Steve Soderberg: "My friends who surf... they're automatically going to be distrustful of someone who doesn’t surf."
There are certain Friday nights at Encinitas's La Paloma Theater when the crowd awaiting the 9:00 p.m. show is a virtual sea of blond heads. Blond heads standing in line, blond heads looking in shop windows along First Street, blond heads coming back from the 7-Eleven with cans of beer and candy bars, blond heads skulking in the alleyways getting one last puff of marijuana before the show starts.
A Matter of Style was descriptions of surfers like Terry Fitzgerald and Shaun Tomson and analyses of their styles...
Adding to this uncanny homogeneity is the fact that these people are almost all young. There are a few exceptions — a smart, thirtyish couple in matching La Coste shirts; a few Marines from Camp Pendleton; and three bemused septuagenarians — but most of the men are anywhere from seventeen to twenty-three years old. the girls even younger.
...big-wave footage from Hawaii (Waimea Bay on a huge day, with surfers free-falling down the faces of the waves), scenes from the Wedge in Newport Beach...
And the dress is remarkably similar. The girls look provocative, sexy, and colorful in clinging sweaters or sweatshirts and tight pants. The men are considerably more conservative in baggy cord Levis or shorts with T-shirts on which various liquor store or surfboard manufacturer names are embossed.
The conversation one overhears while waiting in line is decidedly different from the chatter before a show at the Grossmont Center or the Fashion Valley Four. One picks up strangely nasal voices saying things such as. “Where'ja go out yesterday?”
...that prompt audiences to groan with empathy every time a kneeboarder or body-surfer is crushed and pounded into the sand by one of the Wedge’s thick and powerful waves.
“Oh. man. Swami’s was breaking in the afternoon but there were way too many guys out. George's was pretty hot. but I went out at Pipes. Five to six foot, top to bottom tubes — righteous!”
Of course, there can be only one reason for this gathering outside La Paloma: the screening of a surfing film. In this case it is A Matter of Style, whose arrival has been presaged by ocean-blue posters claiming “outrageous action” and “hot tubes.” Surfing movies, and the crowds that are attracted to them, are nothing new to Southern California; Bud Browne. John Severson, Bruce Brown, and Walt Phillips were making them over twenty years ago. In those days, the films were shown at large halls, not real theaters — places like the auditorium on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, the Santa Monica Civic, and the Oceanside auditorium. Those were naive, experimental, and immature days for surfing, and surfing films were considered nothing more than haphazard collections of big-wave footage designed to jolt a saltwater-logged audience.
Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer not only lent some respectability to the genre, it also brought the surfing film temporarily out of its narrow market. People in Mississippi and Minnesota went to see it, people who had never set eyes on a surfboard. But almost nothing has happened on such a mass scale in the fourteen years since The Endless Summer was first released.
Who, then, goes to the trouble to make these notoriously unprofitable films for a select, die-hard surfer audience? The answer is, obviously, a die-hard surfer, someone like Leucadia's Steve Soderberg, the writer, producer, director, and editor of A Matter of Style. Tall, very thin, blond, dressed in light-blue, draw-string pants, a cream-colored, short-sleeved shirt, and sandals. Soderberg looks like the typical surfer. But at thirty-three he is older than most, as the ample wrinkles around his eyes and on his brow attest. One thine about older surfers, the sun’s reflection off the rea and white sand takes its toll; they age quickly.
Soderberg’s enthusiasm for surfing, however, is as strong today as it was when he was fifteen. ”I don’t know where I’d be today," he told me, "if it weren’t for surfing. I mean, there's nothing really . . . at all like surfing. I can’t really describe it. But, you know, without it life is really, well, it's not nearly as exciting. It’s the most exciting thing you can do.
“I mean, most of my friends,” he continued, "my friends who surf that is . . . and I know I do it, too, but they're automatically going to be distrustful of someone who doesn’t surf, particularly if that person is real straight. You'll find that most really hard-core surfers only have other surfers as friends. With me, it’s not really that I don’t have any nonsurfing friends or anything, but it’s just. I don't know, just not the same. If they don’t surf, there’s just going to be a gap between us. ”
Soderberg’s love for surfing began while he was a student at Palos Verdes High School, about ten miles up the coast from Long Beach. He grew up surfing at spots like “Rat." Haggerty’s, and the P. V. Cove. In those days the boards were very long and as heavy as small boats; just carrying one down a cliff was a major struggle for a fifteen-year-old. Surfing in that era was more a fad than it is today, but for Soderberg and others it became something more. “Sure. I knew guys who got into it because it was just the thing to do. And even me, at first, I was really a grem.’ I wore all the right clothes and everything (I think at that time it was a white windbreaker that all the surfers wore). The thing was just to be seen walking down the beach with your board and being a surfer. That was the best part. But the guys who were into it just as a fad, quit. The guys who stayed with it, they really just loved surfing. That’s the difference. I think you don’t see as many guys today who do it just as a fad.”
