On Friday, August 4, Hamptons International Film Festival’s (HIFF) SummerDocs continues with Director Rory Kennedy’s Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. Screening at Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Spa in Montauk at 8:30 p.m., viewers will enjoy a remarkable journey that explores the life and unparalleled career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton.
We recently caught up with Kennedy to discuss the iconic surfer, filming, and more.
“Laird and Gabby will be in attendance, and I’m looking forward to being there as well,” Kennedy told Hamptons.com.
As a filmmaker, what attracted you to story Laird’s story?
RK: I have done mostly films about social issues over the course of my career so this is definitely a different kind of film for me and a new challenge. I’ve always been interested in people who push themselves to their limits and are the best at what they do and Laird certainly fit that description. And, frankly, I love big wave films. I think there’s something really cool about people that challenge themselves on these enormous waves, and it’s entertaining and cool and fun. So there was something about doing a surf movie that was appealing to me, but I also am invested in stories and character and structure and then you bring that to a genre that doesn’t necessarily have a history of incorporating those elements, so what really appealed to me about Laird is that he was beyond a great surfer. He was a real character. He’s one of the great individualists; that he does not adapt or conform. So I appreciate that about him and the choices that he’s made throughout his life. I think there’s something, looking at this story which appealed to me, and that isn’t necessarily hard hitting in the film that’s certainly in there that this is a kid that came from nothing. They were very poor, he had very little education, and he pursued his dreams and he’s done great things as a result. I don’t think that’s the life for everybody but I think it’s inspiring in it’s own right.
Had you met him before deciding to make the film?
RK: I had met him a handful of times. We live in the same community in California. We have friends in common so I’ve met him a few times over the years but I did not have a relationship with him per se.
You used quite a bit of archival footage, even some of Laird’s mom. How did you decide what to include?
RK: The archival was a big element of the film and in some ways that drove the film because there was so much incredible archival footage. They had a production company but he didn’t own the rights to it and didn’t have access to a lot of the footage they filmed, so that was its own complexity. Fairly late in the editing process, we got about 800 hours of footage, so we have to expand the edit to fit that in. The archival and what we used was really driven by how it fit into our overall story. I would say the archival was so amazing we wanted to fit it into our story.
You started the film in the same manner: a big storm was on the way and Laird was preparing to ride the biggest waves that area had seen. Is that symbolic of the way he lives his life?
RK: We used that element as sort of a bookmark in the film and we wanted the film to have a thrust forward and have something big at the end to keep the audience’s attention, but I also think it’s how he lives his life. Laird is interesting because he’s a very spiritual person, very disciplined person, but at the end of the day nothing’s going to get between him and a big wave. Even when we made the film, January is big wave season in Hawaii and that was when the film was premiering at Sundance. He was very clear that if there were waves during the Sundance premiere, he would be looking forward to hearing how the premiere went.
Throughout his career, Laird has been a controversial figure in the surfing world. Often when he’d do something groundbreaking, it was met with criticism. Was there anything he wanted to set straight with this film?
RK: I was making the film about Laird and Laird didn’t have input in terms of what the film would be. There was no policing of what I could include and what I couldn’t include. He opened up his address book to me, even putting me in touch with people who could have disparaging things to say about him and he was well aware that he had conflicts with in the past and present. He handed over his hard drive to me, so he was very transparent and I made it clear for me to make the best film possible, I needed full access. In terms of what Laird wanted out of it, he was very trusting of wanting me to look at his story and figure out what the film was and what the story was. The reality of a documentary like this is you’re condensing a lifetime of a person’s experiences into 90 minutes or 2 hours, so you’re making a lot of choices about what’s relevant and what’s not. It’s a hard question to answer because it’s more about me than his intentions.
Was there anything you learned about Laird during filming that surprised you?
RK: I really didn’t know much about him, except the significant contributions he’s made, and I did research early on before I fully committed to the film, so that’s part of the reason I was interested in making the film – understanding what an innovator he was. His personal story and his relationship with his father and how difficult his relationships were with his family was something I wasn’t aware of, and I think a lot of people aren’t aware of. I think there were some beautiful moments, understanding what was going on with him and Gabby and their relationship – the psychology of why he was pushing himself in that instant that made for compelling storytelling, and she is such a force. I appreciate her contributions to him over the years and their personal story. So there are a lot of elements in the film and a lot of moments, whether you’re a surfer or pushing yourself to be the best that you can or you’re a kid who’s excited to pursue their dreams that this story would relate to. I wanted to make a film that would appeal to surfers, but ultimately make a film that would appeal to much wider than that. I’m not a surfer and I love the film.
What’s next for you?
RK: I am doing a documentary right now about NASA. It is different, but there are some of the same themes funnily enough.
For tickets, or more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.