Monday, January 2, 2023

35 Years On the North Shore: A Look Back at the Cult Classic With Director William Phelps & Actor John Philbin

Thirty-five years ago,  NORTH SHORE (1987), a small movie geared to the so-called burgeoning 'teenage market' was first released in theaters with little fanfare; although it had surfing at the core of its plot, it initially failed to make a huge splash (pardon my pun) at the box-office. Did I say initially? Yeah, for that lukewarm reception did not keep it from growing into a bonafide cult movie all over the globe. Apparently the moment its fledgling fans in the US, Japan, Australia, South Africa, France, Mexico, Indonesia, Portugal and Brazil started to make themselves known after continuous showings of said feature on broadcast television, VHS rentals in both big video stores chains and neighborhood mom-&-pop stores.
Here in Brazil, considering the population was, and remains, smaller than in the US (as well as the number of moviegoers), it proportionally proved to be more successful than in North America during its theatrical run. Just so you readers can have an idea, a Brazilian surfing romantic dram-edy called MENINO DO RIO--translating it from the Portuguese language--BOY FROM RIO--was one of the 5 biggest box-office hits of 1982 in the country; and that was going up against RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), among other international blockbusters. 
From 1985 to 1988, a Brazilian Made For TV series called 'Armação Ilimitada'--about a duo of surfers who are are into extreme sports like Motocross Racing, Hang-gliding and sharing the same girlfriend, was also top-rated (actor André de Biase had also starred in  Menino do Rio) and may have paved the way for surfing-themed movies crossing over here from niche products to the mainstream.
As for renting NORTH SHORE at a local video store, I recall being put on a reservation list in early 1988 so I could get to watch it subtitled (on Brazilian TV, English-language movies were presented in dubbed versions). The attendant called me five days later telling the movie was there for me to pick it up.
NORTH SHORE's premise revolves around 'Rick Kane--played by Matt Adler, seen in the also aquatic WHITE WATER SUMMER (1987) and in a supporting role in the beloved film TEEN WOLF (1985). He plays a kid who's learned how to surf by using the local wave tanks (you see, he's a resident of Arizona, a state that doesn't have its own border on the ocean due to California and Mexico being in the way). Finding himself at a Young Man's crossroads (his high-schooler days have just finished and he should be entering art school the following autumn), he uses his winning$ from a local competition to plunge into the North Shore of O'ahu to be a surfing pro. He gets off to a rough start, though: riding the ocean proves to be a lot different than commanding simulated waves; and not to mention getting robbed leaves him bereft of his belongings. (Insert: Matt Adler on the NORTH SHORE set)
Penniless and without a place to crash when night falls, he befriends Turtle--a mixture of goofy and tanned court jester and surfboard sander (played by scene-stealer John Philbin). Turtle's boss is an older fella called 'Chandler, a board designer with a salt-n-pepper beard/hairdo combo played with equal measures cool cynicism and paternal vibe by Gregory Harrison (star of the small-screen series TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.--a spin-off of both the film and the series MASH; the SciFi series LOGAN´S RUN--based on the classic feature of the same name; and the smart erotic thriller from 1991, BODY CHEMISTRY 2). Chandler takes Rick under his wing and teaches him how to see the sport as a sensorial and spiritual quest; a way to keep a firm belief that waves will come, even in tough times, filled with fresh possibilities for life and love, no matter whthe circumstances. (Insert: Gregory Harrison publicity for NORTH SHORE)
To keep the movie grounded in reality, some of the best men who ever stepped on a board were hired to bring verisimilitude to the proceedings: Mr. Pipeline himself Gerry Lopez (the Hawaiian actor seen in the masterpiece CONAN THE BARBARIAN as Subotai); Californians Laird Hamilton (who was in talks to replace Dolph Lundgren in a sequel to MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE around the time of this picture's release), Corky Carroll and Michael Ho; Australians Robbie Page (who plays Alex Rogers) and Mark Occhiluppo (whom I got to watch slaughter every body of water curling around him in Huntington Beach back in 1986 when I was an Exchange student living about 56 miles from Huntington Beach);  South African Shaun Tomson and a few others. (Top: Gerry Lopez third from right; insert: Laird Hamilton)
In the 1960s, future NORTH SHORE helmer William Phelps,  after being being photographed by King of Pop Art Andy Warhol for Warhol's book, 'Screen Tests', decided his place had to be BEHIND the camera and not IN FRONT of it. He enrolled at University of Southern California (USC) and got swept up by Beatlemania (he basically arrived from NYC to Los Angeles just in time for a Fab-Four performance at the Hollywood Bowl) . Phelps found himself invited for tea by a pal whom he'd met at Warhol's Studio (The Factory) and Brian Epstein (The Beatles' manager) when their limousine passed by him as he walked by the hotel they were staying at in Beverly Hills. (Insert: Director William Phelps then and now)
At the university, Phelps was introduced to two students who are among my favorite filmmakers ever--a duo that ended up becoming mentors of sorts to him: future co-producer of NORTH SHORE, Randal Kleiser--the future director of the incredible GREASE (1978), SUMMER LOVERS (1982) and the heart-wrenching drama from 1996, IT'S MY PARTY. The other being John Milius, director of the mythical 'surfing tribalism-as-a-sea-bound version of the Hell's Angels', BIG WEDNESDAY  (1978); and the first Conan motion Picture (actually, the only one that counts). Phelps'  senior thesis film, THE REVERSAL OF RICHARD SUN--a dystopian tale inspired by Shakespeare's Richard II--cast Milius as a co-lead.