Certainly today, despite formidable geographical restrictions, surfing is a legitimate sport. In North County and areas like it, surfing is one of the most powerful and pervasive interests for teenagers. Virtually everyone surfs, and when they’re not actually in the water, they talk surfing. But Soderberg is able to recognize the limitations of obsession. “In Hawaii,” he pointed out, “surfers find that surfing can be a total experience. In California it's different, but there [in Hawaii] they can really immerse themselves into surfing. There definitely is a challenge of the ocean there. I mean, it’s all there — it’s beautiful and it's easy to get into it. But out here in California, it’s harder to do that. The waves, the conditions are not nearly as exciting and people wonder what these surfers are doing. They don’t fit in as well as they do in Hawaii, and maybe people look down a little at them. Some people think that surfers have never grown up, but in other societies that’s not really true, not at all. Even in Australia they’re looked up to. And in South Africa. If you ask anyone in South Africa who Shaun Tomson is, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s the international surfer." But around here, if a guy travels around and surfs, they wouldn't say, ‘He’s an international surfer,’ they’d say, ’He’s just a surfer ... a bum.’ It’s different.” Soderberg is talking about the inveterate surfer, the person who has no other identity. “Most serious surfers,” he explained, “you know, the die-hard like you’re talking about, they travel a lot.
They won’t just surf here in California. They’ll be going to places like Mexico, and Hawaii of course, maybe the South Pacific — Bali, to France, Costa Rica. Hard-core surfers, they’ll go around the world looking for waves.”
One reason so many surfers are “hardcore," Soderberg believes, is because they have to invest so much time in the sport before they develop even a modicum of proficiency. “You pay your dues so much,” he said, “that you never really get over it. I mean, so much time is put into learning it that you don’t want to blow it by stopping.” This is perhaps why there is such a mystique surrounding the ceaily good surfer, the type of surfer Soderberg features in his films, people like Shaun Tomson, Larry Bertlemann, Terry Fitzgerald. Gerry Lopez, and Donald Takdyama. In Soderberg’s mind, these surfers are special because of their boundless optimism, a character trait he feels is infectious. “Good surfers,” he said, “are the most positive people. They’re the most positive people I’ll ever meet. There’s this one guy, he’sso positive. It doesn’t matter what the waves are like. We ’ll go on a trip, like, and he’ll say, it’s getting better.’ It can be just totally shitty and he'll say, i know it’s going to be good tomorrow. ’ But for some reason these vibes, you know, if you have positive vibes, you get positive feelings back from everybody. And also, it seems you can kind of turn things around. It’s crazy.”
Good surfers, those who are able to devote ample time and energy to the perfection of their skills, win Soderberg’s admiration for their determination, courage, and natural ability. But for some renowned surfers there has been a deeper, darker dimension. Not everyone has been able to overcome the peer adulation received during youth. As they age, some surfers find it difficult to live without acclaim. In Soderberg's mind, the fast, frantic lifestyle that made them good surfers also draws some to drugs or drink. “It doesn't always happen ” Soderberg said. “In fact, it doesn’t usually happen. But it does.”
Surfing is not unique in this respect. Jim Tyrer, an ex-Kansas City Chief and All-Pro lineman, recently killed his wife and then himself, presumably for reasons that related to his inability to cope with the dramatic adjustment in his life after football retirement. Philadelphia Flyers hockey goalie Bemie Parent also recently confessed that he was having difficulty with the transition from stardom to the ordinary world of anonymity. Outside the spotlight for the first time in his adult life. Parent admitted he'd turned to drink in desperation.
Whether similar reasons cause surfers like Butch Van Artsdalen to turn to alcohol or Mark Hammond to commit suicide can only be speculation. However, part of it must be attributed to the high degree of adulation surfers and other athletes receive in their prime and lose suddenly after it.
Another serious problem with being an obsessive surfer is that surfers tend to get cut off from the mainstream of day-to-day existence. They lose, or never develop, many of the skills other people have. Soderberg admitted that for some surfers communication problems exist. “Some surfers can’t really express themselves because all they do and think is. . . surf. The extent of their vocabulary is good — bad. That’s how they express themselves. Even for myself, I wish I had a better vocabulary.”
