Hollywood Don't Surf
...and I should know
They’re trying it again. Hollywood, I mean, attempting yet again to make a movie about surfing. The latest effort being to adapt William Finnegan’s Pulitzer prize-winning memoir “Barbarian Days”, a chronicle of The New Yorker magazine staff writer’s parallel surfing life, into a feature film. In response to this news all I can say is, “Yeah, good luck.” And if my response comes across as a bit cynical, I think I can be forgiven. You see, I’m in the position both of having actually been paid to write a half-dozen surf-themed screenplays, not a single one ever making it to the screen, but having also written and directed a feature documentary titled, appropriately enough, Hollywood Don’t Surf, a film that, though wildly popular at its Cannes Film Festival premier, couldn’t find a distributor here in the States. A woeful record of writing and directing that makes me, without question, the most spectacular failure in Hollywood/surfing history.
Not for lack of trying. Which pretty much sums up a half-century of well-intentioned writers and filmmakers attempting to capture on-screen what the estimable Greg Noll calls “the pixie dust” that makes surfing so appealing. This, of course, was the theme of Hollywood Don’t Surf, with its examination of these ongoing efforts, beginning with 1959’s Gidget and stretching all the way to 2011’s Soul Surfer, with the saga of 1978’s Big Wednesday comprising the film’s second act (Chasing Maverick’s hadn’t come out at the time of production.) I’m really proud of the film today, and my role in its making, if for no other reasons than having survived three days with Gary Busey and for getting Frankie Avalon to perform an a cappella version of 1963’s Beach Party theme on camera. Yet upon reflection, what really stands out beyond the all the camp, corniness and cringe-worthy surfer talk is the earnestness with which so many of these Hollywood films were made. Consider the germ of inspiration that motivated writer/director John Milius to risk his burgeoning film career with the making of Big Wednesday. Milius, a longtime Malibu surfer, was at the time coming off a string of Hollywood hits, having penned iconic scripts like 1971’s Dirty Harry (“You have to ask yourself one question, do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”), as well as writing and directing the 1972 Robert Redford hit Jeremiah Johnson.
“I realized I’d acquired a certain number of chips in the casino, and I didn’t know how long I’d be allowed to play,” Milius, a main character in Hollywood Don’t Surf recalls. “So I thought I should really do something about surfing. I felt, and so did [co-writer] Denny Aaberg, that we had watched something unravel before us, watched something come and go, watched an era pass.”
In this, perhaps John Milius’ last on-camera interview before suffering a debilitating stroke during final stages of the documentary’s production, can be heard the profound wistfulness that would eventually pervade Big Wednesday’s script.
“When you’re young, with no responsibilities, that’s the best time to be a surfer,” continues Milius. “But then gradually the world comes and calls you to other things. You have to go inland, face the whole catastrophe. Get married, divorced…get a job.”
Like so many Hollywood surfing features, Big Wednesday’s story was conceived and crafted with all the best intentions, and in this case, some pretty encouraging support from some fairly reputable sources.
“John had done his most personal screenplay, in my opinion,” recalls director Steven Spielberg, in one of Hollywood Don’t Surf’s most engaging interviews. “I certainly thought it was his American Graffiti.”
We all know how that turned out. George Lucas’ American Graffiti eventually grossed $140 million worldwide, while Big Wednesday, following two weeks of dismal box office returns and scathing reviews (“Big Wednesday Just Might Be The True Definition of Wipeout”, “Big Wednesday A Pretentious Cliché”, etc., etc.) was summarily pulled from theaters. So bad was Hollywood’s notoriously fair-weather fraternity’s response to the film, let alone that of the surfing audience, that ordinarily brash director grew seriously dispirited.
“This sort of failure is the worst thing that can happen,” says Milius. “It’s like being indicted for some terrible crime. And it’s worse than even a normal crime, it’s like a political crime. And so, to know you is to be…I mean, you, too, could be sent to the gulag.”
