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The Best Big Wednesday Story

Peter PT Townend surfing dubbing for William Katt on the set of Big Wednesday, 1977. Photo Dan Merkel.

Just when you think it must be, oh, about six months since you heard a great Big Wednesday story, comes one I’ve never heard before, courtesy of surf historian Matt Warshaw and veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, and it’s a cracker.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first a little insight for the uninitiated into the most revered and ridiculed surf movie Hollywood has ever made.

In the mid-1970s, veteran Malibu surfer John Milius was rising to stardom at Warner Bros., having written the screenplays for the first two Dirty Harry movies, and writing and directing The Wind and the Lion for Sean Connery.

OK, he wasn’t yet in the league of the other “it” directors at Warner, like his pals Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who had bigger offices next door, but he could pretty much choose his next project.

And he did.

Malibu surfer, muso and writer Denny Aaberg had written a fun short piece for Surfer and Tracks magazines titled No-Pants Mance which marginally fictionalizes the bad behavior of the ‘Bu brothers in the early 60s, of which Denny and Milius had been a part . .

It became the skeleton of Big Wednesday. In California in October 1976, Denny set me up for an interview with Milius at Warner where he was working with Spielberg and John Belushi on a film called 1941 while Big Wednesday was in pre-production.

I will write later: “Milius was a great man with a penchant for grand gestures and grandiose turns. Waving his stogie, feet on the desk, he said, “This is probably the most personal film I’ll ever make. It’s How Green Was My Valley of surfing – the loss of an aristocracy, the end of an era.

Milius would later regret those words when, after the release of Big Wednesday in 1978, a New York Times reviewer wrote, “John Milius got millions from Warner to make a ‘home movie’ about surfing, and if anyone loved him except him, I’d be surprised.”

Pretty much every big name in surfing at the time was involved, but it was a monumental flop until home video flipped it around and made it a cult classic.

But that didn’t hurt Milius’ career too much – he went on to write the blockbuster Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola in 1979 and was nominated for an Oscar. He also managed to sneak into a brilliant battleground surf scene, in a subtle finger pointing to everyone who messed up Big Wednesday.

But back to Warshaw’s story, which he shared on his Sunday Joint blog from Greg MacGillivray’s new book, Five Hundred Summer Stories. Greg, one of surfing’s greatest columnists, was manager of Big Wednesday’s second team and in 1977 found himself almost daily in Milius’ office at Warner Bros.

He picks up the story:

“Spielberg, Milius and their friend George Lucas challenged the status quo with hugely profitable films. One day the three of them were in John’s office and we were all joking. I would learn later that they had each agreed to share two points of the net profits of the three personal projects they had in production. Lucas’ movie was Star Wars and Spielberg’s movie was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. John’s movie was Big Wednesday.

Big Wednesday cost $11 million to make and grossed $4.5 million at the box office. Star Wars cost $11 million and grossed $775 million, while Close Encounters cost $19 million and grossed $306 million.

“The deal worked out better for some than others,” Spielberg later told MacGillivray, laughing at the lost millions.

“We did not rehearse the practice.”

Pointed Toe Challenger Series

With the Saquarema Pro in Brazil finished and dusted off this week, and the Haleiwa Challenger closing the series in Hawaii later this month, the list of qualifiers for the 2023 WSL World Tour is nearly complete.

But, there is still room for surprises.

The story so far for Australians: In the women’s division, in which the top five join the World Tour, Macy Callaghan and Molly Picklum have qualified, currently occupying first and second place in the standings, with Molly sharing that spot with Caitlin Simmers (USA). Bronte Macaulay of WA, currently sitting at seven, edged out Nikki Van Dijk, now eighth, who did not go to Brazil. The two still have no chance of making the rounds but will have to do very well in Hawaii.

On the men’s side, Ryan Callinan qualified to join the big circuit in third place in the standings. Our other likely qualifier is Liam O’Brien, now sixth, after Morocco’s Ramzi Boukhiam took second in Medina, Brazil, seeing him jump 10 places to sit in fourth, and another strong performance of Hawaii Ian Gentil bringing him to fifth place.

Dylan Moffat and Morgan Cibilic, sitting either side of the cup at 10 and 11 with just five points separating them, must pull out all the stops in Hawaii, with so many fit surfers ahead of them. But, as Ramzi showed us, it can be done.

It’s an interesting scenario. We have four horses in each race, but according to Hawaii in two weeks, we could end up with only three qualifiers in all.