When it comes to the greatest sports films of all time, it’s a family business at the Brown household. Brown as in Bruce Brown, that is.
Now seventy-three years old, surfer and motorcyclist, Bruce Brown became a cult filmmaker after his documentary, “The Endless Summer (1966)” skyrocketed to fame—revered by viewers within and far removed from the surfing community. How such things happen is one of the great mysteries of cinema, but when it does, all we can do is take in a breath and gasp with pride. That’s pretty much how I felt after talking with the legendary, yet unbelievably down-to-earth, great American filmmaker, Bruce Brown.
In the interview that follows, Brown speaks about the primitive filmmaking style of “The Endless Summer,” the behind-the-scenes events that led to the success of that film, all the movies that followed, and how sports and filmmaking spans three generations in the Brown family. Brown’s work comes from a deep love of what he does, and is a lesson all up-and-coming filmmakers must learn if they are to succeed in the most competitive of all professions.
How did surfing lead to filmmaking?
Mainly what got me started filming was surfing. At that time, I bought a little 8mm camera, recruited a few surfers, filmed them and then showed the footage we shot to my friends and my mom. Then we went from there.
Did you take film classes?
I didn’t go to film school, but just figured out how to get the job done by doing it. We were determined mainly because no one told us we couldn’t. In those early days, panning with big telephoto lenses was something you weren’t supposed to be able to do. We just kind of grew into filmmaking, really.
When did you begin shooting and who put up the money?
We started in 1958. Dale Velzy put up $5,000. for the first film I made, “Slippery When Wet.” This money included all the cameras, travel, and living expenses for one year.
Which camera and stock did you use?
The entire film was shot with a wind-up Bolex. “The Endless Summer” was also shot with a 16mm Bolex. We used Kodachrome for my first film, and then used Ektachrome for “The Endless Summer,” and everything else, after that. With Ektachrome, you had to use a daylight filter, but no other filters were used.
Did you hand-hold the Bolex?
I shot by hand and with a tripod. At the time, the only hydraulic tripod-head that worked was the Miller head made in Australia. There was nothing else we could buy in the United States that worked as smoothly as the Miller.
Did you have an assistant?
Almost all the films I made were shot by me alone. This meant that I also had to haul all the camera equipment, alone as well. There were no assistants in those days. That’s why it was best that the equipment was minimal.
“The Endless Summer II” was a more stylish film. Did you have assistants for that?
“The Endless Summer II” was released in 1994. We shot the film in 35mm. We used AeroFlexes, and high-speed cameras to make “The Endless Summer II.” We also used several assistants who traveled with us wherever we went.
Did more advanced technology help or hinder your work?
In shooting the movie in 35mm, we lost much of the spontaneity of shooting in 16mm. By the time we took the camera out and got everything ready, what I wanted to film had already happened.
Can you talk about time and money?
I made five or six other surf movies in the old days, but never felt like I had enough time to do everything I wanted. We’d shoot the films, edit them and then show them at various auditoriums in California. These were live productions where I’d narrate the films from a stage and play recorded music from a tape. I always thought if I’d had more time to spend, I could produce a much better movie. So when I made “The Endless Summer,” I took two years and traveled to a bunch of places all over the world where no one had surfed, and it made a big difference. Unfortunately, I had no funding, and used every penny I had to make the film.
Did your families travel with you?
At the time surfers, Robert August was 18 years old, and Mike Hynson was about 21. They weren’t married at the time, but I was married with children. My wife didn’t travel with us, but was very supportive. When we shot the film, we traveled on location for three months. When we shot in Hawaii during the Winter, my wife and kids joined us.
What was it like to edit all that footage?
It took about six months to edit the film. There were no Final Cut or Avid in those days, so we edited the old fashioned way, with a little Movie Scope viewer. When my son Dana and I edited “The Endless Summer II” we used a disc-based, state of the art device that cost several hundred thousand dollars. We’d work on a sequence and then convert it, and after a week or so, we’d have about fifteen different versions of the same sequence. Then we’d go back and favor one version over the others and it turned out to be the very first version. So I think a lot of that stuff just confuses things, and it’s much better to figure out what story you’re trying to tell, and just edit it that way. It doesn’t really help to have a bunch of versions that don’t have any meaning.
What about the dialogue in the second film?
“The Endless Summer II” was more complicated to edit than “The Endless Summer.” In the first film, there was no dialogue, only my narration. In the second film, the two surfers, Pat O’Connell and Robert (Wingnut) Weaver, actually spoke to each other.
I like the idea of including dialogue, as long as it isn’t too much. It’s much easier to tell a story if you’re not relying too much on the people in the film to do that for you.
What do you think of “The Endless Summer” now?
I have a hard time watching “The Endless Summer” now. I think to myself, God that was a dumb thing to say. I can’t believe I said that. Many people liked my narration, but some critics didn’t. One thought I sounded like “Howdy Doody.” It’s funny, because when Dana made “Step into Liquid,” also about surfing— which he narrated, one critic said that he sounded like Kermit the Frog. But for the most part, people liked the narration.
