DOC NYC ’19 Interview: Joe Berlinger and Robby Naish on When the Tide Turned in “The Longest Wave”

No matter what age Robby Naish has been, he’s been been intent on defying it, first becoming a sensation at 13 when he won the first of 24 world championships in windsurfing and changing as reliably as the tide in the years since, mastering one watersport after another and using his athletic prowess as a springboard to refashion himself as a successful entrepreneur. So it’s understandable why the prospect of a film that would require him to go back in time would hold little appeal, looking at various offers to tell his story as if they were the gold watches they hand out at retirement parties, suggesting his career has come to an end when in fact he remains as active as ever.

As such, “The Longest Wave” was never intended to be a summation of Naish’s remarkable run, instead chronicling his international search for where the perfect conditions could conspire to create an uninterrupted surf that could be ridden for miles. Yet director Joe Berlinger, who has a knack for locating the pressure points in his subjects to see how they respond in films such as “Intent to Destroy” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” was around for what turned out to be a perfect storm when Naish suffered a devastating pelvic fracture where the resulting titanium plate that fortified his frame was far less painful than the inability to get back on the water, leaving him to deal with a host of problems on land, whether it’s getting a divorce from his second wife or having issues arise with his windsurfing team that continues competing without him.

“It’s actually a kick in the butt to get a little better than I was,” Naish says of the injury and the resulting fallout in “The Longest Wave,” and while there surely were easier ways to avoid the by-the-numbers biopic that he desperately wanted to avoid, Naish eludes it as readily as any threat of a wipeout he’s encountered before as Berlinger is there to capture his resilience and resolve in working through adversity unlike he’s ever faced that tell a life story through the way he lives. Trips to Namibia and Peru may yield breathtaking footage of Naish conquering the waves, but the smaller victories on the road to recovery carry just as much weight and one comes to appreciate the pro waterman’s mental strength and focus as his physical skill.

Shortly before the premiere of “The Longest Wave” at DOC NYC, Naish and Berlinger spoke about how they adjusted to making a film that didn’t follow the initial plan and knowing the type of sports film from the start they didn’t want to make, as well as dealing with age and integrating a crew specializing in extreme sports with a traditional doc crew.

How did this project come about?

Joe Berlinger: Strangely enough, I have to credit Metallica. Phillipp Manderla, the head of Red Bull Films, reached out to me because he liked a film I did called “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and wanted to make a film about Robby Naish. I said, “Who’s Robby Naish?” Which may have been a sign that I shouldn’t do a film, but the more I was totally transparent that I’m not a sports guy – I was the last guy to be picked on the kickball team in middle school and a guy with zero athletic ability, [the more] he thought that would be interesting. So I flew to L.A. and Robby flew in from Maui, and we met and saw if there were some mutual interest in making a film.

What intrigued me the most in making a film about Robby is even though he made the trip, he was very reluctant about having a film made about himself. He had been resisting this for a long time and the more reluctant he was, the more interesting I found it to be because as I dug into his history, I felt like an idiot for not knowing who he was. He’s this incredible world champion in a sport I knew little about and a sport that I think a lot of Americans don’t have enough knowledge about. Robby is huge in Europe, and not as huge here I would say, in terms of knowledge about the sport, so I thought there was a lot of interesting material to make a film, and I also spend a lot of times making films about the dark side of the human condition, but every now and then, I like to celebrate the great achievements, whether it’s music like Metallica or Paul Simon, or Tony Robbins trying to have people be the best person they can be. So this felt like a way to express human achievement in a sport. It all just happened very organically and at our first meeting, I wasn’t sure what kind of film to make and he wasn’t sure whether he wanted a film made, but we just proceeded.

Robby, if you were a little reticent about the film, what sold you on this?

Robby Naish: [pausing to think]

Joe Berlinger: I guess he’s still not sold. [laughs]

Robby Naish: [laughs] Time. I was always one of those guys that didn’t like to shine a light on myself, a little bit old school in that respect. I want my actions to speak louder than my words and don’t love to toot my own horn. It had been proposed many times in the past decade to do a movie and I always brushed it off because I’m an athlete and a person that’s always trying to look forward, and although I’m pretty happy with growing up and where I’ve come from and am proud of the things I’ve done, I don’t want to look back and go, “Wow, look how great I was.” I’m trying to reinvent myself all the time and living life in the present.

