Shark attack tale able to reel in talented crew

In 2003, 13-year-old Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack off Kauai’s north shore. After several surgeries she returned to the water, stood on a surfboard within 30 days, excelled in several contests and took first place in a national competition in 2005. In 2007, she turned pro.

All very uplifting, but not enough material for a film, according to helmer Sean McNamara and producer David Brookwell, partners in Brookwell McNamara Entertainment, who are surfers and makers of several water-themed TV shows. They had to delve deeper to find elements of tension for the picture they made based on Hamilton’s book, “Soul Surfer,” which was targeted to Christian readers.

“It’s a straight account of what happened,” McNamara said. “A film needs conflict, so we met Bethany’s family and explored her past. I figured there must have been a struggle that wasn’t in the book.”

The filmmakers found several areas to highlight, including the way the incident tore the family apart, their questioning of their faith and Hamilton’s thoughts about her physical appearance and its impact on boys. Plus, “when the press descended on them, it was almost like a second shark attack,” said Brookwell. “It thrust them into the limelight and changed their lives.”

After spending years raising money for the project, the duo started filming in February. They shot for 40 days of principal photography and second-unit aerial work in Hawaii; in August they filmed additional footage in Tahiti. D.p. John Leonetti shot on 35mm. AnnaSophia Robb plays Hamilton, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt her parents.

“To make it look authentic, we decided to put the actors, not stunt people, in the water,” said McNamara. He used a team of “expert watermen” from Hawaii to steer players and camera operators through the treacherous surf and away from deadly reefs.

The biggest challenge in post-production was arm removal — transforming Robb’s left arm into Hamilton’s distinctive at-the-shoulder stump. During filming her arm was covered by a green sleeve, and vfx house Engine Room digitally inserted the stump in every shot in which it was exposed. “This required about 450 arm-removal shots, from all angles,” McNamara said.

“Soul Surfer” gestated for six years before production began. At one time it was a $7.5 million indie project that had the backing of Sony exec Peter Schlessel. In a complicated series of moves, Schlessel ended up at FilmDistrict, which picked “Surfer” as its first film and committed to an initial release at 300 locations.

But something curious happened along the way to the pic’s April 8 release date. “Everyone started liking the film,” McNamara said, “so we were able to hire better talent above and below the line. Once they saw the finished product, they decided to release it to 2,000 theaters and made a $26 million P&A commitment.”

Meanwhile, the production budget also ballooned, rising to more than $15 million — which led to a nice bonus for the crew back in Hawaii. “We ended up breaking the tier-three threshold,” said Brookwell, referring to the IATSE rule for worker pay pegged to a film’s overall budget. “Our crew got an extra Christmas present: retroactive checks in the mail.”

Bookings & Signings

Mirisch Agency signings: production designer Tracey Gallagher (“Memphis Beat”), d.p. Magdalena Gorka (“I’m Still Here”), vfx supervisor Jon Farhat (“The Book of Eli”) and editor Tim Tommasino (“United States of Tara”). Agency has booked line producers Neil Machlis on Mike Mitchell’s “Chipmunks 3D: Chipwrecked” and Kelly Van Horn on NBC’s “Chase”; costume designer Mandi Line on ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and Ari Folman’s “The Congress”; d.p. Matthew Heckerling on Matt Arnold’s “The Door”; Farhat on Tommy Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel”; and stereoscopic supervisor Evan Jacobs on Marcus Nispel’s “Conan the Barbarian.”

Montana Artists has signed 1st a.d. Jamie Christopher (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”).

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email peter.caranicas@variety.com

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