Bruce Brown created the movie that helped many of us fall in love with surfing and travel.
For many surfers 'The Endless Summer’ was the film, which opened the door to surf adventure. First released in 1966, the Bruce Brown, travel epic still resonates with viewers today.
When Californians Robert August and Mike Hynson appeared on screen, wearing their fitted suits, with boards under one arm and suitcases in the other, the world seemed full of surfing possibilities.
With Bruce Brown frantically winding his Bolex camera to capture the action, Mike and Robert trimmed across hypnotic lines at Cape St Francis, got mobbed by local kids in Ghana, dropped in on the nascent Australian scene and rode waves back out to sea in Tahiti. If Hynson and August were the on-screen faces then Bruce Brown’s narration, ripe with easy-going Californian charm, was perhaps the film’s other real star. That voice lingers for as long as the images do.
Over fifty years after the film fueled the surfing subculture, Bruce Brown (now 79) has released a limited edition book, which features many of the images, memorabilia and interesting facts associated with what is arguably still the world’s most successful surf film.
Below Bruce, and his son Dana, who has several surf film credits to his name (co-director of ‘Endless Summer 2’, director of 'Step Into Liquid' and 'Highwater') talk about he film’s lasting legacy and explain why surfing will never have another ‘Endless Summer’ moment.
As you will see in the interview, Bruce has lost none of his wry, deadpan delivery. (All responses are from Bruce Brown unless otherwise noted)
Why do a book 50 years after you made the movie?
Bruce Brown: It wasn’t really my idea, people have been saying you ought to do a book and I was like, ‘Ahh, I don’t think so.’ This kid from Spain, Manuel Serra Saez, did this book for his university graduation that he took off the internet and it was so cool that sort of inspired the whole thing.
Did you imagine when you made 'Endless Summer' that you would inspire generations of surfers to go and explore coastlines around the world?
Yeah, I had no idea. At the time that we made the movie, surfing had kind of a bad wrap – you know we were all just losers. That never seemed right to me. I thought we were just good people. I just wanted to show the rest of the world that we weren’t total losers… What people don’t realise now – because surfing is such a mainstream thing – but in the 50s you didn’t want to tell anyone that you were a surfer.
So what is someone who is a big fan of the movie going to get out of the book?
There’s a bunch of other stuff. I was too lazy to throw it all out. They now call it memorabilia, but I just call it old stuff. The guy that did the book came in and looked at all my old crap and put it together for a collection. It took us a lot of time to review all of the items, images, letters, etc …They were in my attic which I hadn’t touched in over 40 years. Dana, my son, actually wrote the book.
What are you memories of Australia?
First time I went to Australia they were still doing all the surf clubs and all that – there was very little surfing as we knew it. Then Greg Noll went down there in the middle 50s and took some Malibu boards and that was the first time that they really started surfing the way that we knew it. They had their little beanies and organized stuff, but it was not surfing as we knew it in the United States…
By the time you went back to shoot for 'Endless Summer' had it evolved?
It had evolved. You know, guys like Nat Young and Rodney Sumpter were really good surfers.
Have you been back to many of the locations that you shot in the original 'Endless Summer'?
We went back to South Africa thirty years or something later … and I didn’t know that they’d named the break at Cape St Francis ‘Bruce’s Beauties.’ I found that a little embarrassing. We went back there and did some publicity and press, and they put us in some fancy game reserve where you go and look at the animals and have cheese and wine and crap and drive around in a fancy Land Rover. When I got home, a couple of weeks later, I was like ‘I’ve got this thing in my butt; what the hell is that?’ I went to the doctor and he asked me where I’d been and I told him a game reserve in Sth Africa. He called the specialist and then they said, ‘You’ve got tick bit fever.’ Then he asked if I minded if I call all the staff in because they’d never seen that before. So I pulled my pants down and all these people came in and checked my butt out.
It was funny because the first time we were down there, we were sleeping in the dirt and now this time we were at this fancy game reserve and I get this South African tick bite fever… That’s a lesson not to live a pampered life.
