The Surfer King: A Conversation With Chasing Mavericks Surf Coordinator and Big Wave Expert Grant Washburn

Grant Washburn, left, instructing Gerard Butler while out among the Mavericks

Making a great biopic can be a high stakes game: How do you do tell an enthralling story about a real person, while keeping the audience entertained and also maintaining authenticity when it comes to the subject in question? For Grant Washburn, the Surf Coordinator on Chasing Mavericks, the story of iconic big wave surfer Jay Moriarty, the stakes were even higher because there was another determining factor — the unpredictable Pacific Ocean — in the mix. “Most surf movies are almost laughable for people who know the sport,” Washburn says. “We didn’t want to make this the laughing stock of surfing movies.” We talked to the big wave surfing veteran, accomplished surf filmmaker, and Mavericks contest regular about riding the wave of moviemaking — from his real life relationship with Moriarty to the accident that star Gerard Butler calls his “brush with death.”

THE CREDITS: What exactly did you do on the film?

Grant Washburn: I was surf consultant, but I did a whole lot of everything. I worked with Gerard [Butler], I picked locations, I coordinated the stunts on big days, I called the shoot days on the surf, I helped with storyboards. I felt really fortunate to get in at the end in the postproduction and the edit.

Why was being in the edit room so important to you?

Everybody was worried about the final cut, because what a surfer sees is different from a non-surfer. Non-surfers think, “It looks fine,” but it’s really about motion and action, and the things that don’t necessarily jump out at you jump out at us. If it feels real to us, it’s gonna feel more real to the other guys.  To their credit, to allow me in the room was huge. Somebody in the corner going, “Make it sweeter, make it sweeter!” can be a pain in everybody’s butt.

What’s a traditional mistake most surf movies make?

Making a surfer switch feet, which we don’t do. It’d be like switching a baseball mitt on a guy’s hand.  Or, one thing they do during an action sequence is cut away to the girlfriend on the beach wringing her hands — which they think of as a get out of jail free card — and then you come back to the surfer and he’s perfect. I have to believe that when we cut away from the guy, where he got to was reasonable. Editors usually match the action on the person because that’s what the audience is looking at, but surfers look at the continuity of the waves. Sometimes we look at it and go, “How could they even think that matches? He went from a 10-foot wave to a 40-foot wave!”

Was there any CGI involved? Or was it all real waves?

The waves were real, but the CGI was face replacements. The process included marking the [surfer's] faces, and a standard wetsuit hood with small markers glued in to give orientation. For shots without wetsuit hoods, the guys wore a bathing cap with the markers. The hoods [and caps] had red dots on them, and the effects guy key off the color. The actors didn’t ride 50- foot waves. As much as Gerard wanted to ride a 50-foot wave, we didn’t do that. A lot of times, it’s the real actor, and it looks he’s like riding 50-foot waves, but it’s basically the camera in a perfect spot and really convincing action. The actors weren’t really at risk the way it looks like. Basically, the effects are all Mother Nature.

Are you happy with the finished product?

Definitely. It’s a huge amount of work, and a lot of people don’t recognize just how hard it is, even when you have total control of everything. It’s more than just the waves: it’s the currents, the wind, the people, the boats, the cameras. In the ocean, it’s really hard to put that all together, and to have the wave break where you want it to when you want it to. It’s like a combo of working with kittens and children. And an avalanche.

Never work with children and animals.

Yep. You’d almost much prefer to film it in a stage or studio where you have control of all the elements. It’s easier to work with a robot cat than it is to work with a real cat.

How did you first get involved?

I was really close with Jay. For years, people have had ideas about how to do a story about Jay, but this seemed like the best one. It’s a legacy that makes you want to do the right thing. You don’t want to make this the laughing stock of surfing movies. This script went around, and people really liked it. Brandon Cooper, the writer, had me come down and talk to [director] Curtis Hanson. Curtis hadn’t signed on, but they were hoping that he would. I was part of the group that tried to convince him that we could do this.

What was your impression of Curtis?

I really liked Curtis. It felt like, “Wow, this guy’s gonna do it right. He’s not gonna cut corners. He’s not gonna make it cheesy,” which is generally the fear. He asked great questions and he listened a lot, and he really wanted to do it the right way. Everyone knew we were trying to break the mold here and have it be the one surf movie that doesn’t get booed.

