When I was growing up in Chicago, our summertime fun usually consisted of a few treks to Lake Michigan. It was there I saw my first wave. It must have been four inches high. Adventure sports on the shores of the ol’ LM back in the ’70s invited the use of one primary material—rubber. Rafts, floaties, beach balls—you name it. Yeah-ha! What fun!
I did not have the finesse of a swimmer—I was 40 pounds overweight—and, quite often, my rocket red bikini-like swim trunks felt uncomfortably snug, exposing the unwanted physical side effects of consuming too many Ho-Hos and Hostess Chocolate Cream Pies. In a way, I was “surfed” the treacherous waves of LM whenever I embraced the canary-yellow Donald Duck innertube of my youth. At the time, it was cool. And it hid the fat surrounding my mid-section. I’d often sit in Donald—so buoyant, so there for me—while my Polish parents and their gregarious friends lounged in striped lime green lawn chairs on the shore. They’d down a Schlitz or two, talk about the Bicentennial, or gossip about the risqué new temptress at the last Polka party. For chuckles, they would tell jokes in Polish—you haven’t heard a real joke until you’ve listened to the rhyming ones in my family’s native tongue—and cheer on all the kids performing “daredevil” stunts in the lake. The closest thing a Chicagoan like me got to surfing was watching Greg Brady wipe out in that cool Hawaiian episode from The Brady Bunch. (Third season; episode three, and it’s really sad that I know that.)
So, when the offer came to interview filmmaker Dana Brown, the 44-year-old son of acclaimed director Bruce (Endless Summer, Any Given Sunday, Endless Summer 2), I thought, perhaps, it was one career wave I should not catch. Sure, Dana Brown directed the much-talked about new surf documentary Step Into Liquid, which was already receiving significant buzz, both critically and from the surf world, primarily because it illuminates the universal connection surfing holds around the globe. But, really, what the heck would a former chubby Polack and recovering Catholic like me know about things like Pipeline, the Tube, Jaws, Mavericks and getting “Stoked?” Still, the facts sat there like that big unwashed bowl I’d seen in my youth—the one that held the remnants of what used to be seven healthy scoops of Neapolitan ice cream. Brown has quite a yummy track record. You have to hand it to a guy who starts shooting 8 mm movies at the age of 10, using his friends and sibs as his cast. (Those four-minute spy movies I heard about sounded particularly interesting.) And, he’d created his own dynamic path—after a five-year gig as a sports writer in Santa Barbara, he restored his pop’s classic surf films and later teamed up with him to work as editor, co-writer, cameraman and associate producer of Endless Summer 2. He has also directed a series of synergetic creations, A Day on the Beach and Malcolm, Motorcross, Game On among them.
Then I saw Step Into Liquid. About 30 minutes into the film, I found myself starring curiously at the screen. I couldn’t believe it. There were a bunch of Midwesterners catching waves on Lake Michigan—in Wisconsin of all places. They could have been my relatives. And these scenes featuring Midwestern surfers getting “stoked” over a wave—albeit considerably small ones compared to California’s—weren’t the only captivating moments: A 54-year-old Vietnam War vet returns to Vietnam after 30 years, son in tow, and the two discover that “surfing is a language spoken everywhere;” the “good ol’ boys of Texas surf the waves spawned by supertankers in the Gulf of Mexico; The Malloy Brothers head to their homeland and teach Irish kids how to surf, somehow uniting the divide between Protestants and Catholics there; Layne Beachley, Rochelle Ballard and Keala Kennelly, the top pro female surfers, hold their own, their athletic bodies cruising the unpredictable ocean boulevards; a renegade surfer, now handicapped, leaves his wheel chair to ride the waves—horizontally.
Occasionally, Dana Brown waxes philosophical in longer arcs featuring well-known surfers. Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, who was a significant force in Endless Summer 2, is featured in a candid interview, his comments on surfing uncovering another facet to its unifying bond. The whole Endless Summer mystique is also chronicled.
Mixed in between all these visual and philosophical nuggets, are—and how cool is this?—local Santa Cruz surfer icons: Peter “Condor” Mel, Ken “SkinDog” Collins, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, Shawn “Barney” Barron and Robert “Wingnut” Weaver. Sooner or later, if you’ve lived in Santa Cruz a while, these names become familiar. These surfers are the titans of the ocean, locally, sure, but their individual skills and craftsmanship forced heads to turn long before they attracted sponsors and began surfing in tournaments, which is why Dana Brown chose to feature them in Step Into Liquid.
In choosing to spotlight the oft talked about Mavericks, the director spotlights Mel and Ken and Collins at the locale. Virostko and Barney pop up in Maui-based scenes, where they are introduced to legendary surfer Laird Hamilton. Then, Dana Brown and his crew brave the often treacherous ocean and jaunt 100 miles off the Southern California coast, to the Cortes Banks, where the swells are 60-feet or more. Here, Mel and Collins attack the liquid behemoths with gutsy bravura. Epic? Yes. Pulse-pounding? You bet. The scenes are the most adventurous in Dana Brown’s visual odyssey.