Do you still have vivid recollections of the travelling you did when you were making 'Endless Summer'?
Well, somebody will ask me about a story and I’ll tell them and then Robert will say, ‘Well that’s not what happened.’ He’ll tell them his version of it and I’ll be like well, who’s right?
Did you ever get a sense that you had made a film that had the capacity to dramatically influence an emerging subculture?
We didn’t know what a subculture was at the time. I remember the first time we showed it after a working for a couple of years doing it I remember thinking, ‘God I hope everybody likes this thing.’ I remember showing it and it was over with and normally with my other surf movies I’d done, people usually started clapping and stuff. And this one’s done and there’s total silence and I’m thinking, ‘Oh crap’! they don’t like it. And after about fifteen seconds they all started clapping and cheering, so I was like, Wheew! You know when you make a movie you don’t have a clue if it’s going to be successful or not, till you show it to people that have paid money.
It was so well received in the surf community around our normal showings that we decided to try and make it go mainstream, and make it into a ‘real movie’ quote, unquote.
According to Matt Warshaw’s 'Surfing Encyclopaedia', in the 60s-70s 'Endless Summer' made 30 million dollars. Is that right?
Ahh, who knows? All I know is that Columbia Pictures owned the world wide rights to the movie and I’d get these statements from Columbia Pictures that were like three inches thick and I’d be going ‘wow, there’s got to be millions in this.’ I’d get to the very end of the thing and I’d be like they owe me seven dollars and twenty-four cents. (Chuckles) When I read all this stuff about how much money it made, it definitely made all that money but it didn’t necessarily all come to me… that’s for sure.
Are you and Robert August still good friends Bruce?
Yes, we speak on occasion and Wingnut’s (Co-star of Endless Summer 2) actually here at the moment. He was on his way south and he stopped over. So, I see him. I don’t see Pat O’connell much but he’s still one of my favourite people. Mike Hynson I could do without him.
So you and Mike (the other featured surfer in the original ‘Endless Summer’ have never really buried the hatchet?
Not really. No
Does that sadden you?
Yeah, well it saddens me the way that he’s acted through the years.
That saddens me a lot. He wasn’t like that person that was on the trip with us at all. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that too much.
You chose to create the context for 'Endless Summer' with your own narration, What prompted you to include your own easy-going voice over?
Oh, well, I couldn’t really afford anybody else. You know I was free … Why not use it. I tried some experiments with other people, but unless you’re a surfer it doesn’t really work.
Some people suggest that your voice is one of the most endearing aspects of the film?
Well it’s funny because my son Dana narrates his films too and you know, most people like what he does and what I did, but not all of ‘em so I had some critic that said I sound like, ‘Howdy Doody’. And then one of Dana’s movies came out and the critic that didn’t like his narration said that it sounded like ‘Kermit the frog’.
I’ve seen 'Step Into Liquid' (one of Dana’s surf film) and I didn’t think of Kermit the frog.
Dana: Yeah, but this guy did and I called Dad and he asked how New York was going and I told him about the critic in the 'New York Daily' News and he goes, ‘No shit, the same paper told me I sounded like howdy doody.’
Do you think it’s more effective to have some kind of narration in a surf film to create a context? As opposed to relying exclusively on the footage and soundtrack?
Dana: I think it’s debatable, whatever you like … there is a balance and it depends on your taste. Me and Jack McCoy have this argument all the time by the way – narrations or not narrations. It’s a very good-natured argument.
For me the narration is just a quicker way to tell the story and dad did it so well. It’s just a simpler way, rather than letting everybody else talk if you are going from South Africa to somewhere else say.
It was interesting that they used actor, John C. Reilly, to narrate part of John John’s recent film ‘ View from a Blue Moon.’
Dana: I think when Dad did all the narration for ‘Endless Summer’ that not only set the standard, but that was it. That was kind of like the world record. Everyone else is just doing their best not to embarrass themselves.
Do you still own the rights to the poster prints and the imagery on t-shirts that are seen quite prolifically?
