When freak waves recently soaked the beach at Cannes, nobody was as happy among the incoming festival crowd as Sam George, who with Greg MacGillivray directed the Hollywood Don’t Surf documentary that premieres May 15 at the Palais. “I thought it was no coincidence that it happened on a Wednesday, as in Big Wednesday, and my only regret is that the waves came a week early. We could have surfed at the beach to promote the movie and that would have been a Cannes first,” he said.
The film repped by ICM covers Hollywood’s long infatuation with surf culture, and it’s largely a study in futility. In the 50 years that Hollywood has been making surf films, audiences have never been as enthused as wave-crazed executives and filmmakers thought they would. Nobody learned that lesson harder than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Normally shrewd businessmen, they read John Milius’s script for Big Wednesday and got so swept up that they traded points on their own projects.
“They gave John points in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars for a piece of Big Wednesday,” said George, who got Spielberg to reminisce about the debacle. “Steven says, kind of sharply, `We only did that once, and it worked out better for some than others.’ Everyone assumed Big Wednesday was going to be a big summer blockbuster, and when Steven and George read the script, they thought this was a beach-bound American Graffiti, with Jaws mixed in. Big Wednesday was a disaster, and Close Encounters and Star Wars each grossed around $600 million.”
How much did Milius make from his stakes in Close Encounters and Star Wars?
“John would only go as far as to say that it helped pay for his divorce,” George said. Milius still carries a heavy heart over the film’s failure. “John said it was more than just failure — it was like committing a political crime, which he said is worse than a regular crime,” George said.
In fairness to Milius, Big Wednesday went on to become a cult classic when it was released on VHS (Hollywood Don’t Surf co-director McGillivray filmed all the surfing action sequences for Milius). But we’re still waiting for the first true surf-driven film blockbuster. George — who co-wrote with director Stacy Peralta the seminal surf doc Riding Giants — said that surf movies did something important by redefining the way the world viewed Southern California — starting with Gidget in 1959 and continuing with 1960s AIP films like Beach Blanket Bingo.
“Before Gidget, the image of California was Steinbeck country,” George said. “The sun, the bikinis and the surfboards all made a statement about California culture. The films might seem trivial, but it’s no coincidence that the giant love-ins were held in San Francisco and not Topeka. Kids across the country saw this new bohemia and were drawn to it.”