You ended up releasing several editions of that film over the years and its popularity has achieved almost cult status. Was it your best surf themed film?»Sure, I think Five Summer Stories was our best surfing film. It was insightful, interesting, entertaining, accurate and provided the audience with a new way technically to look at surfing. The stories were good and contained interesting, real-life characters – all non-fiction. The photography was unique, particularly the slow motion and close-up photography. Also, the music and the sound reproduction were both very high quality. Regarding the film’s music, we were fortunate to have a friendship with Bruce Johnston, who is in the Beach Boys and who also is a surfer. We’d announced the fact that we were going to make Five Summer Stories as our last surfing film, in fact it was subtitled The Last Surfing Movie, kind of as a takeoff on The Last Picture Show. When Bruce heard about the film coming out he talked to the other Beach Boys and offered us their entire library if we wanted to use it. That was incredible. Even though some of the early Beach Boys’ hits were exploitative of the surfing genre, the music that the Beach Boys were doing in the 1970s was just as creative and more interesting than their early work. It was a wonderful opportunity to use their brilliant music particularly from the Surf’s Up album, the songs Feel Flows and Surf’s Up, and from the Holland album, the song Sail On Sailor. Beautiful music. The success of the film, as well as the success of our previous surfing films and the films that we were making for Hollywood, really built a sturdy foundation for our company, benefiting us in a number of ways. Not only do we have no debt and no big concerns from a financial standpoint, we also own all of our own film equipment free and clear. We can make sure it’s the finest equipment and is maintained in the very, very best manner so that when we go out and shoot, we can rely on the lenses and the cameras to be performing to an A-plus level. That’s why in our IMAX theatre films, all of the scenes are absolutely crystal-sharp and steady. Quality of the image on screen is hugely important to us, and we’re able to achieve that because of the strong foundation that the surf films built for our company.
By the early 1970s, you had widened your horizons beyond the surf genre to include work for mainstream Hollywood. How did you make that connection, and what kind of work did Hollywood push your way?»Beginning in 1970, Jim and I decided to get more involved with Hollywood film productions. We began shooting Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Paramount feature film from Richard Bach’s book, which was the biggest selling book of the year. Our company was in charge of shooting all the scenes of seagulls in the air while Jack Couffer was the Director of Photography and was responsible for shooting all the beautiful images of the seagulls walking on the ground and talking to one another. The reason that Jim and I wanted to do films outside of surfing was that we felt that we’d done, by 1970, just about everything that we possibly could do. Any future films would be going over the same ground again. We were more interested in challenging our artistic abilities with new subjects and new ways to express ourselves in film. Working with Hollywood was a good way to learn and a great way to challenge ourselves. Big Wednesday came along in 1978 as Hollywood’s attempt to capture the surf lifestyle in an authentic script instead of the usual Gidget garbage. How did you get involved?»Big Wednesday, which we photographed in 1977 and 1978, was a film with Warner Bros. and John Milius as the director and writer. Another surfer, Denny Auberg was John’s co-writer. I was asked to produce and direct all of the surfing sequences, which were sprinkled throughout the screenplay. So for over a year, I drove back and forth, once or twice a week, to Hollywood to have meetings with John Milius and his A-Team Production Company to plan and shoot the surfing sequences. Milius brought a lot to the project, including interesting ways to compose the surfing shots and together we designed the storyboards for each of the surfing sequences.
What was John Milius like to work with?»John was really a lot of fun to work with because he is such an encyclopedia of historical knowledge. He loves to expound with story after story about Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders, Jack London, and stories about filmmakers and films. Through the production, John and I became good friends. John Milius, at the time, was coming off of a big success with The Wind and the Lion, (starring Sean Connery, Candice Bergen, and Brian Keith), which was a beautifully written film with brilliant cinematography, great editing and a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith. Because of that, John had quite a bit of clout with the Warner Bros. studio, so when I needed to stay in Hawaii for an extra five or six weeks to get the best footage possible, he was able to push the issue with Warners to get their approval. This allowed us to jointly make the surfing sequences better than they were budgeted to be and better than the studio would have normally approved. I have to say that John really stuck by the project even though he was so heavily involved with other productions that were ongoing with his production company, including Steven Spielberg’s film, 1941, which was going into production at A-Team about the same time. John’s a great guy and a brilliant writer.
Were you given carte blanche to create the live surf scenes using real professional surfers?»We used real surfers to act as stunt doubles, but John did find main characters that actually had surfing experience. Jan-Michael Vincent and William Katt were good surfers and became cast in the leading roles. Gary Busey, who played the third main character, was from Oklahoma and had never touched a surfboard in his life. We sent him more or less to surfing school for about two weeks and then took him to El Salvador when we were shooting for seven weeks down there. He was a total trooper. He tried his hardest to learn to paddle, catch waves, stand up, ride to shore, just so we could intercut his face with the backgrounds and the stunt double work, which was being done with surfers who looked like him. The surfers that actually rode the biggest waves were: Bill Hamilton, Jay Riddle and Jackie Dunn rode for Jan Michael Vincent. Bill Hamilton, who is one of my favorite people in the world, traveled with us everywhere, to El Salvador, to The Ranch, and to Hawaii. He surfed brilliantly in all locations. To stunt double for Billy Katt was Peter Townsend who looked almost identical to Bill Katt and was just a perfect stunt double. Doubling for Gary Busey was Ian Cairns. All of these surfers were completely enjoyable to work with and we really bonded over the 20 weeks we had to shoot all of the sequences for the film. Getting the shots, however, was nothing but a lot of trouble. In order to get the coverage, I had to have a group of photographers, some of whom, frankly, just did not match up to the job. The guys who really came through for the production and who shot 95 percent of the surfing shots used in the film were five: George Greenough, who shot brilliantly from the water; Spyder Wills who shoots with a telephoto lens better than anyone else in the world; and Bud Browne who can get the camera inside the curl deeper and in the impact zone better than anyone else alive; and Jack Willoughby and Roger Brown, each who shot brilliantly from the helicopter.
The film followed the lives of three surfers from high school to Vietnam and into adulthood culminating in the legendary big surf conditions that reunited them after difficult separations and personal failures. It was simultaneously rowdy and immature yet sensitive and hopeful. Did it capture the soul of surfing as you might have written it?»I loved the script and particularly loved the idea of the four periods of growth and maturity of each character. There were sentimental moments which may have been too exaggerated, which is kind of a Milius trademark, and which became heavily scrutinized by film critics across the country. For me, the film captured the freshness and spontaneity of the early 1960s surfing scene. It had that naive, “we will live forever” attitude, which I think surfers believed in the ’60s. Big Wednesday premiered in May 1978. It was two years after Jim’s death and, for me, it was kind of a sentimental reflection on the time that Jim and I spent together shooting surfing in the 1960s and the early 1970s. It gave me a chance to say goodbye to surfing films and to Jim.