When it comes to movies about sports, there is certainly no shortage of football, baseball and boxing flicks. But when it comes to surfing, the list is much smaller, and for good reason. They just aren’t easy to film, and it certainly isn’t as universal a sport as others.
Michael Apted – the director of movies including Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - is behind the new movie from Walden Media and 20th Century Fox, Chasing Mavericks, about a teenage surfing prodigy’s ambitions to conquer the mysterious and enormous Mavericks of Northern California and the man who coached him.
Based on a true story, Gerard Butler portrays Frosty Hesson, a surfing great who becomes a mentor and father figure to Jay Moriarty, played by Jonny Weston, a relative unknown who won the role over many others.
Their journey is a compelling one, witnessing a hard-to-crack Frosty shed his tough exterior, mostly a façade for his own emotional insecurities, and allow Jay, a boy wise beyond his years being raised by his single mother (Elisabeth Shue), a place in his life.
“I do like that, in that mentor relationship, that the mentor didn’t always know what he was doing,” Butler explained to reporters in Los Angeles. ”He was like, ‘I’m struggling like you,’ which is where Jay suddenly stepped in and became a bit of a mentor to him in some ways.”
“They became extremely valuable to each other,” Weston said.
“For Frosty, to actually connect and make a sacrifice for another human being and really nurture this young spirit who reminds him of himself so much in a way allowed him to live the dream that he wasn’t allowed to have anymore,” added Butler.
And yet, the movie suffered two serious wipeouts that might’ve signaled the end for another production.
Curtis Hanson, the director of movies including 8 Mile, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and L.A. Confidential, for which he won an Oscar®, was well into making the movie and suddenly fell ill. Apted took over the helm almost immediately.
“It was unfortunate,” Apted recently told The Seven Sees. ”Curtis had prepared it all and cast it, and he did four weeks filming, then he got ill and had to stop. So I just came in at a moment’s notice, and I did the second half of the filming and all the post-production.”
Then, near the end of shooting, Butler, who learned to surf for the movie, suffered what could have been a fatal accident. In fact, he thought he was going to die as he was pulled under a large wave and didn’t resurface for the better part of a minute. (While appearing recently on Good Morning America, Butler showed the footage, which begins around the 1:25 mark.)
“Grant Washburn, who actually taught me to surf, he talked about this before it happened. He said, ‘Sometimes the ocean will just hold you down, and she’ll pin you down the shoulders, and she’ll say, “I’m going to let you up this time, but I don’t have to,” Butler recalls of the accident. ”I was completely at the mercy of this power…it’s not a pleasant experience.”
Apted elaborates on Butler’s accident in our interview and what it taught all of them, plus he talks about the unique challenges presented in making the movie, from the surfing to working with Weston to the marketing.
Gerrad Hall: A director taking over a movie for another is something we rarely hear of happening. Did production have to shut down to give you time to become acquainted with what Curtis Hanson had already done?
Michael Apted: It was kind of a bizarre experience. I don’t know whether you have those dreams when you were a kid about going to places and not knowing how get there or not knowing what you are supposed to know, but … I arrived on a Sunday, I started shooting on Monday with a cast I had never met, locations I had never seen, a crew I didn’t know; I just had to fly by the seat of my pants. Some stuff they hadn’t started, some stuff had been done, some stuff had been half-done. So every day was a challenge, but we got the hang of it eventually.
GH: You have made many movies over the years, but I’m not sure any have dealt with something like the ocean, and especially filming your actors in it. Was this one of the more difficult movies you’ve ever shot just in those regards?
MA: I think this was unparalleled. The nearest I got to it was Gorillas in the Mist, but we did it the other way around; we shot the wildlife photography first, then shot the rest of the movie. On this one, largely because of weather issues, the first unit – the stuff that Curtis and I did between us – was almost done before we shot a single wave. The waves were very late coming in, and then they were very erratic, and then often they’d come in and it would be too windy for us to work. There was a time at the beginning of the year when we were wondering whether we were even going to get a movie. When you’re dealing with nature, there’s nothing you can do about it at all but just sit around and wait, wait, wait. It’s very, very scary and particularly so in this case because the weather’s been strange for everybody – skiing and everything this year – so surfing was no different.
GH: As you mentioned, all of the casting was done well before you stepped onto the set. Gerard Butler I’m sure you were familiar with, as are audiences, and know what to expect. Jonny Weston, though, is still very new to the scene. What did you learn from someone so young and fresh?
MA: Well, I suppose that’s a good thing, that I didn’t have to worry about that this time because I was fresh to it, too.
He was very, very open. It was very difficult for him to suddenly be confronted with a new director and all this, and he was very wary of me at first, but we got on well and now we’re inseparable, as it were. But I think one of the things I had to tell him was, ‘Forget about Jay Moriarty. You’re here because you’re you. You were cast because you have a warmth and openness that everybody says Jay has, and you have it; you don’t have to act that, you are it. So don’t even think about Jay Moriarty. Just be you and be in the scenes and be in the moment with the other actors, but don’t add another layer of what you perceive Jay Moriarty to have been because you are Jay Moriarty.’
