Before the infection, and the coma, and the surgeries, and the rehab, and the freezing, wind-blown places he now scours for surf, Timmy Turner had Indonesia. And that life—his first one—was good.
“We were so lucky,” he says. It’s winter in Huntington Beach, and Turner is slouched under a tree behind the house his grandfather built here in 1951. Sunlight slants through the branches, casting bright lines on the ancient patio furniture that creaks under his weight. He pauses mid-thought, and then continues to unravel the events that became Second Thoughts—the feral-surf-film-slash-drift-into-madness he shot in the early 2000s while encamped on an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.
“I don’t know how we didn’t die,” he says. “Me, Brett, and Travis—surfing those waves, in those conditions, out there by ourselves.”
It’s only been five years since the film was released—just a half-decade since it won Movie of the Year at the 2004 SURFER Poll and Video Awards and put Timmy on the map as a guy willing to fall off its edges. But in his mind, Second Thoughts took place during an era lost to time. “It’ll never be like that again,” he says.
And he’s right—a lot has changed for Timmy. At 28, he’s still working 60-hour-plus weeks at the Sugar Shack, the caf in Huntington that his mother owns. But he’s also married now—with a house just a mile from here, where he lives with his wife, Jessica, and their three kids—and he bears all the responsibility that comes with those commitments. But there’s more behind his comment than just standard mid-to-late-20s-growing-up stuff. Particularly this: On December 15, 2005, an aggressive staph infection attacked Turner’s brain, and in the wake of an illness that should have killed him, he was forced to redefine the filmmaker and surfer he was before he lost three-quarters of his skull to surgery. Yes, aside from his scars, Timmy looks the same, speaks the same, surfs the same, and acts the same as the guy we saw wading into the Polio Pond for drinking water in Second Thoughts. But he’s not the same—not the same filmmaker, at least. And a month after our chat in the courtyard of his grandfather’s old house, I meet up again with this colder incarnation of Timmy Turner on a remote island fringed by perfect surf—not in Indo, but in Canada, where the scope of his new filmmaking existence reveals itself.
Tofino is a toehold of seaside civility in the British Columbian rain forest. A pair of stoplights, a wharf for the local fishing fleet, a handful of restaurants, a surf shop or two, and a year-round population of 1,700—that’s about it. So it’s easy to find the mud turnout I’m looking for when I drive in on the main road just before midnight. But it’s pissing rain, and it’s so dark that once I’m out of the car, I stumble around in the woods, struggling to locate the cabin Timmy’s using as a base camp. I find a Rip Curl Search-emblazoned Jet Ski sitting in the brush, so I know I’m in the right place, but I circle the cabin twice, cursing in the undergrowth, before I actually find it.
Joe Griskonis, Timmy’s videographer, opens the door, and I follow the light he spills into the woods like a winged insect. Inside, Timmy’s older brother, Ryan Turner, looks up as I shake off the rain. Separated in age by a year—and bonded by a lifetime of surfing, working, and traveling together—Ryan and Timmy are close. In Huntington, they own houses directly across the street from each other, so it’s no surprise that, even here, it’s impossible to locate one without the other.
Timmy, true to paradigm, lays wrapped in a sleeping bag on the floor at Ryan’s feet. He doesn’t get up. Instead, he squirms so he can see me. “I caught a 4-pound salmon today,” he says from his down cocoon. “But I forgot the guts in the car.”
The interior of the cabin is made of local timber—a warm, wood-grained space. It’s so small that Timmy’s head hangs into the kitchenette, while his feet are wedged into the living room between the gear he’s hauled here to shoot Cold Thoughts, his next film. Waterproof Pelican cases spill their contents across the room like plane wreckage. There’s camera equipment, tents, more sleeping bags, a bright orange, foul-weather jumpsuit, a generator, and a “game processing kit,” which is basically a box of knives designed to break down deer carcasses.