Bunker 77: The Rock 'n Roll Life of Anthony Spreckels

Jesse Faen

by on

Updated 82d ago

1977 world skateboarding champion Tony Alva described Anthony ‘Bunker’ Spreckels as a cross between Bruce Lee and Elvis. He had the mad spark of originality, but ultimately embraced a lifestyle of drugs too tightly.

Born into wealth, thanks to the Spreckels Sugar Co. fortune, and well versed in fame via his stepfather - the iconic actor Clark Gable - Bunker rebelled against his destiny once exposed to surfing. He escaped to Hawaii, lived in the jungle behind Pipeline, and found some refuge with Laird Hamilton’s family, for a moment.

Bunker, his dream girl Ellie, and young skateboarding legend Tony Alva.

Bunker, his dream girl Ellie, and young skateboarding legend Tony Alva.

Once his clock turned 21, however, and millions of inheritance dollars became realized, he assumed a ‘player’ persona. Infamous for many antics, his surfing talent and experimental board designs are undeniable in the film. Footage of a Steve Lis designed 5’7” keel twin fish flying down the line at Jeffrey’s, as well as riding a hybrid single fin kneeboard at Backdoor and Pipe, are a trip into the shortboard revolution Bunker deserves lasting credit.

Takuji Masuda has spent more than a decade working on Bunker 77 a film documenting the compelling life and death of the titular character. It has been produced by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, plus actors Ed Norton and Johnny Knoxville are also in the mix. We caught up with Takuji to talk about the story of Bunker 77.

What sparked your desire to make this film?
Surfer’s Journal did an article on Bunker in 1993… believe it was their first issue. Then in their third issue, they ran a feature on Jeffrey’s Bay with him in it too, so they were the first glimpses I had of Bunker Spreckels.

Then when I was making Super X Media magazine, with Craig Stecyk and Art Brewer, we reviewed his life twice. But I realized their recollections were both a bit vague. They hadn’t asked deeper questions about the experience they had with Bunker. So I started asking them questions, and then we decided to start asking more questions to others, to get a clearer picture. Until then, people were just going off all the rumors and hearsay, the myth and legend of him. The pictures Art had taken of Bunker allowed people to make assumptions of what events actually were like, but the information was very fragmented and inaccurate. A lot of people thought he had died in Paris.

Bunker and an early fish model, J-Bay. Shaper Steve Lis actually made two of these boards for the trip; this yellow one and red version for Miki Dora, who never collected it.

Bunker and an early fish model, J-Bay. Shaper Steve Lis actually made two of these boards for the trip; this yellow one and red version for Miki Dora, who never collected it.

When did it become a bigger story to tell?
I began as a simple surfer, looking for information to better my own understanding of him. Being a longboarder, I would go talk story with, or listen to the stories of these legends. I decided to publish these in the magazine format, and when we did a big review on the Pacific Ocean Pier scene, covering what was going on from Venice into Santa Monica, and the influence of the Dogtown and Z-Boys, I got to see in close proximity how Stacy Peralta was able to put together a documentary.

Then later, watching how Catherine Hardwicke dramatized this into the feature film Lords of Dogtown. I was privy to attending Sundance Film Festival with them, so it kind of taught me the process.

I held Bunker’s story quite dear and close, cause I wanted to give it a crack as my first documentary film debut. But I didn’t really know how? That’s why it took 12 years to finish (laughs).

Traveling in style, mid ’70’s Benz, outside Durban Hotel, South Africa.

Traveling in style, mid ’70’s Benz, outside Durban Hotel, South Africa.

I remember seeing the trailer at your house 10 years ago.
Yeah, in 2007 when we published the book with Taschen, we sent out the trailer saying ‘Coming in 2008’… But it took almost another decade.

I had a lot of great material early on, but one of my Malibu neighbors who is a multiple Academy Award winner, watched it back then and asked me what I was trying to say myself? I figured I just had to review Bunker’s story, but he helped me understand the hardest part, which is how to become an actual filmmaker.

You have a unique perspective. Coming from an affluent family, surrounded by influential, famous people in Malibu, but also charge heavy waves. I’m not sure you partied like him though?
Ha, I wish I had that glamorous bit of Bunker (laughs), but I don’t. I did relate to his displacement… Bunker lost both his fathers, two prominent figures in his life. I only have one father, who was well to do, but I left my family to go to boarding school in Canada, so I have empathy for him and that sense of loss. That was real for me.

Big shoes to fill. Father Adolph, mother Kay, and iconic step father, actor Clark Gable.

Big shoes to fill. Father Adolph, mother Kay, and iconic step father, actor Clark Gable.

I didn’t come from the beach culture, I had to seek that out, and that’s how I ended up in Malibu and a longboarder. I really had to earn my way into the surf world, and I feel Bunker earned his stripes on his own merit, and with unconventional equipment.

I kind of showed up to the party with the wrong dress, like I was surfing Pipeline on a longboard, you know what I mean? This was back when Marvin Foster, Dane Kealoha and Johnny Boy were ruling the lineup. But thanks to Donald Takayama, Nat Young, Gerry Lopez and Herbie Fletcher, especially, they vouched for me and said I would be all right… I didn’t always catch a lot of waves, but I got closer to those guys, and you hear a lot of things in that proximity. I really had to learn the modus operandi of being a surfer, the code of conduct, and I’ve tried to represent that in the filmTheir stories and being able to share them respectfully, is important to me. If you just want to sensationalise things, you can really hurt people, or misrepresent what we do as a tribe. I really had to learn the modus operandi of being a surfer, the code of conduct, and I’ve tried to represent that in the film.

Being able to take 12 years, that was definitely a luxury most would not have had, kind of champagne circumstances. I feel like Bunker deserved that attention from me, and I was taking a lot of risks myself, and time, to convey and portray him in the finished product.

