 or so different people that we’d frequent the tracks with. It wasn’t just our own little crew either, I remember guys from Von Zipper and everyone from the Transworld Magazine offices would come ride as well. There were a ton of people in SoCal who were riding at that time.

Where Volcom would eventually lead. A fruitful partnership with RV.

Volcom lids.

So the place you guys wanted to take Volcom was right under your noses?

In a way, yeah. We could definitely feel the trend growing in that direction though, not that there was any defining “Eureka!” moment. An integral connection did come from Malcolm McCassy, because he was the one who introduced us to Nico Izzi, one of the first riders we signed to the Volcom program through our moto division. He told us about this kid in Michigan who liked our stuff and said we ought to do something. We flowed tons of gear to surfers over the years to get people wearing the gear, so we started flowing Nico clothes and that was the start of it.

That was a hell of a pickup!

Right? I first saw him ride at World Mini’s in Vegas, and I was just stoked we had a kid out there wearing our stuff. I figured he’d be whatever… top 10, top 15, you know? Nothing spectacular. I had known the difficulties involved in surf and how hard it is to compete and stay at the top of the rankings, so my expectations for Izzi were pretty reserved. To my surprise, I showed up and the kid was winning everything! I was in awe. He was battling Zach Osborne, Trey Canard, Austin Stroupe… it was crazy.

Nico.

A quick aside: I heard a rumor that you guys signed Izzi because he had a “cool-sounding” last name. Is there any truth to that?

That is absolutely true, yes. I thought it was a cool and marketable name, on top of the fact that his talent was undeniable.

How would you describe your filmmaking style?

I’ve always been a big fan of the “fly on the wall” perspective. I’ve felt that you always get the best stuff when you take that approach and let the action unfold on its own accord.

That’s interesting to hear because I feel like the entirety of A Warrior’s Code reflects that sentiment. It’s almost as if you handed some fan a Super-8 camera and gave them all that access.

I didn’t even really have that access when I first started the project. I was doing everything as a bystander. I didn’t have credentials just yet. That wouldn’t come until later. I’d film everything from the fence up until I gained access. Once I got inside the gates, however, I found that I wasn’t getting footage like I was on the outside. I liked the view on the outside better sometimes! [laughs] It’s nice for the film though, to have both of those perspectives.

I feel like the film was before its time, and I really wanted to bring that skate/snow aspect to moto. I shot it all on film stock as well. I really just wanted to produce a film from start to finish, so I handled everything outside of authoring the DVD’s. If I had known how to encode the discs, I probably would’ve done that too. I designed the cover art, inset booklet, the disc, the titling, shot it all…

I’m wondering where Dan Harvell fit into all of this, though?

Dan was always writing these crazy scripts in hopes that he’d make a movie one day but, his scripts, while entertaining and well-written, were so far fetched that they’d be impossible to finance or capture. Outside of that, he had all of this access in the moto world at the time because he owned Cahuilla Creek MX, so I asked him if he wanted to make a moto movie instead. That was that.

He bought all of the film stock for the movie, and he let me film at Cahuilla all of the time. In fact, (this is kind of funny but I thought it was mean at the time) he wouldn’t allow anyone else to film out there when I showed up. He wanted to make sure that our footage was exclusive! Especially when he’d have pro’s out like James Stewart or Villopoto. It was a team effort for sure.

“…it was $1,000, or about 100 rolls of Super-8 at that time. It was definitely more than I could afford back then!”

How much film stock did he buy?

I’m not sure, but I remember it came in two separate cases. I want to say it was $1,000, or about 100 rolls of Super-8 at that time. It was definitely more than I could afford back then!

This film is super unique in that it was shot entirely on 8mm. I don’t think a movie has been shot entirely on film stock since On Any Sunday, and outside of A Warrior’s Code, I don’t think it’s been done since.

It was something I’d always wanted to do, like I mentioned earlier, and I’ve always just loved film. Cameras were changing so rapidly at the time and I wanted no part of it. I enjoyed my little Canon Super-8 cameras, to my detriment really, because they broke down constantly. Worse yet, something about those 8mm cameras and their motors meant that most repair shops weren’t willing to fix them, so I’d have to buy another one if mine went bust. I think I went through 5 cameras in total shooting A Warrior’s Code.

I also enjoy the unpredictability of film, where shots are over and under-exposed. Or lens flares that pop from the light creeping in when you load the film. In fact, one of my favorite shots in the film is an under-exposed sequence from Cahuilla at night, just as the sun is going down. It turned all purple when it got developed. There’s a few shots from that project that I still love to this day.

Can you cite any major influences on your work during the time of filming?

I was heavily influenced from what I came from. If you look at some of the early Volcom films where I was on the other side of the camera, that’s what inspired me. Volcom was heavily known for their films, over 20 years of work, mainly shot by multiple filmmakers and edited by Troy Eckert and Richard Woolcott. To this day, I reference those films all of the time. I like that real scrappy filmmaking style built on heavy action. I mean, the whole idea behind A Warrior’s Code is that you want to stop the film and go ride, right? That’s what I was after. I’ve always loved films like that.

