The legendary surf film captured the essence of the ’60s and ’70s, and is credited as the first, and for some, the only movie that accurately depicted surf culture.
By Olivia Damavandi / Special to The Malibu Times
Though they have long passed, remnants of the ’60s and ’70s can be found in all sorts of places nowadays, from clothing stores displaying bell bottomed jeans to the beach, where surfers are riding everything from single-fin longboards to twin-fin shortboards. Some FM radio stations play only songs from those eras, making it apparent that they were two strongly influential decades of U.S. culture.
One enduring relic that captured the essence of those years is the legendary surf film “Big Wednesday.” This Friday, the 30th anniversary of the film will be celebrated at a party at Duke’s Malibu restaurant.
Screen written by Dennis “Denny” Aaberg and John Milius, the latter of whom also directed the film, “Big Wednesday” was initially one of few dramatic endeavors to adequately portray surf culture on film. Based on Milius’ and Aaberg’s youth in Southern California, the film tells the story of best friends Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Katt) and Leroy (Gary Busey), whose lighthearted, blithe beach lifestyle becomes imperiled by the Vietnam War and by the social obligations of adulthood. Though it evokes the unanimous themes of friendship and accomplishment, “Big Wednesday” was a barefaced divergence from the innocent “beach blanket” surf movies of the ’60s, which Aaberg, in an interview with The Malibu Times, said may have been a reason it was poorly received by audiences at the time of its original release in 1978.
“It didn’t do well in the box office, for one reason or another,” Aaberg said. “Maybe the timing was off and it was a little slow for people. It got a lot of bad reviews that pulled it from distribution. When it aired, nobody cared about longboarding, everyone was shortboarding. Basically it was a flop.”
Then, Aaberg said, “When it came out on video in 1984, longboarding made a comeback and ‘Big Wednesday’ was a good vehicle to recall the old style … Enough time had passed for longboarding to be revived. It became everyone’s favorite movie.”
Aaberg moved to Pacific Palisades in 1949, where he saw his first wave. His older brother and avid surfer, Kemp, inspired him to begin surfing as a young boy in the ’50s. Aaberg grew up surfing in Malibu, predominately at Surfrider Beach’s First Point, where he met Milius.
Milius planted the seed for “Big Wednesday” in the early ’70s, Aaberg said. “We always had the idea of writing a novel about Malibu and its characters,” Aaberg said. “He [Milius] would come to my house to talk and exchange stories, and inspired me to write ‘No Pants Mance,’ a fictional story based on [legendary Malibu surfer] Lance Carson. When it came time to write the film, he [Milius] referred me to some producers. At first, he didn’t get involved and didn’t think it was going to be big.”
A writing deal with Warner Bros. made Aaberg dedicate himself to the craft, though he said he was “nervous, and would hope and pray that people would put money into making the film.”
“I was really lucky that John [Milius] was a friend and also a director, so he had total control,” Aaberg said. “It was only the two of us writing this movie, nobody else was involved.”
Jerry Derloshon, Pepperdine University director of public relations and news, and avid First Point surfer, met and interviewed Aaberg and Milius 10 years ago when he was writing a piece on “Big Wednesday” for the Los Angeles Times. He and Aaberg share the similar experience of growing up surfing in the early 60s, described by Derloshon as “a time when surfing was a cultural lifestyle, [a time of] the smell of Coppertone, surf wax and innocent time spent on the beach.
“There was an innocence about that, and an innocence about this country,” Derloshon said. “Through the years, ‘Big Wednesday’ has not lost its appeal to a lot of us who remember the era like it was yesterday.”
Written by “two guys who know the Malibu scene very well,” Derloshon also said part of the film’s appeal to present day audiences is its element of realism.
“As opposed to all these beach blanket movies and Hollywood interpretations of surfing, ‘Big Wednesday’ provides a dose of grim reality of grownup life hitting you hard in the face, like Vietnam, the draft and unexpected teen pregnancies,” Derloshon said.
“From my recollection, that [film] was the first insight into the surf culture,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s been able to do it in 30 years. I don’t think any other motion picture has accurately depicted the surf scene.”
“Big Wednesday” impacted the surf world around the world as well. Aaberg said it helped the longboard movement, especially in other countries. “Some people in Italy told me they started surfing because of ‘Big Wednesday,'” Aaberg said. “The lure of the Malibu mystique and California lifestyle allowed people to vicariously live through it to experience the lifestyle.”
The 30th anniversary celebration of the film this Friday is not only a reunion for those who worked on the movie, but also a fundraiser for the Malibu Surfing Association, a nonprofit organization that tends to environmental problems in Malibu. The film will not be shown, but there will be music provided by bands Salt Water Cowboys and Cheater Five, both for which Aaberg plays, slack key Hawaiian music and 1960s rock and roll.
The party is a celebration of Malibu history and surf culture, and though 30 years have passed, “Big Wednesday” continues to resonate and its main players enjoy surfing now as much as they ever did, with Derloshon adding, “Denny [Aaberg] still carves First Point like a talented teenager.”
The party starts at 7 p.m. Friday, and will include surfing legends, special guests, three live bands, vintage cars, a mini-museum and behind-the-scenes footage from “Big Wednesday.” Tickets are $15 at the door. Duke’s Malibu is located at 21150 PCH. More information can be obtained by calling 310.317.0777