On the road with Ank and Frank
It's been twenty-something years since Andrew Kidman, Jon Frank, and Mark Sutherland released Litmus, a humble surf film with modest ambitions.
Though it didn't play to the box offices, Litmus managed to capture the mid-90s zeitgeist; mainstream surfing was hidebound by convention but Ank and Frank and Sutho shone a light in the quiet corners of our culture and unwittingly kickstarted a revolution.
Big talk, no?
Well, consider that by the end of the decade there was nary a quiver that didn't include a fish. And Litmus had another, more subtle, impact. It sought to remind us that surfing is unlike football or cricket, or really any other professional sport including pro surfing, in that the truly satisfying stuff happens far from any arena. Surf empires may rise and fall, celebrities contrived then forgotten, while mysterious benefactors appear out of the ether, and none of it will have any bearing over your enjoyment of standing on a surfboard. Chances are you'll outlast them all.
So here we are, twenty-something years after Litmus, I've called Ank [Andrew Kidman] but the sound of cutlery on ceramic tells me he's in the middle of lunch. With the family, perhaps?
"Call back in 15 minutes," says Ank. "Jonny [Frank] and I'll be in the car."
So I gave him a quarter then dialled again...
Swellnet: You guys ready to go?
Frank: Are we doing an interview?
Ank: Yeah with Stu from Swellnet.
Frank: G’Day Stu!
G’day Franky, have you guys been out to lunch?
Ank: Yeah, we had a...um, business lunch [Laughs]. We were with Derek but Derek doesn’t eat.
Frank: I said, “Hey Derek, do you wanna come to lunch?” And he just smiled, pulled out a jar of nutella and some soy linseed bread. I took that as a no.
Ank: Derek doesn’t eat. Well, he had cold porridge for breakfast, but he rarely eats. But we need to eat ‘cos we’re working.
Frank: Yeah, we’re working!
OK, you guys are working on Beyond Litmus. Is this a sequel to the original, or is it something else..?
Ank: Jonny’s gonna answer that…
Frank: Well...the title is probably a bit misleading. Derek came up with the name and it’s a follow up to what he’s been doing since we shot him with all those surfboards back in ‘95. He’s been on a pretty interesting trajectory - in surfing and also in his life.
I viewed the original Litmus as a reaction against mainstream surfing. Professional surfing is in a pretty weird place at the moment, is the new film a response to what’s happening?
Ank: Nah, it’s not really a comment on what’s going on at the moment.
Franky: It’s more a character study really.
Ank: I’m not sure the original Litmus was a reaction to anything.
Frank: I reckon it was a reaction.
Ank: But all those things in Litmus were already happening in surfing, they just weren’t being shown by the mainstream media. We decided to show them.
But this time you’re just concentrating on Derek?
Ank: Yeah, Derek’s the main protagonist, but the film is much more than just him. It manages to say a lot.
Frank: Except it’s not overtly pushing any messages. It’s more about showing people - and not just Derek - who are still really involved in surfing today.
Ank: One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because so much has happened to surfing over the last 25 years, and a lot of it had to do with Litmus. A lot of people saw what Derek was doing in that film and ran with it. So we want to look at that from our point of view, because really, it’s not just Derek’s journey it’s our journey as well.
It’s fascinating going back to look at it all, and then compare it to what’s happening in the present. I mean, we speak to guys like Terry Fitzgerald and Dale Egan and others, to get their feelings about surfing. A lot of them were once at the forefront of performance surfing, and much of the surf industry was built on the back of their contributions. The industry is suffering but those guys are still there doing their thing. Someone like Terry Fitzgerald, he’s still there doing it in his one-room shaping bay.
Frank: With Martyn Worthington doing airbrush sprays…
Ank: It’s amazing, you should see it. Yeah, anyway, look at the industry, it got so big and then it collapsed but these guys are still there. It’s fascinating to consider what they’ve been through. I’m not trying to make a social comment but I’m really amazed by the staying power of guys like that.
Frank: And also, Derek finally has a chance to retort to the stitch up that was in Litmus.
Was that the quip about feminism?
Frank: Yeah the feminism one. It’s been a sore point for him and he’s been copping shit for twenty years [laughs] He’s been waiting a quarter-century to set it straight. I think he enjoyed that.
Ank: It might seem like it’s all about Derek, but he’s the vehicle to tell a story about all these other people. There’s a lot of people involved.
Derek’s extensive quiver was one of the lasting images from Litmus. What does he ride in Beyond Litmus?
Ank: He actually rides the original quiver in Beyond Litmus. One of the things that’s funny to look back at is how influential Litmus was. At the time we had no idea it’d make that sort of impression. How could you know? So when we were editing that film we were showing stuff that we thought was good surfing on those boards, but going back to the tapes we realised there’s all this other stuff that people never saw and it’s amazing to look at it again.
Frank: It’s straight off the cutting room floor. What we did was recut the sequence in the original Litmus with stuff that no-one’s ever seen.
Ank: We never even saw it! I mean, we filmed it but we couldn’t remember it. When we played it again we were like “Holy shit!” It’s amazing…time’s really put it into context. And also what other surfers have gone on to do on similar equipment post.
What format did you shoot the new one on?
Both: 69mm Fwankavision!
Ank: It’s grainy, it’s blurry, and if you can make it out good luck to you.
And the tunes? You guys provided them last time around.
Ank: Yep, we’re doing them again. New Material. It’s not Val Dusty...but the funny thing is, even though it’s not Val Dusty there might be some Val Dusty cos Val Dusty did three records and a lot of it wasn’t heard so we might even put some of that in the film. But yeah we’re making the music again.
It sounds like you guys have got the old magic going again.
Ank: I don’t think we ever had any magic…
Frank: Everything has just fallen into place. It’s been pretty easy.
Ank: Yeah none of it’s been hard.
Frank: We’re not fighting about what needs to be where. We’ve both got the same vision for the film.
Ank: It’s been a lot of fun, Stu - to be honest. It’s good to be part of something again.
Frank: We were out the Pass with Derek the other day. It was only a foot, amazingly shallow but running down the sandbank as it does up there, and we were just laughing about how, all these years later, we’re still in the water. And that felt good.
Ank and Frank are winding up production of Beyond Litmus shortly. Once done they'll be editing both the film - which will be released as a DVD - and an accompanying 100 page book to be sold together as a package. The book will feature full transcripts of the interviews, candid photography, and it'll tell the story in its own way.
They're limiting the run to just 1,250 copies (signed and numbered) and after that it's done - no more.
(Homepage photo taken from the Beyond Litmus Instagram account)