Behind the Scenes of Saltwater Buddha
I was recently asked about the challenges involved in bringing Saltwater Buddha, the film, to life. Though there were many, the biggest was fixing my head.
When Nohoch Productions asked me back in 2009 if they could turn Saltwater Buddha, the book, into a film, I felt similar to when my high school crush – a terrifying full grade ahead of me – asked me to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Excited, but the overwhelming feeling was that of getting ready to pee in my pants.
There were just too many potential ways to screw it all up: I’m camera shy, not a pro surfer, and nobody funds surf films these days anyway, certainly not ones about unknown teenagers running away from home to find themselves. How would my story possibly compete for limited funding dollars with rodeo flips and thong bikinis?
“Sure, if you can get the money,” I told Lara Popyack, the director, part of me almost hoping she wouldn’t. Then I’d be off the hook.
We did get a few grand, but not surprisingly, the money didn’t exactly pour in at first. But Lara was indefatigable. She and her husband Mike Madden took time off from their busy jobs as television news producers (and twin boys) to start making a trailer. Lara rallied product sponsorships from brands like Sanuk to keep the team inspired. (I realized I will do a lot of things for free shoes.) But to be honest, even when we were filming with fresh Sanuks on our feet, I still didn’t believe the film would happen.
It was a full year into trying to scrap together footage – when Lara told me the real reason why she was so determined to make the film – that changed everything. In 2004, Christian Hamel, one of Lara’s best friends, died of brain cancer at just 33-years-old, leaving behind a young daughter, Lorrynn. Hamel was known in Santa Cruz as one of the most graceful longboarders on the scene, and Lara had lived with her during her third brain tumor (the fourth would kill her) helping her sneak out against the docs’ orders for surf sessions. “The ocean was her refuge, her path, her everything,” Lara told me. “I want to put her relationship to water on film.” Saltwater Buddha was the first story Lara had found that got the essence of what Hamel was about. I got teary-eyed listening and realized I’d been viewing the film selfishly – a personal risk. What would everyone think of me if it failed? I hadn’t been seeing that risk as worth taking to honor people like Hamel, people who go to the ocean as their church.
Death has a way of clarifying life, and when I heard the story, I suddenly got faith – pow! – like remembering a dream I’d forgotten. I knew the film had to be made. I knew it would be made.
I also realized I hadn’t even tried to help get funding myself because the part of me that was scared of looking stupid on camera had been making excuses why I shouldn’t. I really only knew one guy who had the kind of money to fund our travel to Hawaii and New York, necessary plot points, but still, I hadn’t even asked him. That guy was my best friend from childhood, Urijah Faber, who had become, funny enough, a professional ass kicker. He was a champion UFC fighter and had, since college, been bloodying noses, making loot, buying up real estate around the world with that loot, appearing with Kenny Powers in K-Swiss commercials, and starting successful clothing lines like FORM Athletics.
But why would Urijah – with his I’ll-kick-your-face-in-for-breakfast image – fund his old friend’s film about Zen and surfing?
I had no idea, but thinking of Hamel, I texted Urijah, cringing about asking him for money after not being in touch for about a year. Oddly enough, he called me right away. “Yea,” was his response, “I can probably only spare like 20, but…”
“Twenty bucks?” I said, thinking, hey, that’s not bad.
“Thousand,” he said.