The late Basil Poledouris (who did background acting work in a few episodes of the original STAR TREK TV series and went on to be a future composer of Milius' in CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Kleiser's THE BLUE LAGOON) did the scoring. Everytime I found out Basil, Pino Donaggio, Nino Rota, John Barry or Joe Renzetti were responsible for a movie soundtrack, I felt I had to go watch the films they'd composed for; their scoring is that superb. (Top: Director Randal Kleiser with Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins on the set of 1980s THE BLUE LAGOON)
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Mr. Phelps.
MARCO: When I refer to your film, I usually say "What Karate KID is for martial arts, NORTH SHORE is for riding giant waves". It's somewhat like 'The Surfing Kid'; it belongs to a sub-genre I go gaga over...the 'Rite of Passage' movie. And it is also about a search for a sense of Family and belonging.
WILLIAM PHELPS: Exactly. It's a kid's journey to find out what is important to him and in doing so, he enters a world he's never been to before yet had dreamed about all his life. 
M: How did the film come about?
WP: I had been hired to do a documentary about Big Wave surfers called WAVE WARRIORS with Shaun Tomson, Michael and Derek Ho which was shown during the early days of ESPN at a time when they did not have a lot of programming. While in Hawaii I recorded a guy who spoke in this surfing 'patois' who became the inspiration for the character of Turtle. I showed it to Randal Kleiser and we both took our fish-out-of-water boy who wants to surf without having ever been to the ocean to three different studios. We did all our pitches in one afternoon. Hours later we got the news Universal and Disney wanted to do it!!! (Insert: Matt Adler and Nia Peeples, the love interest in NORTH SHORE)
M: Matt had, a year prior to being cast by you, appeared in the whimsical FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986), directed by your producer, R. Kleiser.
WP: Wow, you done your homework. Also, Gregory Harrison grew up on Catalina Island and he'd surfed since he was a small boy and was very good at it. And he had that soulful quality about him.
M: The trio of lead actors are really believable in the movie. What was the casting process like?  
WP: We needed actors who could at least get out on the water and take off with some style and grace. Actor Matt Adler has always been passionate about the sport and frequently goes to the beach to surf. 
M: Gregory Harrison brought this aura of a "surfing sage", which was perfect for the role of Chandler. 
WP: Yes, he did.
M: And Mr. Harrison also directed Second Unit, right (interviewer's note: scenes not necessarily requiring dialogue between the lead actors; mostly action scenes and the like)?
WP: You're right! He went out when he didn't have any lines. Greg got in the water with all the equipment and gear and coordinated lots of the surfing scenes helped by people like Gary Capo, Bruce Shurley and  Kevin Emmons. 
M: How about Turtle, played by John Philbin? He steals every scene he's in.
WP: Randal had worked with him in an earlier movie that wasn't successful and really wanted him in this one.
M: I saw that, GRANDVIEW USA (1984)! With Jamie Lee Curtis, Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell. A cute film about small time lives dreaming Big Dreams.
