Saltwater Buddha the Film: behind the scenes

Reis Paluso at KorduroyTV recently asked me what the challenges were in bringing Saltwater Buddha, the film, to life. Though there were many, the biggest was probably fixing my own 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.

(Here’s Hamel in her refuge.)

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.

I almost dropped the phone.

So: a UFC mega stud as our EP, flying to Hawaii, I kept thinking, how in the hell is this happening? We’re making a freaking surf movie! But there we were. With Hamel’s spirit, Lara’s drive, and Urijah’s money guiding us, we were unstoppable. And the footage – contrary to my fears – was gorgeous, even sans rodeo flips.

The rest of the filming – in El Salvador, California, and Costa Rica – seemed to just flow. Surf for Life, the non-profit that gets surfers to build schools in Central America, agreed to help us with lodging as long as we were willing to lay some concrete for their high school projects (it was an honor). Borrowed Lenses donated equipment; Las Olas surfboards made us a gorgeous custom 7’2″ with a Japanese Enso emblazoned on the nose; Nine Pound Shadow, Jim Klar and Michael Eaton, donated music; Sanuk kept the shoes flowing; and Oneill gave us wetsuits at cost. Every little bit helped.

I think it was in El Salvador, the film crew laying concrete bricks in 95-degree heat for Surf for Life’s El Cuco high school, that I realized, whether the film actually got made or not, didn’t matter as much as the fact that we were making it. It has been said far too many times that the journey is the destination, but on that fourth and final trip, the feeling overwhelmed me.  Not only did we get cool and talented surfers like Holly Beck, Danny Hess, Jay Nelson, Andy Olive, Alex Fang, Brian Lam, Mark Lukach, and Ward Robinson to come with us, Urijah even showed up to help build the school, intimidating the locals just by removing his shirt. And the coolest and most unbelievable part? Hamel’s daughter, Lorrynn, now 17, came too, bringing the light and love that I’m sure her mother exuded.

Now that I’m not surfing in El Salvador’s warm water, doubt and fear often start to root their way in again.  We have two terabytes of footage. How in the hell do we order it? And how do get the remaining cash to take this movie on the road? (PLEASE GO TO OUR KICKSTARTER PAGE TO HELP NOW!) The remaining challenges can seem insurmountable, especially if I think in the way I was in the beginning of the project.  But then I think of how far we’ve come, and of Hamel – Saltwater Buddha’s guardian angel – and I know we’re almost there.

The SWB film crew in Hawaii: techical director Mike Madden, photographer Pinar Ozger, DP Roberto Vezzone, and me. Our selfless director Lara Popyack was, of course, taking the photo.

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