Laird. For better or worse, he’s a man that’s forged his own path in surf and pioneered new ways to push the limits. And while his achievements are well documented, few understand where Laird came from and the external factors that forged him. In a new biopic, called Take Every Wave, Rory Kennedy explores the man behind the man in a cinematic opus that’s won critical acclaim across the film festival circuit. We caught up with Kennedy to understand her motivations behind the film, how it differs from her past work, and what filmgoers can expect:
How did you initially get into filmmaking?
I’ve been making documentaries for about, well, over 20 years. I started out of college and made my first film which was based on my final paper on women and substance abuse and the difficulties they have trying to get drug and alcohol treatment. And I’ve been making films ever since. I focus mostly on social issue documentaries. So, I’ve made a variety of films that range in subject from AIDS to human rights abuse, you know, to poverty to mental health issues. I did a film about the final days of the Vietnam War a few years ago. So this film is a little bit of a departure from that. I wouldn’t say that this is a social issues documentary.
Right, so as uncharted waters how did you first come across Laird Hamilton’s story, and how did you decide that you wanted to make a film about Laird’s life?
I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by surf movies and ski movies, you know, and surfing big waves, which has always seemed intense and crazy to me. And I also grew up in a house where we were surrounded by people who really pushed the limits of everything they did. Whether it was in politics or sports, you know being surrounded by people like Jim Whitaker who was the first American to climb Everest and other extraordinary figures, whether skiers or boxers or great leaders, what they had in common was a passionate pursuit of their dreams and envisioning a world that was different. And Laird’s story is really one of a great individualist of somebody who has forged his own path. And in so doing has really changed the sport in a pretty radical way. And in a way that’s hard to see even across other sports by a single individual over the past 50 years. You know, to me surfing is really sort of the backdrop of the story, and it lends itself to really beautiful waves and really dramatic storytelling, but really the film is about character. It’s about story. It’s about pursuing dreams. And, you know, it’s also, I would say, a story of a guy who grew up in poverty and has made a life for himself because he followed his own path.
So what was your introduction to Laird?
Well, I met him pretty soon after I moved to California. We live a few miles away from each other here, so somebody had a party and I met him there. And slowly I started to understand who he was, we had a few mutual friends in common. But then, our mutual friend, Paul Speaker, had put us in touch with each other and had a meeting to talk about the idea of me making a documentary about Laird. And, I was really interested in it, but I had reservations. You know, I usually only do one film at a time and last year I did three. But anyway, so I really had to decide if this was the film I wanted to give my year to. Surfing wasn’t sort of obvious to me like this is what I should do. But as I started to understand Laird, you know he’s such a character and he has such a great story, and there was all this amazing footage of him, and I felt that even though there’s been all this coverage of him there’s never really been a feature film that goes into depth about his story. And there was something original here that could exist in the surf genre and also reach a bigger wider audience. And I was excited about a new challenge, frankly, for me as a filmmaker facing questions I’ve never faced before. Like, “How do I film someone on an 80-foot wave?”
Even though this was a departure, were there any connections between past films you’ve done and this one?
You know, I think with all the films I make I’m just looking for a great story. It’s all about the story, right? And so even if it’s a social issue, the center of the film isn’t necessarily the issue but who’s the character, what are they facing, what are there challenges? What are we outlining in the first act? And what are we getting to in the second act? And how do these things get resolved in the third act? And, you know, I’m thinking structure and I’m thinking about plot, and I’m thinking about themes, and even though the social issue may be the entry point, it’s not really the way to tell the story. And similarly here, surfing is the backdrop, but understanding the character, understanding the forces he was up against, his own personal demons and the external challenges and identifying what those themes are and how we structure it in a three-act film, you know, those kinds of challenges were the same. And, you know, how do you find the archive and how much does the archive drive the story? So these are challenges I’ve had in all my films.
What do you hope people might learn about Laird from the film?
Well, I hope that when people watch the film they find that there’s real heart to the film and there’s emotion in the film in a way you wouldn’t normally expect going into a surf film. And there are challenges that kind of go up and down, you know, some of which are sad and tragic. And some of which are external to him. I think that it helps understand that human complexity. And I think there are a lot of ideas in the film that you don’t go in expecting. I was talking to my lawyer friend who isn’t necessarily the obvious audience, and she went nuts for it. And I think part of it is she says, “I’m so neurotic with my kids, and I won’t let them do anything. How is this mother of this three-and-a-half-year-old letting her son go into these huge waves and allowing him be who he is? I mean that kid would be put on so many drugs today.” Laird has these character traits and he was able to harness them into something really beautiful, arguably, and spectacular. And if those had been contained or repressed or put to the side because he was absolutely an obnoxious kid who was a hooligan and a pain in the neck – I mean Laird would say that about himself – so there’s kind of unexpected ideas communicated through this story.
And what about the film makes it have such a broad appeal?
I would say that the appeal to a broader audience is it’s really the story of someone who’s pushing limits. So anyone who’s interested in exploring that idea, and whether that’s how long you can hold your breath under a wave or coming to terms with fears and anxieties I think that it’s a film about life and quality of life and how you choose to spend your days, and what choices you make. It’s a film that talks about nature and how important nature is. And it’s a film about watching someone push the limits in ways that are awe-inspiring, I think, for most of us. When you see someone tackle a giant wave or a slab wave that no one’s done before and what that process is like, it’s pretty extraordinary.