The biggest eyebrow-raising moment comes when the director unveils the new kid on the block—the Foil Board. Futuristic, sure, but it’s also downright transcendent. Thanks to a fin-like structure positioned underneath this surfboard, the whole sport of surfing is taken to a new dimension—the boards, and those surfing it, literally, hover above the water and can glide for a significant amount of time.
Step Into Liquid is full of spirit. Technically, it’s an outstanding achievement. The photography is amazing; the locales, stellar—Tahiti’s Teahupo’o (considered a “wave with teeth” due its location near a coral reef), Rap Nui’s isolated Easter Island, Ireland, Western Australia, Costa Rica, Maui, Oahu, Southern and Northern California ocean meccas (Mavericks) are perfectly captured. The soundtrack, a blend of old ’50s and ’60s tunes, alongside some modern-day fare, is downright festive. But these things, alone, can’t always make a film fly.
Ultimately, Dana Brown gives Step Into Liquid a winning concept: to explore what, exactly, it is about surfing that grabs people—on the inside. There’s also this surprising twist: the film is easily accessible to the nonsurfer, which sat well with my former dareless—and chubby—adolescent self, somebody more apt to be cling to a rubber Donald than boldy step into liquid like these pros. *** 1/2 (out of four).
Q: It took nearly three years to get this film made. What was the pricetag?
Dana Brown: About $2 million, which is not much in movie terms. In real life, it’s a ridiculous amount of money. When I put that out there, people were like, ‘Oh it’s amazing. You said so much [in this film] for so little!’ But it never felt like so little. We knew we wanted to do and we wanted to make sure it all ended up on screen.
Q: What was your inspiration here? Why did you want to make this documentary?
A: My dad [Bruce], obviously. And being a surfer, and loving surfing, and my kid. And the times we live in. Everything is so negative and cynical and being kind of negative is portrayed as intelligent now, so I just wanted to show that fun and adventure is important—that the end is not near. I wanted to tell a broader tale; to see how surfing connects all types of people.
Q: You traveled all around the world for this. How did you handle that technically?
A: Basically there were three guys that went on every trip. For the really big scenes, there was a seven-person crew. It would go from seven to eight sometimes and the logistics of it was interesting. The cameras weigh a bit, but we wanted to make it look first class—the David Lean of surf movies; to give the sport the dignity it deserves and give people who don’t know about surfing a chance to stop and take a look. There was a lot of planning; getting the right people—camera guys—and then you have odd things, like in Costa Rica, we were impounded—there was a colonel who wanted money or something and … we were in Vietnam, and the film didn’t have a title yet, so we labeled everything Top Secret Production. So every one of the cases that had Top Secret on it, they refused to open it for a day. You know, it’s still a Communist country over there, and while we can now visit in the last decade, being an American there is unique.”
Q: Any place stand out more than another?
A: Many, to differing degrees. Wisconsin. I heard of the guys in Lake Michigan and I didn’t realize it was such a surf culture there. They are into it. They wear Hawaiian shirts and listen to Dick Dale, something the movies brought to them. The fact is, they are just jazzed and boy, they love that surfing. I would never go there to surf, but God bless all of them. It’s fantastic. The other place was Cortes—in an epic way. For those guys to do what they did … And Rapa Nui, the statues there … you can feel the energy, not in a New Agey way, probably mentally, but you can definitely feel the energy there.
Q: You spotlight those new foil boards in the film; what do think about them?
A: They pop up in the air and, alright, they kind of told us what it did, and it’s like, ‘What is that? The whole thing seemed like something from a bad UFO movie.
Q: Why did you choose to feature the local guys here.
A: Well, Wingnut, we knew from Endless Summer 2, and of course we are good friends. Everything I do, he wants to be a part of. And Peter Mel, he’s such a phenomenon. Mavericks was phenomenal, as is Santa Cruz. You go there in the middle of January—people are in water every place and the argument is that Santa Cruz is not Surf City, but it is. And SkinDog and Barney are the most loveable and genuinely nice kids. They are not roughnecks or hard asses. They are individuals, like the wild set, like cowboys …they got that vibe to them. Whatever they decide to do, they do it. We stealed on those guys once we met on them—saw that difference.
Q: The title? How did you come up with it?
A: Endless Summer 3? No way. I wasn’t going to do that. It’s like Little Joe wanting to play center field for Yankees and I thought about it conceptually, and I thought three is a big number to stick next to any other movie.
Q: Your dad certainly made a significant impact with the Endless Summer films. Do you ever get any slack for creating a film similar to your father’s?
A: I just tried to make the film as good as possible … and sometimes there’s a fling of an arrow, and I try not to take it so seriously. There was ‘Well, you’re not your father!’ I had that told to me in front of my face, but, you know, I never said I was.
Q: What do you love most about surfing?
A: Different things at different times. The simplisticness of it. In a way, the purity of it. The feeling of being dinky in such a big universe makes you feel more connected and bigger. I am just this little guy, so it’s an empowering feeling. It makes all the issues and problems down to size. The universe is big. The ocean is big. To be honest, the ride—staying in the curl or having the feeling of salt water drying on your back and your kids and friends laughing and being silly.