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Gotta Surf Somebody: With 'Riding Giants,' It's Not About the Waves

By Tom White

Greg Noll in Waimea Bay, Hawaii. From Stacy Peralta's 'Riding Giants.' Courtesy of Greg Noll Collection.

Although surfing has been around for 1,500 years, its documentation on film didn't crystallize until the 1950s, when such California-based wave-riders/filmmakers as Greg MacGillivray and Bruce Brown began to capture the thrills and death-defying derring-do of what was burgeoning into a craze. Surfing seeped into the pre-Beatles, pre-Rolling Stones, pre-'60s consciousness, with the keening harmonies of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean crashing against the rip-curl tremolos of Dick Dale, and Gidget, Moon Doggie, Frankie and Annette and The Big Kahuna slapping on a faux Coppertone sheen on what surf purists considered sacred.

Documentaries about surfing have proliferated in both the mainstream—from such classics as Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer (1966) and MacGillivray and Jim Freeman's The Moods of Surfing (1968), to more recent films like Michael Bovee's Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing (1995), David Brown and Roy Earnest's Surfing for Life (2000) and Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid (2003)—and the specialized market. Coming July 9 via Sony Pictures Classics is Riding Giants, the new documentary from Stacy Peralta, who made a splashy debut in 2001 with Dogtown and Z-Boys, his award-winning doc about the gritty skateboarding culture of Southern California.

With Riding Giants, Peralta set out to do things a little differently from his predecessors. "There were a number of goals," he says. "Number one, it wasn't about the waves or about surfing anymore. It was hopefully about the people and the culture. Riding Giants really doesn't fit into the typical surf film mold. Generally speaking, surf films are more like travelogues; once you've exhausted one break or one season, the next act is another break and another season, or something to that effect. But you really don't get a tremendous amount of context out of the story or out of the cultural make-up of who's doing it. So what we tried to do is tell a broader history of surfing—where it comes from, when it became popular in California and what drove those early California surfers to go to Hawaii. We were really more focused on the story—far less interested on whether we had the greatest surfing photography or captured the greatest wave."

Riding Giants opens with a breezy, tongue-in-cheek tour through the history of surfing, from its Polynesian roots, through its rebirth in the 20th century through such legends as Hawaiian native Duke Kahanamoku, to the development of the surf culture in post-World War II Southern California. Then and there, the real story begins to take root, with young, restless bohemians migrating to Hawaii in search of giant waves.

Going from Dogtown and Z-Boys, which had a singular, brash style in tune with the specific community and neighborhood that was depicted, to Riding Giants, which takes viewers through 60 years of surf culture and three geographic regions, had its own set of challenges—and opportunities. "I talked to Paul Crowder, who cut both films, about this at length," Peralta explains. "Obviously there was a style that Dogtown came with, and we didn't want to abandon that style because it was something that was organic with the way we work. But at the same time we wanted to let this film develop its own style within that context. And as we began to cut and put this thing together, Paul was at first a little worried because we couldn't cut the footage at the pace that he had cut Dogtown. I kept telling him, 'It's okay. It's a different film. We don't have to cut it at that pace. We're talking about waves here, as opposed to the urban landscape of Dogtown.' We had to let the film find its rhythm. This film was a tougher story to tell because we're talking about a 60-year time period and three generations of people that we're coming in and out of, so it was editorially a tougher film to make."

Over the course of the film, the main characters emerge: Greg Noll, one of the pioneers from the 1950s and '60s, who also parlayed his passion into a fairly lucrative surfboard business in Hawaii; Jeff Clark, who staked his claim in the rough-hewn shores of Northern California in the mid-'70s; and Laird Hamilton, one of greatest extreme surfers in the world today. Hamilton also serves as executive producer of the film.

But intrinsic to these characters are their respective milieus: Southern California, Waimea Bay and Makaha, Hawaii, for Noll; Maverick's, the reef break in Northern California, for Clark; and Maui, for Hamilton. These natural epicenters in the evolution of surfing serve as geographic characters, with human aspects—indeed, Noll at one point in the film, talks about Waimea Bay as if it were an alluring femme fatale.

"We grouped it down to the three most important, revolutionary pioneering places and people," Peralta explains. "Once we decided that it was going to be those three waves and those three surfers, we said, 'How can we give these three acts—which are three different waves, three different people and three different generations—their own complete look?' So in the first act, which was the guys growing up in California in the '50s and moving on to Makaha and Waimea, we used an Ektachrome film stock that was like the old Life magazine color, and it kind of had a similar feeling as a lot of the archival footage that it was intercut with. We wanted to use that, along with the music to give it its own texture and personality.

