The 79-year-old undisputed pioneer and king of adventure filmmaking
The most inspirational and iconic surf film ever made, it’s hard to believe The Endless Summer has just turned 50. Even harder to believe, that 79-year-old filmmaker Bruce Brown - the godfather of adventure filmmaking - remains just as sharp, witty and modest today as he revealed himself to be narrating surfing’s greatest masterpiece in 1964. So humble in fact, he still considers The Endless Summer one of his lesser films by comparison to 1971’s motorcycle epic On Any Sunday. Certainly, he insists with a chuckle, it features some of the worst waves by today’s surf film standards. Nevertheless, the story of two friends packing up their surfboards and traveling the untamed world together in search of waves resonates as much today as it did when it made its worldwide release in 1966.
In fact, it’s since spawned a plethora of merchandise from socks to barometers, to cafes and stained glass windows, all featuring that iconic pink and yellow sunset. Fifty years of royalties have no doubt earned Brown a pretty penny - in spite of countless unauthorized knock-offs - but the innovative filmmaker has never let it go to his head. He’s lived in the same log cabin ranch off California’s Pacific Coast Hightway since 1980, surrounded by 40 acres of grazing land - more than enough to accommodate his makeshift clay target shooting range.
And as publishers prepare to launch a limited edition 50th anniversary commemorative coffee table book written by Brown’s son, Dana - each of the 1,966 copies featuring a five-frame film strip and more - we sat down with the statesman of adventure filmmaking (a term he’d hate) to get his reflections on filming and selling The Endless Summer.
THE RED BULLETIN: Bruce, you started making surf films in 1958. What was the original inspiration to get behind the lens?
BRUCE BROWN: In Dana Point, we all surfed. The whole Dana Point crew, everyone was making surf magazines, or boards or fabrics. It went on and on. We were all just figuring out ways to make a living to stay at the beach [laughs]. That’s basically what it comes down to. I was serious about making movies but I never took myself very seriously. People would tell me if I wanted to make movies I had to move to Hollywood. I’d say “Jesus, are you outta your mind?” I’d rather be a postman at Dana Point than live in Hollywood.
You produced and toured five films before The Endless Summer. What inspired the concept for the world journey?
Looking for surf. That’s it. We just wanted to find new surf spots. That was the basis of all the films. At that time, even California didn’t have that many known spots - not like now, the places weren’t famous then. We had the idea, you know, the endless summer of going to the southern hemisphere in the winter time. And at that time the plan was just to fly in to Cape Town. That was it.
So it’s true that you had no plans of traveling anywhere outside of South Africa?
We were going to fly to Cape Town and turns out, it was $50 cheaper to go around the world via Cape Town. And we thought “aha!” We had a great travel agent. And we purposely flew to places that didn’t have a connecting flight to the next place figuring they’d go “there’s not a flight for three days” and we’d go, “Oh God, no!” and they’d put us up in a hotel - which didn’t happen. But that’s how we ended up in all those odd places - to save $50 [laughs]. And we had no clue what we were going to find because there weren’t any people surfing those places except locals in some places. So all the other places, were purposely stopovers that had no connecting flight to the next place.
So to save $50 ($380 today), you came up with one of the greatest concepts in surf film history …
For $150! It was $50 per ticket! [Laughs]
It didn’t take long to figure it was cheaper to go around the world and how cool that would be. We were on prop planes at that time, too. And I remember taking a jet to Tahiti and that was the first time a jet had ever landed in Tahiti.
That was in 1964. But it took two years to get anyone outside of the surf community to even look at the film.
I kind of half expected it to do well. I mean, we’d showed it at Santa Monica Civic for seven nights in a row and sold out 2,500 seats every night. But Hollywood didn’t want it. The distributing community said, “Meh, it’ll never play away from the coast.” So we figured out where the furthest is you could get from the coast. And turns out it’s Wichita, Kansas - in the middle of winter. And that’s where the test showing was. And it broke all the box office records there. There are these great pictures - somewhere - of all these people standing there in the middle of a blizzard in snow boots, forming a line around the theater waiting to get in. We got a lot of publicity.
Even then, you still couldn’t get a distributor to promote the film?
After Wichita, the Hollywood types were all “what would those people know?” It was like before the last election and everyone saying the Midwest are all okey-dokeys and don’t know what they’re doing. At that stage, we didn’t know there were distributors in New York and once we found that out, it was “right, we’ll prove you sons of bitches wrong,” and we rented a theater on our own in New York - where we knew studio people drove past. We broke the theater records the first week and then the third week it broke the first week’s record. It was unheard of.
Even then, you still couldn’t get a distributor to promote the film?
After Wichita, the Hollywood types were all “what would those people know?” It was like before the last election and everyone saying the Mid-West are all okey-dokeys and don’t know what they’re doing. At that stage, we didn’t know there were distributors in New York and once we found that out, it was “right, we’ll prove you sons of bitches wrong”, and we rented a theatre on our own in New York - where we knew studio people dorve past. We broke the theatre records first week and then the third week it broke the first week’s record. It was unheard of.
How’d you end up getting the deal? The biggest critics of the time gave you rave reviews…
I got a call from Joseph Levine’s secretary - a big producer of the time - saying Mr. Levine would like to screen our movie. She asked If I could send a print to New Jersey and I went “we have one print! And it’s in a theatre showing”. The secretary said Mr. Levine doesn’t go to theatres so I said “Mr. Levine doesn’t get to buy my movie then does he?” So we got a reputation for being sort of different. We’d say we were thinking of starting our own distribution company and all this bullshit. Being a surfer, we were used to doing that. So they’d try and yank my chain and I’d yank theirs right back. They’d ask where we were staying and we’d say “The Four Seasons” which we weren’t. We were staying in some fleabag place. And we’d tell them we’d meet them out front. Then we started figuring out the better hotels. “Where you staying?” “Oh, you know, the Sherry Netherlands.” What room? “We’ll meet you out front”.
Fifty years later, why did you think the film resonated with audiences then and continues to now?
I don’t know why people liked it better. I think then it was because they never got a chance to see most of those places in theaters. Maybe it struck a chord because it was a couple of young guys taking off around the world without a clue what they were going to run into and looking for fun, adventure and waves. Yeah, I reckon that’s it.
As far as the film goes, one of my filmmaking friends, Mike Hoover, rolls his eyes when people come up to me and tell me that film changed their lives. He turns his head “Oh, God, that makes me want to throw up!” [Laughs]. He’s like “That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life” and I go “Mike, I’m not arguing with you.” But the thing is, On Any Sunday they show at film school on how to make a good movie. And I like that movie better myself. But looking back on [The Endless Summer] that’s just what we did. It was a lot of fun.
All 1,966 copies of The Endless Summer: 50th Anniversary are autographed by Bruce Brown, and feature a remastered DVD, 35mm film strip with five frames from the movie, three early drafts of the poster image and two envelopes complete with copies of invoices, airline tickets, sales receipts and other paraphernalia from the trip. Add your name to the waiting list here. They’re set to be released in March.