Bruce Brown: 1937-2017

December 11, 2017

We were sad to hear our favourite filmmaker Bruce Brown died yesterday (10 December). Bruce (above on the left, heading down to Baja, on what looks to be a Triumph Tiger Cub) made the era-defining, landscape-changing films Endless Summer and On Any Sunday. I was fortunate to interview him a couple of times, and thought that the most recent interview, carried out in San Sebastien Spain, before the premier of On Any Sunday, The Next Chapter, that was helmed by his son, Dana, is a good obituary for the man. Hope you enjoy it. 

 

BRUCE BROWN

 

Quality not quantity has defined Bruce Brown’s working life. After making the era-defining surf movie, Endless Summer, in 1966, Brown followed up with On Any Sunday, the most evocative film about riding motorcycles ever.

The director has always said he made movies simply so he could stay on the beach longer and has lived by that ethos for the next five decades, only appearing sporadically, despite Hollywood knocking down his door after the runaway, crossover success of his films.

With On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter – the new movie made to the same template, by his son, Dana Brown, being released in movie theatres across the USA, we caught up with Bruce Brown to ask about then and now.

 

 

On Any Sunday is still regarded with such affection, why?

I don’t know. I have a hard time watching my old movies, but that one I look at and go, ‘Hey, that’s not too bad.’ Part of it is the people. I had a lot of respect for them. They were virtually my heroes and they’re all still good, good friends. I see them all the time. The motorcycle community is just a bunch of really nice people.

 

How did you come up with the vision for On Any Sunday, pulling all the disparate strands together?

Well, I got into motorcycle riding late in life, in the mid-60s, about the time Endless Summer came out and thought, Boy, this is a lot of fun. Then I started going to Ascot for the flat track races, met some of the riders and I’d buy my motorcycles from Malcolm Smith and rode with him a little bit. I thought, Y’know, what a bunch of nice people. At the time motorcyclists had a bad rep because of Marlon Brando and the Hells Angels and all that, but it was totally not like that. I thought, How about making a movie about something other than surfing. I went to Steve [McQueen] and said, Hey I want to do something about motorcycles. He put up the money and he was going to be in it too, and I knew, Well, that can’t hurt.

 

How easy was it to get Steve McQueen involved?

Steve was on board from the beginning. I’d never met him before, but I obviously knew who he was. I called up to get a meeting and met him and told him what I wanted to do. He said ‘Cool, what do you want me to do?’ And I said, Pay for it. He said, ‘Wait a minute, I make movies, I don’t finance them.’ So I told him, Well, you can’t be in my movie then, can ya?

He laughed and said ‘Let me call you tomorrow.’ He called and said ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’ So we just sent him a bills for the money we spent. It was a pretty good deal for him, because the distributor who distributed the Endless Summer, bought the distribution rights before the film was even half-done, so Steve got him money back before the film was even made.

 

You were saying he gave you some advice…

When we were doing On Any Sunday, the first one, Steve was working on the movie, Le Mans, in France and he was having all kinds of trouble with the studio. He wrote me a really nice little letter, in pencil on this really thin onion-skin paper, Solar Productions paper, and one of the things he said in the letter, and underlined five times was, Never, ever, ever get involved with a Hollywood studio. I took that to heart and I never did.

 

You used helicopter shots and helmet cams while making On Any Sunday in 1970, are action sports filmmakers doing anything you didn’t do?

I can’t really think of anything.

 Gary Nixon with the early helmet cam, filming On Any Sunday

 

What the hell have they been doing for 40 years?

[shrugs].Well, the helmet cam weighed 25lbs. We had two. What’s funny is we got the helmet and had to have the brackets put on. We got a large helmet, but almost all the racers were little guys, so we had about five stocking caps to put on. Originally nobody wanted to do it because it looked dangerous. So we started saying ‘Well, we’ll give you 100 bucks to wear it’, and everyone started lining up to wear it.

 

What do you think when your films are credited with helping start surf culture and the industry around it?

Surf culture, I don’t even know what that is. Both sports had a real bad reputation, the people being losers and all that stuff. So it changed the public perception of what these people are like, both surfing and motorcycle racing.

We started out making movies so we could stay at the beach and live the life we wanted to live, and [make movies] entertaining to the audience. We definitely started off at the grassroots.

 

Grassroots?

We could go to Hawaii with $100 and live for a month. We could eat for 25c. I hear all this stuff about lifestyle and distribution. We printed our own posters and my wife ran the projector, we’d carry our own sound system and we’d rent a high school out and show the movie. At the end, we’d count out the dollar bills and go, Wow we just made $37.50! Or $2000 or whatever, but that just went to pay the bills and make the next movie. So I really take no credit for anything about action sports or lifestyle, because I didn’t know what the hell it was.

 

But was surfing just waiting for the spark that was your films?

Surfing is such a great sport, it’s something that just gets you hooked. I sometimes feel sorry for people who get to 40 and start surfing, because your life just changes. They don’t want to work any more, they just want to go surfing. I know how that feels. It’s what I did.

 

Are there too many brands involved in now?

Everything’s got so commercial. I went to some surf awards and they’re all, ‘I’d like to thank Billabong…’ I went up and said ‘I’d like to thank my sponsors, social security and Pampers.’ I mean, if there’d been a way for me to earn a living as a surfer, I’d have never have done anything else except try be good enough to do that. Once upon a time the guys who won the contests won a bit of money, not much, now people are paid not to even compete, go on a charter boat to some exotic island and surf.

Father and son filmmakers, Dana and Bruce Brown

 

Has fun become too much of a business?

I think so. So much of this new so-called action sports stuff has no story, it’s just a bunch of stuff going on. Both Dana and I wonder, Well, what’s the story. There’s got to be a story to it, people involved. Humans.

 

Copyright: Inman Ink Ltd

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