Movie News & Reviews

Surfing in SLO: Gary Busey, others talk surf movie 'Big Wednesday'

A scene from the cult classic surf movie "Big Wednesday."
A scene from the cult classic surf movie "Big Wednesday."

When “Gidget” became a surprise hit in 1959, the movie about a little surfer girl inspired an entire genre of films featuring jiggly, bikini-clad women riding waves with hormonal guys.

While those beach party movies garnered the envy of landlocked teens nationwide, surfers didn’t think films like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Bikini Beach” accurately depicted their lifestyle.

“They were fun to watch when you were that age, but they weren’t really surfing,” actor Gary Busey said. “They were never in the water.”

But capturing the essence of surfing, Hollywood proved, was far more difficult than learning how to pop up on a longboard.

“The joy and the emotional rapture you get out of surfing — not only surfing a wave but just being in the water and feeling the surf below you rise and fall — you end up feeling such a connection to nature, you really can’t talk about it,” filmmaker Greg MacGillivray said. “It’s just a feeling.”

MacGillivray and screenwriter-director John Milius attempted to capture that feeling in 1978’s “Big Wednesday.” But as MacGillivray’s new documentary “Hollywood Don’t Surf” points out, even surfers couldn’t produce a hit movie about surfing.

Now a cult favorite, “Big Wednesday” will screen along with “Hollywood Don’t Surf” during a tribute to Milius at this year’s Surf Nite in SLO event, part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

The inspiration behind the unpredictable, trigger-happy character Walter in “The Big Lebowski,” Milius is best known for penning one-liners and monologues in testosterone-fueled films such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Dirty Harry.”

But while his work has always gravitated toward action and violence, he spent considerable time in younger days riding mellow Malibu waves with surf legends such as Miki Dora and Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy.

Malibu had been a relatively quiet place until “Gidget” brought waves of surfers —and beach party movies with actors pretending to surf in front of previously filmed backgrounds.

“The rear screen projection was a little bit hokey,” actor William Katt said. “But it tried to represent that kind of culture that was fun and sun. And it’s never gotten old looking at girls in bikinis.”

A few years before “Big Wednesday,” Milius began collecting stories from actual surfers so he could write an authentic novel about his time at Malibu.

“He wrote a couple of chapters — the beginning — which were really great,” said his friend and collaborator, longtime Malibu surfer Denny Aaberg.

Eventually, Aaberg and Milius decided to write a movie about three surfing buddies in the Vietnam era based on a short story Aaberg had written. Lending the film credibility was the act that two of the three lead actors had been actual surfers.

Aaberg recommended Jan-Michael Vincent after seeing him surf Topanga Canyon. And Katt grew up surfing, beginning in the 1960s.

“By dawn, I’d be at the point in Malibu,” Katt said. “I surfed until about 7 o’ clock and high-tailed it back to high school for class.”

Busey, who grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, had been an athlete who went to college on a football scholarship.

“John Milius took me to Surfrider Beach in Malibu and pushed me into a wave that was two feet high, and I got up and rode it for 90 feet and said, ‘That’s it?’ ” Busey recalled. “He said, ‘Oh my god — you don’t surf, do you?’ And I said, ‘I did just then — but never before.’ ”

On the advice of Milius’s pal Steven Spielberg, the “Big Wednesday” filmmakers sought to add big wave surfing scenes at the end of the film. Legendary surfers Ian Cairns, Billy Hamilton and Peter Townend acted as stunt doubles. But the actual actors paddled out as well and dropped in on 15-foot waves at Hawaii’s Sunset Beach.

“The first time I rode Sunset was with Peter,” Katt said. “We paddled out in the lineup, and I remember him telling me, ‘When I say go, go. Don’t hesitate for a second.’ First time I dropped into a ginormous wave was with Peter right along side of me.”

Busey, who had learned to surf for the film, got advice from surf legend Gerry Lopez on wiping out in big surf.

“He said, ‘Just be like a dish rag in a dryer,’” Busey recalled. “Relax completely because there’s nothing you can do to come out of that wave.”

Expectations for “Big Wednesday” swelled, and Spielberg and George Lucas famously traded “Big Wednesday” profit points with their next movies, “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — a move that would bring Milius millions.

“They thought that ‘Big Wednesday’ might turn out to be an ‘American Graffiti’ kind of hit,” MacGillivray said.

But when it was released, the film flopped — panned by moviegoers and critics.

“We thought it was poetic,” MacGillivray said. “And, sure enough, it turned out to be schmaltzy and overblown.”

“Big Wednesday” did have great surfing. But it also had over-the-top fight scenes, guys who hugged too much and slow pacing in what was becoming an era of action-packed blockbusters.

Aaberg, who had launched a career as a screenwriter, would never sell another script.

 “I didn’t make a lot of money and had a lot of lean years,” he said.

Milius, meanwhile, went on to write “Apocalypse Now,” featuring a famous mid-battle surf scene. His other writing credits include “Conan the Barbarian,” “Red Dawn” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

Success also came to the director and stars of “Big Wednesday.”

While filming “Big Wednesday,” Busey left the set to make his most memorable film, “The Buddy Holly Story,” which earned him an Oscar nod. Katt starred on his own TV show, “The Greatest American Hero.” And MacGillivray gained fame making IMAX films.

Meanwhile, “Big Wednesday” found a new audience via television and home video, becoming a cult favorite.

“Over the course of 20, 25 years, (Milius) was vindicated … because the film became a great seller of DVDs,” Katt explained.

Surfing helped assuage Aaberg’s disappointment about “Big Wednesday,” he said. Today he continues to surf regularly near Rincon.

“I’m as stoked as I ever was,” Aaberg said.

Surf Nite in SLO

6 p.m. March 12

Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$25, $15 students and film festival society members; $30, $20 students and society members at the door

546-3456 or

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