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Lights, Camera, John John

With View From A Blue Moon, John Florence may take surf filmmaking to new heights

Alone in the lineup, John Florence rose to his feet just as the right-hand slab pitched toward shore. He locked into a highline, eying a crumbling section ahead. Knees slightly bent, arms quiet at his sides, he bottom-turned, launched above the lip, and floated 2…4…6 feet out of the water. It was the kind of massive aerial that only a handful of surfers in the world are capable of, yet Florence has a knack for making high-altitude punts look as easy as a Sunday in sweatpants. But just as he reached the apex, an unseen force took hold of Florence and flung him off his board and out to sea. It was as if he’d been slapped by a giant invisible hand.

The blow didn’t come from an angry, omnipotent being. The session was being filmed from a helicopter equipped with a gyro-stabilized camera housing, and, like a modern Icarus, Florence had flown too high. The chopper’s downwash ruined Florence’s moment of graceful flight and sent him spinning.

Factoring for helicopter blades is something most surfers will never have to worry about, but for Florence, it’s become somewhat of an occupational hazard. He’s spent much of the last three years surfing in close proximity to choppers as part of his new movie project, View From A Blue Moon. For the film, Florence and co-director Blake Kueny teamed up with Brain Farm, the company behind Travis Rice’s groundbreaking snowboarding movies The Art of Flight and That’s It, That’s All, to attempt to bring a level of production value to surf movies that has never been seen before. They pulled out all the stops, dropping nearly $2 million on the production and using all manner of high-tech cameras and gadgets to capture Florence’s surfing from every conceivable angle.

“We saw the quality of the cinematography in wildlife documentaries and Hollywood films, and it didn’t seem possible to match that in surfing,” says Kueny. “But when Art of Flight came out, it made that level of filmmaking seem tangible in action sports. John and I just saw that and thought, ‘Wow, this is something that we can actually do in surfing.’”

Truth is, Florence and Kueny aren’t the first filmmakers to try to bring a Hollywood-level production value to a surf movie. Most recently, Julian Wilson attempted to do so with mixed results in his 2010 film, Scratching the Surface, a haphazard mash-up of talking-head storytelling and high-action montages. Wilson and Co. also burned through a massive budget using helicopters and high-end cameras to document surfing (they, too, had been watching Travis Rice movies). But while other large-scale surf productions are often overhyped and underwhelming, View From A Blue Moon seems more likely to deliver, mainly because of the filmmakers at the helm.

The last time Florence and Kueny set out to make a surf movie, they created Done, a beautifully shot and meticulously edited montage following Florence through cavernous barrels and high above lip lines, cut to an eclectic soundtrack ranging from gangster rap to orchestral melodies. It was an instant hit, not only because it showcased phenomenal surfing, but also because it established a fresh aesthetic in the often-stale genre of carbon-copy surf movies. When the dust settled, Florence and Kueny had made their mark as filmmakers, earning two SURFER Poll awards for Movie of the Year and Best Performance in the process. But they aren’t the type to rest on their laurels.

Florence, looking over the day’s footage. After spending nearly three years filming for the project, Florence and Blake Kueny had their work cut out for them in the editing bay. (opposite) Kueny (left)  and Florence (right), making sure they’ve got all the angles covered on the North Shore. Photos by Barash (overleaf) Florence’s surfing balances light-footed airs and tail slides with powerful rail work. Here, he opts  for the latter on a North Shore wall. Frame from the film
Florence, looking over the day’s footage. After spending nearly three years filming for the project, Florence and Blake Kueny had their work cut out for them in the editing bay. Photo: Barash

“Before we even premiered Done, we had already started working on the new movie,” says Kueny. “Done felt like a learning experience, and by the time we finished it, we already had so many ideas for how to make something better.”

“We knew we needed a lot more time to make the new movie,” says Florence. “That’s one thing that we learned from Done: that to do something right, it takes time. We didn’t want to get to the end and feel like there was anything we could have done better.”

Florence and Kueny’s obsessive quality control is one of the biggest things View From A Blue Moon has going for it. The other is the talent of its star. In recent years, Florence has been hailed by many of his peers as the best all-around surfer in the world.

On one end of the spectrum, he can tear apart small surf, mixing fin drifts and inverted airs with ease. On the other end, he can wax up a 10’6” gun, paddle to an outer reef on the North Shore, and trade set waves with some of the hardest-charging surfers in the world. It’s this versatility that has earned him the kind of universal respect seldom enjoyed by more specialized wave riders.

Given Florence’s background, his versatility shouldn’t come as any surprise. His origin story reads like a surf myth in the making: a young haole is raised by a single mother on the North Shore, grows up just a stone’s throw from the heaviest lineups in the world, gets mentored by a rotating cast of legendary surfers, and eventually takes his place among them. Florence was paddling out at Pipe at five years old, competing in the Triple Crown at 13, and qualifying for the World Tour at 18.

But after breaking onto surfing’s biggest stage, Florence has struggled to make the impact on competitive surfing he seemed destined to. If his origin story had maintained its narrative arc, Florence’s mantle would be sagging under the weight of a few world titles already. But instead he’s gone off script and started improvising. In competition, Florence will post the highest score of the contest in one heat, only to look lost at sea the next, unable to play the strategic games that make surfing champions. But his unbridled approach to riding waves is a double-edged sword: it may not always cut the mustard within the competitive format, but it looks razor sharp on the big screen. It seems common for the most creative freesurfers to struggle in the competitive realm—take Dane Reynolds, for example. But, unlike Reynolds, Florence doesn’t plan on taking any competitive sabbaticals.

“I think a lot of people assume that contests aren’t as big of a priority for me as making movies,” says Florence. “But I’ve been surfing every event the best I can. Sure, I’ve needed a little time off here and there so I could go on trips to film, but I don’t think I should have to choose one or the other.”

