Dana Brown is the man when it comes to surf filmmaking, and we had the chance to shoot the sh!t with him over lunch. We chatted about his new movie Highwater, underground surf legends, and how he worked his way into filmmaking.
DAILYSTOKE.com: Your dad, growing up as a surfer and a filmmaker, how did he influence you?
DANA BROWN: Bruce Springsteen once said I never thought about my parents as anything more than the furniture that came with the house, and its as you get older you think about it….but my dad loved what he did, but was never like ‘hey I am Bruce Brown I made Endless Summer'. As I get older I'm very appreciative of that. He was a mellow guy. I grew up in Orange County and that place has become very much a status place, but they (his dad, his uncle Hobie Alter) weren't that way.
My dad got me a super 8 movie camera when I was 10 years old, and for him to give me the money to buy film I had to tell him what I was going to do, and he'd say ‘just don't go shoot nuthin' with this. I had a little editing machine and I made detective movies, I filmed bicycle races, whatever was going on. So there was a big influence, but I never thought about it at the time, its just like if your dad is a plumber a maybe you hang out doing plumbing. It's funny, it's never something I think about until someone asks me.
DAILYSTOKE.com: So how did you work your way into filmmaking?
DANA BROWN: I always thought it was a cool thing to do. When I was 20 or 21, I didn't want to go to L.A. to be a production assistant, so I kind of gave up the idea (of being a filmmaker). I was writing a sports column for a paper in Santa Barbara, waiting tables, and working construction…and in my mid 20's my dad called me and said Hey Dana, I want to put my old surf movies, the movies I made before the Endless Summer, I want to put those back together. They were bits and pieces of stock footage. It was an archival deal to put them back together. That led to Search for Surf with Greg Noll, and Endless Summer 2, and halfway through making Endless Summer 2 I said this might be my job….and 20 years later I am still doing it!
DAILYSTOKE.com: What is your advice to filmmakers, and what about equipment today?
DANA BROWN: Today it's so easy to make films, cameras have gotten so good for not much money. So it's not so much the equipment, it's the story you want to tell, and how you want to tell it. You look at Taylor Steele's Momentum, you could feel they were all friends, you could feel what was going on, they're great little movies. I think the mistake people make is they try to be the first guy ever to have a telephoto lens with a barrel. No you're not, everybody does that, what context is it in? Sometimes I don't know how this works, but you have to feel it. But you have to work at it, you can't hang out all day and drink beer.
DAILYSTOKE.com: We just watched Highwater, and loved it, why did you decide to do Highwater, and why the North Shore?
DANA BROWN: Well, after I made Step Into Liquid I didn't think I was going to make another surf film, I just thought well what is there to say? And then I made Dust to Glory which was just about one race over 3 days, and I then I realized you don't need a giant concept, that a smaller concept can work. Then actually someone (TV network) proposed doing a reality series on a surfing base, and we talked about the triple crown, it never happened but I was simmering on this idea. Winter was coming, and I thought we should do it now. Surfing is changing so much, I didn't realize Kelly was going to hang on so long, there was all this changing of the guard going on.
It's an interesting thing, as global is everything is now, for that 6 weeks everybody focuses on this 7-mile stretch of beach. I thought that might not be forever, over there is Rabbit Kekai handing Jon Jon his contest jersey…..and I am thinking, that goes from Duke's friend to now, and that's not going to be forever. So it seemed important to go do it.
DAILYSTOKE.com: Let's talk about a couple scenes in Highwater, which triggered an emotional response for us from the very beginning of the movie. The cruise in to shore, the point of view shot with the voiceover…and then the scene showing a few sick wipeouts, and then one of the guys coming out of it.
DANA BROWN: Well, the north shore is just a circus in a way, its dramatic, its crazy, and we knew we wanted to reveal that to the audience right off the bat. We tried to hit them with this real visceral, emotional visual impact. We built that scene with all the different wipeouts and crowds, and then it was like how are we going to anchor this to reveal what is going on.
We had all these crazy cuts and crazy stuff going on 2 minutes into the film, so we had this one POV shot, and I said why don't we just be on the wave heading for shore, then the audience could have time to get settled into the seats.
DAILYSTOKE.com: What is Highwater really about and why should people see it?
DANA BROWN: Ha, you would think! I get asked this all the time…the movie is about this 7 mile stretch of beach and the madness that goes on. What I hope people take away from it, is say that was interesting, and beyond that everyone comes away with something different. It's really for the audience to take away what they want from it.
DAILYSTOKE.com: So Eric Haas, what did he mean to the movie?
DANA BROWN: I wrote down in my notes, is there any more underground surf legends. That has dissipated today, because everybody knows everybody. So when I was there, the first week I was there, I was asking Keith Malloy or Pancho and they say Eric Haas and are telling me stories, and I said we have to find this guy!
The end scene is true, the contest was over and then he showed up and he says ‘I am going to go surf the shorebreak' and it was a huge day, and we're all like what? So we unpacked a couple cameras, and off he goes without a leash. I thought he was going to die! and we're all going ‘geez should we go get him?' The whole beach is like ‘murmur murmur' and he just rides that wave, and he comes in, says see ya, and off he goes. So then I become one of the guys, if I didn't have a camera, I'd be like Pancho or Kelly telling stories about him.
So I had down on paper “Eric Haas: Legend?” before I got there, and then he turned out to be one. He's not completely unknown, there was a picture of him in Longboarding Magazine a while back, surfing Waimea with a football uniform on!
DAILYSTOKE.com: Are you less afraid to show wipeouts in your movies, and should we see more wipeouts in movies in general?
DANA BROWN: For Highwater, they are such a big part of what happens in the north shore. They are spectacular, so why not show them? You know, I always feel like you see an air, and then kind of know the guy didn't land it. I just try to use what's visually interesting. It's kind of like a porno movie, it may be great but eventually it wears off!
DAILYSTOKE.com: What are some of your favorite surf movies?
DANA BROWN: I love Jack McCoy's stuff, Taylor Steele and my dad's, of course.