Like Father, Like Son: Dana Brown Steps Into Surfing History with “Step Into Liquid”
by Michael Tully
Dana Brown knew that he had a tough act to follow; for years, he didn’t bother trying. Son of legendary filmmaker and surfing icon Bruce Brown (“Endless Summer,” “On Any Sunday”), Dana grew up oblivious to his father’s impact on the world. But when adulthood arrived, it finally hit him. That’s when the younger Brown decided it might be a good idea to stay out of the director’s chair. But after years of working behind-the-scenes in television, as well as co-writing and associate producing his father’s well-received “Endless Summer 2” in 1994, Dana eventually realized that he had his own story to tell on the big screen. The resulting documentary, “Step Into Liquid,” proves that not all famous offspring are poor carbon copies of the original. Journeying from unknown surf spots such as Galveston, Texas, Lake Michigan, and the coast of Ireland, to more recognizable locations like Hawaii and Australia, Brown presents a wide range of surfers, who all share an infectious enthusiasm for the water.
Sincere, effortlessly humorous, and deeply humane, “Step Into Liquid” is a stunningly photographed ode to a once dismissed sport that has become a worldwide institution. But more than that, it is a celebration of family and a testament to positivity in an environment that tends to swing toward the negative (call it the anti-“Capturing the Friedmans”). If the ocean makes everyone feel this refreshed and optimistic, perhaps wave pools should be installed in everyone’s backyard. indieWIRE contributor Michael Tully sat down with Brown during the director’s visit to New York, after a somehow fittingly torrential downpour, to discuss the film. Artisan releases “Step Into Liquid” on Friday.
indieWIRE: How old were you when you rode your first wave, and how old were you when you picked up your first camera?
Dana Brown: I think I was about four when I rode my first wave standing up. Four or five. And I was 10 when I had my first film camera. It was a Double8, it wasn’t even a Super8. Twenty-five feet would be done, you’d open it up, turn it over, and expose both sides.
iW: At what age did you really become aware of the impact your father had in cinema and surfing?
Brown: Probably around the age of 16, 17, or 18. I obviously knew “Endless Summer” was a big deal. He did “On Any Sunday” when I was about 11 or 12, and knew that my friends liked it, and knew that he got nominated for an Oscar. I remember going, “Oh, he’s on the Oscars,” but he didn’t win. It is kind of a big deal, but he’s your dad. Parents are like a piece of furniture, in a way, when you’re growing up. I’m sure I thought my friends’ dads, who were insurance salesmen, were more fascinating than my dad. But it’s pretty neat, ’cause the appreciation now, he certainly never made a big deal about it. He was never one of those cats to go, “I did my great thing.” He never would talk that way. And so it was really nice to discover that and finally figure it out on my own. To the point where I don’t think I could comfortably talk to him about what an influential filmmaker he is now. You could. But if I tried to engage him in that discussion he’d be like, “Ahhhh.”
iW: In light of this history, some people might say it was natural for you to make your own film, simply because your father makes films. But was there ever a point in which being the son of Bruce Brown had the reverse effect, when it intimidated you?
Brown: There are two ways to look at it. One being, of course, your dad’s a plumber, you’re a plumber. And the other one being, “How dare you!” Some [of my dad’s fans] are insane. Not all of them, but some of them. They’re like Trekkies, saying, “Do not mess with Captain Kirk! I don’t care if you are related!” He knew that, and I knew that, and it’s like that Joe Dimaggio, Jr. thing. “Little Mickey Mantle, trying out for the Yankees!” What are you, insane?! I thought I probably wouldn’t do it because of that. But I had a story to tell and just decided, what the heck? They’re gonna think that anyway, right? It doesn’t matter. So, at least it’s better making some movie where there’s no perfect wave, and summer is not endless.
[After working in TV], I thought staying in the background was fine for me. But this opportunity arose and it would’ve been foolish not to take it. In TV, you can make a lot of dough [staying behind the scenes], rather than being out front. I was perfectly content. But then, I did have something to say, so why not?
iW: The film breathes with such an optimistic, breezy air. And it’s not just you or the narration or the music. It’s everyone involved. Were any of the interviews manipulated to achieve that tone?
