When Josh Pomer set out to make a movie about his surfing buddies, they didn’t expect him to ask questions about their meth use, mental illness and personal tragedies.
“It was really hard to get them to open up — almost impossible at first,” Pomer said. “They couldn’t really understand what I was doing because no one had ever done that before. They’re like, ‘Why are you asking us these questions? Don’t you want to ask me about what it feels like to ride a big wave?’ ”
That had already been done, Pomer told them. Besides, he wanted to make a different kind of movie — a movie about surfers that wasn’t really a surf movie.
“We’re not just making a gigantic mural of the most beautiful second of a guy’s life on a perfect blue wave in a perfect pair of shorts,” he said. “We’re blowing up their whole lives and looking at the real stuff that caused them to be who they are.”
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His film, “The Westsiders” — this year’s Surf Nite feature of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival — is not like the feel-good, whimsical films of Bruce Brown and Bud Browne. While those films were silly accounts of carefree surfers living the life everyone else envied, Pomer’s film is a darker account of famous Santa Cruz surfers who secretly — from the public’s eye, anyway — had problems.
“Each one of us definitely harbors a shell of unhappiness,” said Shawn “Barney” Barron, one of the surfers featured in the film.
The movie focuses on three of Pomer’s friends: Barron, Darryl “Flea” Virostko and Jason “Ratboy” Collins. While all three would become celebrities in the surf world, surf media stories about them typically dealt with aerial stunts, big wave achievements and contest earnings. Most people didn’t know that Barron struggled with mental illness, that Virostko was addicted to meth and Collins witnessed his father’s death when he was a kid.
Pomer had been making movies of his friends since he was a kid himself. But after he went to film school at University of California, Santa Barbara, he got a hankering for something more substantive than surf videos.
“When it came time for me to burst out and make a real movie, I just wanted to tell the most powerful story I knew — and a story I felt that no one else would be able to tell,” he said.
But it wasn’t necessarily a story his friends wanted to tell.
“I just sort of had to wear them down, like water torture,” Pomer said.
“I asked them the same question a thousand times — and eventually, they’d answer it.”
For Barron, that meant speaking publicly about his bipolar disorder — something he’d kept under wraps until recently.
“It’s kind of hard to throw it all out there,” said Barron, who works in marketing at Volcom, one of the titans of the surf industry. “But I don’t care. Once it’s all said and done, you get immune to it.”
While the three surfers are the focal point of the film, Vince “The Godfather” Collier is an important aside. A menacing figure who typified Santa Cruz’s reputation for intense localism, Collier was the leader of the Westsider gang, who both encouraged the surfers and bullied them.
“When Vince would paddle out, I’d paddle in,” Pomer recalled. “And I’d always stay clear of him on the cliffs. So I think he ruled by intimidation and fear.”
Collier, who also got involved in the drug trade, softened once he became a father, making it easier for Pomer to approach him for the film. Still, he had to sweeten the deal, offering to buy a surfboard from Collier.
“And he was like, ‘OK,’ ” Pomer said. “And so I went over and gave him a deposit for a surfboard — which I still have never received, for the record — and he gave an amazing interview.”
That interview is laden with F-bombs and talk of violence, making this film inappropriate for young kids, Pomer admitted. But there are important lifestyle lessons that teens might learn from.
In chronicling Virostko’s descent, Pomer notes how the big-wave surfer made big money, then blew it partying. Even as Pomer was making the film, Virostko was struggling with drug addiction.
“For a while, Flea was on meth, so trying to talk to him or get ahold of him would cause some friction,” Pomer said.
Eventually, Virostko — who won the first three big-wave contests at Maverick’s in Half Moon Bay — encountered an intervention after falling down a cliff and severely injuring himself. Today he runs “Fleahab,” which seeks to help addicts recover with the aid of surfing.
Meth use has been particularly problematic in Santa Cruz. But drug use in general among pro surfers has also been an issue — though not one that has been heavily publicized.
In 2007, big-wave surfer Peter Davi died while surfing a giant swell in Monterey while under the influence of meth. And, according to an Outside magazine story, world champion surfer Andy Irons — who died suddenly last year — was a known drug abuser who was found near prescription drugs, though his sponsors were quick to suggest he died of dengue fever.
“That’s why this movie is so relevant,” Pomer said. “It’s because we’re actually speaking the truth about real things.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.