Of Movies and Mavericks
The world's best big-wave surfers are convinced that the latest Hollywood surf flick will be the first authentic depiction of surfing on the big screen. Maybe it's because they're all on the payroll.
Hollywood has finally gotten it right, according to a laundry list of big-wave legends hired to work on Of Men and Mavericks, a biopic covering the life and death of Jay Moriarty. From Greg Long to Peter Mel, Mavericks’ best surfers believe this will be the most authentic portrayal of big-wave surfing ever made. In fact, finding a name-brand hellman with something bad to say about the film is just as difficult as finding someone who isn’t on the payroll. Based on the money being spent and the pedigree of the surfers involved, audiences can at least expect a higher level of cinematography than they’ve seen before. But the stakes are higher, too. “This isn’t just some surf movie, it’s Jay’s legacy,” notes Ken “Skindog” Collins, who watched Moriarty grow up. “Hollywood hasn’t gotten surfing right once, and that’s pretty scary. Jay was golden, he lived his life that way, and it’s a lot of responsibility to live up to that. The movie could be Spicoli going to Mavericks for all we know. So I really want them to do a good job—’cause they’re gambling with Jay Moriarty’s lifetime reputation.”
Taking big chances in hopes of a big payoff is what big-wave surfing is all about, and Moriarty lived and died adhering to that code. His life story inspired writer Brandon Hooper and producer Jim Meenaghan (surfers themselves) to step up to the plate and make a movie that does Mavs, Jay, and surfing justice. So perhaps it makes sense that Of Men and Mavericks is gambling fairly aggressively, pushing the documentation of Mavericks to new heights as they narrowly avoid disaster. Throughout an abbreviated La Niña Mavs season, the production soldiered through a series of missteps, destroyed equipment, and close calls. Depending on whom you talk to, these misadventures were freak accidents, calculated risks, or displays of pure hubris in the face of Mavericks’ power.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 6, I paddled out to the bowl at Mavs as tensions between the film crew and locals came to a head. It was the day of the season—Skindog went as far as claiming it as “possibly the best day in seven years, and without a doubt the film crew wore out their welcome in the lineup.” The packed bowl had degenerated into what Sonny Miller, filming for the production, described as “controlled chaos.” On the inside, multiple boats hovered in the channel, closer to the peak—and disaster—than ever before. Earlier, the 55-foot Huli Cat had nearly been mowed down by a wide peak, which came close to capsizing the vessel. It was part of a planned shot gone wrong. “I know the captain definitely misjudged those waves by more than a small margin,” Greg Long later told me. “They were lucky to get away unscathed.”
Meanwhile, Shawn Dollar spent the morning purposely getting mowed down by mountains of whitewater on the inside ledge, doing take after take for a “caught inside” scene. By day’s end, Dollar had barely cheated death. “I had two two-wave hold-downs and went through the rocks three times in one day,” Dollar explained. “That’s got to be a record. I got absolutely fucking hammered.” As Sonny Miller filmed from a helicopter, Jeff Clark manned a speedboat for close-ups. A group of older Mavs surfers—Christy Davis, Steve Dwyer, and John Raymond—who have each put in over 20 years on the bowl, were over it. Admittedly, they were some of the only regulars not on the payroll. It’s amazing what kind of goodwill money can buy you in the surfing community. “I’m benefitting from it, just indirectly,” Dwyer even admits. “My son, my nephew, and many of my good friends are employed by the filmmakers…the movie is helping them in some pretty tough economic times.”
Despite this, Dwyer didn’t look too pleased with a helicopter droning overhead. The crew, with permission from the Air Force, took the helicopter below 500 feet. “At times we were 10 feet off the water,” Miller enthusiastically told me later. I asked him if that was close enough to see surfers giving him the finger. “Oh yeah,” Sonny laughed. Meanwhile, Jeff Clark, perhaps perturbed by the dissent, began doing donuts with the speed boat, directly outside the bowl. “That was just Clark being Clark,” explained Peter Mel, who is also a crew member. “That was his reaction to their reaction. That was Jeff saying ‘I can do whatever I want.’”
The point of all this controlled chaos, as Miller describes it, is to capture angles that no one has ever seen before. “Their number one goal is to make this authentic, the most realistic take on big-wave surfing that can be made with the technology we have now,” explains Greg Long. Mark Healey spent a day chucking guns with $80,000 cameras attached to them into the pit. He lost one in the process. “We’ve probably sunk five cameras so far for this project,” Miller cheerfully reported. In January, another helicopter crew, led by non-surfers, dunked an immensely expensive panoramic filming rig into the lip of a Mav’s wall. “But that’s gonna happen,” Miller explains. “In big action movies they can set off too big an explosion and lose five cameras at once.”
Steve Dwyer saw the incident in different terms. “Dipping that camera into a wave face is only funny in the retelling because nobody got hurt,” Dwyer notes. “Imagine a worst-case scenario there…not good. My son Colin was on the wave before that and got to his feet with the camera level with his head—it was way too close.” Peter Mel hoped to avoid similar missteps in the lineup. “My part is to keep myself safe and help keep other people safe…But you gotta get the shot,” Peter admits. “They’ll do anything to get it. Is it wrong? Is it right? They’re definitely pushing the limits.”