Soderberg has been far more fortunate than most surfers. He was able to direct his mania productively. While at Palos Verdes High School in the mid-Sixties he decided he wanted to make surfing films. In the traditional Horatio Alger method, he started small, shooting his surfer friends with an 8mm camera. He didn’t even have a zoom lens. After processing, he’d get some surfers together and show them the results. He enjoyed their positive responses. Eventually, he started making little twenty- and thirty-minute films and screening them in his home. When some girls, who didn't even surf, told him that one of his films “made them feel so good,” he realized he had really accomplished something.
Other surfing films also had their influence on him. Surf Happy. a 1960 effort of Bud Brown, was the first surfing film he ever saw. In his own words. Soderberg was stoked. "It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “It got me really excited about surfing. It was the first time I saw really good waves in Hawaii . . . and really good surfers. It was beautiful.” But another film. Free am! Easy, made by MacGillvray-Freeman in 1967, really gave him the motivation to make surfing films himself. Free and Easy, which centered on camaraderie among surfers in Hawaii, impressed Soderberg with its quality. "It was a beautiful film.” he said, "and funny, too. Tremendous photography. I was living in the islands at the time and the film seemed perfect for that part of my life.” In October, 1972, Soderberg got his first 16mm camera and his career as a surf filmmaker was bom. Eight years later, he still has to work a "real” job to make ends meet, but he is not sorry about his decision to produce surfing films. Most surf films, Soderberg said unhappily, make very little money, and A Matter of Style was not an exception. The $19,000 he had to invest in the project has not all come back. Part of the problem is that most films' audiences, generally ninety-five percent surfers, are quite small. Also, the average surf film does not last very long on the market: most stay around only two or three years. Styles change, boards change, the stars change, points of view change. For example, once short boards came into vogue, any film sequence that featured surfers with long boards seemed more than a little anachronistic. The surfers who pay to see surfing films want to keep up with current developments; they’re not particularly interested in history. But Soderberg says that for him, the money has always been relatively unimportant. "I would settle.” he told me. "or really. I’d be very happy just to be the best surf filmmaker and to make surfing films for the rest of my life.”
The four years he spent making A Matter of Style were not always easy ones. He sometimes had to work two jobs and maintain long separations from his wife. Penny. During different stages of production, Soderberg worked as a janitor, a night custodian at banks, a laborer landscaping at trailer parks, a vendor of puka shells in Hawaii, and. much of the time, as a mailman. While at the post office (where he works today). Soderberg would run his morning delivery route at breakneck speed to allow himself an early lunch break. He'd have someone waiting for him in a car as soon as he was through. His camera would be there, too, loaded and checked out. As quickly as possible he'd head for the nearest good surf to get in some filming. Those were hectic, exhausting times, and for much of that period. Penny Soderberg worked, too.
Any mornings he didn’t have to work were devoted to the compilation of footage. By necessity, these mornings began editing, and nothing came easy. The multiple audio tracks, synchronization, and dissolve and fade markings were mostly a mystery to him. He devoured hooks on editing; some he read over three times. He even tried a couple of classes at junior college and night school but found them too elementary for him.
In desperation, he went to Hollywood editing houses to solicit information from the professionals. They were very helpful, Soderberg remembers with a tinge of embarrassment, but their advice was sometimes a bit too involved. Occasionally he had difficulty making sense of their enthusiastic but extremely technical suggestions. Tow ard the end of the editing he met a filmmaker named Rick Roessler, the film's eventual narrator, who gave him some much-needed assistance.
The entire experience imbued Soderberg with a great respect for the solitary art of editing, a process he feels most filmmakers don't devote enough time and effort to. “I definitely think it's in the editing," he said. "I’ve seen films that had fantastic footage but could put you to sleep. You need to show the feeling of surfing, not just wave after wave — you know, hard-core — but to show the feeling and the lifestyle. It has to be all together. Good surfers, good waves, good variety." He spent a year and a half, ten hours a day, six days a week, editing on very basic, almost primitive equipment.
The end result was A Matter of Style, a well-blended collection of disparate segments — action sequences that produce the desired effects of enthusiasm and energy, descriptions of surfers like Terry Fitzgerald and Shaun Tomson and analyses of their styles, big-wave footage from Hawaii (Waimea Bay on a huge day, with surfers free-falling down the faces of the waves), scenes from the Wedge in Newport Beach that prompt audiences to groan with empathy every time a kneeboarder or body-surfer is crushed and pounded into the sand by one of the Wedge’s thick and powerful waves.
Soderberg intercut the surfing action with human interest and some comic relief. There's a sequence featuring a man who surfs tandem with his dog; an account of the Stone Steps Surfing Contest in Encinitas. in which surfers arc required to drink a bucket of beer before each heat; numerous shots of girls in bikinis; some jokes about tourists in Hawaii doing the hula; and a skit in which a surfboard repairman puts too much catalyst in his resin and ends up with a surfboard stuck to his hand. He also included sports other than surfing, sports which embody attitudes and approaches similar to surfing. There’s a section or two on skateboarding and hang gliding, and a skiing sequence acquired through an exchange of footage with the famous ski filmmaker, Warren Miller.