This was John Milius talking, the guy who wrote Dirty Harry, and The Wind and the Lion, one of my favorite films. The guy who wrote the greatest feature film surf sequence ever in 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with Col Kilgore’s epic line, “Charlie don’t surf!” If even he couldn’t get it right, what could’ve possibly made me think that I could?
But try I did, over a number of years that between surf magazine deadlines and surf trips found me on numerous occasions sitting uncomfortably in conference rooms from Burbank to Studio City to Brentwood, trying to convince varied ensembles of mildly amused studio and network execs that I had cracked the code; that I alone could capture the pixie dust and deliver a surfing story that would captivate the non-surfing public to the tune of ‘boffo’ box office and big ratings. The amazing thing is that over the decades they’ve kept asking for those meetings, and, with absolutely no template of success to follow or even point to, have, on six separate occasions, actually paid me to convert my “in the room” pitch into a screenplay.
What were they hoping for? I don’t even think they knew. With few exceptions the Hollywood executives and their inscrutable assistants to whom I’ve pitched stories were obviously more fascinated with surfing and its intrinsic cultural aesthetic than any studio-approved, three-act story I could dream up. Although I do remember the time when, while attending a story meeting at NBC’s ‘Black Tower’ office high-rise, one of those Hugo Boss-suited, Ferragamo-tied, Paul Stuart-shoed network junior execs interrupted my pitch.
“I just want to know why he gets to show up for a Tuesday afternoon meeting wearing flip flops.” he said, with what I guess he imagined was just the right amount of snark.
“Today’s Tuesday?” I asked, and should probably have walked out right then and there, seeing as how that single exchange would be better, more cinematic, than any of the thousands of words I’d ever been paid to deliver in script form. These would eventually include stories about a North Shore, surfer-run cable-access TV station, two private detectives who surfed (my working title: “Surf Dicks”), a Bali Bombing survivor who surfed, a Greg Noll bio-pic, a South Central LA detective who surfed and two pioneers of the mid-1960s Thai Stick smuggling scene, both of whom, of course, surfed. Pages and pages of exposition, none ever filmed; line after line of dialog, none ever spoken. As a screenwriter, I’m 0-6.
I had higher hopes for Hollywood Don’t Surf. Executive produced by Greg MacGillivray, he of Five Summer Stories and IMAX fame, the documentary featured an all-star cast that included the aforementioned Milius, Spielberg, Busey and Avalon, plus directors Quentin Tarantino and Stacy Peralta, actors Nia Peeples, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan Michael Vincent, and surfers like Greg Noll, Gerry Lopez and Laird Hamilton. Accepted for a special exhibition premier at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the movie seemed destined to engage a broader audience with its affectionate critique of the surf movie genre. The screenings in France were a big success, the enthusiastic crowds primed for anything surf-related, perhaps, by a rare sea storm called a ‘Medicane’ that made landfall the week before, lashing the normally placid Cote d’Azur with 15-foot waves…and on a Wednesday, no less. But suffice it to say that striding wide-eyed down the red carpet at Cannes, my modest entourage bracketed between Woody Allen’s and Oliver Stone’s, was one of the more unique surfing experiences in my life. That, and hearing a standing-room-only crowd in the Grand Palais cheering at Greg Noll’s predictably delightful obscenities rendered into French subtitles.
Naturally, it was assumed that the reception would be even warmer back in Los Angeles, but that’s not what happened. Response from potential distributors was consistent: loved the film, thought it was smart, informative and entertaining, but we’re going to pass. The reason? I call it the N-word. And that word is niche, as in “a specialized segment of the market for a particular type of product.” Because the subject matter is surfing, it was believed that the spectrum of interested viewers would be too narrow, too exclusive…too niche. The irony of this reaction never ceases to raise my blood pressure (playing the aggrieved filmmaker), seeing as how other than at the Cannes Festival the film was never screened for an audience of surfers, but only to studio types of various ages, sexes and “east of the 405” zip codes, who uniformly found the film “smart, informative and entertaining”, yet for reasons unexplained felt that nobody else but surfers would. This, in fact, has been the same response to so many of the Hollywood surfing projects I’ve worked on, some right up to today. And it begs the question: If surfing as a story subject is too much of a niche for mainstream audiences, then why do they keep trying?
