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Arts & Culture

Big Wednesday 30th Anniversary

BETH ACCOMANDO: What memories do you have of writing the film?

DENNIS AABERG: The opportunity to write Big Wednesday with director and co-screenwriter, John Milius, came totally out of the blue. The fall of 1975 I was a 28 year-old surfer, trying to finish college and working as a dishwasher at Kelso's Caf e in Pacific Palisades. I came home from work one day and there was a phone message from a Hollywood producer asking if I'd be interested in writing a surfing movie. Next thing I knew I was under contract at Warner Bros., driving my rusted-out Chevy station wagon onto the lot at the Burbank Studios and parking in a spot with my name on it. It was remarkable, especially since I'd never written a screenplay before. But John Milius believed in me. He wanted the real McCoy. I came from a family of pioneer California surfers and judging by my many articles for surfing magazines John knew I was capable of writing about it.

We began the script for Big Wednesday by sitting around John's office with producers Alex Rose and Tamara Asseyev and talking stories into a tape recorder. We told about surfing down at Malibu during the early sixties, recalling the colorful characters we knew, their crazy antics, and the spirit of freedom and adventure that prevailed during those years. We talked about the cars, the girls, the beer parties, but most of all the exhilaration we felt being young and totally enthralled by this relatively esoteric sport. The script took about a year to complete. The Warner Bros. execs were pleased and decided to "green light" the project giving us a six- million dollar budget. A real highlight for me was the day Steven Speilberg read out loud a scene from the script and cracked up, telling Milius how good he thought it was.


BA: What about the casting?

DA: I was fortunate to have been involved with that process. It's amazing the famous actors who came in to read for various parts. Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall tried out for the part of "Bear" [Sam Melville ended up with the part]. I knew Jan-Michael Vincent from surfing down at Topanga Beach where he hung out. I recommended him because he had the right look and was a real surfer. Milius liked Gary Busey because he had juice. I landed the role of "Slick," a character based on Mickey Dora. I knew Dora well and was good at imitating his cagey personality, so John decided I should play the part.

BA: Do you have any memories about the shooting of the film or the surf footage

DA: Principal photography was to begin the summer of 1977 but first we sent a second unit crew out to capture the surfing sequences needed for the film. John assembled the best water photographers around--George Greenough, Dan Merkel, Bud Brown, Spider Wills, Greg MacGillvary--with top surfers Peter Townend, Billy Hamilton, Jay Riddle, and Ian Cairns as surfing doubles for the actors. We built special lightweight long boards then headed for El Salvador in Central America because there were often big waves there, which had the look of the perfectly shaped Malibu waves. The trip turned out to be a disaster. The waves didn't cooperate, the whole crew came down with dysentery, cameras were lost, and the machine gun toting military surrounded the helicopter we brought, ready to confiscate it because they thought we were in cahoots with the contras. In the end the producers spent a half million on four minutes of usable footage and had to send the water unit to Hawaii in the fall to film the final big wave sequence.

Big Wednesday was mostly shot on location around the Southern California. The party scene was shot on a sound stage at MGM. The Tijuana sequence was filmed in El Paso, Texas. A highlight for me was when they rented Cojo Point on the Bixby Ranch, near Point Conception. It had a perfect wave, just like Malibu, with a beautiful secluded cove. We bused extras up from Santa Barbara and filmed all the beach scenes there.


Big Wednesday screens June 26 at La Paloma Theater (Warner Brothers)

BA: Were you involved with the post-production at all?

DA: The editing [was] an amazing process of taking miles of footage and cutting it into a cohesive story. A highlight there was the day Milius' buddy, George Lucas, came into the editing room and swapped a couple of scenes around to make the film work better. Adding the soundtrack is always saved for last. It was composer, Basil Poladorius', first soundtrack gig and he did a fantastic job. He brought in the Beamer brothers from Hawaii to do the slack key guitar parts. I was lucky to have my song, "Cumple Car," inserted into the army induction scene.

BA: What does a 30 year anniversary bring to mind for you?

DA: I'm delighted we're having a 30th anniversary celebration. I'm just happy the story is truthful and authentic enough to mean something to people. It's great there's still interest in Big Wednesday after all these years. Many have told me they relate to it because it makes them reflect on their own experience growing up as surfers.

BA: What did you want to convey most about surfing and the surfing lifestyle?

DA: Surfing is pure fun. Once you've experienced the physical thrill of sliding down a clean glassy early morning wave, cranking a smooth bottom turn, and shooting across the open face, just beating out the sparkling curl as it peels past your shoulder, you're hooked for life. There's nothing else like it, harnessing the energy of a wave that's traveled across the ocean a thousand miles or more to loom into a dramatic peak in its final act before crashing on the shore. It's a total sensory experience--the sand between your toes, the sun on your back, the sweet scent of the ocean, the sensation of being immersed in saltwater. There are no rules. No game to be played. Just you, somehow communing with Nature's magnificence. Surfing brings out the child in you. It's like a kid sliding down a grassy hill on a piece of cardboard. He races to the bottom squealing with delight then hurries back to the top of hill, wanting to do it again and again.

