SAN SEBASTIAN — You would be hard pressed to find a more respectful regard towards action-sports films than the San Sebastian’s Savage Cinema program. Each year, the industry’s biggest game changers make their way to the shores of the Bay of Biscay and screen for cinephiles and industry professionals alike. This year, surf-history will be on display when surf filmmaking legend Ira Opper ’s ethnographic documentary, “Secrets of Desert Point” receives itsEuropean premiere on Wednesday.
The film is a composition of interviews, highlight reels and a classic “dirtbag” story that would almost certainly never happen today. Most of the footage was recorded by William and Bill Heick from the mid ’70s through the start of the ’80s. The film documents a bygone era in surfing when the sport was a counter culture movement and relegated largely to the fringes of polite society.
William Heick was a classic photographer who trained at the California School of Fine Arts under legendary teachers like Ansel Adams and Minor White. The skills he acquired there, along with access to ahead-of-its-time technology, are major reasons why “Secrets of Desert Point” was able to be made after so many years.
Bill Heick came to the field of filmmaking less traditionally. Raised with the means and support of a successful family, Bill found his calling in the water, or rather on the water. He and his group of companions, called the Golden Beards, spent their summers trolling the beaches of the west-coast and south Pacific looking for the best swell they could find. And find it they did.
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Starting in Bali, Bill and his crew were constantly on the move to find uncharted swell where they could surf in solitude, away from the crowded waters of popular beaches. After chartering a boat and heading to a remote, often hostile, beach, the Golden Beards struck oil. For nearly a decade, the group had the run of a beach that is now famous among thrill-seeking surfers, Desert Point.
After showing the current state of affairs at Desert Point, and a few great waves shared by Bill and his son Andrew Heick, the movie picks up a social cause, as each surfer interviewed, old and young, American and Indonesian, commits themselves to protecting the environment that harbored them all. With increased popularity came increased pollution, and the beach now hardly looks like it did when Bill and his friends were living in grass huts, drinking boiled sea water, and practicing unlicensed medicine.
Director Opper has been making surfing films almost since Desert Point was still a secret. The film was produced by his own company, Opper Films, and he has recently developed a VOD platform for surfing films, TheSurfNetwork.com, where the film will stream. Opper talked with Variety about making the film, the state of surfing and his plans for the future.
How did you try to differentiate this film from other action-sports movies?
There are three components to “Secrets of Desert Point” that make this film a unique and compelling documentary. First is the protagonist Bill Heick, a rough-around-the-edges surfing adventurer and filmmaker; next is the ethnographic aspect of camping on a remote Indonesian desert island to surf a perfect wave; and third is the forty years of cinematographic documentation of Heick’s adventures on Desert Point.
“Secrets of Desert Point” is one of the most significant “dirtbag” adventures in the history of the sport. Simply, a group of friends discover a wave and strive to surf it to perfection, and all along keep it their secret.
How did your relationship with Bill come about?
Bill and I met on a snowboard expedition first descent of Victoria Peak in Canada. We wanted to snowboard a mountain in North America no one had boarded. During the down time he told me stories about his filmmaking father and Desert Point.
And when did you decide to make “Secrets” together?
Twenty years later, after his father passed away, Bill showed up at my Solana Beach, California studio with film in-hand to ask me to help him create a legacy video for his family. After I screened the footage and photographs I realized that there was more here than a family photo album. Heick’s footage was one-of-a-kind and could be the most important documentation of a pure surf experience since The Endless Summer.
For the next year Bill, Steve Barilotti (writer), Julian Clark (editor), Dustin Hood (technical director) and myself worked on crafting the documentary.
What kind of work did you have to do to get the film cinema-ready?
Most of the film and photographs were in excellent shape considering the age. Bill’s father was an accomplished photographer and therefore he used start-of-the art equipment in capturing the images and he implemented professional storage techniques. Traditionally, I would first craft a compelling story then go out to locate the images and interview the participants. I never had all the goods handed to me.
What is the climate like around the sport today? Can you compare it to the time of the events in “Secrets”?
In today’s world to experience a similar adventure like “Deserts” a surfer only needs a credit card, a surf resort, and the swell forecast. On Bill’s surf adventure they only had a compass and a sea chart, this is why “Secrets of Desert Point” is the last great “dirtbag” surfing adventure of the 20th century.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you and the film?
My primary focus has shifted from production to developing a new distribution platform for professionally-produced surf movies, www.TheSurfNetwork.com, the Netflix of surfing. “Secrets” is currently touring the global film festivals, with the European premiere at the San Sebastián Film Festival.