John Milius swaps the stench of Hollywood surf movie Big Wednesday for Close Encounters of the First Kind and Star Wars!
Greg MacGillivray was 14 in 1960, the son of a Corona Beach lifeguard, short and handsome (his older sister was Miss Newport Beach) and utterly relentless in whatever he had in mind: paper, math class, scouts or, by grade 8, make a surf movie.
Nobody saw Greg coming. He looked like a kid dressed up for Halloween as a surf movie director. He was almost invisible.
MacGillivray’s other superpower was that he couldn’t be pushed around.
Skip the deadline if you have to, but get the job done right.
Greg later said that he spent all his money (and also borrowed from dad) and 90% of his free time on A wave of fresh colors, his first film, which took five years to make. He made the poster art. He painstakingly crafted small interstitial stop-motion animated graphics, which scroll across the screen in mere seconds but really light up the film.
Cool Wave debuted midway through MacGillivray’s freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. It was screened a few times at various Elks Lodges and local high school auditoriums, and that was enough to get a pretty good review in SURFER.
“Cool Wave of Color shows blessed signs of creativity, [and] a musical score adapted to the Californian airwaves. (The review came near the end of the review and was a small but literal kick in the nuts: “Greg is a young man and has a high-pitched voice.”)
I learned most of this from MacGillivray’s new book, Five Hundred Summer Stories—the title is a riff on Five Summer Stories, Greg’s best-known surf film, made with his partner Jim Freeman.
Two other parts of the book caught my attention.
First, in the fall of 1964, MacGillivray stocked up on his new white-on-white Ford Econoline van – and again, the ambition and drive cannot be overstated; Greg’s work ethic is two part inspiring and part grotesque and although I’ve never met MacGillivray face to face he’s been in my Spirit Animal from age five and embarked on a journey 6,300 miles from coast to coast. Wave tour in which the film was performed at three locations.
A pair of shows at the North Hollywood Women’s Club, another in Daytona Beach, another in Virginia Beach. Driving across the country and back for four shows seems insane.
But no, quite the opposite. The whole thing, as Greg well knew, was not to make a profit, but to go out and be seen, to build momentum, to gain experience – and experiences came and went, big and small. , high and low.
Driving through Alabama just weeks after more than 30 black men, women and children were hospitalized after being beaten and gassed during a peaceful march in Tuscaloosa, Greg grabbed a KKK rally poster on a telephone pole as a souvenir and was escorted out of town by a group of locals in an armed pick-up truck. Later, during a detour to Manhattan, he visited the MoMA and treated himself to a carriage ride through Central Park for his future wife. MacGillivray loved surfing but also loved new experiences of all kinds.
The other thing: Greg directed the second unit of filming Big Wednesday, and his depiction of that episode in Five Hundred Summer Stories reminded me once again of that movie’s humbling public debut and his rehabilitation from another world.
Sharpen those knives, guys.
If you’ve been with me here for a while, you know that time and tide haven’t softened my view of Big Wednesday, which was directed by John Milius and released in 1978 by Warner Brothers.
First I whipped it with spaghetti hereand did it again here. I make an exception for Gary Busey, who single-handedly carries the first reel of Big Wednesday, and I also have a soft spot for Bearthe fallen shaper whose “lemon next to the pie” quote is sad and poignant while being, and unintentionally, the comedic highlight of the film.
But I stand by the idea that the Big Wednesday’s pile of bad reviews – read the Times takedown here and the Surfing magazine review here— was totally deserved, and that Big Wednesday got unceremoniously pulled from theaters after a week or two was a mercy to everyone involved.
And you know who agrees with those dogpiling critics, according to MacGillivray’s book? John Milius himself, who called Greg personally to apologize for the film and to say he “let everyone down”.
Except that Milius, of course, got the last laugh – lots of laughs in fact.
Big Wednesday found new life in the 1980s as a video rental favorite, then found a place in the baby boomer treasure chest of once despised and now sacred cultural artifacts, right next to the Monkees and Ronald Reagan.
But before that happened, there was a second and perhaps more amazing Big Wednesday consolation prize, which I believe is unique in Hollywood history. MacGillivray tells the story:
I started doing day trips to Milius’ office at Warner Bros. In the adjoining office sat Steven Spielberg [who was] working with Milius, writing and preparing the comedy feature “1941”. The unions still had incredible control over Hollywood, but Spielberg, Milius and their friend George Lucas were challenging the status quo with hugely profitable films. One day the three of them were at John’s office and we were all joking about movies. I would learn later that they had each agreed to share part of the profits from the three personal projects they each had in production. Incredibly, Lucas’ movie was Star Wars and Spielberg’s movie was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. John’s movie was Big Wednesday. [Each filmmaker] each gave two points on the net profits they held in their own creations [to the other two filmmakers]. It was their way of showing former studio bosses that a new era of young and creative collaboration had begun.
“The deal worked out better for some than others,” Spielberg later told MacGillivray, laughing at the millions of lost dollars. “We did not rehearse the practice.”
This is my favorite scene in Big Wednesday. Gary Busey is of course the star, but I look at the little boy who defuses the situation by lending his board to Matt Johnson, and I imagine the actor is actually Greg MacGillivray at 31, directing and controlling the scene while looking like the Cool Wave college kid he was in 1960. The man is short and cunning and very good at what he does.
(Like this? Matt Warshaw delivers a Surfing Essay every Sunday, PST. All are a delight to read. Might be time to subscribe to Warshaw’s Surf Encyclopedia, yeah? Three dollars a month.)