What questions did Curtis have?

“How can we film these giant waves?” And also, “We need to do face replacements that won’t be noticeable, or else we won’t even try it. This only works if the face replacement is rock solid.” So we started that process two and a half years ago. I kind of coordinated that whole deal.

How so?

We shot some footage of the stunt doubles with the CGI hoods on, and it took several months before we could get it back and see how it looked. That was critical to Curtis taking the project at all. At that time, we shot 35 mm film, which is not what we shot for the movie. In the two years since the test, technology has moved quite a bit further. You can tell when face replacements don’t work — it’s creepy. It’s worse than not doing it.

What other fears did you have?

A huge fear for me early on was, What if we have a bad season? What if we don’t get good giant wave footage? Plan C or D was to go to Chile or Africa and try to do it there, but Mavericks is usually the easiest place to shoot big waves, and of course, it’s the best place to match Mavericks. We were lucky, and we had a good year.

So what was Jay like?

Jay came from Santa Cruz, a super competitive, talented surfing arena. He was his own drummer. He’d come by himself and stay all day. We were all in our early 20s, and he was quite a bit younger. He was basically a little puppy, but he was a really stoked kid — confident and smart and not at all like a normal 16 year old. The day he had his big wipeout, that’s the kind of thing even the best guys in the world don’t bounce back from right away. But he bounced back within 20 minutes. I surfed with him all afternoon. At the end of the day, it was like, “Wow, he’s one of the prime guys.” If you had to pick who you’d want to go out with the next day, he’d be on your short list. That’s how fun he was. And it was contagious.

Where were you when you heard about his death [Jay died at 22 in a diving accident]?

I was in Cape Town at a big wave event. We used to talk a lot about holding our breath, because of course as a big wave surfer, that’s one of the big deals. So we used to try to figure out how to do it best. I got to four minutes, and we figured out if you hyperventilate before, you can hold your breath longer, which is not a big deal on a couch because if you black out, you just wake up eventually. But if you’re underwater when you black out, you drown without knowing.

Oh my god.

If we’d had the internet we might have known better that they had just issued a warning to spear fisherman that you should only take two breaths before you swim down, because if you take five breaths, you’re at risk of blacking out, even in shallow water. People were dying in 10 feet lagoons because they’d black out. I heard that and thought, that’s bad, because we were doing that. Then the next day I’d heard Jay had drowned, and I know absolutely that’s what he did. He took five or ten breaths and went down. He was exactly the kind of guy who wouldn’t have bothered anybody to stay with him. He would’ve been pushing the limits because that’s what he did, and he blacked out, and there was no one there.

What do you think he’d think of the movie? 

He would’ve laughed, he would’ve been embarrassed at how big a deal this was. Tents and hundreds of people, closing down blocks, police, helicopters. He would’ve been like, “Oh my gosh, you’re kidding me. This is about me—what?” I know he would’ve known the movie is about being stoked and passionate and pursuing your dream. It’s about appreciating every day because you never know how many you’re going to get.

What was it like teaching Gerard Butler to surf?

He’s such a passionate guy. He really wanted to do it right and get the story right. You think, here’s this A-list Hollywood guy, and the surfers could go, “Oh, no.” He could just collect his check, and it would’ve been a catastrophe. But his work ethic was huge. He  really won over all the surfers. They all loved him.

What happened with his big wipeout, his ‘brush with death’?

This one time, this big one just got him. He kept moving over, and he was up for it, and when the waves came, he had to swim under with all the other guys, and he had to go under a second wave. I wasn’t worried for him. I knew we would get him and I knew that he’d trained a lot. But it was quite a bit more dramatic than I think the studios wanted. For me, the most important thing was that he wanted to go out and surf again after 15 minutes. If he came out of that and never wanted to touch the water again, I would’ve felt horrible. It’s cat and mouse. We’re pushing the limits. That’s what filmmaking’s about, and that’s what big wave surfing’s about.

Featured image: Grant Washburn instructing Gerard Butler while on location shooting ‘Chasing Mavericks’—Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox