Curt Harper is a 50-year-old competitive surfer and beloved mentor to Southern California’s “groms” (young surfers). Diagnosed with autism as a child, a doctor recommended that Harper be institutionalized; his parents refused and instead fostered their son’s love of surfing. Now a fixture in the surf scene, this short documentary from Westward Productions highlights Harper’s integral role in the community. “Everybody [who] surfs in Southern California knows Curt. He’s famous,” says protégé Dane Reynolds. I spoke with director Brendan Hearne about his piece and how he got to know Curt Harper.
Rachel Link (RL): When did you first meet Curt?
Brendan Hearne (BH): I met Curt when I was about 11 or 12. I would surf a place called Topanga Beach that he would always go to. Curt’s a really outgoing guy, so we became friends pretty quickly, and it wasn’t long before he was taking me and all my buddies surfing. We were just like the kids you see in the movie.
RL: Why did you want to tell his story?
BH: Jordan Tappis, my producing partner, has also known Curt since he was a kid, so he came up in a conversation we were having one day. It had been a while since either of us had seen Curt, and we were wondering what he was up to. Was he still competing? Still driving kids to the beach? Still listening to his scanner? We were intrigued by his story, so I caught up with Curt over a surf one morning and met with his parents afterward. That day I discovered a side of Curt I never knew as a kid. I learned about his youth, his family, and the obstacles he’s overcome, and I walked away deeply inspired. There was no looking back from there. Jordan and I set out to make the film.
RL: Was there anything that surprised you in the process?
BH: We set out to make a four- or five-minute film, which turned into a 17-minute film, so the course it took definitely surprised us. We had a rough idea of the things we wanted to shoot, but we ended up discovering things about Curt that we couldn’t exclude, for instance his fascination with trains, or his childhood doctor recommending institutionalization. We didn’t know these things prior to filming, but they’re integral to who Curt is, so we ultimately let the story dictate the length of the film. Seventeen minutes isn’t very Internet friendly, but we felt it was more important to create a well-rounded, truthful portrait of Curt, even if it lost us viewers who prefer shorter content.
Another thing that surprised us was the process of interviewing Curt. He doesn’t like to answer direct questions, so you have to approach him in roundabout ways. This story didn’t make it into the film, but it’s a good example: When Curt was a kid, his father, Alex, got him to read a book about U.S. presidents. Alex then asked him things about the book, but Curt couldn’t answer any of his questions. Alex tried a different approach and called him from work the next day. He said, “Curt, I’m having a disagreement with my co-worker. Who is the 33rd president?” Curt said, “Harry Truman.” Alex went on: “And the 39th?” Curt said, “Jimmy Carter.” Curt knew all along, but he doesn’t reveal something unless he really cares about it. In this case, he didn’t want his dad to have a disagreement. So interviewing Curt was a unique experience. You have to be creative with how you ask him questions.
RL: What was the best part of the shoot?
BH: There were so many great moments: Curt’s trophy speech, filming Curt on one of the best waves I’ve ever seen him ride, Curt’s dumping a kid in a trash can, but the best part for me was simply seeing Curt thrive in his element. It was amazing to watch him interact with his peers in the exact same way he did with me and all of my buddies when we were a part of the amateur surf world. It was like a scene frozen in time. My friends and I have all gone on to different things—careers, families, new interests—but this has been Curt’s world for well over 20 years now. It’s where he found his niche. The number of friends he’s made is incredible, and it’s really great to see how the surf community supports him.
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