WP: Exactly, Marco! But about John, I'd told Randal, "this guy doesn't look like a surfer. He doesn't have the body type and he's got pale skin".  He then told me, "He's like a Method Actor...he will BECOME the part, trust me." We sent John to Hawaii for about five weeks and by June of 1986, when the cameras were ready to roll, he had become the character and had the lingo down pat!  (Top: Matt Adler, John Philbin, Gregory Harrison)
M: Your choice of Peter Smokler as the DP was a very good one.
WP: Yeah, he had done so many documentaries. He could also shoot fast which helped our movie as we didn't have a big budget.
M: I think his most famous work at the time as a DP had been working on the ground-breaking mockumentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), directed by Rob Reiner. 
WP: Yes, that is correct.
M: Your movie refuses to die. It is so well made. It continues to resonate with people all these decades later. On top of that, it helped boost the tourism in that part of Hawaii. One cannot disassociate the popularity of NORTH SHORE with the influx of tourists from every corner of the globe to visit the region called THE North Shore;  I, for one,  have known a few Brazilian surfers who decided to visit, and even move there, after being enthralled by your film. 
WP: We've had special screenings celebrating the movie's Anniversaries throughout the years and we always get packed houses. Myself and Kleiser have been considering a sequel for a while... perhaps with Rick, and Turtle showing up in different parts of the film and then bringing in a new Generation of characters. (Insert: Gregory Harrison and John Philbin in a recent photo; both attended the 35th Anniversary showing in Santa Barbara, CA in August of 2022)
My conversation with actor John Philbin took place a couple of weeks later...
MARCO: What is your recollection of working on the movie NORTH SHORE, a picture that has just recently celebrated its 35th Anniversary?
JOHN PHILBIN: I first began surfing at the age of 12, but I was not surfing at the time I was chosen for the role of Turtle in the movie. I had been focused exclusively on acting. But this movie made get back into surfing; Gerry Lopez told me I shouldn't quit for I would be able to travel all over the world and do it for the rest of my life. He's my guru! (Insert: John Philbin on the NORTH SHORE set)
M: So surfing has been an important part of your life, huh?
JP: Oh yeah. Since that movie, I've been able to do both acting and coach other actors on how to surf in movies and television, and also teach surfing privately, and to groups of non-actors.  
M: John, many people spend their whole lives and cannot list ONE single film that are still relevant years after they were made; you are an integral part of FIVE movies that have become cult classics. You were a sect member in the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984), based on Stephen King´s short story; Chuck in the farcical splatter-punk THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985); you were an extreme sports enthusiast who dabbles in bank robberies in the original POINT BREAK (1991); and you had a character part in the testosterone-filled western TOMBSTONE (1993); and of course, NORTH SHORE!
JP: Yes! Thank you very much!
When I congratulated Gregory Harrison on the film's 35th anniversary, and told him how much people liked his acting in the movie he replied with this message: 
GREGORY HARRISON: Thank you, Marco! I appreciate the kind comments. It is amazing how iconic the film has become around the surfing world. Glad to hear that is also true in Brazil. You made my day. Best to you!
Well, that's about it. I, for one, practiced a bit of both boogie and handplane boarding but the prospects of literally "sleeping with the fishes" or becoming  a shark's meal (and a crappy one at that), I guess, kept me from delving deeper into it. However, the interesting thing in the case of NORTH SHORE, it's not a requirement for one to have been initiated into the sport for he/she to be endeared by the film. Not even to be into any aquatic sports. All you need is to have a familiarity with the pains of growing up and the hardships of finding your place in this world. 
***A note from the interviewer: To contact Mr. Philbin for surfing classes, coaching or technical consulting on Surfing-themed movies, click HERE. ***
About Marco Freitas:
Marco has a B.A. in Film from Columbia College; Studied Screenwriting at UCLA; among some of his work, includes collaborating on Brazilian books on PLANET OF THE APES--´HOMEM NÃO ENTENDE NADA: ARQUIVOS SECRETOS DO PLANETA DOS MACACOS (by Saulo Adami); CASABLANCA: A CRIAÇÃO DE UMA OBRA-PRIMA (by Renzo Mora); low budget movies from the past 50 years-CEMITÉRIO PERDIDO DOS FILMES B (by César Almeida); PERDIDOS NO ESPAÇO (a book by Carlos Gomes); also some research for Robert Curti´s book RICCARDO FREDA: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF A BORN FILMMAKER and TONIGHT, ON A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE: WHEN TV SITCOMS SOMETIMES GOT SERIOUS (by Lee Gambin).   

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