We’re all humans and react to events, whether you have money or don’t have it. Bunker was able to think something, and bring it into practice immediately, cause he had resources. But I didn’t want this to be about a rich person’s problem, cause paternal roles, death… circumstances are universal, and this is a human story.

Bunker surfing the North Shore of Kauai, 1973. Taschen book, released in 2007.

Bunker surfing the North Shore of Kauai, 1973. Taschen book, released in 2007.

I grew up wanting to be part of the surfing world. Enrolled myself in the Paskowitz summer camp for two years in a row, got to meet them, Herbie Fletcher and the definition of cool, you know? I tell you, I was not cool when I arrived, and did not have these relationships. Maybe it was the good waves I got at Pipeline, or the people I got to know? It all comes down to paying dues, and that’s really important in our tribe, or brotherhood of surfing.

Obviously drugs played a big part in Bunker’s story. While you were making this film, Andy Irons died, so wondering if his circumstances affected your portrayal?
We’re so desperately trying to be accepted into the mainstream world. Whether it’s for the Olympics, or the sake of ad revenues…. I think there was a turning point for the dropouts, or people who chose to be different, verses now, when we’ve maybe come full circle and want to be included or respected.

There was a time when people didn’t care. But then we started caring, and I don’t know if it was for commercial purposes or not, but these kind of filters are making people sugar coat some events, and not show the truth.

Surfing, or Rock'n’Roll… when you are putting life on the edge, there is a lot of danger that comes. That kind of dangerous life attracts such people. Then if you add money… Back in Bunker’s day, he was the only one with any money, or a real expense account. Nowadays surfers are making a million dollars a year, or sometimes more, so this parasitic nature that we have in us, comes out.

Elle, a natural ray of sunshine in what became a dark journey.

Elle, a natural ray of sunshine in what became a dark journey.

Andy’s story is important, as it’s not far away in the past, but recent. 2010 is immediate, and then there are other big wave surfers dying, maybe not just from drowning under waves, but the night of partying before, or being on substances. These stories need to be told, but with of course, respect to families that can be damaged. The surf world definitely has this outlaw, outsider element, which is what makes it so glamorous and romantic. By showing these cautionary tales, we create an awareness of what could happen It’s a hard thing to condition or control, but we do need to inform our children of the dangers, and be mindful. By showing these cautionary tales, we create an awareness of what could happen. Bunker’s story and Andy’s story are important, cause we do lose a lot of our brothers and sisters to such events.

It’s hard to discourage people who are successful, yet going down a dangerous track, cause something is working. You could completely spoil the party by artificially involving yourself, and you don’t want to kill the momentum of whatever they’re doing. Plus, we meet these phoenixes that don’t die. They can go to hell and come back, and what’s the difference between those guys’ verses Andy and Bunker?
We just have to remind ourselves that life is precious, and draw the line between what is important. We all get one chance to direct our life, or ride a wave, so be aware of your actions.

I just hope people don’t try and replicate this. If you are a musician like Kurt Cobain, so be it (laughs), but for the fashion sake of being like Andy Irons or Bunker, I hope I don’t encourage any of that. They were genuinely themselves.

Who or what stands out from your journey with Bunker 77?
During the process of making the film, I was privileged to show it to some of the people that shaped the person I am. For example, Rick Rubin, Shawn Stussy, I got to do a screening for Oliver Stone… I couldn’t believe he was watching my movie, then sat me down afterwards and gave some feedback. I mean, I’ve had moments when I was out in the surf and had some of my heroes paddle out and witness me get a shampoo tube or whatever (laughs), so on that petty, personal level, I felt like I’d come a long way, and it’s really good to get such an acknowledgement.

Takes commitment to attempt this kind drop on a longboard, or to tell the Bunker story. Takuji Masuda earning his rights, Pipeline.

Takes commitment to attempt this kind drop on a longboard, or to tell the Bunker story. Takuji Masuda earning his rights, Pipeline.

© 2017 - Brian Bielmann

But when I get the most joy is watching people really have a deep emotional experience with my film, tears in their eyes, and want to shake my hand. You just know they knew a Bunker… it may have been their dad, a son, or an ex-boyfriend or someone in their lives, so they could relate. That’s when I’m really rewarded as a filmmaker.

Bunker’s brother John was at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival screening. What was the Spreckels family reaction?
He never got to see his own father, Clark Gable, who had this immense presence, so poor John had his older brother die when he was only 12 too, and Bunker also had this legendary reputation. So for a guy to deal with all that, he’s doing pretty well.

I’m proud that he’s proud of my film, and I think he learnt a lot about his brother. I felt I served them on a personally level, and I’m glad they appreciated it.

It’s very interesting how a film can play a part in peoples lives. They can help shape us, and remind us of things – even of a family member in this case. I love this medium. It’s such a good communication tool, and something I can’t wait to do more of.

Frame grabs courtesy of Bunker 77.

Frame grabs courtesy of Bunker 77.

Anything in the works?
Yeah, the dramatization of this documentary, so I will be a little more liberated to have an interpretation, rather than tell the truth. We are working on the screenplay now, and there are a couple different IP’s like Bunker that I am exploring, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring those to audiences much sooner than this took (laughs). I feel like I know how to take off now, do the turn, and pull up and get tucked under, and I hope I can do a few more of those rides.

Hawaiian surfer CJ Kanuha reenacted Bunker in some key scenes, like martial arts training with Professor “Thunderbolt” Chow.

Hawaiian surfer CJ Kanuha reenacted Bunker in some key scenes, like martial arts training with Professor “Thunderbolt” Chow.

Super X Media magazine covers.

Super X Media magazine covers.