Dead cameras are one thing. Dead people are another. The one shot filmmakers have not been able to get is a recreation of Moriarty’s legendary “Iron Cross” wipeout. As the winter began, word spread that someone was going to go for it. Twiggy, Tashnick, or Greg Long. But after much deliberation the official word was “no.” Grant “Twiggy” Baker explained they were “strictly forbidden to try the wipeout due to legal ramifications.” Perhaps that’s for the best. “There’s a lot of things that can happen and go wrong,” Greg Long notes. “So they’ve gone ahead and said ‘It’s dangerous, we don’t want you guys doing that. But if you happen to fall in that fashion, well, OK.’” Long’s not sure he could have done it, anyway. “Going out and doing something like that is contrary to everything we’ve taught ourselves to do in big waves. I had one wave in particular that had that big double-up, and I was too late, and I thought, ‘This is the wave you’re gonna do it on if you wanna do it.’ But I couldn’t stomach purposely sending myself over. One wave like that could end your career. No amount of money is worth taking that risk. The other guys think so too.”
Ken Collins concurs. “When they wanted to recreate Jay’s wipeout, I was like, ‘Dude, don’t you realize Sion died here last year? This is not a place to be playing games. You better take this seriously.’” However, the deaths of Sion Milosky and Mark Foo proved that any wave at Mavs can kill you. Both died after fairly routine wipeouts on smallish waves (for them). During the course of filming Of Men and Mavericks, the most notorious close call was the near drowning of one of the film’s stars, Gerard Butler. “That was a freak accident,” claims Greg Long, who was filming a paddling scene with Butler, Mel, and Zach Wormhoudt when a “rogue set” swung wide over by Mushroom Rock. “Gerard had his ass handed to him properly,” Long explains. “It was a scary situation—it would have been easy for him to lose his cool. To his credit, he handled it. If anything, it adds a little authenticity to his part in the movie.”
All’s well that ends well, they say, and Butler’s self-reported two-wave hold-down certainly ended well for the production. Following a somewhat perplexing trip to the hospital, Butler appeared relatively unscathed. I asked Peter Mel when he knew Butler was going to be OK. “When I saw him go on Leno, obviously he was alright,” Mel deadpanned. “Gerard and Leno were talking about it and laughing about it, and obviously that’s good for the film.” The story made the rounds of talk shows and tabloids, bringing the production the type of free publicity that money can’t buy. Add to that a second-wave of publicity when Gerard followed up his wipeout with a stint in rehab. News reports suggested Butler’s dependence on pain pills heightened in the wake of his “surfing accident.” Cocaine was reportedly also a factor, raising the question of just how authentic Butler’s Mav’s approach was—perhaps he’d drawn inspiration from Flea and Ruffo? Skindog sees the incident in simpler terms. “Gerard Butler almost drowns, and they [the production crew] didn’t even flinch. It was just back to the script—they have their agenda and nothing is going to get in their way.” If anything backs up this assertion, it’s the aforementioned filming experience of Shawn Dollar.
“They asked me to do stunt work getting caught inside,” Dollar recounts. “Not directly in the bowl but on the second ledge. I was fine with it, but it wasn’t explained that we were gonna do 15 takes—that was a bit excessive.” Dollar, along with Ion Banner and Ben Andrews, took over 30 waves on the head. “I had never been through the rocks before. It was pretty brutal…I got absolutely pounded. They shot the scene way too many times.” That stunt had the “potential for people getting seriously hurt or killed,” claimed Steve Dwyer, who admits, “I’d have done it at their age for the money too.”
When his stunt duties were done for the day, Dollar couldn’t resist paddling out to the peak. His confidence was boosted by his safety equipment: both a V2.1 inflatable wetsuit, and a Spare Air canister. “I shouldn’t have surfed in the afternoon, but it was so fucking good. I had to at least get one good one.” Dollar found his bomb, made the drop, but didn’t round the corner. “I went to use the 2.1 Billabong suit, but I couldn’t find the cord. After struggling and not finding it—because it was loose and somewhere behind my back—I was getting close to blacking out. I grabbed my Spare Air, cleared the chamber and took four breaths and was able to keep calm. I came to the surface just as another wave hit me. I wasn’t really able to get much of a breath on the surface and then got drilled again. I used my Spare Air through this again, taking four more breaths. I ended up going through the rocks and I had to use my Spare Air again. It saved my life that day.”
If it wasn’t for redundant safety equipment, Dollar could have joined the list of big-wave chargers who have lost their lives at sea: Aikau, Foo, Solomon, Chesser, Moriarty, Milosky. These watermen walk a razor’s edge as they decide when it’s time to go, and when it’s wiser to pull back. As I watched the ghost of Jay Moriarty stalk the lineup at Mavs that Wednesday afternoon, reincarnated in the form of stunt-double Anthony Tashnick, I had to wonder if Jay would have actually wanted all this. The helicopters. The boats. The brave young surfers taking unnecessary risks in the name of stunt pay and glory. In the name of Jay. Mark Renneker, when asked about Of Men and Mavericks, noted, “Jay told me the day after his famous Iron Cross wipeout that he was mightily embarrassed by it, that he felt like a bonehead to have even attempted that takeoff in such strong offshores.” I wondered if Jay would have felt similarly about his death—free-diving, alone, in the Maldives. After all, the first safety rule of free-diving is “never dive alone.”
Perhaps Of Men and Mavericks will break the curse of Hollywood surf movies. And if it succumbs like the rest, at least the surfers involved can say they gave it their all. “I’ve talked with several surfers who are writing this off, saying every surf movie that’s ever been done was terrible,” admits Shawn Dollar. “The filming has been a little too overwhelming, a little too much. But we have to reserve judgment and see what the final movie will be.” Greg Long feels similarly. “Jay’s story is so much bigger than any wave or session or a helicopter pissing you off. Any animosity surfers have toward the production will be overshadowed by the love and inspiration that comes about from the final product.” But what if the final product is no more inspiring than the flops that preceded it? At the very least, a significant pack of big waveriders will have gotten paid for doing what they love to do. And once their checks clear, they might have a different story to tell.