But I agreed that I would get involved with the film if it wasn’t going to be just a conventional sports documentary, like a “wow, look at me” film, so when Red Bull Films brought on Joe and it was clear that he would bring a perspective to whatever film we determined to make that was different, we got together and then slowly determined what it’ll be because there were a lot of choices with my portfolio of sports that I’m involved with – windsurfing, kite surfing, stand-up paddling, surfing in general. Then we came up with that project of “The Longest Wave” and went on our journey that pretty quickly turned out to be much more than we had bargained for. What I think started out being a project that would be a year or so ended up being five years of working together, on and off injury and other things that came into my life through the process. And the result is again, something that is not your conventional sports film, maybe not in the way I initially planned. [laughs]

When you got injured, was it obvious that you’d continue filming from that point on?

Robby Naish: When it happened, I didn’t think it was going to put me out for that long. The doctor said, “Oh, it might be six months” and I said, “No, it’ll be six weeks.” We worked our way through it and got back at it and then the second injury happened and that was really a slap in the face. It’s like, “Okay, we got through the first one, but now we have to deal with this second one” and I think it was probably more difficult for Joe than for me because this is what I do. Sometimes the wind blows and sometimes the waves come and in between, you wait. It’s part of my life and the time that I deal with. With Joe, I think it was different. I don’t think he anticipated getting into a project that was on and off-again for five years and for him, it was probably even more challenging than for me. But I think the end result is more personal and offers a lot more depth as a result because of what we went through.

Joe Berlinger: I would disagree with Robby a little bit because I actually was a little zen about the whole thing. My whole school of filmmaking is jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress on the other side to catch you, following cinema verite stories where you don’t know what the outcome is. And [for instance] even though we traveled halfway around the world to Namibia and got flat conditions, I actually felt it was great for the storytelling. I know Robby…was feeling the pressure of not delivering while it was happening, but I was very calm about it and I just had confidence it would all work out, so when he had his injuries, of course I was very concerned for him personally because by now we had spent so much time together, but honestly it’s like manna from heaven for a storyteller. [laughs] So I had to balance my feelings for Robby versus what’s good for a film.

I’m never in any rush to finish a project. I’m not the only one to have said that, but films are never completed, they’re just abandoned at a certain point and the more story you can get, the better and actually, marking time equals drama. The more time you spend on a project, the more it twists and turns, so for me, it was all good. It might’ve been a drag if he never caught a long wave, but even that would’ve had its own story to it, so I was good with it all, and I had a couple other projects going on, so it allowed me to go off and make my Ted Bundy movie with Zac Efron and other things as we dealt with pauses in the schedule.

Something I was struck by was when Robby is frustrated at a certain point because he can catch a wave, but for the purposes of the film, he can’t be framed right, which is understandable. Was it interesting having a subject that was that conscious of the camera in all aspects of his life, given the culture of surfing where things are meant to be filmed?

Joe Berlinger: Actually, Robby was pretty unself-conscious generally speaking of the camera — interestingly, all the other stuff I was filming of him going through a messy divorce and going through business issues, that [kind of] stuff, he didn’t care how I was shooting it — but like any accomplished athlete, he wants his achievements to be properly documented and I think he did have some legitimate concern about making sure his skill set is was being properly filmed and that led to this amazing collaboration. I had my normal documentary crew along – guys who I have told many, many stories with, from “Paradise Lost” to “Metallica” to this film to Tony Robbins. But I’m not experienced with action sports cinematography, so we had this company called Poor Boys that are noted cinematographers for this and we had an incredible collaboration of two very different styles of filmmaking, all under my direction.

Robby, what was it like to see the final film? Did it give you any different perspective on this time in your life after being inside of it?

Robby Naish: Well, it’s difficult to watch something that you’re the focus of, but I’m happy with the way it came out. I’m not exactly happy with the period that I was going through in life during the course of making the film, but I went into it with the hope that we’d be making something that was more than just a traditional sports documentary and the result of all of those hurdles is that we made a movie with a lot more depth. The work that Joe did is amazing and I can only hope that people, whether they’re young or old, know me or not know me, that they can look at it and find something inspiring, either in what you can do as a kid following your dreams and working really hard, doing what you love and making a career out of it or [when you’re] older adapting with the times and reinventing yourself to be able to keep moving forward, dealing with how that clock is ticking as you get older, not just for an athlete, but for everybody. All of us, as we get older, look at time very differently and the challenges that come with it, but life doesn’t have to stop being fun. You have to keep challenging yourself and [when] you fall down, you should brush yourself off and you try again. That’s what I’ve been doing my entire life, and still trying to do now both as an athlete and as a person. Life is what you make it and you might as well make it fun, even through the tough times.

“The Longest Wave” will screen at DOC NYC on November 14th at the Cinepolis Chelsea at 9:55 pm.

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