Highwater Hits Santa Monica Pier

Cannes Film Festival

Rob Karmach

On the evening of May 22nd, visitors of the Santa Monica Pier witnessed a variance to the usual food vendors and product hawkers: an outdoor movie screen.

As part of a fund raiser benefiting the Santa Monica Pier Centennial, Producer C. Rich Wilson and director Dana Brown held the world premiere of their documentary “Highwater;” a chronicle of the Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing held in Oahu, Hawaii.

“Holding the premiere at the Santa Monica Pier wass the best way, really, to get a cross section of the people we wanted  to see this film,” said Brown.  “We still have a couple of things to finish on the film, so it was a great way to see how the crowd reacted to it.”

The son of Bruce Brown, Oscar nominated director of the movie “Endless Summer,” Dana Brown was born and raised in Orange County.  Although he did much of his youthful surfing at Dana Point and areas around Orange County, Brown has maintained a strong appreciation for other Southern California beaches.

“I’d say this whole area; Malibu and Santa Monica, is like the Nile of surfing,” said Brown.  “Everything from ‘Gidgit’ to the explosion of beach and surf culture got started here.  We held the premiere of ‘Step into Liquid’ here, and the centennial seemed like a natural deal.  It’s a way of giving back to the community, including the surf community, so it maked sense.”

“Step into Liquid” was Brown’s critically acclaimed directing debut.  The movie focused on surfers and their favorite world-wide surfing locations.  His sophomore effort, “Dust to Glory,” was an expose on the Tekate Score Baja 1000 in Mexico.  This off-road motorcycle race rivals the Indy 500 in popularity and attracts competing bikers from all over the world.  Working on this film inspired the concept behind “Highwater.”

“When I did ‘Liquid,’ I said ‘That’s going to be it for surf films.’  Then, I did a movie called ‘Dust to Glory.’  In that one race there were just so many stories.  That made me think we could do something like that film with the North Shore, over a short period of time telling a myriad of stories,” said Brown.

When Brown refers to the North Shore, he’s speaking about the seven mile stretch of Hawaiian beach front where the Van’s Triple Crown takes place.

“I think the North Shore has been the ultimate test of a surfer for fifty years,” said Brown.  “As much as the sport has changed, as much as the equipment’s changed, that place remains the ultimate standard.  For six weeks, the entire surfing world descends on this place and turns it into a crazy carnival.  There are all these different kinds of stories.  It makes it a natural tale to tell.”

In addition to the abundance of stories found in such a diverse collection of competitors, fans, and locals, Brown felt there was still a level of innocence to this competition not found in many professional American sports. 

“Part of the reason we wanted to do ‘Highwater’ was because the North Shore still has kind of a Sunday picnic atmosphere,” said Brown.  “The contestants come out of the water, there’s no security, the crowd surrounds them, and everybody mingles together.  It doesn’t have that big- time sports feel where you have the audience over here and the players over there.  I think in the US surfing still suffers from that ‘Spicolli’ image, the stoner stereotype portrayed in Hollywood films.  In Australia and South Africa it’s treated like a mainstream sport.  Maybe in a way it’s not a bad thing, because it hasn’t become quite that slick; it still has a little bit of this mom and pop atmosphere which makes it very interesting to me.”

Even if the aspects of the competition have not changed much in the past fifty years, the sport itself has.

“I think it’s a little bit like skateboarding; it just keeps progressing,” said Brown.  “It just shocks me at how much better these guys get every few years, or how much more the guys can do.  The aerials alone: ten years ago a guy popped out of a wave and landed and what an incredible deal that was!  Now, these guys can do the toe surfing that Laird Hamilton does with the really big waves.  These guys are doing huge waves like it’s nothing!  And the women in it, they’ve gotten so incredible at surfing.  I’d love to be one of those old guys who are like ‘ah, back in the old days…’ but I don’t think it’s true.  Surfing has really progressed a lot.  Whoever was good at say, my local beach when I was 19 would be terrible today.  What they do in the water is staggeringly good, really.”

“Highwater” opens with an explanation of the atmospheric conditions that occur between Alaska and Russia that create the monstrous waves that smash the Hawaiian shore.  It explores the economic conditions that have changed the landscape of Hawaii and affected its local citizens and surfers.  It explores the philosophy many surfers share regarding the sport, the way of life, and the competition.  It also follows the famous competitors as well as the newcomers and unknowns: from child prodigy “John John” to competitive female friends to surf legend Eric Hauss, an unsponsored, non-competitive renegade who’s been known to surf in a football uniform.  The film also explores the competitive rivalry between the Hawaiians and the Australians, the desperate attempts of the Americans to break the final three, and the unity these individual sportsmen share when death and hardship hit the surfing community.

Brown wrote, narrated, directed, and co-edited “Highwater.”  He finds the experience of crafting a film completely fulfilling.

“You think you’re going to get smarter, and that this one’s going to be a lot quicker because you know what to avoid,” said Brown.  “But it still takes x amount of time to go through all the footage, and make sure you can do what you want to do, and do it right.  I still get really excited about it.  I think enjoying it and doing it right are key; otherwise, you wouldn’t want to do it.  It’s all about the passion.”

No release dates have been set for the US, however, the film will debut in Japan in August.  In the meantime, Brown will be promoting the film in-between doing some commercial work. 

“I’m just going to promote this thing and get it off the ground, and then do whatever comes next,” said Brown.