"Surfwise" docu makes waves with unique story

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"Surfwise" story: Documentaries inevitably expose us to stories we'd otherwise never know and in the case of "Surfwise" we're all the richer for finding out about the Paskowitz Family.

What sounds like just one more surfing movie turns out to be a unique tale of a now-85-year-old doctor who with his wife abandoned the material world in the mid-1950s and made waves by raising their nine children as ultra health-conscious surfers who were home schooled in the family's cramped camper. No quick summary can begin to do justice to the story of Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, M.D., but the nuts and bolts of it all emerged in my recent conversation with Doug Pray, who directed "Surfwise," opening via Magnolia Pictures May 9 in New York and May 23 in L.A.

The HDNET Films presentation in association with Prospect Pictures and Mekanism and Consolidated Documentaries is produced by Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter and by Tommy Means, Matthew Weaver and Jonathan Paskowitz. Its executive producers are Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban and Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot.

When I asked why he chose to make this film, Pray explained, "After I knew what the movie was about it just became a fascinating topic. I've never met such an amazing family in my life. I was approached by a producer named Jonathan Pine (the film's co-producer with Tony Lord). He had gone to the UCLA producers program, which I'm a graduate of, and he said, 'Hey, there's some guys who want to do this documentary about the Paskowitz family. Have you heard of them?' And I said no. He introduced me almost immediately to Jonathan Paskowitz, the second son of the family, who is also listed as a producer because he's sort of the liaison to the entire project.

"I really got hooked after a while. I was very resistant at first because I'm not a surfer and I felt like there's a lot of great surf movies out there and I don't know if I'm necessarily the right person to make a surf movie. But then I rapidly realized that this wasn't necessarily a traditional surf movie at all. It was actually about this extraordinary family and it was kind of a rare glimpse into a story of a man who lived his life for decades and decades according to a very tight set of principles. And I find that really interesting."

Pray began his directing career making music videos and commercials. Among his previous documentaries are "Hype!" about the Seattle rock music scene, "Scratch," which explored the world of hip-hop DJs and "Infamy," whose focus was illegal graffiti. His upcoming "Big Rig" is a portrait of America painted by long-haul truck drivers.

"Most of my films (have) about a four- or five-year life span from the first initial idea to funding," he told me. "My editorial periods take quite a long time. This was (started in) late 2002 and we finally got funding from HDNET in May of 2005. So there was a two- or three-year period of fund raising and trying to sort out what the movie would be and how we would make it. But that's very common. So we got funding in 2005 and filmed on and off during that first year. With the editing it took about another year all told. And then it's been a year since it's been finished -- and the whole festivals and distribution (arrangements) always seem to take about a year."

Looking back on the process of getting "Surfwise" made, Pray noted, "I was lucky to have a team of producers who all contributed really different skills and just brought a lot to the table. There are four producers listed, which normally might sound like a nightmare, but it actually worked out really well. One of them was Graydon Carter, who is editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. His contributions obviously weren't on a daily basis at all, but he brought our team together with HDNET, who produced the film. They were the production company who actually financed the movie. Matt Weaver is another producer and he had been working with the family for over a decade. When he was really young he was working on trying to get some feature or TV projects made about the family. So when this project came around he had relationships and he kind of knew what to do -- he's been great.

"The third person is Tommy Means, who owns a company named Mekanism up in San Francisco. He had gone to (the Paskowitz family's) Surf Camp and knew them and also had wanted to make a documentary film about the family. So instead of having a battle over a bunch of different versions of the movie, we said, 'Let's all do this together. Let's just do it right.' And I feel lucky that they all wanted me to direct it. Then Jonathan (Paskowitz) was brought on because from the very beginning he was kind of championing the idea of a film."

There were a number of approaches that the film could have taken: "It got interesting when (there were) discussions about, 'Well, is this a tribute to the old man -- just a tribute to Doc Paskowitz?' He's widely loved. He's known throughout the world in surfing circles, at least, as this great inspiring doctor who has these philosophies about health and how you should eat and how (as a result) you can have better sex. He's sort of like a guru to a lot of people and very inspirational. And, on the other hand, there is this family who's been raised so unconventionally. Doc doesn't like that word, but I think it clearly works.

"He doesn't like it because he thinks of the word 'conventional' as meaning like the family of man, like going back to our caveman days and how natural it is to have nine children and have them around you the whole time and to eat naturally and to raise them according to the principles that the father would come up with. Some of us and some of the Paskowitz kids would say, 'OK. We love that. That's great, but, hey, we also have our own lives and we want to live differently.'"

