Remembering The Endless Summer
A look back at Bruce Brown's masterpiece
“When we were growing up, the thinking was that if you surfed, you’d smarten up at some point. After Endless Summer, people of all types started to take it up…it helped make it into something legitimate. It gave it some respect.” That’s the sentiment from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Bruce Brown, who, through a clear vision, extraordinary talent, and some luck wound up making one of the most famous documentaries of all time, The Endless Summer, which would revolutionize surfing and help it transform into the cultural mainstay that it is today.
Brown’s love of surfing stretches back into the infancy of the sport. “In the 1950s, I started bodysurfing and then bought mats. Being a surfer was a dream,” he remembers. Shortly after high school, Brown enlisted in the Navy and wound up being stationed in Hawaii, where he would trek to Ala Moana Beach to surf. Brown knew, though, he had to do something else to make a living; surfing simply wasn’t an option. “In the early 1960s there was no money to be made from it. If you posed for an O’Neill wetsuit advertisement, you’d get a free wetsuit…maybe. Had there been an opportunity to make a living surfing, I probably would have never made movies.”
While still in the Navy with no formal training he shot his first movie, and from that secured funding for a second one, and then a third, soon making one each year. He then had an idea: “I thought, ‘If I take a couple years on a single project, I’d make a better movie.’” When Brown started tossing around the concept to invest $50,000 into a singular film, people thought he was out of his mind. However, Brown had little to lose, he was young and wild, carefree, or ambitious (take your pick), so he decided to roll the dice. The concept of the film was simple: follow two people on a trip around the world to both known and undiscovered surf spots during winter in the United States, therefore creating a never-ending summer (get it?). For his subjects, Brown recruited Robert August and Mike Hynson (both friends who had appeared in his past films). They were, according to Brown, “no-brainers. One guy was a goofy footer, the other was regular.”
Don’t forget, this was a time when the idea of anyone taking a leisurely jaunt to a remote part of the globe was extremely unusual (many of the locals in the film had never seen outsiders before, let alone a camera). To many, surfing in itself was completely bizarre, and the three were introducing the sport to a whole new crop of people: “Before we shot, we’d show some pictures of people surfing to the locals. They’d look at you, like, ‘What the hell is that?’”
What resulted (as Bruce so modestly puts it) was a “well done home movie.” Music was added, courtesy of The Sandals, a couple of kids from Belgium who had recently relocated to the States. Remembers Brown: “They asked to do the music, and I figured it would be a total loser. A couple weeks later, they played some stuff and it sounded great.” So great, in fact, that the familiar guitar riff of “The Endless Summer” [theme song] went on to be as beloved as the film itself, and become one of the most popular records of the surf-music era.
Once he completed the editing process, the next step was to start showing it publicly; Brown would play the music on a tape recorder and narrate it live. After two years of large crowds, his next goal was to give it a national theatrical release. The only problem was that there wasn’t any interest; movie studios assumed no one outside California would see it nor care. However, one successful screening led to another and distributors came calling soon after. It was officially released in June of 1966.
“I always dreamed big or else I wouldn’t have done it,” says Brown now. “It was really exciting that it got fabulous reviews for the most part, especially in highbrow publications like the New Yorker, who picked it one of the 10 best films of the year. Something about it just appealed to people.” Everyone in Hollywood thought Brown had a secret to making such a successful film so cheap (from a budget of $50,000 it grossed $35 million), and executives soon started knocking on his door. Brown even had a meeting with Robert Evans, the famed former head of Paramount Pictures who wanted to finance his next film, but Brown was wary. If he wasn’t good enough before The Endless Summer, what was so special now? Instead, Brown suggested he give money to some up-and-coming filmmakers, but Evans didn’t take to the proposition. After the meeting, Brown went to USC to give a talk to cinema students. Brown gauged their interest of his idea, and one of the kids in class happened to be future superstar George Lucas. According to Brown, “Evans missed out, he could have signed George Lucas.”
Brown instead went onto make the Oscar-nominated documentary about motorcycle racing called On Any Sunday with actor Steve McQueen. In the years that followed, he started doing work for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and then spent most of his days raising his family, restoring cars, and building houses. He also passed his craft onto his son, Dana, who started out helping Bruce with editing, and later made a surf documentary of his own (2003’s Step Into Liquid).
His surfer subjects, however, didn’t fare as well as time marched on and fame faded away. First was a brief dispute about pay; Hynson claims he was only offered $5,000 for his part plus some perks, a sum he turned down accepting since it was only a tiny slice of the film’s profits (August, on the other hand, was content with the $5,000 and didn’t press the matter). While August continued to surf and visit trade shows, Hynson dove into the world of drugs, and joined the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of LSD aficionados in Laguna Beach. After a failed business venture, Hynson started spending more time in jail than on a surfboard (a People Magazine article written in 1994 about his troubles is ominously titled “The Endless Bummer”). Since then, Hynson managed to clean up and started up a company producing custom-made surfboards in San Diego to much acclaim. He recently released a book about his experiences called “Transcendental Memories of a Surf Rebel” (one anecdote details how Hynson brought some marijuana along with him on the Endless Summer trip).
In the early 1990s, after much prodding from movie studios, Brown finally decided to make a sequel; this time featuring all new spots. A young surfer named Robert “Wingnut” Weaver was recruited, along with Pat O’Connell. However, it made a fraction of the box office the first one did. “I had a contract where I had complete control,” says Brown, “but somehow they kept forgetting that. A lot of my ideas, they were like ‘You dumb fuck, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We know what we’re doing.’ They tried to release it like it was some Tom Cruise movie. It [the way they rolled it out] just didn’t work.”
Regardless, it propelled Wingnut’s surfing career (bringing him to a national audience), which was special considering how much the original film affected him. Says Wingnut: “I look back on it now, how unique it was what they did back in the day. Now, we take everything for granted; (with all the current technology) if somebody farts in Africa, we know about it. These guys with no plan and nothing to expect, traveled to all these remote places. It’s amazing what they put themselves into.”
On top of the numerous accolades, The Endless Summer has received since its release (including an induction to the National Film Registry for being culturally significant, and an induction into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame, among many others), the film as a brand has proved popular as well, with numerous DVD editions out, the soundtrack selling briskly, and the poster on everything from tank tops to license plates. Says Brown: “I have a guy that does the licensing because people were just ripping it off left and right. Right now we have about 80 different licensees, and I get to approve them all. There’s plenty of stuff we wouldn’t do; I get people wanting to do a TV series or something, like the people that made ‘Baywatch,’ but, boy that was a piece of shit. I don’t care if it makes a lot of money; I love surfing, and I don’t want to demean it.”
Brown, who currently resides in Gaviota, California, still gets fans coming up to him wanting to talk about the impact it made on their own lives. “All the time people say, ‘That movie changed my life. I saw it and decided that I should follow my dreams!’” Wingnut has little doubt why its impact is so lasting: “There are very few films that have been around that long that will still put a smile on your face. Everybody has their favorite part, that lasting little bit of happiness…that’s amazing.”