"Maverick's is a bloody hellhole, with satanic waves," he continues. "And we felt that Half Moon Bay, where it's always foggy, should be in black-and-white because it's a really black-and-white place. Of course there's death there; it's a very scary place. And the next place, Maui, we shot in Kodak's latest color stock to make it as naturally drop-dead gorgeous as possible, because here you have this Adonis, Laird Hamilton, who's like Neptune's son, surfing the biggest waves in the world. So each act had its own personality—one person grounded each act, with a number of people orbiting around him."

The breadth of archival footage in Riding Giants lends a unique texture to the film, and finding this footage was a task that Peralta relished taking on himself. "I knew most of the photographers' work from back then," he says. "I knew of Bud Brown and Bruce Brown and Greg MacGillivray and Howard Jepson and Scott Dietrich and Grant Roloff, who were all this pantheon of surf filmmakers going back to the '50s. I was well aware of who held what footage, and it was a process of tracking down their phone numbers, getting in touch with people and asking them, 'By the way, who else has this stuff?' And it was just unearthing as much footage as I possibly could—photographs as well as footage. Super-8, 16, 35—whatever form it came in. I wanted to do it myself because I wanted to meet the guys who owned this footage, so they understood that I'm going to treat it with respect, I'm going to pay them market rate, I'm going to get their footage back unharmed. We're asking people to part with materials that are very valuable to them, that they've had for decades."

And just as important as the footage is the music, which Peralta and Crowder selected themselves. While the soundtrack for Dogtown and Z-Boys was lauded for its hard-driving, hell-bent-for-leather sensibility, Riding Giants, with its range of eras and contexts, aims for a broader and deeper musical palate. Peralta explains, "With Riding Giants, I believe that part of the cachet in trying to get musicians to come on board was that we were the same people who did Dogtown; you can pretty much be guaranteed that we're going to treat your music with respect, and it's not going to be a fly-by night project. A lot of people agreed; we got just about all the music we wanted, which was 53 songs. And it's a wide variety of stuff.

"One of the line items in our budget was the purchase of music," Peralta continues. "In the making of this film, I probably bought two or three hundred CDs, and I would listen and listen and listen and find pieces of music that I thought could work in each act, then I would compile all these CDs together, give them to Paul, he would come in with his suggestions, we would download them into the Avid, then we'd sift through and see which ones worked and which didn't. In the third act, which is the guys doing tow-in surfing, we had to completely reinvent the music; it seemed to want to be more like a modern mechanical piece, so we used this track by the Propellerheads. It's a fantastic piece of music and it feels very electronica, very machine-like, yet there's this fantastic beat. That's what we discovered: we wanted it to be this kind of modern, intense real machine, where the first act was bluesy and Stray Cats and John Mayall and things like that. And also, we didn't want to use any traditional surfing music, because surfing music, as interesting as it is, can actually be very flat. I had these composers named Matter Music. We gave them some old surfing music, and they recomposed it and put a new back-beat under it, which breathed new life into that type of music."

One of the challenges of getting Riding Giants out to the marketplace will be the two-tiered marketing strategy: honoring the niche audience from the surfing community but also reaching the larger, mainstream audience whose curiosity may be whetted not necessarily by surfing itself, but by the aforementioned elements: the characters, the places, the footage, the music. "The key word here is inclusive," Peralta maintains. "What you want to do when you make a film like this is not lose the hardcore. You lose the hardcore, you lose the guts of the film. But if you make it too exclusive to the hardcore, you miss everybody else who might want to see the film. The point is that we tried to make the film as inclusive as possible.

"We're going to make this a hardcore film so that the practitioners that do this are going to like it," he continues. "And they're going to learn things about it because they're finally getting something articulated to them that they knew. Greg Noll's a perfect example. He was one of my inspirations for making the film; he can actually—quite exceptionally—articulate the experience. He eroticized Waimea Bay! He talked about it as if it were a woman! Those kinds of experiences allow the non-surfing public to come in. They can get it. And one of the things that you will generally see in most surf films is surfers who say the same thing over again, which is, 'Surfing is so great that if you don't do it, I just can't explain to you how great it is.' We made a mandate that nobody that we interviewed would ever be allowed to say that on camera. It's an insult to the audience, and we felt that if you couldn't tell the story properly, then don't tell it at all. But don't cop out by saying, 'If you don't do this, then you don't understand it.'"

As one of the characters says towards the end of the film, "Surfing is too thrilling to be an egocentric thing; surfing is a faith."


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.