Bruce Brown has been a pillar of the surf community since practically the beginning. He was one of the early pioneers of surf cinematography in the 1950s and ’60s, and his film The Endless Summer is widely acknowledged as having brought surfing culture to the masses and popularised surf travel.
When Bruce Brown passed in 2017, surfing lost a legend [MSW had the honour of the last interview with Bruce, HERE] —and at the same time, another paragon of the surf film industry lost a father. Bruce’s oldest son Dana has become an esteemed filmmaker in his own right, with globally recognised titles such as The Endless Summer II, Step Into Liquid, and Highwater.
Earlier this month, Dana Brown premiered A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story—a well-deserved ode to his father. We had a chance to sit down with Dana after the premier and chat with him about the film, the Brown legacy, and what it was like to have Bruce as a father.
You just premiered “A Life of Endless Summers” last week in Newport Beach, with a drive-in format. Was the original plan to have a larger premier event for the film?
Yeah, that was the plan. We were going to run the film on one night in a bunch of towns, and then COVID-19 hit and shut that all down. And even the Newport Beach thing was going to be in April, maybe (instead of August).
So yeah, it’s been smaller, but that’s all right. It’s a smaller, more private movie…it’s a love letter to my dad. It’s about his life and this road trip that we took. And I didn’t even plan for it to be a movie. I was just going to do webisodes and stuff, but I never got around to doing that because of other projects. And then after my dad passed away, we thought, well, we could make a movie out of this. And that’s what happened.
The whole project sounds pretty organic.
Yeah, well Mom died in 2006, and Dad didn’t leave the house a whole bunch after, and we just said, “We gotta take you go to see your friends.” We had a motorhome and went and saw Jack O’Neil and Hobie Alter…you know, those were his friends! And then we took him back to Hawaii, because he hadn’t been back there in awhile.
So we filmed it, but it was sort of just for fun. And then after he passed away, it sort of had a different perspective, because he was gone. So the movie ended up being about the trip, but also about his life.
Your dad spent a lot of his life behind the camera. How did he take to being the one being filmed?
Man, he was the most entertaining guy, which is why I originally thought this would make a good web series or something. He was just fun to hang out with—funny and irreverent and wise and goofy. He was still like a 10-year-old kid, even when he was 80.
So it just felt like a good fit. And I’m really happy with how the movie came together. You know, these guys were like cowboys—the Hobies and the Grubby Clarks, and my dad. They were very individualistic, different guys. They didn’t put up with much, they swore a lot—there’s something about that. You won’t see those kind of guys again, I don’t think. I mean, you will see different types of heroes, but you won’t see them. So it was nice to be able to document that.
How much would you say Bruce’s style influenced you in your filmmaking—both in this film about him, and also your past work?
Of course we are influenced by everything, but genetically…you know, I love his films, but I guess you just do what you do. You try to write as best as you can. That’s what I try to do. I try not to think of specific influences, because that throws me off. I just try to think of what will work.
Obviously your dad had a huge influence on the surf world at large, and you had a pretty unique perspective of that growing up. How would you summarise Bruce’s impact on surfing? What was his role?
With the surf world at large, his role was…well, I guess it depends how you take it. I’m mean obviously he did something that nobody can redo. He opened the floodgates, turned people on to both surfing and motorcycling. I mean, he made the seminal works in both sports.
I mean, he was a very self-confident guy, and didn’t need to be told how bitchin’ he was
In my private life, he was just my best friend, you know? I mean, we talked about our work, and I worked for him, but he was a pretty ego-less guy. I mean, he was a very self-confident guy, and didn’t need to be told how bitchin’ he was. I miss him now just as a human being, because he made me laugh more than anybody. It’s not about being influential or having people dig you. He just had a great mind, and he was a funny, sweet, interesting guy.
It’s interesting that you mention what he did with motorcycling, because while nearly everyone in the surf community has seen The Endless Summer and been influenced by that film in some way, whether directly or indirectly, far fewer surfers know about his work filming motorcycles. And that’s something that you touch on in your new film about his life.
Yeah, well On Any Sunday, the movie that he made about the motorcycle sport—which Steve McQueen was in, and also produced—you know, that’s as big or bigger in the motorcycle world than The Endless Summer ever was.
I realise that a lot of people might not know that, but if you are in the motorcycle world, you definitely do. But it was just him and his good friends—it was just his life and people he visited. I think after he made The Endless Summer, he had done what he’d set out to do, and he just wanted to make a movie about another subject matter. And he loved motorcycles, so that became the subject matter of that film.
Obviously the road trip in A Life of Endless Summers isn’t 30-year-old Bruce ripping motorcycles through the desert, but it looks like you guys were still able to tap into that same adventure spirit, driving around in a motorhome at 80 years of age.
Yeah, you know, you don’t change. I mean, you get older and maybe you can’t paddle out to the third reef anymore, but you are still the same person and still have the same laughs on the beach.