Pray became more interested when he realized the Paskowitz kids had not been entirely thrilled with their unique upbringing: "When I began really getting into this idea that, of course, there was a rebellion and the kids would not necessarily want to live such a rigid tight lifestyle all the time and that they actually wanted to go to school and that they maybe were tired of eating (only naturally and it struck me as) what a great dilemma. It's just a classic dilemma. You've got to love the guy for following his dream. He said, 'Look, I want to do this and I'm going to do it.'

"But the movie really plays out this back and forth. I like that it doesn't necessarily take a huge stand, but it just takes you strongly in either the direction of 'This is right, what a great thing' or, 'Man, I don't agree with the father. I think he did the wrong thing. He was too domineering. You've got to let your kids be themselves and grow up.' I just love that debate. I am a parent and I think that every father and mother can relate to this story in some way because it deals with that whole freedom and authority issue."

The resources available to Pray dictated how he could proceed. "One of the amazing things that the film benefited from is that Doc Paskowitz was good at documenting their life. So he had tons of black-and-white stills from back in the day. He also had shot a bunch of 16mm film and there was some Super 8mm film that we found in some of the kids' garages. It was quite an archival thing. But that kind of dictated the approach that we took. All of the kids are grown. So I'm going to be interviewing the family extensively, but they're all in their late 30s or 40s. Many of them have their own families and have moved on. They're not living in the camper any more by 20 years.

"I'm not known as a historical filmmaker so much, but I did realize that the whole key to this was to get people to go back in time and to share with the audience exactly what it was really like to live this way and then be able to use the archival footage to illustrate that. That's not at all uncommon for documentary movies. It happens all the time, but for me I had to bring it to life. I just had to make it as visceral and as much as possible try to bring you there in the moment. It became a question of doing these interviews, getting an editor who could work in a sort of visceral way and really bring scenes together in what I think is a fairly untraditional way of cutting and working closely with a composer to make it as emotional a movie as I could."

And then, he added, it was about "trying to figure out what the actual live scenes were that would be playing out today. For that I did three or four things. I took a trip back to Israel with Doc to retrace his steps because he sort of 'found himself' in Israel (where he introduced the country to surfing). So I thought, well, let's go back to 1959 and let's take a tour of Israel and let's see if some of those stories come out more profoundly. Not a lot of that ended up in the movie, but it is part of it."

The process of making the film actually helped bring the family together again: "A lot of people ask me about this in the q&a sessions of the festival screenings (we've had). They ask, 'Did you guys cause the family reunion or did you want it to happen or did it just happen?' There's really no right answer to that. When I began the film the family was really not functioning. They were not really talking. Some of them were, but the eldest son was estranged and they hadn't had a reunion in well over a decade. As the movie kind of moved forward and I kept interviewing them all extensively, it almost became kind of this therapeutic thing where everybody is talking about their feelings and what they felt like back in the day and how they missed their childhood and how they're still pissed off at their dad about this or that.

"They're an extremely candid bunch. Extremely candid. That's how it all kind of unfolded. So kind of near the end of the filming it sort of made sense to (have a reunion). Thanksgiving was coming up and they were like, 'Maybe we should try to have a reunion' and, of course, I was like, 'And, of course, we should film it.' That's sort of the third act of the movie and how it all comes together."

Shooting took place, according to Pray, in a number of "one-week bursts. We shot in Southern California, Hawaii and Israel because Doc and (his wife) Juliette lived in Hawaii and that's also where the reunion took place later on. People always think you just kind of settle down and shoot everything in a documentary all at once, but it's like we would shoot a week here and then maybe three weeks later another week there. I'd say there was maybe 30 days of production spread out mostly during the fall of 2005 and then also some more production during the summer of 2006 (for) pick-up interviews and action footage that we needed to tell the story."

Editing was the key period: "I always feel like in my kind of documentaries the production is not downplayed. It's essential, but it's just like grocery shopping and then the chef cooks the meal in the edit room. Unlike traditional features, I just always look at docs that way. To me, 90 percent of it is editing."

Does he enjoy the editing process the most? "I don't enjoy it," he replied. "It's the wrong word because it's so difficult and so excruciating. It's a love-hate thing. I think like an editor and I have done a lot of editing myself. I did not edit the film, but editing is a very intense experience for me. It's no less intense than writing a whole script plus editing a movie all at once. That's just how it works. I had a fairly young editor, Lasse Jarvi. I think he's a great editor. He has edited one other feature for me called 'Infamy.' He hasn't cut that many features so it took a little longer for that reason, but also there was just a lot of back-and-forth -- just a lot of input from HDNET, a lot of input from all the producers, a lot of re-edits, a lot of recutting, a lot of restructuring and finally ending up with the current structure we have now, which I think works pretty well."

