“Should we go wake up Kelly?” laughs Benji Weatherly as the group assembles.
The boys chuckle, settling into the mahogany-walled NYC Penthouse suite.
“Seriously, should we just go do the whole thing in his room?” asks Taylor Steele.
“Let’s steam roll him,” suggests Shane Dorian.
Taylor Knox has just made the perfect espresso. “He’s not sleeping. He’s up in his room like this,” says Knox (mimicking a yoga pose while typing on an imaginary keyboard).
This storied group of influential surfers and their legendary filmmaker, now in their mid-to-late 40s are in New York for the premiere of Universal Pictures’ “Momentum Generation,” their collective biopic. And they’re only half kidding about barging into the 11-time world champ’s room to physically push him out of his bed, or his meditation session, or some business venture phone call that will revolutionize surfing.
Make no mistake, had Rob Machado been into the idea, there would be an overturned mattress and hysterical cackling coming from one of these rooms.
Tumbling over bunk beds, food fights, and careening down a hill in a garbage can were as much a part of this crew’s 1990s style as threading heavy tubes and pioneering backside air reverses. Also including Pat O’Connell, Ross Williams and Kalani Robb, their friendship was as famous as their good-natured VHS antics.
Still it’s hard to imagine a group of tour surfers today, even 18 or 19-year-olds, putting such a high priority on the art of the goof.
The film, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, is an entry at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is sure to revive punk rock and baggy trunk nostalgia for surfers who grew up jonesing for the new Poor Specimen surf flick each year.
“It’s such a relatable coming-of-age story from the start of when we met until now. I think the circumstances for us were unique, but I think every single person who watches the film will relate to a circle of friends who grew up together,” Dorian tells ASN. “A lot of people who think they know the story are going to be surprised when they see the film. We were all going through some radical sh*t in our lives that was different from what was painted by the surf media.”
“Momentum Generation” documents how this group of young surfers would stake spots on the floor at the Weatherly family house and grow the tightest of bonds, eventually making the Tour, competing, and (in Slater’s case) winning world titles. And it was their footage in those Steele films that changed not only surfing, but the music, entertainment and culture of the time.
“Growing up, I always liked stories of cultural icons who informed each other’s journeys, and in this case, lived together during their formative years and then went off and all became influential individuals in their own right. You know, that felt like a bit of a fantasy. And their story was exactly that – and was also captured on video. That was an exciting opportunity when Taylor Steele invited us to use these thousands of hours of footage,” Michael Zimbalist explains to ASN. He and his brother are known for feature sport docs like “Favela Rising” and “The Two Escobars.”
But the story arc with the most gravity is that of their interpersonal relationships.
“It was pretty enlightening. When we lived it, we held stuff in, being competitive, just being dudes. Guys at that age don’t sit down with each other and say, ‘Hey bro, are you okay?'” says Machado. “In the end, our camaraderie was enough so that we’re still really good friends. But I learned stuff about my friends. Doing the interviews with the Zimbalist brothers brought up serious sh*t. Looking back on it, being able to work through it and being where we’re at now, is a pretty beautiful thing.”
And Michael and Jeff Zimbalist do a fine job of extracting authentic emotions from the group.
“I found it like another form of therapy,” says Steele. “It was confrontational to watch some of that stuff, reliving it. There are emotional points where I was crying with happiness and crying with sadness. Seeing all of my best friends’ dramas was intense for me. But it was so healthy to release emotions that were bottled up that hadn’t been dealt with. And I just loved how the thread of the whole thing was almost a filter of ‘What would Todd Chesser think?’ That was a great way to show it.”
Viewers might be surprised to understand the influence that the late North Shore charger, Todd Chesser, had on this group before his untimely death surfing Outside Alligators in 1997.
“No one’s head ever got too big. That’s the Chesser effect,” admits Knox. “You’d get called out on it. It’s just the way we were trained. Our group held together through some tough times when it could have imploded. But we’re still here. I cried last night when I saw the film and I haven’t cried in a long time.
“Todd Chesser’s value to the group was, as the film explains, to stay authentic and genuine and not to sell out. And that was really important in all subcultures of that time, to make sure you weren’t crossing over in the wrong way, make sure you weren’t watering down the value of what you did.”
It also sheds light on how much professional surfing has changed. The last 20 years have seen a phenomenon where youngsters are groomed for stardom. With surf parents, home schooling and coaches, the path from childhood to the Qualifying Series is all within a padded sponsorship bubble.
“I was a busboy for two years,” recalls Dorian. “I worked, saved my own money, bought my own sh**ty ass car, moved into a place on the North Shore and paid my own rent with money I’d saved.
“We all have that same story where we grinded it out. That’s just because in the age when we grew up, you had no choice but to build character. There was no team house. There was no one picking you up at the airport. We were trying to find the place we booked with a paper map in Portugal where no one speaks English.”
Steel worked for a roofer. Knox and Machado labored on their fathers’ construction sites. Weatherly has a hysterical story about unknowingly helping his step father install illegal satellite systems.
“We got out there to fend for ourselves. I was just talking to one of the best up-and-coming kids and he didn’t know how to change his airline ticket,” adds Knox. “He had to call someone to do it for him. They just don’t have any life experience.”
Weatherly even notes that Kelly was sleeping on his floor when he won his first world title.
“We were really grounded. We all broke off to do our own projects to keep the dream alive but no one separated themselves and said ‘I’m going to do my thing because I’m getting more money, or do this or that.’ I found freesurfing and TV shows to keep the dream alive with these guys because I never made heats … ever,” laughs Weatherly, who comes clean in the film about overcoming substance abuse, adding that Slater stayed by his side through rehab.
“But Taylor always brought it back around,” says Weatherly. “As long as you were still in Taylor’s movies, you were still part of the crew.”
Look for “Momentum Generation” on the film festival circuit soon.
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