‘Let’s Be Frank’s’ Peter Hamblin on Reinventing Surf Films

The mock-doc plays at San Sebastian, then Red Bull TV, and iTunes

Lets Be Frank
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Fest

There are few more notorious hard men in the world of big wave pro surfing than South Africa’s shady Frank James Solomon, portrayed in Peter Hamblin’s “Let’s Be Frank.” Yes, he runs big lines on big waves: There are some fairly spectacular surfing sequences in the movie. But he also runs money, drugs, and even, according to one allegation, did a few contracts as a hit man in the U.S. There’s also the story about how he whupped a local Irish champ in a “Fight Club”-style bare-knuckle boxing bout.

Of course, it will only take a minute or so for any cine-literate spectator to sense that near all of “Let’s Be Frank” is the stuff of fiction, told by one narrator, who really doesn’t want to be identified, relaying the allegations of another highly unreliable source. A mock-doc exposé of big wave surfing lifestyle, “Let’s Be Frank” is inspired by legend, not reality. In reality, the South African rand is so weak against the dollar, Solomon has explained in an interview, that he has gross difficulties getting to competitions. Rather than having sex with an English heiress (and two friends), as in the film, he sleeps on couches, he added. “Let’s Be Frank” is a filmmaker’s take on an extreme sport, its myths, rather than an extreme sports specialist trying to make a film. Variety chatted with Hamblin at San Sebastian:

The film explores the mythos of surf filmmaking, the sex, drugs and maybe Frank just didn’t like rock-on-roll of the effortlessly timezone changing big wave wet set. Of course, it’s not true. But is any of it at least a teeny-weeny bit true, or based on legend, anecdote, hearsay?

I think the beauty of the fiction elements are that we are able to push it very far to the point where it becomes ridiculous. Within some of the sections there are hints of truth, but for the most part it is us pushing the envelope!

This is an attempt to tear up the template of classic surfing movies, a mock-doc bio of Frank Solomon. Why take this route?

For the simple reason of doing something that felt right to me creatively. I wanted to do something that would truly entertain and capture the imagination of the viewer, my goal was not to tear up the template, but to push my boundaries so we learnt from the process.

You mention other surf filmmakers who are reconstructing their own style of surf movies. Do you feel part of a movement, creating auteur surf movies? And could yo name one or two other filmmakers who are reshaping the genre?  

I wouldn’t say we are part of a movement, the film isn’t out yet, so not sure how people are even going to respond, the response at screenings has been awesome though and people are excited about it! For me there have been two pivots, Taylor Steele laid it all down and then kept reinventing the direction of the surf film, and is still doing so. Then Kai Neville came in and created his own platform which really to me defined a generation. What both these guys have done for me has paved the way and shown us what can be achieved as independent film makers!

Does this move towards a rethinking of what surf movies can become from perceived audience demand, or just you’re desire to take the movies to another level? In other words, classic surf footage filming is not satisfying, challenging enough?

I think both, I wanted to appeal to a broader audience and show more than surfing, if you want to view wave after wave, just get online and you can consume hours of it! Also I think peoples attention spans are diminished. We consume content quickly, so I wanted to infuse LBF with the unexpected to keep the audience wanting more! I also just wanted to explore filmmaking and learn from the process, and focus on executing every scene to the best possible standard!

Where do you go from here? Where do you think surf films or extreme sports moviemaking will go from here?   

Not sure, but there is definitely a demand for new exciting ideas and exploring innovative ways of entertaining! I think deep down its all about good stories! Camera innovation, expensive rigs, 4K, VR etc can only push the platform so far before it becomes saturated, the defining factor has always been good stories!

There’s a great fight scene in “Let’s Be Frank” that also speaks of your ambitions as a filmmaker. Could you say how you set it up?  

Richard Ryan is the stunt coordinator of “Vikings,” “Sherlock Holmes.” Convincing Richard Ryan to get involved was pivotal. We chatted a few times regarding direction, then he choreographed this ambitious fight scene. It was super daunting, as there are so many aspects to fight scenes you almost need to understand every movement for it to be sold correctly! Richard and his crew came through and trained Frank for two weeks, we did a few sessions with camera, and then on the day Frank and Michael Redmond brought the energy and conviction that really sold it to the audience! There were so many moving parts and it certainly was a massive learning [curve]!

Could you take us through the distribution roll-out? Where did it world premiere, where will the film go from here, particularly in its possible use of digital platforms? 

World Premiere was in California on the Sept. 1. We then hit Capetown (South Africa), Durban (South Africa), London and now the San Sebastian Film Festival! It goes live on RB TV on the 19th Sep, then hits iTunes on the Sept 25.