Asked if the Paskowitz family had approval rights on the film Pray told me, "No, which is nice. But they're a very intense family. At this moment, Doc has still not watched the movie. He refuses to see it. I think he's heard everything about it and everything that's in it and it may be that he's afraid to watch it because there's a lot of very candid statements made by his kids about his parenting. But I wish he would see it because I also think that once you get past that, it's actually inspirational and I think his methods get through, which is his ultimate goal. At this point, I feel like that's just classic Doc. He's extremely driven. He has very strong ideas about how the world works and what's right and what's wrong and if he doesn't want to watch the movie, that's the way it's going to be.

"You know what, he might watch it and just hate it. So maybe I'm lucky (he's not watching it). The rest of the family has seen it and I have welcomed their input because I always want to know what people think and mostly in terms of does this feel correct? I don't want to say something that isn't true. So we had a couple of early screenings for some of the family and those were extremely helpful screenings. They were very emotional for the family to watch. I can't imagine watching a movie about my family. I just cannot imagine going through that process."

As for the biggest challenges he faced during production, Pray said, "Shooting wasn't the biggest challenge. My DP was Dave Homcy, a great guy and he's done a lot of surf filming. He adapted really well to this film. The biggest challenge was just the social and story aspects of balancing the edit. If it's too much of a tribute and kind of a feel-good surfing movie it loses all of its power. The power of the story isn't the fact that this family is inspiring and has taught thousands and thousands of kids to surf during the last 30 or 40 years. That's great. The power of the story is the story of a father pursuing his dream and how do you balance that? It was just really a question of if (the film) was too harsh and too just like blasting the guy, what's the point? The fact is all nine kids look back and they all wouldn't trade what they had -- to varying degrees. Even if the guy who was estranged and really bitter in the film -- in the movie he says, 'I want to get back there and I want to relive those days' -- I just think that's what life is like.

"I love that contradiction and I wanted the movie to feel that way. Finding that balance was really hard. The movie could have been about Judaism and the Holocaust -- the entire movie. Or the entire movie could have been about surfing and philosophies of surfing. Or the entire movie could have been about diet and health and how we're all eating too much and how Doc feels our culture's going to hell, literally because of the way we eat. You know, it could have been a food movie. It could have been a movie just about the camper years and the fact that nine kids lived in a tiny camper and how they lived. It could have been a movie about the mother, who I feel is almost underrepresented in the movie because Juliette is an incredible character. It was sort of like, 'Man we have so many things on our hands that an audience can relate to, how are we going to try to tell this story?' That was the challenge of the movie -- this overabundance of topics and things that I thought were pretty interesting."

Besides "Surfwise," Pray has another documentary feature on the horizon called "Big Rig" that's coming out in June: "It's all about truck drivers. So I have a surf movie and a trucking movie coming out back-to-back. I never in a million years would have planned the timing this way, but I just want people who watch 'Surfwise' to know that I do have other features. Likewise, with 'Big Rig,' there's a lot of people interviewing me now for the trucking movie and they're going, 'You're not the same guy who did that surf film?'

"And I'm like, 'Yeah. That's just a timing (thing).' Both films were funded in 2005. Both took about three years to make and both are coming out right now. 'Big Rig' is being released by Screen Media. It's being released very unconventionally. It's coming out as a DVD and not having a theatrical release. We're distributing it directly to truck stops on this big truck stop tour this summer and through all these other trucking related distribution channels. There's a website -- BigRigMovie.com."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 1, 1991's column: "In restoring 'Spartacus' for a limited 70mm release in April by Universal, Robert Harris and James Katz had to cope with major problems, Katz told me…

"'The negative stock faded. We went in to make prints off the original negative and we were unable to do that because the negative was not acceptable,' he explains.

"All is not lost, however: 'Fortunately, separations were made off the negative at the end of filming. Fortunately, the separations were made of the final cut (by director Stanley Kubrick and producer-star Kirk Douglas). We were able to salvage most of the footage we're restoring that was cut out by the censors…

"It's a film, Katz points out, that 'many people have heard about, but unfortunately the only thing available to them was seeing it on television, which was a disaster. The 187-minute release print, which became 182 minutes very quickly after the release, is now running on television at 162 minutes and being cut arbitrarily by whatever TV station chooses to show it. Plus, it's pan and scan (on TV), which means you don't see the whole picture…

"Katz emphasizes that 'Spartacus' is really 'meant to be shown on a big screen or to be shown in the letterbox format, which is what Universal is going to do after we finish this. They're going to reissue the videotape in letterbox and also on videodisc in letterbox. So when you do finally run it on television you'll be able to see the whole frame…'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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