Josh Brolin is a bona fide A-list actor. He’s also lent his gravelly baritone to a few surf films along the way, and not just any surf films. Big surf films. Important surf films. Surf films that reach more than just surfers. Surf films like Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. Now, he’s done another one. It’s called Ground Swell: The Other Side of Fear, and it looks incredible.
The new film “an in-depth look at the 2021-22 big wave season through the eyes of Nic Von Rupp, Kai Lenny, Matt Bromley, Torrey Meister, and pioneering female surfer Bianca Valenti.” It follows them as they push the limits of what’s possible at Nazaré, Jaws, Pipeline, and Maverick’s.
Brolin, as you may or may not know, is a lifelong surfer, so it makes sense that he’d be involved in surf-related projects. Still, he’s such a huge star that his involvement feels a little like paddling out at your local spot and sharing a wave with Kelly Slater. Brolin’s list of silver screen achievements is impressive, to say the least, including roles in films like Milk (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), No Country for Old Men (which won four Oscars), Inherent Vice, American Gangster, Oliver Stone’s W., Sicario, and Dune, just to name a few. Hell, he’s Thanos in The Avengers. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the fact that he played Brand Walsh in The Goonies and Corey Webster in Thrashin’, two of the greatest films to come out of the ’80s. Yes, Josh Brolin is an actor’s actor.
So when Paul Taublieb, the Emmy-award winning director of such films as Fastest and Unchained: The Untold Story of Freestyle Motocross, (the latter of which was also narrated by Brolin), and producer of Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, reached out to do a little promotion for his latest foray into the big wave world, Ground Swell, I thought it’d be a good idea to try and get Josh Brolin to answer a few questions. And answer he did, which was amazing, but not as amazing as the time Chunk saved those old people from that nursing home fire, right?
How did you get involved with Ground Swell?
Well, I had done The Legend of Eddie Aikau with Paul. It’s funny because I had read for years — maybe even decades for voice over stuff — and I never really got it. Maybe I wasn’t ready to get it or I didn’t have enough control over my voice. I don’t know what it was. The irony is that I’ve turned into this voiceover guy, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Paul. I love the documentaries that he does. I was really happy with the experience with him and Sam George, who I’ve known since I was 11 years old. The first wetsuit I ever bought in Santa Barbara at Surf n’ Wear was from Sam and Matt George, who respectively I guess, edited both SURFER and Surfing magazines. So it’s a very small world that came together very suddenly, and I was excited to do it.
We’d talked about producing a couple of things together, stuff that we were going to develop; one thing on big wave surfing — and he went on and did Ground Swell. Then called me and said, ‘Would you watch a cut of this and tell me what you think?’ I literally wrote him back and said, ‘Can I do the voice over?’ Then we did it. We kind of poke at each other.. he demands a certain thing and I demand a certain thing. But the work relationship is very positive, especially the result. I think the movie is incredible and I’m just happy to be involved in it.
What was it that made you so sure you wanted to do the voiceover?
Just the idea of not only surfing but big wave surfing. A lot of the surfers I know….I communicate with Kai Lenny a lot, but I’d known these guys from Santa Cruz when I was surfing contests as a kid. I surfed WSA and NSSA contests, and I would go up to Steamer Lane and there was this whole mythology that was around. Maverick’s was just insane, but was just something that I would never participate in. But, the idea of possibly getting to a place to participate in something like that was a massive pull. It was one of those things that you dream about as a young surfer. We used to go to the Mission Theater in Santa Barbara and watch Warren Miller’s films. We would watch these things of Sunset and Pipeline and Waimea, and I just remember feeling totally overwhelmed and in awe, like watching an avalanche come down Everest, you know? It just felt that big. It felt that ominous. It felt that overpowering.
I’ve always had a real sensitivity to the power of nature. I was down at the beach with my kids twice today, once before my daughter went to school and and then once afterwards. I took the four-year-old and the two-year-old down there. I did that with my older kids, and still have that relationship with the sea and with the mountains, too. We just sit there and play in it, or I teach them about it. I tell them to watch it. Like, ‘look at it, read it.’ We talked about the different emotions that it has in different times of the year and on different days. So it’s an emotional entity that I have a lot of respect for and am perpetually fascinated by.
You’ve been a surfer for most of your life. Have you ever been in a spot where you felt like you were really pushing the limits a little too far?
