Searching for the ‘stoke,’ the thing in surfing that hooks “people’s souls” and makes them come back for more is what Dana Brown looked for in making his documentary on the sport.
By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times
On Friday, “Step Into Liquid,” an 88-minute surfing documentary will open at the New Malibu Theater. The event is perhaps especially appropriate to the Malibu Community.
Since the famous Olympic swimming medallist, Duke Kahanamoku, introduced surfing to Malibuites in 1927 the sport has been as synonymous with Malibu as celebrities-well, almost. And “Step into Liquid” was written, edited and directed by Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown, whose 1966 film, “Endless Summer,” is still considered the definitive surfing movie. Last, but hardly least, among the surfers followed by Brown’s cameras in “Step Into Liquid” is Jesse Billauer, 23, a former Malibu High student who was crippled with a spinal cord injury (similar to that suffered by actor Christopher Reeve) in 1996 while surfing at Zuma Beach.
Billauer, now a motivational speaker, also started the Life Rolls On Foundation to spread the word that life should be lived positively despite adversity and, as will be seen in the film, still surfs (prone) with the help of friends.
“The chance to be in a Dana Brown movie is a really special honor,” Jesse said from his home, now in San Diego. “Ever since I saw “Endless Summer,” I wanted to be in such a movie. This just goes to show that dreams do come true. Patience is a virtue. Love life because life loves you … surfing is my love and my life. Life rolls on for sure.”
Such a positive response could well describe the advance notices for “Step Into Liquid.” Because of the theme, it’s not exactly a surprise that the movie drew the largest audience in the history of the Maui Film Festival, but it is big news that, so far, it is one of the highest grossing independent films of the year.
David Lyons, vice president of Wallace Theaters and operator of the Malibu venue, explains, “I’ve found that the film touches audiences on many levels. Without exception, we’ve drawn rave reviews from both surfers and non-surfers.”
“With its astounding views of angry seascapes,” the New York Times wrote, “its handsome young men (and a few women) poised atop 10-foot waves, nonstop soundtrack of old and new surfing songs and a pervasive philosophy that views life as fun and self-fulfillment as the highest good, what is there not to like?” The Los Angeles Times agreed, playing off the film’s seductive title: “(the film is) just what it sounds like: an enticing invitation to get your feet wet in the world of surfing, to experience the beauty and feel the rush of this most addictive of pastimes.”
“The film shows that whatever surfing you do, it’s all just pure enjoyment wherever you find it,” said Dana Brown, who never surfs waves over 8 feet. “I like the glide. I’m not very big on slamming into the bottom and bouncing off a reef or being held under for 30 seconds.”
Brown explains that the real challenge in making “Step Into Liquid” was not finding the biggest tube or the most radical ride, but understanding the “stoke”- what it was about surfing that hooks people’s souls and keeps surfers like Jesse Billauer paddling back for more.
In his round-the-world search, Brown discovered a surfer who hasn’t missed a day in the water for 27 years, Protestant and Roman Catholic school kids in Ireland who put aside their mutual hatred to surf the chilly local waters and surfers who share water with supertankers off Texas. In one of the film’s highlights, Brown follows the nearly unbelievable ride on a 65-foot wave by one of a group of surfers who headed 100 miles off the coast of San Diego to chase down the giant waves of the Cortes Bank. He also pays special attention to the rise of women in the sport. Other locations include Tahiti, Oahu’s North Shore, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Western Australia, Lake Michigan, California, and Costa Rica.
In describing the genesis of his film, Dana Brown gives much credit to his father, now 65, who acted as co-executive producer and also appears in the movie.
“If I sent him a rough cut of a segment, he understands what I’m trying to do and makes suggestions,” Brown said. “Especially (I like) his story sense and sense of humor.
“When dad was a teenage surfer,” Dana adds, “people asked him repeatedly, ‘When are you going to grow up and see the light of day and stop doing that silly thing?’ Fortunately, we were right and they were wrong. It’s another very important thing I learned from my dad.”