A Wipeout No More

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty years ago, "Big Wednesday," the film tracing the surfing exploits of buddies Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt from the early '60s through the '70s, opened--and promptly flopped.

But since that time the movie has built an audience as a cult film--and one of the very few, surfing aficionados say, to really capture the surfing life.

The film's recent showings at the Newport Film Festival, for example, were sold out quickly, and the crush of attention lavished on the film's stars, who appeared at the screenings, surprised and delighted them.

Many of the young filmgoers, not even born when the film was originally released, hooted and yelled many of the film's lines along with the actors during the screening. Jeff Conner, executive director of the festival, said, " 'Big Wednesday' had an energy we don't normally see at the festival."

No one is more surprised or pleased by the ongoing adulation than the film's two creators--co-writer Denny Aaberg and writer-director John Milius ("Conan the Barbarian," "Red Dawn"). The two close friends grew up in the heyday of 1960s surfing at Malibu and set out to make a film that captured that time and place.

To those close to the surf scene, especially baby boomers who lived the era, it is the quintessential surf movie, carefully preserving experiences and gut-level emotions that are as real as anything else in their lives.

Aaberg, now 51 and still an avid surfer, says accolades from fellow surfers have continued over 20 years. "They call out to me in the water and say how much they like the movie, or they paddle by and simply say, 'Right on.' "

For Milius, 53, his "Big Wednesday" ride has been as unpredictable as the surf he chased in his youth. When the film came out, he thought it would be the kind of big box-office hit that his USC film school classmates Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were making. But when the film was released, it was soundly thrashed by critics and didn't catch on with the public. It cost about $6 million to make but only took in about $4.5 million at the box office.

In surfing parlance, Milius had wiped out. "I was criticized for what some called a flagrant sentimentality," says Milius. "It was an abject failure."

Milius recalled taking a long walk and deciding that the only truly honorable thing for him to do was join the French Foreign Legion. "Having settled that, I only needed to decide whether I was going to travel coach or first-class." Eventually, though, he realized that his disappointment was groundless, that he had never set out to make a blockbuster in the first place.

"I told myself, 'You're a fool. You didn't set out to make a big hit. You got off track somewhere. The final criterion was that you got paid what they agreed to pay you and that you did your best.' "

Over the years, Milius went on to write mega-moneymakers, including "The Hunt for Red October," "Clear and Present Danger" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance." But "Big Wednesday," which he also directed, remains one of his career's most gratifying experiences.

Recalls Milius: "It was important to get it the way it really was. When I saw it the other night, I was very proud of it because it's very uncompromising. The characters face real problems. They experience real emptiness and loss. And the film doesn't offer solutions. It expounds the glories of friendship, which is one of the best things you have in life."

Lee Purcell, 44, who played Jan-Michael Vincent's girlfriend, Peggy Gordon, agrees.

"The film is about loyalty and sticking by people when they're down," she said. "Surfing was the background, but it was only a background. The real story was about three men and two women and what happens to them when they grow and change."

Milius believes that the honest approach the film takes to friendship is the reason people connect with it--regardless of their age or where they live.

Jeff Bliss, 36, heads Pepperdine University's public relations department in Malibu. The Massachusetts native learned to surf when he was 12, living in Tustin in Southern California. He was 17 when he saw "Big Wednesday" and says the grace and style of the film's surfing sequences contribute to its lasting success. "There's a certain mystique associated with the long board or 'soul' surfing of the 1960s. A lot of young surfers today are riding long boards and re-creating the '60s style. It's become cool." But Bliss thinks the enduring appeal of "Big Wednesday" is its depiction of real people dealing with real issues, "as opposed to the early wave of beach blanket movies featuring teenage girls dancing in the sand all day long."

Jeff Duclos, chairman of the Malibu chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said he dragged his wife and baby daughter to a drive-in theater to see "Big Wednesday" when it first came out and he credits it for motivating him to get back into the water after drifting away from the sport for several years. "I was stoked. It had a sense of integrity about looking back at how it was in the 1960s, not through a filter, but as a tumultuous time in our history when there were terrible things going on in the world." After holding a successful "Big Wednesday Night" at Duke's in Malibu last year, Duclos said the Malibu chapter hopes to have a second installment on the third Wednesday in August.