You never lose that—it’s just that your body craps out eventually. But you are still the same person, and the spirit is still there. And there’s plenty of old footage in the movie as well, which allows us to look back.
The road trip came after your mom died, which was a sad time for your dad. The trip gave him a chance to see a lot of old friends that he hadn’t seen in a while—some of them possibly for the last time. I imagine that the whole journey must have been sort of cathartic for him?
I think so. You know, it’s pointed out in the movie that my mom and dad had a relationship like no love affair you’ve ever seen before. Being his kid, it was so clear and beautiful. It’s like, if someone had asked “should I take your wife or your kids?” he would have said, “Take the kids! We can make more of those!” [laughs]. So I thought it was a theme that anyone who didn’t really give a shit about surfing or motorcycling could still relate to.
You know, you’ve lost your partner, and how do you deal with that? We don’t exactly try to hit that nail on the head, but it’s in there. And of course all of the friends we visited on the trip, they loved my mom, too. You know, she was so in the background—she never wanted any attention, even though she was a large part of the reason that he was doing what he was doing.
So I think the film touches on themes that anyone with a family could understand. And the thing was, dad didn’t want to do it at first. Of course, once he did it he was happy as shit—but he had a nice place in Santa Barbara and was comfortable there, and would also have been happy not to leave. It took some convincing to get him to go on the trip, but ultimately I think he was glad he did.
Yeah, that all makes sense. I think a core element of being a good storyteller is being able to creating something that people can relate to, even if they aren’t part of your club or your subculture. And that’s probably why The Endless Summer appealed to so many people—it had that element of adventure and wanderlust that lives inside all of us, and that resonated with people, even if they didn’t surf.
Exactly. That’s always been the thought, and what I learned from Dad. It’s what we tired to apply in Step Into Liquid. Obviously you make it legit so that people within the community say, “Yep, that’s real,” but you also make it for people who might not give a shit about surfing, but suddenly they do give a shit. They say, “Oh, this is different than I thought. This is good.” It’s more about the humanity of the story rather than just the act of doing it.
It seems like that human element has been lost to an extent over the past decade, with the transition to short, bite-sized, social media-driven content that is focused on nothing but action.
I couldn’t agree more. And in the end, I think that’s why most of us do what we do. Obviously maybe not world champion-caliber guys—but by and large anybody else in any pursuit does it because they love it, not because they are going to get a zillion dollars for doing it, or to become famous.
When it comes to portraying that humanity, were there any specific techniques or tricks you learned from your dad, either directly or indirectly, that you ended up using in your career as a filmmaker?
I think one thing I learned from him was to keep things simple. I mean, you come up with complicated ideas, but you try to keep it simple, the way you tell the story. And you have to tell a story you believe in, rather than a story that you think people are going to buy. Dad was a very straight-forward guy. I’ve been doing this a long time now, and I realise that he was right about that. You have to stay true to yourself.
Your mom has obviously been a big part of you and your dad’s story—both in this new film and throughout your lives. What was her role in all of this?
Well, she was just the best. Dad was an entertainer, and they were just two sides of the same coin. I mean Dad was funny and brash and had big ideas, and she was the calming influence, but they made each other laugh all the time—it was just a beautiful thing to see.
It’s what any of us would want. You want a partner that understands you even when you are kind of insane, but who also supports you. And when dad was doing The Endless Summer and all of that, it was the 1960s and women weren’t getting much credit, and she didn't even care about that. It’s hard to explain…. I think the reason I make movies is to try to communicate things like this, because it’s hard to explain them with words.
I’m sure that when a lot of people think about you and your family, they think “Dana must have been so influenced by the adventures of his parents, and his dad’s filmmaking, and all of that,” and maybe what they don’t realise is that having parents who genuinely love each other, and complement each other so well, and make each other happy—that’s far more important and influential than a bit of fame.
Yeah, exactly. When you grow up and our dad is…whatever…you don’t realise that your dad’s this public thing. Like I say in this film about my dad, your parents just sort of come with the house, like the furniture. They are there, and they are your parents. You don’t think that much about it.
I mean, it was cool that everyone liked it, but at the same time you have your own shit to do. But what’s memorable about my father isn't the fame, or the fact that you go to events and everybody trips out—it’s just people. I love people, and that’s so much more interesting to me. It’s just about being a good person. And that’s what’s been fascinating to me as I’ve gotten older, is that my parents were really good people! I like my dad’s story, more than the fact that he was influential or whatever.
It seems like a lot of people make assumptions about the goodness of people that they don’t personally know based on celebrity status or the things that they have done in the public eye, rather than realising that what’s important isn’t being famous, but instead being a genuinely kind and caring person. You just happened to have parents who were both.
Yeah, fame is…you know, when I was younger I wanted to be well-known, but you eventually realise that celebrity is sort of empty. I mean, it’s nice—I like sitting in the front row—but at the same time you eventually realise that it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s the people around you that have meaning, and I think that’s what I’m trying to portray in this film about my dad.