Surf, and snow especially, captured this essence in the 1990’s. They lead the culture from a filmmaking standpoint, even to this day. Whether it’s digital or not, it’s utterly amazing to me what they’re doing with powder-white snow and bright blue sky.

Most of the film takes place in SoCal, but other than Mini O’s and World Mini’s, the only pro race you attended was RedBud?

Well we were heavily invested in Nico by this point, so I was traveling to follow him, but other than that there wasn’t much need for us to be out there on the circuit at that time. It was hard to predict what was going on back then as well, as we were still in the infancy of mobile phones, at least compared to what we know them as today. It was hard to tell when James Stewart was going to show up at Cahuilla, but if I got the call that I had access to shoot him testing, I’d do my best to be there. That was really the extent of my travel, just being wherever I needed to be at the time.

To follow up, was there any particular reason you chose RedBud?

I was there staying with Nico’s family in Michigan during Fourth of July week, and since I was in the area I signed myself up to go film. I had never been up there before. It’s a beautiful track.

“All I could say about Jason [Lawrence] is that the persona he has is real, 100%.”

Could you shed any light on filming with J-Law and Hanny at this time? Many claim Lawrence as the last bastion of free spirit in Pro Motocross, at least the last with an attitude and the fearlessness to flaunt it.

He has that clip where he hits that triple-quad at Lake Elsinore, a jump that no one would even touch back then, and that kind of tells you all you need to know about J-Law right there. He was insane. I visited Elsinore a lot and that jump combo was always a way to playfully challenge someone at the track, you know?

“I’ll bet you I can triple-quad that!”

“No way!”

It’s insane how smoothly he does it, and the fact that he does it first pass too, wow. What I can say about him is probably no different than what most others would in that he was impossibly hard to get ahold of, didn’t care who you were or what you thought, and definitely didn’t care if you were ready to film or not. He was totally on his own program. Hanny, on the other hand, was always super cool and communicative, and since he was close with Jason, he’d relay Jason’s whereabouts to me whenever they were on the move. I was able to get the drop on those guys through Hansen, and he’s always been cool to this day. Josh is a good guy.

All I could say about Jason is that the persona he has is real, 100%.

Quick side note: I think Jason’s song is the most fitting in the film. 23 Things That Rhyme with Darby Crash by Guttermouth. Perfect choice.

The similarities between him and Darby? Yeah. [Laughs]

I felt like the soundtrack was a great mix of punk and rock without being too “bro-y” or cheesy.

The soundtrack all came through Volcom, actually. Volcom Entertainment. I was working there at the time obviously, so I got clearance to use anything from the label, which had a pretty eclectic catalog to choose from. I had a couple tracks I wanted to use at the end that I was attempting to license myself, but I decided in the end to do an all Volcom soundtrack to save myself the headache. This was a time when I’d have 80 CD’s on my bookshelf and listen to the songs in the car, and I was digging heavy. I liked it in the end. Picking the soundtrack was a lot of fun, especially knowing I had the rights to a huge catalog.

What do you remember most fondly about this time in your life?

That feeling of being invested. I was so into moto, so into what was happening. Watching the races, riding with my friends… I was super involved. Getting to know all of those kids before they grew up and became super stars is something I look back on fondly as well. We ended up signing Jason Anderson, who was on the original Volcom team along with Stilez Robertson, Ryan Villopoto, Darryn Durham, Marky Worth, Nico, and others. Did I know Anderson was going to be good? Of course. I could’ve never predicted he’d be a multi-time Supercross champion, though. Stilez grabbed his first podium at Daytona this year, which was amazing to see and well-deserved.

Powell on the track.

On the flip-side, there are others who faltered and fell on hard times, and that’s something you hate to see, but it’s about as predictable as finding the next champion, you know? I cherish the time I spent with those kids and their families. They’re some of the most hardworking and honest people I know, some of which I still keep in contact with to this day. I love texting Villopoto about random bullshit and leave moto out of it, you know? [laughs]

Something that might get lost every now and again is the value in having friends, not necessarily “business partners,” or “colleagues,” or “collaborators.” It’s like… nah. That’s my friend! That’s my friend, Ryan. And in doing a film like A Warrior’s Code, that’s the perfect avenue to forge genuine relationships with, because you’re not trying to control a narrative or treat people like characters in a script. That “fly on the wall” style you adopted plays right into the hand of creating friendship through camaraderie and a common goal.

Yeah man, the best is capturing how it actually goes down and the people you meet along the way… it was a lot of fun!

Would you ever do it again? Film a project entirely on 8 or 16mm?

If the right project came along, sure! I’d like for long form videos to come back into style, and I think it might be. I’m so tired of the digital/social media formula right now. I’m tired of being asked to come up with 7 seconds of film because no one has the attention span anymore. It’s a lot of work though, making a movie, and I was very naïve when I made A Warrior’s Code, to the point where I might not have made it had I known all that could go wrong or how many cameras I would break! We’ll see, though.

Thanks to Troy for the time.

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