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Exclusive Q&A with filmmaker Dana Brown

Bruce Brown and Dana Brown’s surf films define surf culture for more than 50 years

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This Sunday, August 8, the Coronado Island Film Festival and the Hotel Del Coronado kick off the Summer Surf Series, an incredible opportunity to experience films in a true toes-in-the-sand setting on the beach in Coronado. The series takes place on two summer Sundays, August 8 and August 29, featuring screenings of two films from one of the most iconic names in surf filmmaking: Brown. First there was the now legendary Bruce Brown, whose breakout film The Endless Summer took the world by storm and brought surf culture mainstream when it debuted in 1966. Then, Bruce’s son Dana Brown cemented his own place in action filmmaking with 2003’s surf documentary Step into Liquid. Together, Bruce and Dana’s contributions to the genre are universally known as paragons of excellence, and are the standard by which all other films are measured.

The first screening, taking place on August 8, will feature Step into Liquid, and will be followed by an exclusive Q&A opportunity with the filmmaker himself, Dana Brown. He will be joined by one of the film’s stars, surfer and motivational speaker Jesse Billauer, a two-time World Adaptive Surfing Champion and five-time US National Adaptive Surfing Champion, and founder of Life Rolls On, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for people living with various disabilities.

Then, on August 29, Dana will return to accompany a screening of his latest work, A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story, a documentary on the life of the elder Brown as it can only be told by his son Dana. A blend of both retrospective footage of Bruce and his contemporaries in their prime as well as Dana’s documentation of a family road trip in the twilight of his father’s life, the film is an endearing ode to not just an icon of American culture, but to a beloved dad.

Both screenings will take place at 8pm, and general admission and VIP packages are available. For more information on tickets, visit coronadofilmfest.com/2021-surf-series.

Ranch & Coast had the opportunity to catch up with Dana Brown in anticipation of the launch of the Summer Surf Series for an exclusive Q&A session, where he shared his musings on making his own mark, his father’s legacy (and his own), and more. 

How did you choose to screen here at the Coronado Island Film Festival?

We played a film in Coronado, I think [it was] Step into Liquid, years ago, and the producer lives right around there, and I went to San Diego State University as well, so San Diego in general has always meant a lot to me and when the opportunity came up and they were interested in doing this, I was all in. It’s a beautiful place, and we have some history down there.

What does it mean to you to have both your work and your dad’s as the benchmark by which other surf documentaries are judged? Are you judging your own against his? 

It’s an honor that people consider it that way. I think we just work hard and I’m just stoked that it worked. I don’t really try to think of that stuff too much, you know. I think of it with Dad [Bruce Brown] because, it’s a little easier. I mean, he’s the Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky all rolled into one for action sports, so I’m just happy to be somewhere in the vicinity. I mean, it’s a real honor, but I kind of try to live in the moment moving forward. 

Is it hard not to compare what you’re doing against what he’s done?

Well, there’s definitely genetic [elements] — I think we have a similar sense of humor and a similar way of looking at things — so the films will seem similar that way, and my voice kind of sounds like his, but it’s like any piece of work or art: I make sure I’m not copying anybody, but if it’s influenced by it, then that’s fine. I’m influenced by many sources. I don’t worry about the shadow. If there’s any shadow, it’s been a good thing, too. It balances out, so it’s fine with me. 

The first film you’re screening is 2003’s Step into Liquid, this Sunday (August 8). How do you feel when you look back and re-watch the movie?

It’s a lot of fun. You remember your friends you made on this thing and the crew. It’s very satisfying, gratifying that people still laugh at the same places and all that. Part of it seems centuries ago and another part of it seems like it just happened last week. Many of the people in the film are still my good friends and Jesse Billauer, who’ll be there Sunday — we met then, and we’ve been super good friends ever since. So it’s personal. It’s like looking in a scrapbook with a bunch of people watching you, and I’m glad it still works, that the audience still likes it. 

The words “icon” and “legend” are used a lot in referring to your dad. Was the making of A Life of Endless Summers in a way an attempt for you to be able to see him outside of how you’ve always seen him, or was it more a way for people to see him as you always have? 

It’s the latter. My father never led with his “legend.” If you’re somebody’s kid, I don’t care who your dad is, if you’re kind of well-balanced, you realize there’s a big difference — on the one hand, it’s “that’s interesting, people know him,” but on the other hand, you’re just a person trying to do the best you can, and that’s who Dad was as far as personally, so it was really this idea of looking at somebody that maybe from the outside it looks like they’re different — they’re a legend, they’re an icon, they’re all these terms — but in fact they’re just like anybody else, we’re like anybody else’s family. That’s what I was trying to do in that project was just to show that it would reflect anybody’s family, it just happens that we got better B-roll because we can go “Oh gee, look at the stuff he did,” but it’s really the interaction just of family and all of us dealing with the death of his wife, my mom, and that’s what it was, so hopefully it felt like anybody’s family road trip, it just happened to have this kind of cool other story about what this guy and his friends had done. People are people, you know? I was just trying to balance those two ideas. 

Your dad seems like he was eternally humble. What kind of a gift has that been for you as both a filmmaker and just in general, especially as you grew up and likely became aware of what a giant he was?

I think we all have good fortune and bad fortune, but we’re all just people. My mother too — that was who they were. You work hard, sometimes it works out and people really dig it, but it doesn’t make you any different. It maybe makes you better at the job you’re doing, but it doesn’t make you a special human, necessarily, at all. That’s a different set of muscles you use to be kind and supportive and all that. So, growing up around that, I don’t know if it’s really being humble or just actually being real about the situation. I’ve always been very proud of him and I think he was very proud of me, but he was also proud of my brother and sister and grandkids. I don’t think anybody should judge their self-worth on being popular. If you’re unpopular for bad reasons, then you should judge your worth on that, but just because you work in a line of business where people show up, that’s just the business. You do the best job you can. And you try to make a good movie, but you don’t make it about yourself, you make it about the story you’re trying to tell. 

