Tim Bonython talks about The Big Wave Project - video
“I’ve been filming non-stop for five years,” says Tim Bonython as we sat down to discuss his latest film. “I’ve been chasing every swell I can.”
The title of the film in question is The Big Wave Project. And while five years may seem excessive for a surf movie, the reality is longer still. At the risk of sounding awfully grandiose, The Big Wave Project film is a lifetime in the making.
Tim’s film career began in 1981 when he was hired to shoot the Coke Surfabout. On his way back to Adelaide he called into Bells, when Simon unveiled the Thruster at buttery 15 foot Bells.
He took the footage home, edited it, created a film and then sold the tickets. “The queue to get inside was a half a mile long,” recalls Tim.
And he hasn’t stopped since. Tim is still chasing swells, traversing the surfing frontiers, and jetsetting into distant isles at two days notice. Then, once it’s all in the can, he spruiks the show like a Ringling Brothers showman, bringing the surfing circus to your local RSL.
Lately, rather than just doing laps of the country Tim’s decided to follow his curiosity. Eight years ago he made Immersion, the theme of which was: What is surfing?
“That film was the result of where my head was at the time,” admits Tim. “So I asked people what surfing meant to them.”
More recently it’s the big stuff again. Scary waves. “I don’t even get out of bed unless it’s ten foot,” laughs Tim. “Or even bigger! If it’s not fucking huge I don’t bother filming.”
It’s a philosophy shaped by experience. “When you’re showing surf movies in pubs, clubs, and cinemas all they want to see is crazy stuff.” Yet, as with Immersion, this “crazy stuff” is bound by a narrative.
“The only place the surfing tribe still exists,” explains Tim, “is in big wave surfing. Every time I chase a big swell I see it. A brotherhood.”
There’s a bit more to the big wave brotherhood than high fives and back slaps, according to Tim. There’s even a contradiction at play. “These guys compete against each to immortalise themselves - like Nathan Fletcher did at Teahupoo - but they also back each other up far more than any other surfers do. Their lives depend upon each other’s support.”
Tim hones in on that wave by Nathan Fletcher. “Think about that wave. It was a split second decision to take it. He made the drop, stood there, got imploded, but he rode one of the heaviest waves in history. How long did it all last?”
Tim beats me to the mental calcs. "Three to four seconds, that’s all. And now he’s immortalised. From one split second to forever.”
Tim started filming for The Big Wave Project with only a vague storyline in mind. He’d leave that up to the gods...and then Aaron Gold almost died in front of his camera. Gold was on a high from riding the largest wave ever at Peahi, he then went within a heartbeat of dying while surrounded by the best big wave surfers on the planet.
The consequences of big wave surfing were never more profound.
From that point the story wrote itself. Tim interviewed Aaron Gold at length, plus the surfers who saved him, and attempts to make sense of their motivations. Some of the surfers can only offer platitudes though their sincerity can’t be mistaken. Conversely, guys like Greg Long and Mark Healey, and even Aaron Gold himself, get to the heart of the matter.
It may seem insane to some viewers - hell, both Greg Long and Aaron Gold have seen the other side yet they still chase big waves - but words can only explain so much. It makes more sense when you watch them driving across those tremendous blue walls...preferably while projected onto a big screen at your local RSL.
The national tour for The Big Wave Project begins in May.