Soderberg is convinced the time he invested in editing was not wasted. He has viewed the products of many surf filmmakers who were not so careful. “I’ve known guys who edited a film in three weeks, and it looks it," he said. “There's no beginning, no middle, or end — you know, nothing at all. Not even a theme. And depending on how it was distributed, maybe it did better than a good film. A lot of it’s just distribution.”
Film distribution is a subject Soderberg has developed considerable insight into after A Matter of Style. He had problems right from the start. “My greatest mistake at first was trusting — trusting everyone. I mean, you meet such creative, really interesting people when you make the film, including maybe people who help you in one way or another, people that are interested and maybe the surfers themselves. But when you distribute it, you get the more seedy side .... Man! I mean, these people aren’t interested in surfing; they could care less. They’re interested in making . . . well, not just making a buck, but making a buck any way they can."
Foreign distribution was his single biggest headache. Since he had to deal with a different distributor for each country in which the film played, complications were almost a certainty. And his film went to a variety of countries — to England, Japan. France, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil. Peru, and for all Soderberg knows, maybe others. In Australia, where Soderberg was told that they wanted films with no message because “the kids want tubes, mate, the kids want tubes,” distribution became an exasperation. He leased some prints to a large corporation and never got the money he felt he was entitled to. ”I was like a babe in the woods,” he recalled. “I thought everybody was honest. I couldn't imagine ... I could not imagine a multimillion-dollar company ripping off Steve Soderberg. especially since they really loved the film. They were saying, ‘Hey man. it's great!' They advertised it as the surprise surf film of the century. You don’t think they’ll rip you off. But they do. All in the name of business. ”
Despite his hard-won knowledge, he’s certain there'll be “ruthless, unscrupulous* worms” ready to swindle him to some extent for his next effort, and that it’s almost unavoidable in the foreign market. “In the foreign countries,” he said, “it’s just a grab bag. They can make unauthorized copies, not send me the percentage, just the minimum guarantee. The first guy who sends me back more than the minimum, you know, he’s going to get a golden lantern or something.”
Despite the difficulties and his disillusionment, Soderberg remains optimistic about the future. He has completed a new revision of A Matter of Style entitled The New Matter of Style, 1980. It recently played to large crowds at La Paloma and will be coming to San Diego in mid-November. Additionally, he is busy compiling footage in California and Mexico for a new film he intends to call Hot Summer Evening. The knowledge that his efforts will never reach a broad audience has not discouraged him in the least. In his opinion, it’s really up to the surfing film, the legitimate surfing film, to provide surfers with their only vicarious experience of a sport entirely dependent on the vagaries of nature, and to represent the sport accurately. Hollywood, though it has tried, will never produce masterpieces like The Endless Summer, Five Summer Stories, or
Going Surfing, which were made by and for surfers.
All one has to do is watch a film like A Matter of Style at a place like Encinitas’ La Paloma to see that Soderberg’s surfing crowd reacts with considerably more enthusiasm than the average group of moviegoers. They stomp, scream, laugh, hoot, and holler. A joke does not have to be particularly clever to elicit bales of laughter, bad wipeouts are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and good rides get beautifully harmonious oohs and aaahs.
That the surfing community is tightly knit and that its jargon is often inexplicable to the untutored outsider may be advantageous to the filmmaker seeking an audience. but it also creates problems. According to Soderberg, surfers still feel a little alienated from the public at large. Even in North County, wliere surfers abound, the average citizen does not hold them in high regard. Soderberg’s own parents, who now reside in Palm Desert, cannot honestly register much interest in the sport their son loves, and they are perfectly aware he’s been surfing for twenty years and making surf films for eighteen. “They can’t fake an interest,” he said with a hint of disappointment. “They try, but I know they're still thinking that it’s kind of weird. They just don’t want to understand.
“But lots of people are even worse than that. Like these people I met from New York. They asked me, ‘Aren’t you a little too old to be doing that?’ Now, people like that are a little out of it, because maybe some people will think it, but not many are actually going to come right out andjay it. Maybe that’s why surfers feel a little better, because they can say., ‘I’m not involved in all that bullshit. I don’t care about your values or your ideas of what everyone else should be like.’
“If some girl from Indiana sees me down at the beach, she may be thinking, ‘Hey, that guy’s a little too old to be doing this. ’ Or she may be thinking, ‘His hair is getting a little thin.’ But maybe she’s thinking, ‘Hey, this guy really looks like he knows what he’s doing. He's a surfer.' ”