What did you learn about your father as you reviewed footage and put this movie together? 

A thought that kind of struck me as new — I kind of knew it — but he was so insular. It was him and Mom, and he did his stuff, and he was born during the depression [so] he was very much an “old school” dad, so it wasn’t like he was really “let’s talk about my feelings to you guys” or anything, he was always “Dad.” He was very much a dad. Not mean or anything, but as I got older and worked for him, I became his friend and it was a much different relationship. But just seeing how he lit up around his friends, how much he cared about them, and how funny he was, he was a very charming, funny guy, so it just re-reminded me to get him out of his house and whatever he was doing, just to see him cut loose — that was a bit of a revelation. 

Did your goals for the movie change once he was gone?

When he passed, it totally made it a movie. We had filmed it years earlier with the idea of making webisodes of some kind, this idea that every month you’d see part of this journey, because I didn’t quite see how it hung together except for these kinds of fun scenes, unless you wanted to use the point that “he’s a legend and let’s talk about legends.” It just seemed like it wouldn’t last for a movie, but it might last for some webisodes. This was eight or ten years ago. Then, I had other movies come up that I did and I never got around to doing the webisodes thing. We’d worked on it a bit in-between films, but once he passed, I realized this could be a movie because now we’d tell the story of this guy’s life. And [Bruce Brown’s longtime friend] Hobie [Alter] had passed away, and it just became kind of that circle of life, and it seemed to really cement the film. So after the grieving, whatever you go through, after a few months I talked to some people and they said, “What do you think of finishing that thing?” and I was like, “I think we have a regular movie now.” So, Dad did make a big difference as far as becoming this film.

How much if any footage did you keep for yourself?

None that I know of! That’s funny though! There’s a scene in the movie where Dad cries really hard, and it’s kind of uncomfortable because he didn’t cry much, and he’s crying talking about my mother, and he looks up and me and he goes, “This is going to go in the cut for sure!” I get the guy crying, and you know he thought the same way. I wouldn’t use anything embarrassing with somebody, but my fond memories are in my head. When you’re working it’s a little different thing, you know, my fondest memories are not stuff of him that we necessarily filmed.

Because A Life of Endless Summers is about your dad and so personal, was there a different feeling than the usual nerves when it premiered?

I’d say so. You want to make sure you do right by him. Like I said, you want to do right by the subject, so I want to make sure people understand because as we started this interview off and you asked me about the lists, and “you’re well-known, and your dad’s well-known,” I wanted to make sure it didn’t come off or people take it like it’s just somebody basking in his own bitchin-ness, his own wonderfulness. On the one hand it’s a great story, his success story, and my family’s a good story, but then on the other hand, it’s just like anybody else’s family and dealing with things that happen to you, and overcoming things, and then the people he visits — the Jack O’Neills and the Hobie Alters, and Mert Lawwills — they have similar stories, so it’s kind of like “look at these successful people and they’re just people, just like the rest of us.” Anyway, that makes me nervous to make sure that balance is perceived, and that the audience relates to that. So yeah, I guess I do get a little more nervous because it’s the least kind of overtly sexy film I’ve ever done. Usually you’ve got Laird Hamilton surfing some big waves or you got the Baja 1000 or whatever subject you’re doing, and you go, “Well, you know, inherently this stuff’s really sexy,” but this is more like a bunch of old people on a road trip, you know? But I’ve seen it now quite a few times with audiences and people seem to really respond to it. It gets them emotionally, which is what it’s supposed to do. It makes them happy. It’s not the most action-packed film, but it’s neat to see we did it right. 

Does this feel like it should be your magnum opus because it’s so personal and so distinct from your other work? 

I’m actually close to finishing another film and there’s another one coming, but yeah, when I did it, absolutely. I thought, “Well, if this is the last thing I do, then great.” It taught me a lot as a filmmaker. I thought, “I can get pretty personal.” Dad’s films, too — it’s always been personal, but you’re not really talking about yourself, unless it’s just a device to get the audience; you’re really talking about other people. And this was really about Dad, but as anybody [knows] who has parents, as the whole world does, there is a part that is about me. There was that thought doing it, that if this is it, this is a good deal. 

When did the movie originally premiere?

It premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival. We were accepted as the opening night film, which was pretty tall cotton, a big honor. And then COVID hit, and then it was, as we all remember, like, “Well, it will probably be over in like two months,” and they pushed it and pushed it and they finally held it about a year ago in a drive-in [venue]. I think it was the only movie they played under the Newport Beach Film Festival banner, and played for maybe 200-300 cars. 

How do you feel and what do you think your dad would make of watching surfing in the Olympics this year?

I think it’s great. I think it’s a tough thing because you’re relying on Mother Nature and the ocean to provide waves that can showcase these guys’ talent, but I mean, God bless them! Guys that are that good, they should be treated like real athletes. There’s [also] the artistic side of it, but I think he’d be stoked. He helped start the thing called the WSA, which is Western Surfing Association, I believe it was in the early ’60s, which was kind of the first attempt to organize competition or one of the first attempts. It wasn’t professional, but it was just kind of like “what are the boundaries” — surfing is definitely poetry and it’s definitely all that other stuff, but it’s also these guys are so good, they deserve an outlet where they can be respected as the athletes they are. I’m a big believer in that. I think both the art and that can exist just fine; I don’t think it has to be one way or another. That’s what’s great about surfing. It’s like an inkblot test: For some it’s one thing, for others, it’s surfing big waves, for others, it’s surfing with family, for some, it’s competition. It’s lovely that way, you know?

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