Hearing how Brendan and Emmett Malloy grew up it would be more shocking if they didn’t become prominent surf filmmakers. The brothers were still in grade school when they started kicking it on the beaches of Southern California with kids who would become world-famous watermen, a few of which happened to be their cousins (Chris, Keith, and Dan Malloy). Epic waves were being caught. Epic fun was being had. Someone needed to capture it, so they picked up a camera.
“I was in the fifth grade hanging out on cliffs with these incredible ambassadors for the sport,” Brendan said in an interview with Men’s Journal. “There were also some activities going on we probably shouldn’t have been observing at that age, a lot of drugs, stealing, and sex in cars. Everyone was running around with zero consequences. On the flipside our cousins were living that true, honest surfer life, and making films with them seemed like the natural move.”
Since then, the Malloys have worked nonstop over the past 20 years with everyone from Kelly Slater and Kevin Durant to Freddie Roach and Ben Stiller. Now the brothers are preparing to release their first feature in sixteen years, a film adaptation of Tribes of Palos Verdes, which premieres December 1, starring Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe, Milo Gibson, and Justin Kirk. The drama, built around a family struggling to stay together after moving to a beachside town, is not only the brothers’ most ambitious project to date, but also a return to those early days out in the water. Here Brendan discusses catching waves on set, working with Jack Johnson, and why the surf community usually hates movies about the sport they love.
Men’s Journal: How has shooting out on the water changed since you started?
Brendan Malloy: Shooting was a lot more difficult back then. You didn’t have these amazing digital cameras that you could throw into a waterproof housing. Digital looked terrible. So we were shooting on film, which meant you didn’t really know what you were getting or how it looked. Still, there was this amazing warmth that came out. We fell in love with the way it looked. Getting that look was so important that we would beg, borrow, and steal—whatever it took to get more film to shoot on. I think us making that effort ignited this new appreciation for the medium.
MJ: I understand Jack Johnson shot some of those early films?
BM: We linked with Jack back in ’99, and he was not only this great surfer, but he had this amazing eye. He had gone to film school and had the skillset that we needed. He was shooting most of the footage that we had from the water. That was the beginning of a great working relationship.
Surf movies are tough. The dramas that don’t hinge their entire being on “riding that perfect wave” are the ones that we connect with the most. The less they try to put the feeling into words, the better.
MJ: How did you decide on this being your next feature?
BM: Surfing got us in the door with this project, no question. But there was a lot more to explore in the story. There was a lot of research that went into this movie where we were working with kids and psychologists, discussing how an event like this would affect a child. Interestingly enough, in the end, there was a need for us to cut back on the surf scenes, actually. When it came time to film them, we had plenty to pull from and drew a lot of inspiration from what we saw happening in Newport Beach in the ‘80s.
MJ: What did you want surfing to mean for Maika’s character?
BM: In this case, the ocean wasn’t a place where she was going to overcome her fears. It was a place that she was going for a hug. When something went wrong in her life she would run to it. Being in the water was the hug that she wanted from her parents.
MJ: Did you find it difficult to convey what it meant in words?
BM: Definitely. There was a scene where we had Maika tell her dad, “I want to be the first girl to surf the bay.” It made it into one of the early cuts of the trailer, even. But when we stepped back, it just felt like the cheesiest moment ever. So we took it out immediately, of the trailer and the movie. I know that was the right move.
MJ: The Lunada Bay Boys a big part of the book and are in the movie. How did you approach that part of the story?
BM: The Bay Boys was and is such a moment in the culture. They were being charged for serious crimes. Of course people are going to think that is interesting. Everyone keeps asking us if this movie is about the Bay Boys, but barely any of it is in there. That wasn’t the movie that we were trying to make, as fascinating as it might be. Really, it is more about Maika’s character observing from the outside looking in.
MJ: Did you end up shooting in Lunada?
BM: We scouted a few times at Lunada, and the police rolled up on us and asked us what we were doing there. They told us if we had any trouble to give them a call, because the town is trying hard to get away from that reputation. We erred on the side of staying away. We shot at a cove just a little bit away from Lunada. Listen, we grew up in Southern California and you just didn’t surf in Palos Verdes. There are these multimillion-dollar homes and then a bluff that drops straight down into the ocean. They can pick the outsiders out right away.
MJ: Where did you end up filming most of the surfing?
BM: There was one day on Huntington Beach, and poor Maika, the waves were like eight feet that day. So she was getting slammed. She’s comfortable in the water, and kite surfs, but it is completely different. But most of the surfing footage was shot in San Pedro, and the waves were just cranking this season. I will be honest: we felt a little bad for the locals, because it was probably the best surfing winter they had ever had.
MJ: Did you get to get out a few times yourself?
BM: Whenever the cameras were out there on the water, we were out there as well. It was great right in front of the house where we were staying in San Pedro. So we were able to get out there quite a bit. It was a great way to spend a working day. We did everything to stay out of the waves when they were good, but I’ll be honest we got yelled at a lot.
MJ: No love for the work that you had done in the past?
BM: [Laughs] San Pedro is a heavy crew. They don’t care who you are. They don’t care about credits. We were trying to just stay out of the way as much as possible. San Pedro is a heavy crew. I thought maybe when Alex Knost showed up to shoot his role that we would get a little love, but no, San Pedro is no joke.
MJ: On that note, how did you end up casting Alex Knost?
BM: It was a really powerful scene in the film and in the book. We needed someone with a natural charisma. Emmett is close with him, since they have done a couple of videos together. So he just shot him a note. I don’t think anyone else could have done any better. I saw him at the premiere the other day and he seemed happy which made me happy. He put himself out there as a surfer, and people from our world are paying attention. They can be a tough crowd.
MJ: I have found that the surf community can be pretty judgmental about Hollywood projects about surfing. Have you observed that?
BM: I think surf movies are tough. There is no denying that the sport is fascinating, and moving in a lot of ways. People who spend a lot of time in the water know what it feels like, and it’s amazing. A lot of people have tried to convey what it feels like to be out there on screen. I think there are a lot of documentaries out there that show you what the culture is like, but as far as dramas, there are just a few. I think the dramas that don’t hinge their entire being on “riding that perfect wave” are the ones that we connect with the most. The less they try to put the feeling into words, the better.