For nearly three years, Florence has crisscrossed the globe between events, filming in Tahiti, Fiji, South Africa, Western Australia, and Brazil—not to mention the countless sessions he’s logged at his home breaks on the North Shore.

For each location, Florence and Kueny decided on a different visual theme, from ethereal underwater imagery in the South Pacific to scenes of dense urban cityscapes in Rio de Janeiro. The results are nothing short of stunning, and early cuts look like nothing we’ve seen in surfing. But for Florence and Kueny, working on a production of this scale is uncharted territory, and the learning curve has been steep.

Kueny (left) and Florence (right), making sure they’ve got all the angles covered on the North Shore. Photo: Barash
Kueny (left) and Florence (right), making sure they’ve got all the angles covered on the North Shore. Photo: Barash

The first trip they did for the film was to an undisclosed location at the edge of an African desert, hundreds of miles past what would qualify as the middle of nowhere. Florence had been there before, on surf missions with his family and longtime friend Frank Solomon. But this time they made the trek with a crew of roughly 20 people: surfers, cinematographers, producers, assistants, Jet Ski drivers, and, of course, a helicopter pilot. After 50 hours of grueling travel, their caravan of 44 trucks finally reached the coast around 3 a.m. and settled into their accommodations: a few small fishing shacks with dirt floors and rusty corrugated metal roofs.

The ever-casual Florence didn’t even bat an eye at the hovels, but simply went to work setting up a portable stove to make coffee for the rapidly approaching dawn-patrol session. When the helicopter landed in the camp just before daybreak and woke the entire production crew, Florence was already outside, fully caffeinated and checking the conditions.

GALLERY:

For the next few weeks, they surfed every nook and cranny of the desolate coast, scoring perfect beachbreak barrels, mutant slabs, and rampy wedges, documenting their sessions from every conceivable angle. But coordinating with a crew of 20 in the middle of the desert is no easy ask, as it turns out. Every session was preceded by gassing up Jet Skis and helicopters, packing food and water, charging batteries, getting to the surf, setting up cameras, and finding the best angles. Everything takes longer than expected with a camera crew in tow, but waves wait for no man, even if he is packing a $50k RED camera.

“It’s tough for John to do things that way,” says Florence’s brother, Nathan. “We’ll be driving back from surfing somewhere for three hours, and he’ll look out the window and see one sick wave and be like ‘Stop the car! Let’s paddle out!’ Suddenly he’s already out of the car with his suit on, and the camera guys are just scrambling, like, ‘Wait, we’re not ready!’ But that’s how it goes with John. He just surfs so much, nobody can keep up.”

They couldn’t have timed their trip to Africa any better in terms of surf, but the logistics of shooting for weeks on end without hot meals and running water had taken a toll on everyone.

“We tried to communicate to the crew that we were going to be spending weeks cut off from civilization, but I don’t think that totally sank in,” says Solomon. “It was freezing cold at night, no one really had enough to eat, and people were getting sick by the end of it.”

Florence’s surfing balances light-footed airs and tail slides with powerful rail work. Here, he opts  for the latter on a North Shore wall. Frame from the film
Florence’s surfing balances light-footed airs and tail slides with powerful rail work. Here, he opts
for the latter on a North Shore wall. Frame from the film

“The footage was incredible,” recalls Florence. “But it was pretty much a shit show otherwise. We realized that if we wanted to do this the right way, we had to rethink some things.”

They scaled back their operation so that they could be more nimble, free to chase waves at the drop of a hat. They also got help from some of the best cinematographers in surfing, including the late Sonny Miller.

By the time Florence and Kueny shot the last section of the film, their previously clumsy production was humming. They had followed a tip to Angra dos Reis, Brazil, with Filipe Toledo, where they stayed in a cove looking out over a bright-turquoise sea dotted with untouched green isles, each beckoning with wave potential. They used the helicopter to scout for waves, and then Florence and Toledo met them by catamaran. What they found was a multitude of sand-bottom peaks, where they enjoyed marathon sessions every day, and a handful of shooters captured every big air and blowtail.

Throughout the production, Florence and Kueny kept details about the film closely guarded. The idea was that if they could keep the project out of the spotlight, they’d avoid the kind of hype super-storm that normally accompanies large-scale film projects. But the rumor mill went ahead without them.

“It’s funny how that works,” says Florence. “People would ask me about the movie, and I’d say, ‘What movie?’ But the more you try to keep something quiet, the more people want to know about it, and it kind of takes on a life of its own.”

“With everything John does, he tries to downplay it as much as he can,” says co-star Albee Layer. “But in a way it’s kind of backfired. There’s so much hype placed on this movie, but if anyone can live up to that, it’s John. I’ve seen some of the raw footage and it’s pretty much second to none.”

Florence enjoys surveying waves from an elevated vantage. When a tree won’t do, a helicopter or prop plane usually does the trick. Photo: Barash
Florence enjoys surveying waves from an elevated vantage. When a tree won’t do, a helicopter or prop plane usually does the trick. Photo: Barash

Maybe View From A Blue Moon will live up to the lofty expectations placed on it, and maybe it will be to surfing what The Art of Flight was to snowboarding, redefining what is possible in filmmaking. It’s a tall order in an era when hi-fi surf clips are a dime a dozen online, but having helicopters, high-tech cameras, and the most talented surfer in the world at your disposal certainly helps. Until Florence presses play at the premiere, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

When asked about the expectations, the pressure, and his ambitions as a filmmaker, Florence deflects in his typically casual fashion: “Well, I never said it would be the greatest surf movie ever,” he says. “We’re just making a fun project with our friends.”

Leave it to him to make shooting the biggest surf movie in history sound as easy as that.