San Sebastián: Film Constellation Rolls Out Rory Kennedy’s Laird Hamilton Portrait ‘Take Every Wave’ (EXCLUSIVE)

SAN SEBASTIAN — Suggesting the pull of major documentaries on extreme sports legends, London-based Film Constellation has rolled out Rory Kennedy’s weighty “Take Every Wave: the Life of Laird Hamilton,” a portrait of legendary big wave surfer, to multiple major territories.

In banner international deals, Film Constellation has closed France (Groupe AB, Canal Plus), Germany/Austria, one of Europe’s biggest extreme sports movies markets (Universum), China (Jushi Films) and Latin America (Polar Star). Cai Chang has acquired Taiwanese rights, Captive those for airlines.

Previous sales were closed together with UTA Independent Film Group for Canada with Mongrel and for Australia with Madman.

In a deal announced this April, UTA brokered a U.S. sale to Sundance Selects/IFC Films, which will release “Take Every Wave” on Sept. 29. The U.K., Scandinavia, Spain and Japan are currently in negotiation, according to Film Constellation founder Fabien Westerhoff. The two-hour documentary feature world premiered at January’s Sundance Festival and had its European premiere this weekend at Spain’s San Sebastián Festival, playing in its Savage Cinema section. “Take Every Wave” will now segue for its U.K. premiere on Oct. 5 at an IMAX screening at the BFI London Film Festival.

Directed by the Academy Award-nominated Kennedy (“Last Days in Vietnam”), “Take Every Wave” is written by Mark Bailey and Jack Youngelson, produced by Kennedy, Paul Speaker, Bailey, Youngelson, and executive produced by Jonathan S. Marshall and William Cawley.

Mixing archive and new footage with interviews with Hamilton, multiple friends (and sometimes ex-friends), surf journalists, his step-father Bill Hamilton and wife Gabrielle Reece, “Take Every Wave” flashes back from a present where Hamilton is nervously listening to radio reports about El Niño creating historic sea swell. “Take Every Wave” records his early life growing up in on Pūpūkea beach on Hawaii’s Oahu North Shore, where, “100% disobedient,” as his half-brother puts it, he was beaten by his father and bullied at school, but found peace in the ocean.

As its trailer suggests, the bio-doc goes on to feature spectacular footage of Hamilton in the early ‘90s surfing big waves at what came to be known as the Jaws surf break off the north-central coast of Maui. There, with the rest of the Strapped crew, he invented tow-in surfing, the practice of a surfer being towed by a jet-ski into the ocean so as to catch big waves – which caused huge controversy. It also naturally takes in his historic feat in 2000 at Tahiti’s Teahupoʻo break when he surfed what is described as the heaviest wave ever, plus his present passion for foil boarding and fated decision to bring in cameras to shoot his Jaws exploits – which turned him into a celebrity and changed the face of surf forever,

But the real focus of “Take Every Wave” is as much psychological, and a question which Kennedy says she asked herself when a child whose family friends included tennis champion Billie Jean King: What drives an elite athlete to attempt such extraordinary feats?  Variety talked to Kennedy just before “Take Every Wave” played San Sebastián:

“Take Every Wave’s” press notes talk about your films addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues: poverty, corruption, domestic abuse, human rights, mental illness. What is the most pressing issue addressed by “Take Every Wave?”

This is a different kind of films from most of the ones I’ve done. It’s part of the appeal, frankly, that it was so different. I was challenged in ways I hadn’t been in my other films. There’s the technical questions: How do you capture a guy on a wave? But what drew me is that I felt it had a great story, the character’s so rich, one of the great individualists, someone who’s forged his own path, who’s changed the sport in radical ways. If you look at other sports, you haven’t seen so many extreme changes.

You go beyond the what to the why: What drives Laird Hamilton? You seem to locate two important answers: One, his childhood and another the need to justify technology in general, in what it allows big wave surfers to achieve. I don’t know if you’d agree….

I think Laird is definitely driven by demons from his childhood, and we explore it in the film. And I think he has an internal drive, which, y’know, nature/nurture. He was driven, from a very young age had a love and passion for the water, he’d push the envelope at home and school, with people in positions of authority.  But he managed to harness that part of himself, invest it into something that ultimately was quite satisfying for him. The surfing is a nice backdrop. But at the forefront what drove me was what it takes for a human to achieve greatness, push the envelope, do things nobody else has ever done, at the risk of great personal peril.

One important thing is chance. Just as big wave surfing was coming onto the media radar, he met Gabrielle Reece, who was working on TV, and was more clued into what the man she fell in love with could offer as a media brand. 

I think it played a role. But it speaks to something bigger; when you are so singularly focused in your life there’s gonna be cost and consequences. Those [Strapped] friends were of great value to Laird at that time. But he has to move on and find some other people who’ll continue to help him achieve his goals. If you’re onboard with that, it works. If not, it doesn’t work so well. I think you can say with Gaby and other people in his life, it is the cost of greatness, to some degree.

Laird himself says that he “didn’t reject competition as much as judgment.” To what extent did he’d view you, as a director, in the interviews or finished film, as a possible source of judgment, and thus feel slightly uncomfortable.

That’s a brilliant question. I think he and Gabby are very open, he was incredibly generous, he put me in touch with family and friends that he has a strange relationship with. The interview was done over four days, three hours a day, we covered a lot of ground and I think he was largely open with me. But I think it was not always a comfortable place for him. It was a process of making him feel comfortable and not really forcing anything per se. Some things I did force in the beginning, I really wanted editorial control. There were some ground rules agreed to early on.

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