Riding waves of 'Fire'
By Dave Dondoneau
By Dave Dondoneau
Mike Stewart briefly paused as he was trying to describe the type of budget he and Scotty Carter used to make "Fire," a surf movie cut to 40 minutes for the big screen, but with more than 3 1/2 hours of footage for DVD.
"It was nickel-and-dime," Stewart finally said. "Whenever we had enough money to shoot, we did what we could. There was one time we were editing footage in California and got a call from my friend Sean Collins, a surf forecaster, who told me about a great swell coming into Tahiti. Next thing you know, we're throwing the tickets on a credit card, and I'm bodyboarding in the same shirt I flew over there wearing."
The cool part? Soon after Stewart and Carter showed some of the footage from the Tahiti trip at the Paradise Film Festival, they won a $5,000 prize.
"It was more than enough to pay for the trip," the world champion bodyboarder and O'ahu native said, laughing. "This whole movie was 10 years in the making and done with minimal equipment. It's not like any surf movie you've ever seen. I don't think it will do much in the movie theaters, but I think it will be a really good cult classic for surfers."
Stewart, 45, is hoping you judge for yourself. He's hosting a "Fire" premiere tonight at Dave & Buster's with two screenings before heading to Maui tomorrow for another premiere on Maui at the Historic Iao Theatre. The flick drew rave reviews from fans at recent premieres on the Big Island.
He also took some time recently for a chat.
Q. Tell us about "Fire."
A. It originally started out as typical surf movie, but once we got the footage, we knew we had an opportunity to do something more meaningful and different.
Q. There's been some great surf movies — "Step Into Liquid" comes to mind. How does "Fire" differ?
A. You have to see it, but it's so different. It's more about the experience and less about the vanity. The water imagery is a big part. It's more of a spiritual piece than your typical surf porn. It's got a lot of wave action, but it goes a lot deeper into the spiritual aspects of it all. It's more of an art movie than a normal surf movie. There are definite themes like being sensitive to the influences around you, following your heart, staying true to yourself. ... It's bringing to surface some things surfers all share. There's one part where I try to get a shot of my son the first time he gets hooked on surfing. Kaimana is 7 now, but he was 3 when he got his first waves. I tried to capture that moment when he first got the thrill for riding.
Q. What are the biggest waves we'll see in "Fire?"
A. Oh gosh, well, the 9/11 2005 swell in Tahiti at Teahupoo had the biggest rideable tubes come in. You're talking in the neighborhood 15-feet faces, but the tallest waves are at Jaws off Maui. There are lots of Pipeline shots.
Q. Why bodyboard instead of surf?
A. I do surf, but for the types of wave I like to ride — the hollow waves — bodyboarding is better suited to those. It's easier to get into those waves on a bodyboard than a surfboard. On a bodyboard, I experience parts of the wave I don't have the ability to do on a surfboard.
Q. Ever have a near-death experience?
A. Yeah. I would say in the 40 years I've been surfing, I try to push myself into waves of consequence. When you do that, you definitely face situations. That's what it's about, but there were only a couple of times that were really, really critical. I was close to drowning once and it was pretty peaceful. Once you overcome the panicky stage, your body goes limp.
Q. OK, you've got to tell me more about that. Where and when did it happen? How long were you under?
A. Well, I kept myself conscious and got some air. I have no idea how long I was under. I just went into a real state of being just totally limp. I got held down and held down and held down by the wave. It was a pretty big day on the outer reef at Pipe four or five years ago and I was doing tow-ins and just got dropped off. My partner went back into the beach to see some friends. No big deal. Meantime, I got stuck in the white water and tumbled forever. It got to the point where I thought I was letting go, on the verge of passing out, and fortunately just went into that peaceful stage.
Q. Does an experience like that stick in your mind when you're out on your board again?
A. Yeah, but the important thing is to learn from those experiences and have huge respect for surf, which I do. I usually wipe out less and hurt myself less in bigger surf. You're not as fearful in smaller surf. That's my experience.
Q. Any injuries bodyboarding?
A. Stitches once at a contest at Shark Island in Australia. I've lost toenails at Pipeline, which is weird since I have swim fins on.
Q. Where were the hairiest wave you've ever surfed?
A. There are two scales of hairy waves. One is size and the other is intensity. By intensity, I mean the abruptness of depth change. At Big Pass in Tahiti back in the '80s, there was a real big day that was treacherous. I've also caught some treacherous waves in the Canary Islands, where waves break hard into shallow waters. Probably the most deadly waves in the world are right here at Pipeline. The waves here shift around, and you have to be on top of things to have an enjoyable experience out there.
Q. How big is too big?
A. Depends on the conditions. Too big can be 4-footers if it's too shallow and too-treacherous conditions. It can also be 60 feet if conditions are perfect.
Q. How many countries has bodyboarding and surfing brought you to?
A. Gosh, I never added it up, but it's been amazing. I've been all over the world. The best things in life are experiences you get in the water when you experience the waves. I'm going to keep doing this as long as I can.
Reach Dave Dondoneau at firstname.lastname@example.org.