Rocky Romano on the motivation behind his controversial film, Learning to Breathe…
Rocky Romano is the man behind the big-wave centric production company, The Go Big Project. Romano’s first film project began in 2010, following Anthony Ruffo as he struggled with drug addiction, dealing, and the resulting legal consequences.
Previously only available on iTunes or Amazon, the film was recently released for free, for 72 hours, on BeachGrit. and has sparked a heated conversation about an often avoided subject matter in the surf world. I spent an hour with Rocky to hear more about Ruffo, the film’s backstory, and the cast of characters he’ll share next. Listen here or read below.
BeachGrit: As a first time filmmaker, what about Anthony Ruffo inspired you to commit two-plus years of your life to this story?
Romano: I was in Santa Cruz and saw in the newspaper that Ruffo was being busted for the third time. His background as a surfer and an iconic figure in the community who was now struggling so publicly made it a compelling story. But I was also trepidatious because the subject matter is so illicit and ugly. Then I realized, to be the storyteller that I wanted to be, I was going to have to tell the hard stories, not just the beautiful stories. So I reached out to Anthony and suggested that it might be a good idea to share his struggle. Ultimately, after thinking about it, he agreed that he wanted to share his story.
I lived in rehab during parts of the process, and stayed in people’s spare bedrooms. I slept in an abandoned office on my dog’s bed while evading the Feds who were trying to seize my hard drives. They knew about the interviews that I’d been conducting and suspected that they might find evidence that would help implicate people for crimes committed. I didn’t have enough money to make copies of the hard drive nor persevere that kind of setback. Thankfully I was tipped off and I was able to hide out until it blew over.
What was the process of filming?
I began the filming process while Anthony was still struggling with addiction and was awaiting trial. It was intimidating to make introductions into the West Side surfing community, but Ruffo is so charismatic and made me comfortable in such an intimate and personal setting. I filmed him for 2 years, through rehab, through the trials, through jail and everything. I abandoned all other obligations. I paid for the entire project with no sponsor support. I had surf industry sponsors early on, but they all bailed as soon as they saw how raw some of the story really was.
I lived in rehab during parts of the process, and stayed in people’s spare bedrooms. I slept in an abandoned office on my dog’s bed while evading the Feds who were trying to seize my hard drives. They knew about the interviews that I’d been conducting and suspected that they might find evidence that would help implicate people for crimes committed. I didn’t have enough money to make copies of the hard drive nor persevere that kind of setback. Thankfully I was tipped off and I was able to hide out until it blew over. At the end of those 2 years, I had 68 interviews all together. Multiple with Ruffo, of course, one being 4 hours straight. There was 1,000 hours of footage, a lot of which never left the cutting room floor. Interviews with Peter Townend and Michael Ho, among others never made it into the film.
Being a transplant snowboarder from the mountains, it’s interesting that Ruffo and the Santa Cruz surf community would allow you such access into their world.
I think the timing was key. A lot of people were ready to tell their stories to try to make a difference. Santa Cruz has changed a lot in the last couple decades and I think that the movie became vehicle for people to say some things that they’d been wanting to say for a long time.
What has the response been from those involved in the film? Pete Mel, for example, has since become the Big Wave World Tour commissioner. I wonder if his employers have an opinion about his admissions in the film.
I can’t speak for Pete, nor anyone else, but I would think that everyone would be proud of Pete and his honesty. In a world where things are so often swept under the rug, his example of honestly, perseverance and accomplishment are an incredible example.
The film was well received on the festival circuit and won a bunch of awards, but distributors have shied away because of the subject matter. We’ve always just wanted the film to be seen. I lost money of the film, but the goal was always to just get the message out. That’s why we offered the film for free for 72 hours. If the comment section on BeachGrit represent’s public opinion, I’d say that opinions about the film ranged from every possible angle. And more importantly, it sparked a conversation and that was the purpose of the film from the beginning.
