Riding your first wave at an unfamiliar reef is a challenging
and unpredictable experience. If the waves have size and power, fear and adrenaline
are with you as you position for the initial take-off. Knowledge from a life surfing
other waves at similar reefs give you some idea what to expect, but you never really
know how a wave will feel until you touch it. And if you are an experienced surfer,
you understand that there is something about waves that will remain forever beyond
your understanding and mastery. This mystery is one of the reasons why you are a
Documentary filmmaking is a comparable experience. The process of beginning a new film is like learning a new surf spot. You know what the film is about, and as a surfer studies the waves before paddling out, you’ve studied your subject for months before even getting close to the camera. But documentary films are about people and life, and hence, as unpredictable, and ultimately, as mysterious as the surf.
The journey of each film begins with an intended destination. Along the way new paths reveal themselves, and if you choose to follow them, lead to unanticipated destinations. Such was the journey of Liquid Stage, which began as a history of surfing. The people we met at the start of this journey, however, inspired us to head toward a new destination.
Our filming of Liquid Stage began in 1993 with Dick Dale. We met him in a hotel room in Encinitas a few hours before he was to perform at The Belly Up Tavern. The small, generic hotel room was packed with Dick, his wife and baby, our film crew, and two roadies. In contrast to his raging stage persona, Dick spoke softly and seriously about his love of surfing, and how riding and watching waves had influenced his music. He stopped mid-sentence, turned to a roadie, and said; “Get The Beast.” A couple minutes later the roadie arrived with “The Beast” -- Dick’s famed Stratocaster guitar. All of us in the film crew had no doubt -- we were in the presence of rock and surfing royalty.
Dick sat on the bed, and played his unique interpretations of the sounds of surfing on his unplugged Strat. He told us that sometimes he plays so hard and fast in concert that his guitar picks melt. His wife grabbed an acoustic guitar, sat close to Dick on the bed, and they launched into a long guitar instrumental -- a powerful moment of soul by a man who loves surfing and music. His aim is true, and in many ways he is “King of the Surf Guitar.”
Our next interview was with Brad Gerlach. Brad was 27 at the time of the interview in 1993, and one of the best surfers in the world. A rebel with a cause, Brad had recently left the professional surfing world tour, and was developing a paradigm of competition more in tune with the soul of surfing. On his departure from the tour, Brad was ranked number two in the world, and considered a likely candidate to take the world title. While a man of strong opinions, especially in regards to what surfing is about, in person he is humble, soft-spoken, and a gentleman. He has great respect for the traditions of surfing, and had devoted much time to learning what the elders of the surfing tribe have to say.
The interview was filmed in Brad’s living room. A veteran of over a decade traveling the planet as a professional surfer, Brad spoke about what surfing had given him, and what he would like to give back. His obvious love of surfing was revealed in the details he remembered of waves ridden years earlier. Very specific details of a backlit tube in France years ago -- the color of the water, the sunset colors softly coming through the lip, and the feel of the cool temperature change as he pulled into the tube. Likewise, Brad remembers the people with whom he shares an intimacy with the sea. A life spent on the international surf trail, and he had learned much.
After Brad, we filmed several interviews with Woody Brown, the legendary big wave rider, world class sailor and glider pilot. Words don’t come easy when describing the experience of being with Woody. Like needless tracks across the face of a perfect wave, words seem blasphemous when applied to Woody. He is a man so connected to life that just sitting with him can change one’s perspective on life. A gracious man, with a deep reverence for all that lives. And as one would expect from such an individual, he is not without his wounds. The death of his first wife in childbirth in 1939 made cuts that will never completely heal.
Woody has the vulnerability of one who is secure, and he freely talked about how reaching the top of surfing, sailing, and soaring was not enough. This negative, if one can call it that, inspired in Woody a search for God. It is an unorthodox search, but one that is as true as the lines Woody drew at giant Makaha point surf in the 1940s. Woody is a searcher, forever a searcher, and he has found much. And surfing was part of that search, and he shared with us what he found in surfing.
The time with Woody was one of those rare, magical moments in documentary filmmaking. Everyone on the production team, and our families, fell in love with Woody.
Our first round of filming ended with Woody. However, it really wasn’t an ending, but the birth of new film. As noted above, we set out to do a film on surfing history. After Dick, Brad, and Woody, this initial destination seemed inadequate. What united their interviews was how much surfing meant to them; surfing as a way of life. A new theme emerged: Why do people surf. This became the film’s new destination. It was a vague heading, however, and we weren’t sure of what path to follow.
Our next interview would be with Skip Frye. The journey had begun.