Brown: There was nothing like that. I’d say the stuff we didn’t use were the goofier guys saying something really goofy. The point is, these are just good guys. It’s the passion for what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be surfing, I don’t think. That’s what I kept thinking. You know, they’re just stoked. You see old guys listening to a Dodger game in L.A. They’re just stoked on the Dodgers. It’s just nice to see people jazzed about something. Not judgmental and not gauging. But it’s real. You see so much negative shit, to be honest. Festivals are dark. “We’re dark, and then we’re serious. We’re miserable, and we’re serious.” How that’s serious, I don’t know. But it apparently is. Why can’t we be funny and serious? Why isn’t that serious?
iW: Along those lines, the family dynamics were what struck me most about your film. I personally have an amazing relationship with my dad. I love my dad to death. Why isn’t that ever depicted?
Brown: Because misery loves company? Whatever it is, it’s so sophomoric it’s mind-boggling. Granted, shitty things happen to people. Serious shit that’s not to be made fun of. But I think there are a lot of people that make a big deal out of their bullshit. Shut up. You see people overcome so much. This guy’s dad left him, and they’re perfectly fine adults. How in the hell does that guy function, and you can’t pull your head out of your ass? ‘Cause I agree with you. And I love my dad too. I’m so lucky. And my mom too.
iW: I feel like the film is as much a celebration of family as it is surfing.
Brown: Which it should be. ‘Cause it’s certainly not supposed to make you have to go surfing. It’s supposed to make you think, “I appreciate my dad.” That commonality. Even commonality with people you don’t know. All these fake, false, bullshit boundaries. Right now, we’re sitting here, and I’m sure that if 90 percent of the people in this room try to figure out who we are, 88 percent of them are totally wrong. Why? By nature humans do that, when we have time on our hands, but it’s nice to have positive thoughts, to take your head out of your ass, and I’m swearing so much in this interview! But I was very passionate about making a positive statement.
iW: You screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and I’m sure you’ve been in other, more pretentious environments. How was that?
Brown: The people who ran Tribeca were wonderful. But there were a couple of these filmmaker luncheons, and I walk in and I’m…I’m like you! (Note: this indieWIRE correspondent is wearing an unfashionable teal shirt.) Some of these people would say, “Oh, the ‘surf’ film.” It was like, moron boy coming in saying, “Hey, how ya doin’!” And nobody’s really saying hi. I just remember thinking, “Can I get out of here?” But it was good, because it made me think, “Now I gotta kick ass.”
iW: Is this before the first screening, so you’re doubly anxious?
Brown: Yeah. Going, “Okay, come on, work.” If it works for the people who go see it, then it works. And it did. indieWIRE called it a buzz film. We had lines on the wait list that were bigger than the lines for other films. I don’t know why that happened, but it was so cool. It was like, “Okay.” And then the people in the festival, the projectionists, get all stoked and come up and shake your hand. You can’t buy stuff like that. Actually, they get more out of it than the surf people sometimes, the supposed experts. The less preconceived, the better. But it meant a lot to get a good reception at Tribeca, and in Maui too.
iW: Was it HD and film? I almost couldn’t tell. It looked unbelievable.
Brown: It’s unbelievable. HD 24p, which goes back to film perfect. And then 35mm, most in Super 16, some 16mm, depending on mounts and cameras. We had a couple mounts that only took 35mm. It’s great, the technology. What’s unbelievable is it doesn’t really cost you that much. 35mm obviously does, ’cause film’s more expensive, developing it’s more expensive. But overall, going to HD is cheap, and I’m sure it’s gonna get cheaper. There will be no more excuses pretty soon. I was telling someone the other day, they go, “Well, ya gotta admit,” and I go, “Well, why don’t people write better now?” Paper’s cheap. It’s not like everybody’s a great writer ’cause it’s so damn cheap. I don’t care if it is free. You’re still gonna have to say something with the technology. It’ll be great, though. ‘Cause there will be people that couldn’t afford it, that’ll do something where you’ll go, “That is so cool!” That’s the beauty of that stuff as well. That’s The Stoke. Like a wave. It’s so impossible to plan and know. It’s magic. “It worked!”
iW: What’s “The Stoke” for you in filmmaking?
Brown: Surfing is like making films. It’s easier, ’cause it’s a hobby. But it’s the same kind of elation at work. But The Stoke is in the fact that you’re communicating…as dumb as that sounds. I just like to see it work. It’s just fun.
iW: What’s next?
Brown: A lot of the guys that helped with “Step Into Liquid” are talking about doing the Baja 1000 [a desert bar, truck, and motorcycle race] this November. I don’t know how much longer the Baja 1000 is gonna last. It might be one of those things that disappears. It is such a weird mix of all different types of people for different reasons. And then the people that line the tracks in the villages. It’s just such a no-brainer. And it’s a race. It’s just a beautiful little story, so I thought, “Let’s try that.”