Bruce: Yes. My business partner, Alex, protected all of our images and trademarks about 20 years ago. We now have over 200 companies who license the name and image.
You were also nominated for an Academy Award for a film you did on Motorcycle Racing with Steve McQueen called ‘On Any Sunday.’ Which film are you most proud of, that one or ‘Endless Summer’?
I think, ‘On Any Sunday’. It was a better job of film-making. It was a sport that I loved as much as surfing and it was just a better movie.
What was Steve McQueen like to work with?
Oh, he was great, you couldn’t ask for a better partner to make a movie with than Steve. There’s been a lot of books written about him, about how he had dark sides; I never saw that. He was like the most supportive person I’d ever worked with.
What sort of camera rig did you actually use to shoot 'Endless Summer' on?
It was a wind up Bolex. It took 100 ft rolls of film.
But that was it. It was just like one camera, wind it up and ran for 22 seconds and that was that.
When I ran across Jack McCoy in Hawaii when we were getting ready to make ‘Endless Summer 2’ (early 90s) I said, ‘Jack, what kind of camera are you using?’ And he said, ‘A wind up Bolex like you did.’ And I was like wow, cool!
And you shot everything on that?
Yep, other than a little camera I had put in a water box that we shot some water stuff with, but for the most part it was just the wind up Bolex. (Several shots of the camera appear in the book)
Dana, at what point did you cross threshold and follow your Dad into the film making business?
Dana: When I was about ten my Mum and Dad gave me a little film camera and I’d make little movies and stuff, and then I majored in film at college, but I never really thought I’d get into film, so I was a writer and then dad called me to help him put some of his old surf movies back together. I was about 28 then. Then he decided to do ‘Endless Summer 2’ and probably give me a break and I was about six years into it and probably had an ability to do it and here I am 25 years later. I always wanted to do it but how would you ever think you were going to do what he does and somehow I’ve just fallen into it.
What do you find to be the most memorable impact that your father’s film has had on your personally ?
Dana: Has to be my dad’s ‘Innovation with his Camera’. I mean he literally invented the ‘Go Pro’ camera with hand-made plastic and waterproof casings allowing for underwater and above-water shots from a ‘first-person’ point-of-view…in and around water… genius then and still genius today. That was 50-years ago! There are some great photos in the book and within the flip-books within the collection that we included that truly show the innovation and creativity of his camera design and casings. His camera is still fully intact and currently resides with the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center down in San Clemente, California.
Bruce, what advice would you give to young film makers now?
Don’t do it. (Laughs). Most of them don’t realise how much work it is.
I meet young film makers and tell them it’s really a lot of work and beating your head against the wall and they’re like, ‘ I can do that.’ And they get all excited. I see them like six months later and ask them how the movie’s going and they’re all like, ‘Oh, What a hassle!’
Maybe go to film school we’re you’ve got like 900 people behind you going, 'well we’ll do this or we’ll do that'. We never did that; we just went out and did it. It’s not an easy thing, let alone to make any money out of it. I’ve been lucky and Dana’s been fortunate that we’ve been able to make a living doing what we wanted to do.
Do you watch many modern surf films?
No, I don’t watch them. I’m too old and grumpy to watch them.
Other than Jack McCoy’s stuff I’ve seen.
So, is there scope for an 'Endless Summer Three'?
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. (laughs) Unless somebody does it after I’m dead.
Will you leave Dana the option to do it in your will Bruce?
I use to get phone calls from people for years after I did 'Endless Summer' and they’d say, ‘I’ve got a great idea. How about Endless Summer 2?’ They were all the same. They thought it was their idea and so we’ll make the movie together and split the money. I was thinking 'are you out of your mind?' So I use to try and get rid of them.
I’d say 'send me a million bucks and we’ll talk about it' and that did them in till someone finally said, ‘Ok’ and that’s how ‘Endless Summer 2’ got rolling.
What someone sent you the million?
Well, they didn’t send it to me, but they said, ‘I got it.’ Dana was working with me and he wanted to do it and without him I probably wouldn’t have done it. And it is a good movie.