So, I think that was something that probably helped him and reassured him, took a bit of a load off his mind. I’ve had to deal with this a couple of times when I’ve done biographic films when people had either just died or were still alive; it can be very difficult for an actor playing it if they’re constantly reminded of what the real person was like or if the real person stood around [on the set].
GH: I did want to bring that up, that this isn’t your first biopic. How does this one compare for you in terms of the events that unfold and the impact that it may have on the audience or even on you while making it?
MA: Well, it had a huge impact on me because I had no conception of what big wave surfing was like. I have lived in California for over 30 years, so I am not unfamiliar with that culture, but big wave surfing was totally new to me. I was just astonished at how dangerous it was, how courageous – or mad – these guys are and actually, what interesting men they are because they don’t behave like your average world-class athlete dripping in jewelry and money and all of this kind of stuff. These are very modest, self-effacing guys, and I always think it’s got something to do with the fact that what they’re doing is actually life and death. A lot of people get killed doing this. So I think it brings a degree of humility to them. So I was very, very in awe of all of that, that they were totally surprising, they were so helpful and kind to Jonny and Gerry. But also, they were also very tough on me because they wanted me to do it right.
GH: You mentioned ‘life and death,’ and it nearly happened on the set with Gerard Butler. When that happened, did you think the shoot was done? What was the perception the day it was happening?
MA: Well, it happened very quickly. No one had time to even know what was going on. He was under for 40 seconds, which doesn’t sound like very much, but if you’re underwater and completely disoriented and filling up with water, it must be an eternity. But it was a lesson to us all. I think everybody after it was very chastened by it because we did a lot of filming on the water – Phil Boston (Second Unit Director) did it all, there were wonderful cameramen – and you can get a bit blasé about it, and then something like that happens and you think, ‘Oh, my Christ!’ You can’t be blasé with nature, you just can’t. I think it was a great warning to us all that we really had to pay attention every minute of the day we were out there.
GH: The irony is that it happened in the same place that Gerard’s character, Frosty, warns Jay to avoid, the “boneyard.”
MA: Yeah, I know. I think, frankly, Gerry was getting a bit full of himself and he tried one or two things, and it was nearly disastrous. But it was a lesson. I mean, he was great, Gerry, because he’s got so much enthusiasm, he’s fearless, he just wants the best, he wants to get as much into his character as he can, but this was an instance that I had never been involved with before that, seriously, there were issues of life and death involved. It wasn’t, ‘just don’t go take that corner so fast’ … this really was [a situation where] in a moment, you could be gone.
GH: You’ve worked with Walden Media before on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Amazing Grace. Was the familiarity why you were called so quickly to replace Curtis Hanson?
MA: I think that’s exactly right. That’s why they asked me to come in; it certainly wasn’t because of my surfing expertise. I knew them all very well and we’d been through a lot together, Narnia was a brutal film, so yeah, you’re exactly right.
GH: Surfing is, of course, an enormous component of this movie. But more so, the movie heavily relies on and is told through this “surrogate” father story. Was the majority of that shot before you came onboard, and were the intricacies of that relationship already worked out?
MA: A lot of it was; they had shot a good bit of it already. It was well in place, I didn’t invent it, but it was something that really interested me. I agreed to do it because I knew Curtis and I knew these guys and I was sort of available at the time, but I was very interested in the emotional part of it. I went back to re-do a few things they had done before so I could beef up these relationships because I thought there were some quite good relationships in the film, not just the central one. But I always feel on any film that if you can add a dimension of emotion, it just makes the film more accessible and hopefully to a wider audience than those who just want to see surfing. So that was very high on my priority list. I knew I was going to make zero contribution to the shooting of the surfing – I would make a major contribution to the way it was put together and the structure – but I knew that I should be focusing on the emotional part of the film while the experts really shot the surfing part of the film.
GH: In terms of the film’s marketing, do you feel like it’s tough to market a movie like this, to entice with the surfing and the amazing footage there, but to ensure the rest of the story and the emotional aspect are fully acknowledged as well?
MA: It’s very difficult and I don’t know whether we’ll get it right. I don’t know. We all say our prayers at night that it will. But it is very difficult because you want to deliver the surfing because it’s sort of unique and spectacular. Then, to people in the Midwest or women who, when we previewed the film, women really like the film, which astonished us, really. I think we scored higher with women than men, and we thought, ‘We’ve got to get women into the film.’ Well, it seems almost counter-intuitive, in a way.
GH: Well, what will you have a crack at next? What’s coming up for you?
MA: Episode 56 Up (part of Apted’s on-going documentary series that has followed 14 British children since 1964, with a new episode every seven years) is done, and that comes out at the beginning of the year – I think it opens in New York on the 4th of January and in Los Angeles either the 15th or 16th of January, and then it will be rolled out. So that’s the next thing, but that’s sort of ready to go.
Now, I’m looking for another project.
Chasing Mavericks is currently in theaters, is rated PG and runs 115 minutes.