In Memoriam – Bruce Brown: Legendary Director Reflects on Shooting Classic Surfing Documentary

Born in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 1937, the legendary Bruce Brown is best known for directing, narrating, shooting, editing and producing The Endless Summer, a groundbreaking documentary filmed on beaches all around the world on a shoestring budget back in 1966.

Brown passed away on Sunday, Dec. 10 at the age of 80. Here, in one of his last interviews prior to his death, the Oscar-nominee — and second inductee into the Surfing Hall of Fame — reminisces about his career and the enduring popularity of his surfing classic, a half-century after its release.

Hi Bruce. I’m honored to have this opportunity to interview you.

Well thanks for having me.

When did you develop an interest in surfing? When did you develop an interest in filmmaking? And how did you come to combine the two?

I was about 12 years old, as a kid growing up in Southern California around the ocean. We started swimming, body surfing, then junior lifeguards. Around 14, riding a surfboard, I think I developed an interest in filmmaking about the same time. I didn’t go to film school, but just figured out how to get the job done by doing it. I got some cheap still cameras to take pics of me and my buddies surfing.

Back then, we were the only surfers. Then I got an 8mm movie camera to show other people, and to recruit someone to go surfing with. I took it with me everywhere. I combined the two because I needed a job, I guess. We just wanted to find a way to make money and be in the water so we decided to see if we could make a living filming each other surfing. I never thought anyone would want to watch it, let alone still be talking about it 50 years later, but they are. And I am so grateful to everyone who loves the film.

The Endless Summer is a classic with an enduring appeal to generation after generation. Why do you think it’s still so popular a half-century after it’s release?

I guess it struck a nerve for a lot of different reasons. Before we blew up The Endless Summer to 35mm for the theaters, I showed the film for two years on my regular circuit. I narrated it live during that two-year period. I’d learn things from the audience. If I said something, and the audience groaned, I’d know not to say that again. So, I just sort of worked out the kinks by interacting with the crowd. In fact, we modified all my films from showing to showing.

So, it was kind of a trial and error thing, because I’d show the thing and it was hugely popular and sold out the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium seven nights in a row. Then, we went back for a rerun two months later, and it sold out seven more nights. That’s what prompted us to fix the narration and blow the film up to 35mm to show it at theaters. It was interesting that people outside of the surfing community enjoyed the film as much as the surfers.

What was your approach to shooting the film?

Well, with the surf, you never know what’s going to happen. So, you just hope for the best and make it up as you go along. But make sure you have a good surfer to shoot. A good surfer can make crappy waves look much better.

In the old days, Bill Edwards, Dewey, Butch, all those guys, and Pat O’Connell and Wingnut were great! Today, there are so many guys that are good, it’s just amazing. You used to be able to drive by a surf spot and know who it was, now there are tons of guys. I like to think our films encouraged them to try the sport.

How do you explain the appeal of surf documentaries? Is it a combination of the waves and the humans attempting to conquer them?

Not sure I can answer this question. I don’t know, because I don’t watch surf documentaries. And I never really thought of The Endless Summer as a documentary. It was a journey and our story to share about surfing around the world.

How do you know when you’ve captured a great shot?

Well, I shot Endless Summer before digital. I didn’t know what the shot looked like until after it got developed. So we just shot a lot and then edited what we thought worked.

How did it feel to have your son and grandson follow in your footsteps?

Great! We all worked together in the editing room during the making of Endless Summer II, and on my motorcycle films as well.

What are you working on now?

[Chuckles] Right now, I’m trying to avoid work.

Which surfing drama is your favorite? Have you seen Blue Crush, The Shallows or Soul Surfer, recent films, all of which feature female protagonists?

I have to admit, I haven’t seen any of the movies you mentioned. Actually, the only movies I’ve seen in the past 15 years are my son’s and my grandson’s.

What is your favorite movie all-time, surfing or otherwise?

The Great Escape. I met [the film’s director] John Sturges once at Steve’s [Steve McQueen] who did my On Any Sunday motorcycle film. I asked him, “Do you sit in the editing room for months on end?” and he says, “Oh yeah.” He started out as a film editor. That’s what a lot of guys don’t realize, it’s a lot of work.

Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?

Throwing up on myself. Well, you asked. [Laughs]

What was your very first job?

Paper boy.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

When I look in the mirror, I see an old man.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

The craziest thing I’ve ever done? Make The Endless Summer. We had practically nothing, just our boards, a few clothes, a camera and a plane ticket to fly pretty much around the world. Mike and Robert had to help carry all the equipment around everywhere we went. It was in their agreement. [Laughs]

If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it. I have had a lot of wishes granted.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

I like to cook chicken wings.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Don’t have any.

Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would? And please answer the question.

No, people have asked a lot of questions over the years.

The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a nice person

Finally, what’s in your wallet?

Right now there is $126 in cash, and one credit card in my wallet.

Thanks again for the time, Bruce.

My pleasure, Kam.