Caroline Weber, 60, president of Dewey Weber surfboards in San Clemente, recalled seeing "Big Wednesday" back in 1978 and said that Aaberg's and Milius' efforts to tell it like it was hit the mark. "There was an authenticity with the movie that no one in Hollywood had achieved before, from the parties and pranks to the loneliness and loss of innocence."

Part of the authenticity was assured by Milius hiring a team of the world's best surfing photographers and filmmakers. Under the supervision of Greg McGillivray (who went on to become a leading director of Imax films, including the recently released "Everest"), the team consisted of George Greenough, Bud Browne, Dan Merkel and Spider Wills.

Water filming innovations, coupled with the talent and experience of the camera crew, resulted in eye-popping surfing sequences that still bring hoots from the audience. Veteran surfer-cameraman Bud Browne, now 76, vividly recalls filming a dramatic wipeout scene at Hawaii's storied Sunset Beach. Swimming in the high surf with the aid of a small inflatable raft, Browne was pounded by a crashing wall of water that held him under for what seemed like an eternity, violently tumbling him nearly to the shore.

"I experienced an irregular heartbeat for five years after the incident," recalls Browne.

Katt had a similar scare at Sunset, wiping out on a big wave and being churned and spun around under five feet of foamy water. "The thing I remember about Hawaii," said Katt, "was the terrific sound of the surf. Riding it was deafening, like being in the middle of a locomotive."

The actors were passable in the surf, but Milius hired world-class surfers as doubles to make the photography all the more real. They included Jerry Lopez, Bill Hamilton, Ian Cairnes, Jay Riddle, Jackie Dunn and Peter Townend.

For Katt, 47, landing a part in a Milius film in which he played a surfer fit his lifestyle. Milius even cast Katt's mother, veteran actress Barbara Hale, to play his mom in the film. Katt began surfing when he was 11 and often paddled out before high school. In those days, his father, concerned over his son's future, admonished him, "You can't eat your surfboard."

Katt studied acting and performed at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. He kept surfing, was cast in the film "Carrie," and then landed the role of Jack Barlow in "Big Wednesday." "I had the last laugh," he jokes.

Vincent's role as a talented and troubled young surfer coming to grips with his own maturity was a case of art imitating life. A solid surfer, and one of Hollywood's then fast-rising actors, Vincent had a dream job in "Big Wednesday."

"I surfed every chance I got," he says. He had a home at the time at Hollister Ranch north of L.A., where many of the surfing sequences were filmed, and he got to spend time with his baby daughter, who also appeared briefly, as his daughter, in the film.

The challenging big wave sequences were shot in Hawaii. Other surfing sequences, filmed in El Salvador, were perilous for other reasons--a civil war was going on. Vincent, 53, said that the entire crew came down with dysentery during the El Salvador shoot, but, most important, everyone got out alive.

"There were death squads rounding up people," recalls Vincent, "and we'd see people with Xs shaved in their heads being marched along the roads and then they were never seen again. It was scary."

In the years following "Big Wednesday," Vincent struggled. Like his character Matt, he was hampered by years of alcohol abuse. Now a recovering alcoholic, he's living in Orange County and beginning to get his career on track.

In the 20 years since "Big Wednesday" was released, a handful of now mostly forgotten surf films has come and gone. This spring, soft porn filmmaker-director Zalman King took his first plunge as a surf movie maker with "In God's Hands," about surfers in pursuit of awesome-sized waves. It opened to mixed reviews, though the film was praised for its cinematography.

But the real surprise in new surf movies this year might be an independent film called "Ocean Tribe," which won the Audience Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Festival executive director Conner said the audience reaction--especially feedback from surfers--was excellent. Written and directed by Orange County native Will Geiger, the film has not yet been picked up by a distributor.

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