Yeah. I can’t remember, exactly, but it was somewhere on Maui. Wailea or something, where I went out and I was 12. I think I had an Ocean Rhythm surfboard… it might have been a Town and Country surfboard. There was only one knee boarder out and it was maybe six-to-eight foot faces. By the time I paddled out, it was probably 12-foot, maybe even bigger sets of 15 feet. And it was just me and this guy on a kneeboard, right? I was flipping out. I mean, I’d been surfing maybe a year and a half. I was into the bigger stuff as a young kid, but that one was freaky.
The other time was in Indonesia, I think at Bat Caves. I took off on probably a 12-foot face, pretty mushy, but with a lot of water behind it. I wasn’t even nervous. I snapped off the top and I’d caught an edge and I went down, and the thing just never let me go. It was to the point where I thought that was it, you know? It held me under for a long, long time. That was before I got to know Laird and all those guys really well, and before all that underwater training. I’m sure if that had been the case, with that training, it would have been nothing. But in the kind of shape I was in at that point, it was something. Right when I thought I was at the surface ready to take a breath that I desperately needed, my feet hit the bottom, and it was deep. I felt my ears. That was the most tricky situation I’d ever been in. The most unsafe or in danger I ever felt. I’d been in danger in different ways but that was different.
Tell me about the Cito Rats. Do you still know any of them?
The ones who are still alive? Yeah, some of them. I was just in a CVS with my kids passing through Santa Barbara, and I saw a guy with a mask on behaving in a certain way and I go, ‘God that reminds me my childhood.’ Then as I was putting the kids in the car, he pulled his mask down and goes ‘Brolin!’ and it was a guy who I knew very well [laughs]. It was a certain type of behavior that I embraced for a very long time and have slowly let go of the mentality.
The Cito Rats were great, man. It was a family you know, like, Bra Boys, Wolfpack, Da Hui. A lot of these guys I know now. A lot of these guys are older and sober and amazing human beings. You know, Kobe and Kala and Kamalei. I know a lot of these people, and we’re good friends because we all come from different parts of the world, but with the same mentality and the same type of families. Families that were created because we had no real families at home. It was around the same time, you know, ’70s, ’80s kind of thing. So, I don’t know, maybe parents were just a little more self-absorbed at that point. The Cito Rats, though? I love looking back on it. I love writing about it. But it doesn’t exist anymore, so anybody who tells you they’re a Cito Rat is lying, because it doesn’t exist anymore.
You must be incredibly busy. Do you still find time to surf as much as you’d like?
No, I don’t. Especially having young kids. It’s much harder, and I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like to. Also I’ve gotten back into — well, I’ve been into it my whole life — but deeply back into vintage Harley Davidsons. So that takes an hour out of my life. You know, I didn’t ride for four and a half months, and I just got an hour in the other day, and it was just like riding the perfect wave for me. It’s pretty on par. I love both of them. You know, I go in and out of things. That’s just what I do. I’m focused on writing right now mostly. Then when I’m not working, I get out and do what I can when I’m not basically 100 percent with the kids.
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What parallels can you draw from what big wave surfers do to what you do in your own life?
I think just taking chances, you know? Going for it or not going for it. Paddling for a wave and then pulling back when you know that you actually might catch it, and trying to make it look like ‘oh, there was a problem,’ or, ‘I wasn’t going to catch that one.’ You know, there’s a denial process in that too. I like to think that surfing had that kind of impact on me. Also other negative things like the Cito Rats or whatever. That mentality of just… fucking, why not? Why not? Like, what’s there to lose? If you’re doing it smartly, what’s there to lose? Other than your life, but you’ll be the last person to know that [laughs].
What was the best part of working on Ground Swell for you?
I love the end result when things really come together. There’s a magical kind of alchemy that happens when things work out. You never know when that’s going to happen, you know? Take a movie that was as lauded as No Country for Old Men. You say that we knew how it was going to be received when it was happening? No, not at all. We just did the movie and had a really good time. We had a lot of laughs and did our best and gave it our all, and we’re into it and tried to further colorize it in ways that we thought were dynamic and interesting, given the quiet tone of the film. But did we think that was gonna happen? No.
Ground Swell turned out extra well. I love being involved in that. I love being involved in things that have that accidental magic touch. I don’t think that Paul’s done anything more magical. I just think the timing and what he was able to get, how he cut it together and the tone of it and the musicality of it and the emotional content… I think it just all works. Super happy to be a part of it and very honored to be a part of it.
Find out how you can watch Ground Swell: The Other Side of Fear on Groundswellfilm.com, and head to La Paloma Theater in Encinitas, California on February 10. Makua Rothman, Torrey Meister, and Bianca Valenti will be there too.