BA: Now Big Wednesday was set back in the 60s, what was different then?

DA: Big Wednesday is about something that happened almost fifty years ago--in the middle of the last century. John Milius and I were totally involved with surfboarding then, when it was fresh and full of adventure. The waves were uncrowded. You could still search along the coast and find secret surf spots and ride them with just you and your friends. You felt special because you were doing something not everyone did. You felt privilege to part of this sub-culture that had its own language, its own code. Mainly it was total freedom--the great escape from the stresses of being a teenager during those years. The downside of surfing is it is such a powerful draw that it can alter the course of your life. Many young men with promising careers were sidetracked because of their obsession with surfing. I remember my dad telling me I'd been better off if I'd never seen a surfboard. You get to where your life choices are based on allowing you the freedom to get waves. You take jobs only near the water, arrange your classes at school so you can surf a lot, maybe drop out completely and head for Hawaii. You resist anything that gets in the way of getting your wave fix. That's what John and I wanted to convey about surfing in Big Wednesday -- how three guys who were the skilled leaders of their tribe tried to adapt to real life with that monkey called surfing clinging to their backs.

BA: How do you think the film has changed--or not changed--over the years in terms of how people view it?

DA: Big Wednesday gets better with age. When it first came out in 1978 it got slammed hard by both critics and surfers. The general public didn't like it too much either, probably because it had only been five years since the Vietnam War ended and people were still sore about it and didn't want to be reminded of it. Also, the photography was a little dark for the drive-in theaters that were still popular then. Sometimes the screen would almost turn black in those theaters. I think some critics were just out to get Milius for their own reasons. Some didn't like what they considered to be his macho male chauvinist approach or the excessive violence in some of his early films. The surfers didn't like it because they didn't want to watch a bunch of yesterday's heroes dance around on heavy long boards. But all that changed when Big Wednesday came out in video in & '84. Somehow because enough time had gone by it caught on with surfers. They watched it over and over again. They knew every line. Warner Bros. had record video sales of the film and it is now considered a cult classic.

BA: What are your three favorite surf movies?

DA: Although there are many outrageously good surfing movies out now, with men and woman doing incredibly amazing feats on death-defying waves, I am still hopelessly retro. My three favs are: Bruce Brown's first surf flic, Slippery When Wet, because my brother, Kemp Aaberg was the star and it shows long boarding in its infancy; Bruce Brown's Surfing Hollow Days because I love watching Phil Edwards gracefully whip around his 40 pound balsa board; and Bruce Brown's Endless Summer, because Mike Hynson was one of my surfing heroes when I was a kid and I think it was the first surf film to capture the true spirit and wanderlust of the surfing experience.

BA: This screening at La Paloma is actually a benefit screening, tell me about that?

DA: I think June 26th at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas is going to be a great night. Very festive. We're having a reception in the lobby with live music before the screening. The Moores UCSD Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational folks will have special Big Wednesday posters and t-shirts for sale. We'll have an abridged copy of the Big Wednesday novel for sale. Many of the cast and crew will be there to sign autographs and answer questions. I'm planning to show a short DVD made from the behind-the-scenes super 8 footage I took during the actual filming. Dan Merkel has some rare photos he took while on the set and will be showing that. I love Encinitas and the La Paloma is a soulful old theater. Last time I was there was for a similar event for the 40th Anniversary of the Endless Summer, which was also put on by the Moores UCSD Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational. Now the Moores UCSD Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational is doing one for the 30th Anniversary of Big Wednesday. I'm very stoked about it.

BA: Vietnam War was an issue that was dealt with. How do you feel that element plays out in today's current events?

DA: Vietnam was a very different war in that you were drafted into it. You had no choice. Even before the war began, the idea of turning eighteen and having to face the draft hung over like a dark cloud. Surfers especially hated the idea of having their freedom ripped away. A bit hedonistic and selfish I know, but that's the way it was. A lot of us only thought about the waves we were going to miss. When the war began in Vietnam it was hard to see any clear cut reason why we should rush over there and risk our lives killing people. If it was clearcut, as with my father generation in World War II, we probably would have had a different attitude. Many surfers I know went to great lengths to get out the draft. But many did go in willingly and became war heroes and earned purple hearts. Many never made it back. I think with all the tragedy and horror associated with the Iraq War, people can relate to the Vietnam theme in Big Wednesday, and how these fun loving surfers must have felt about going off to an uncertain war with an uncertain purpose.

Big Wednesday screens Thursday June 26 at La Paloma Theater, Tickets are $50.00-60.00 and include reception, appetizers and beer. Proceeds will support cancer research and care at Moores UCSD Cancer Center. For more info: 858-822-0023. Brought to you by the Moores UCSD Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational, celebrating 15 years of surfing for a cure.