For "Chasing Mavericks," Grant Washburn taught Gerard Butler everything he knows about surfing — and even more about wiping out.
In the film from 20th Century Fox, which debuted Friday, Butler plays surf legend Frosty Hesson, who teaches teenager Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) to take on Mavericks, the point break where waves crest at upward of 60 feet near Northern California's Half Moon Bay.
And he relied on Washburn, a pro big-wave surfer, to make him look the part.
Washburn, 44, fondly remembers surfing Mavericks with Moriarity, who died at age 22 in a free-diving accident in the Maldives. Washburn remains a regular at Mavericks, even though he grew up near much calmer waters.
A native of Connecticut, Washburn learned to hang 10 on summer visits to his grandparents in New Jersey. The serene seas "made you hungry," he said, always yearning for bigger waves. After graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he played basketball, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound surfer headed west to find waves that were more his size.
After making the move to San Francisco, where he still lives, the lifelong camera enthusiast began filming weddings, working in an editing house and doing projects for NFL Films. There was no money in filming surfing, but the wave-obsessed Washburn couldn't help but turn his lens to the ocean.
He co-directed and produced the 1998 documentary "Maverick's," which tells the story of the wave and its discovery. And when director Stacy Peralta arrived at Mavericks to shoot the documentary "Riding Giants," Washburn found himself on both sides of the camera — as a pro big-wave surfer being interviewed and filmed, and as an experienced camera operator capturing footage.
He's served as a surf coach for everyone from his own daughters to actors in Mercedes-Benz and Budweiser commercials. And whether he's coaching, coordinating stunts, rolling cameras, writing, directing, producing, consulting, managing the annual surf competition or catching waves himself, everything he does revolves around Mavericks.
"The experience of the surfer when he's riding that wave, it's just off the charts as far as the thrill goes," he said. "That's why people love it. It's just so fun and so extreme."
Take a seat: Surfing is harder than it looks; so is almost surfing. "If you just pop out there and sit on a surfboard, you're actually going to fall off a lot," said Washburn. "You're sitting in a moving medium that's trying to throw you off like a bucking bronco. And what really gets you down is these muscles, when you start paddling, aren't used for almost anything. So Gerard Butler was all muscled up, but they were the wrong muscles. They're great if you're going to be swinging swords and banging shields, but they're no good for swimming!"
Be still, my heart: According to Washburn, everybody can hold their breath for at least a minute. "The problem is your heart rate," he said. "If you let your heart rate start racing because you're afraid, you'll actually use up all the air without doing anything. You need to just keep yourself calm. And don't let yourself get to that panting, exhausted thing and then have to hold your breath. You want to not exert past the point where you can have a really comfortable breath hold."
The deep end: The wave at Mavericks breaks next to a 100-foot deep ocean trough, where the waters remain relatively calm. "If we sit in the deep spot, we can be right next to it, and we can film it, and we can have actors right there, and we'll be fine," said Washburn. "Both the guys did paddle up over a few waves, where the waves broke next to them or right in front of them. That got us some great footage. It's actually the actor right there, and the background is the very place that we ride the waves at Mavericks."
Rinse cycle: On one occasion, Butler had a close call. "Gerry wanted to get the shot where he's paddling by the rocks," said Washburn. "This was a really freakish thing, where almost for an hour and a half, no real big waves came. And finally these big waves came, and they were a little bigger than any that had come the whole day. The one big set that did push Gerry in was a pretty thick wave, a powerful wave, and it was the kind of wave that most surfers don't want to deal with. But he was all right."
Fake it till you make it: Even after more than six months of surf lessons, Butler's acting skills came in very handy. "Learning to read the ocean and picking out which is the right wave and where to be — you just can't learn that right away," said Washburn. "But Gerard has to pretend he's the king of the ocean. He has to look comfortable and in control and in his element. So we worked on that. The great thing about Gerard is he's an actor. Even if he's falling off, he can pretend that he meant to and fall off with style. So even as the surfboard's sinking, and he's falling over on the side, if he just looks like he's doing something, then we might get a great shot out of it. And in the end, we did!"