What’s it like interacting with a live audience when you’re making movies? After all, filmmaking is different than theatre, right?
Before we blew up “The Endless Summer” to 35mm for the theatres, I showed the film for two years on on my regular circuit, and as I said, narrated it live. And during that two-year period, I’d learn things from the audience. If I said something, and the audience groaned, I’d know not to say that again. So I just sort of worked out the kinks by interacting with the crowd. In fact, we modified all my films from showing to showing. So it was kind of a trial and error thing because I’d show the thing—and it was hugely popular—and sold out the Santa Monica Civic, seven nights in a row. Then we went back for a rerun two months later, and it sold out seven more nights. That’s what prompted us to blow the film up to 35mm and show it at theatres. It was interesting that people outside of the surfing community enjoyed the film as much as the surfers.
Do you listen to the audience or critics?
It’s always important to gauge responses to a film by the audience and not by executives in the industry. For example, after showing “The Endless Summer” to live audiences, I showed some of the older films on television. I remember some quasi-expert saying that something I said wasn’t funny. I said, Bullshit. I’ve shown this film to over 50,000 people and they laughed their ass off. Just because someone’s an executive, doesn’t mean that person understands anything about the reactions of an audience.
How was the film received by the critics?
There was a huge amount of publicity when “The Endless Summer” opened in New York in 1966. We didn’t have a distributor, so we rented a theatre and showed the film ourselves. It played in that theatre for a year and got amazing reviews from all the high brow movie critics. Then we got a distributor called “Cinema 5,” and after that,
“Image Entertainment.” Then we spent the next year and a half on the road, because the film opened in one city at a time. We’d go to each city and have lunch with the critics, and do all the publicity things. After it was all over, I just relaxed and went surfing.
What film did you shoot next?
In 1971, I decided to make a film about motorcycle racing, and called it “On Any Sunday.” The film was funded by Steve McQueen, and was the first movie that I didn’t have to fund myself. Steve put up the $313,000. I needed to shoot the movie.
How did you get Steve McQueen interested in funding your film? Did you know him?
I didn’t know Steve. I just went up to his office and told him what I was going to do. He said, ‘That’s terrific, but what do you want me to do?’ I told him I wanted him to finance the film. He said, “I make movies, I don’t finance them.”
So I said, “OK, then you can’t be in my movie.”
Did you call him back, or did he call you?
He called me the next day and said, “OK man, let’s go for it,” and that’s how the whole thing happened. Steve was a great partner. I got a wonderful letter from Steve when he was making “Le Mans.” The letter was written on that really thin onionskin paper, and the print went through both sides. He wrote that I was so lucky to be able to do what I was doing, and warned me to never get involved with a studio that wouldn’t allow independence. After that, I rode my motorcycle for a few years and then we made,
“The Endless Summer II.”
What did you do next?
After that, I made several TV shows for “Wide World of Sports,” and made a commercial for the Kodak Instamatic Camera when it first came out. The commercial won a Cleo Award, and concerned a guy and a girl surfing side by side. Then the guy pulled a camera out of a plastic bag and took a picture of the girl. Then without a cut, I had to surf alongside the couple. I shot the footage with a little windup Bell & Howell with a magazine load (the cheapest camera you could buy). They wanted us to shoot with an Aero Flex but I couldn’t lug all that and surf, so the Bell & Howell was the way to go. Then we went back to screen the commercial in New York and all the Aero Flex executives were marveling over the quality of the footage, not realizing it was shot with a cheap Bell & Howell— the only camera that could do the job.
Did you shoot any other features?
No. I decided to hand the film-reigns to my kid and he made “Step into Liquid,” “Baha 1000,” “Dust to Glory,” and “Highwater.”
Do you ever assist Dana?
No. I don’t get involved in any of Dana’s films unless he asks my opinion on something. His films differ than my own because of all the equipment he uses. Dana’s style is more technologically complicated, with more cutting to the participants telling the story. His films have been well received, though funding is always an issue. Dana’s also directed some Gillette commercials, and is thinking about a television reality show that may or may not happen. Dana’s been around me enough to know that as soon as the money’s in the bank, then he’ll make the project.
How did “Monterey Media” get involved with your work?
When my license expired with “Image Entertainment,” “Monterey Media” acquired all my work. They re-mastered all the films, including “The Endless Summer.” I think of “Monterey” as family, and am very pleased with the care they take and the wonderful job they’ve done restoring the prints, which were pretty badly scratched.
My son Dana works with the distributor, “Lionsgate” who put up the money for his films, but my grandson (Dana’s son, Wes) is a filmmaker, and he’s worked on several projects with “Monterey.”
When I looked at the photo of the three of you, for a minute I thought Dana and Wes were brothers and that they were both your sons.
(Laughs) Thanks, that’s great to hear.