Case in point, Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days”, currently being adapted into a feature film. Upon first thought, it makes sense, with a best-selling, Pulitzer prize-winning memoir to draw from. And there is precedent. Adapted from a best-selling book by the same name, 2011’s Soul Surfer, which brought to the screen the remarkable story of shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton, was the first legitimately profitable live-action surfing movie since Gidget in 1959 (that both films featured female protagonists is a topic I’ll address in a later post.) But it has happened. Granted, only twice in over 50 years, but we’ve got to give them credit for trying.
Or do we? Has Hollywood ever made a movie about surfing that, upon its release, surfers haven’t heaped with righteous scorn? I’ll exempt the wave of American International “beach movies” in the early 1960s, which, although they gave much of the country’s teen population a warped impression of what surfers looked, sounded and acted like, weren’t plotted around surfing, per se, but rather Frankie’s ongoing effort to deflower Annette. I’ll also skip the Australian genre, which includes disasters like Drift and critical hits like Breathe, little-seen in the U.S., and 2008’s Surfer, Dude, with Matthew McConaughey, a film so execrable that I’m going to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But otherwise, consider: Ride the Wild Surf (1963), Big Wednesday (1978), North Shore (1987), Point Break (1991), In God’s Hands (1998), Blue Crush (2002), Chasing Maverick’s (2012). Bombs, all, at least in surfer’s eyes. And certainly not because of the spectacular surfing footage featured in every one of those films. The problem has been with the screenplays, primarily the dialog. If you really think about it, did we hate the stories? Ride the Wild Surf was about an up-and-coming Californian surfer determined to win a big wave event at Waimea and get a sponsor. Big Wednesday chronicled three friends in the 1960s, dealing with challenges that include the Vietnam draft and the “Shortboard Revolution”, In God’s Hands addressed the still ongoing tow-in versus paddle-in debate, while Chasing Maverick’s is a bio-pic of a popular young surf hero who tragically died young. No, it hasn’t been the stories or the action, but the writing that has sunk big screen surfing movies, time after time. That might be the way we surf, might even be the way we look, but it’s not the way we talk. Perfect example, Point Break’s Bodhi, played with a straight face by the late Patrick Swayze, casually offering surfing advice to a beginner he’s just met:
“You still haven’t figured out what riding waves is all about, have you? It’s a state of mind. It’s that place where you lose yourself and find yourself. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve got it. It’s right there.”
Does that sound like any surfer you know? Who doesn’t live in a cool, converted Sprinter, ride mid-length twin-fins and tuck his beard up when he’s throwing pottery, I mean. But it’s this idea that, as evidenced by Hollywood’s continuing efforts, what’s been most difficult to put down on the page is the way surfers talk. Regardless of what sort of plot structure you come up with, this is probably the key to finally making a feature film that surfers will approve and non-surfing audiences pay to watch—twice.
Which brings me back to my so-called screenwriting career. This realization about surf movie dialog has led me to believe that my latest failed screenplay has actually been my most successful—at least by this one standard. Based on the feedback received from a knowledgeable, articulate development executive at a major studio who, having read my submitted script (the one about the ‘60s surfer/smugglers, the pilot set primarily in Hawaii) told me that what he really felt worked was how evocative was my portrayal the surfing subculture. “The sense of place and time and purpose,” he said. “But especially the way the characters talked, and what they talked about.”
“Yeah, thanks, but what about the story?” I asked.
“Oh, no. That’s all wrong.”
Like I said, good luck, Barbarian Days.