Words by: Shaun Tomson
I met Jeremy Gosch shortly after I finished working on In God’s Hands back in 1997 when I needed to get my scenes edited into a reel. He was a long time surfer and we just clicked instantly. He was working in his parents’ production company at the time and I discussed possibly doing a series of short films for TV about pivotal moments in surfing. We were both enthusiastic about doing something, but life got in the way and the project stalled.
Then in 2006 he phoned me and said he had just gone out on his own and formed his own production company and thought we should do a full feature on the winter of ’75. I agreed and immediately told him that the perfect title would be “Bustin’ down the Door”, from Rabbit’s article in Surfer magazine in 1976 that both described and lit the fire of the surfing revolution in the mid-‘70’s. A quick phone call to Rabbit to secure the rights to the title, and we were rolling down the highway.
The original plan was to shoot an interview with me and cobble together some old surfing footage into a rough trailer that I would shop around for a distribution deal. I felt sure I could get one of the surf corpos to fund the project as it would be amazing PR for whoever got involved. A buddy of mine worked at the heavyweight Hollywood agency, William Morris, and I thought it would be a quick process of a few meetings before a deal would be signed. Well after producing the trailer, three months and many meetings went by and I got hung up in a catch-22 situation. I could get surfing industry funding if I had a distribution deal, and I could a distribution deal if I had a finished product – so I was stuck.
Then my wife Carla and I lost our beautiful son and my life ended – Mathew had seen our little trailer shortly before he died and loved it. Getting going on the project six months later helped me pick up the pieces of my broken heart and heal my shattered life. By November we still had no funding and I knew we had to shoot in Hawaii that December as we could nail most of the interviews in a pretty short time period. Carla and I decided to roll the dice – we kicked in some money and paid for the shoot in Hawaii where we ended up spending around three weeks filming many of the world’s legendary surfers. Jeremy edited what we had into a 15-minute rough cut, our co-producers put together a budget, I put together a business plan and over a three-month period I went out and raised the money to fund the project, ultimately bringing Edward Norton on board. We started shooting in December 2006 and finished the film in January 2008, just in time for the Santa Barbara Film Festival where it was shown publicly for the first time in front of a sell-out crowd of 2,200 people. To watch the credits roll at the end and to hear the applause from a stoked community inside the beautiful Arlington Theater was a an overpowering emotional experience, especially since the film was dedicated to my beautiful son.
Some random thoughts on the film: I don’t see Rabbit and MR that often but this film has really brought us together again. There was a special camaraderie between us back in the 1970s but also a competitive intensity that made us keep a little distance. In the water it was a fight to the death – in and out of competition – and while we were mates on land, that fire kept us from being best friends. Now there is a commonality between us and our present surfing experience again – we’re all stoked as we ever were and still ride cutting edge equipment, even though MR is now also in love with SUP. We don’t need to be at the best spot in the world to get stoked – just a clean wall at our local breaks is enough for us now.
We all wanted to make an impact in Hawaii – I wanted to be the best surfer at every spot on every day – we all had this same ambition and drive and that was why the surfing of that period improved so fast. Also we all gravitated to the same spot every day – there was always one break that would be best and that’s where we all ended up – I think that the most intense sessions back then were not in heats but in free surfing sessions at Pipe, Sunset, Off-the –Wall and Haleiwa.
I can understand the Hawaiian surfers getting pissed off at the Aussies and I think we all understood the culture at the time – but there is never any excuse for violence - we all knew that one had to tread lightly on the North shore, in and out of the surf. Disrespect was perceived but certainly not intended. The Aussies were intensely, nationalistically competitive and wanted to promote themselves like Muhammad Ali who at the time was the biggest athlete in sport – it was simple crude self promotion and unfortunately the Hawaiian surfers felt it was at their expense.
Being under threat on the North Shore was really scary at the time – you never knew who was going to bang you. I ran into issues in 1979 after an interview in Penthouse magazine – I was repeatedly threatened with death, told to leave the island, punched and hit with a bottle – I never knew how far it would go so I went off to Wahiawa and bought a Remington 12 gauge pump action shotgun that held ten rounds – not because I wanted to go down in a blaze of glory but simply for self preservation. Ultimately Reno came to my rescue by arranging a meeting with the boys that was also attended by all the pro surfers on the island and ultimately peace was declared.
Our equipment was pretty primitive by modern standards and it amazes me what we managed to achieve. I felt that the ultra-curvy pink spider Murphy board I used at Pipeline was light years ahead and it definitely gave me an edge on late take-offs, maneuvers on the face and backside tube riding. Also my 7’0” blue Spider was a very advanced tube machine with a single to double concave bottom, faster and more maneuverable that anything else in the tube. But it was MR on his twin who launched surfing into the age of acceleration – never in the history of our sport has one surfer and one board made such a quantum leap in instantaneous performance progression.
I don’t think surfers are having more fun today than in days past. There is a far greater variety of equipment today, and shapes are better and boards are lighter so they are far easier to ride and just go better. Despite what some say, there was never a dominance of a contest mindset in surfing – surfers always had fun no matter what they were riding – that is simple propaganda from all the retro fashionistas and Morning of the Earth wannabees. I had the same fun when I surfed in 32 contests a year as now when I compete in none. Pro surfing has been great for surfing – respectability for the sport, the rise of the industry, the rise of environmental groups, better boards, better surfing equipment, surf camps, surf forecasting – all have come from people being proud to be surfers, a solid industry and pro surfers that keep the dream alive for millions of kids – an idyllic existence surfing the best waves in the world, better than they have ever been surfed before.
I think the enduring message of the film is the importance of dreams – we wanted to change our world – to surf better than anyone else, to become famous, and to make money from our exploits, ultimately to have the luxury of being able to surf more. Everything we did then was motivated by our love for surfing and everything we do today still revolves around that same love.