Malibu filmmaker says, ‘Hollywood Don’t Surf!’

Sam George and Greg MacGillivray’s documentary, which covers 50 years of Hollywood surf moviemaking, will screen at the Cannes Film Festival.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Starting with Bud Browne’s 1957 classic “The Big Surf,” Hollywood has had more than 50 years to get it right with surf movies and, except for a handful of films, has failed, says Malibu filmmaker and former editor of Surfer magazine Sam George. He plans to change that with the new documentary “Hollywood Don’t Surf!,” co-directed by Greg MacGillivray, which will be screening at the Cannes Film Festival in the next week as part of the Cannes Classic screenings.

George, who wrote the screenplay, has tapped entertainment figures like John Milius (writer/director of iconic surf film “Big Wednesday”), Gary Busey, Steven Spielberg and Frankie Avalon (who starred such movies as “Beach Blanket Bingo”) in creating this five-decade look at surfing as sport, film and metaphor. He said that if Hollywood has been unable to produce a surf film that truly captures the zeitgeist of surfing, it’s not for lack of trying.

“If you look at all the surfing movies they’ve made over the past 50 years, they’re kind of cheesy,” George said in a telephone interview with The Malibu Times. “My idea was not to make a film about surfing, but about surf films. It’s a humorous look at a 50-year effort to successfully put surfing up on the big screen.”

Surfing aficionados have had plenty to watch. Beyond beach party movies, “The Endless Summer” (1966) and “Riding Giants” (2004) are considered to be, along with “Big Wednesday,” the defining cinematic word on the sport. But surf films never really enjoyed blockbuster box office returns.

Nonetheless, surf films have been a big part of Hollywood.

“John Milius and the rest of Hollywood thought they had a huge box office hit on their hands with ‘Big Wednesday,’” George said (the movie only achieved modest financial return). “In fact, John was friends with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who both also had movies coming out around the same time. They traded profit points on ‘Big Wednesday,’ [Spielberg’s] ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and [Lucas’] ‘Star Wars.’ As Steven says in my film, ‘This worked out better for some than for others.’”

As a longtime surfer himself and writer of surf films “The Lost Wave” and “Riding Giants” (along with famed skateboarder Stacy Peralta), George knows the waves. Greg MacGillivray, twice Oscar-nominated documentarian who helped develop IMAX technology, approached George to do a follow-up to “Big Wednesday.” They elicited interest from Milius, who proposed they write about Hollywood surf films.

“We came up with 50 years of terrific archival film footage, photos and trivia,” George said. “I never realized before how Malibu played an incredibly instrumental part in surf movie history. But they filmed all over Leo Carrillo and Corral beaches. The dance sequences in the beach party movies were shot at Paradise Cove. Those early ‘Gidget’ and ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ movies really established California as the Golden State of youthful and vibrant, and sexy kids.”

Those who practice surfing as a way of life have traditionally dismissed fictional Hollywood surf movies. Big-wave surfing legend Greg Noll has said, “Surfing has a bull**** bubble around it that you can’t poke through, especially if you’re someone from Hollywood smoking a big cigar.”

“There have been some great surfing characters along the way,” George said. “Sean Penn’s Spicoli in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ was classic. But actually, really getting that magic moment of surfing on screen? It’s elusive.”

George’s wife, actress Nia Peeples, has her own claim to surf movie fame, having starred in the 1987 film “North Shore.” She likens the fleeting moment of being at one with the water as a sort of euphoria of parenthood.

“It’s like the birth of child,” Peeples said. “You can’t possibly describe it to someone who hasn’t been through it. How do you translate that motion and energy of dropping into a tube onto the screen? I think Sam’s movie has been able to explain that experience just a little.”

Peeples said one of the film’s strengths was George’s ability to get interviews with some famously publicity-averse celebrities, like Jan- Michael Vincent, who starred in “Big Wednesday,” and Frankie Avalon. The movie also features commentary by Malibu surfer Laird Hamilton and filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Peralta.

“I am married to someone who knows so much about surfing, about filmmaking and about writing,” Peeples said. “But even I don’t know how Sam was able to track down so much material. And then to whittle it all down into something so concise and fun was just amazing.”

George is planning on showing a screening of “Hollywood Don’t Surf!” in Malibu sometime later this summer. But last week he was preparing to depart for Cannes for the two screenings of his film (out of competition), returning to the south of France where he spent time as a child in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

“We have one screening at the Grand Palais and one on the beach,” George said. “I actually have to wear a tux. But it won’t be paired with board shorts.”

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