I wanted to tell the story because I come from the action sports community and I wanted us to discuss our own problem, rather than having an outside entity expose it. But I also wanted to give an accurate depiction of drug use and the dangers, not like the old “This is your brain on drugs” campaign that just becomes a parody.
You don’t plan to make a profit on Learning to Breathe. How does one make a living as a filmmaker in the surf realm nowadays?
I can only tell you my path. I never made “surf porn”, which seems to be a more common path into the industry. My motivation has always been to tell stories. Ruffo fascinated me as a character with a very rich story. I’m particularly compelled by big wave surfing and the characters who devote their lives to riding giants boards in giant surf. I never viewed filmmaking as way to earn money, but thankfully, by following my passion we’ve been commissioned to produce content. Ultimately, we saw television as the opportunity to earn a living and share these stories with a broader audience. So I moved to LA and we focused on positioning our content towards that goal. We started with our Mavericks’ Moments series where we follow various big wave surfers as they struggle to balance their personal life with their passion for chasing massive swells. We used that model to create three different thirteen-episode series that we pitched at sold to various networks. Then, thankfully, we’ve also been contracted to produce 50 hours of UHD (Ultra High Definition, 4,000k+ resolution) action sports television in 2016. It’s really exciting and will allow us to fully explore storytelling and filmmaking.
The Ruffo story is compelling, but are there any other characters who’s stories you’d like to tease before we see all these shows that you’re producing?
Jeff Denholm is one of the best stories. He’s an East coast surfer who got into Hemingway. He looked around and realized he wasn’t surrounding by men, so he went off and became a commercial fisherman. He was in the Bering Sea when he fell into the gearbox on the ship and had his arm ripped off. He survived a 17 hour evacuation to a hospital where they saved his life. Then he went back to the East Coast and developed a prosthetic arm with a flipper which he then used it to paddle into Mavericks. Just an absolutely amazing story. He travels with Kohl Christenson and some other guys who you’d know.
￼￼There are so many working class hero, blue collar stories in big wave surfing. Up in Oregon, near Nelscott Reef, Eric Akiskalian works as a car salesman and rides those massive, frigid waves in relative anonymity. And then we have guys like Garrett McNamara at Nazare during that December swell where he was charging waves and rescuing guys; full superhero feats and such a sensational personality and family. Will Skudin and Treveor Sven Carlson are two stories of perseverance as they struggle to find a spot on the Big Wave World Tour, both featured in our big wave show. Coco Nogales down in Mexico. So many men and women. So many stories. I could go on and on. We tell all those stories in our “Mavericks’ Moment” series.
Get Learning to Breathe here. And follow Rocky Romano’s work here.
(As an interesting addendum, please find below a story Chas Smith wrote about Anthony Ruffo in 2007 whereupon Ruffo is likened to Buddha.)
THE ICE STORM.
YOU HEARD OF METHAMPHETAMINE? LIKE, ICE? DEVIL DUST? THE HI-FI SHIZZLE THAT’S RIPPING APART MINDS FROM LA TO COOLANGATTA? PRO SURFER ANTHONY RUFFO KNOWS ABOUT IT – HE WAS DEALING CRANK UNTIL THE COPS TOOK HIM DOWN. TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE PHENOMENON THAT IS ICE , I WENT TO SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA, TO HEAR ANTHONY’S INSPIRING STORY …
Methamphetamine is the most awesome drug that I’ve ever, ever heard of. Ever. You can make it in your fucking bathtub. All you need is some Sudafed, Drano and a ”can-do” ‘tude. It opens the doors of perception for weeks, not hours, and is, like, a third of the price of cocaine. It’s the people’s drug. The working man’s high. I’m soooo so sick of all these bourgeois shithead doctors/policemen/politicians/mums who are trying to “purge” it from our streets. Fuck them. They don’t know how to party like enlightened sages. Truckers, prisoners, Hell’s Angels and a growing number surfers do know how, darling. Party like a plugged-in Kate Moss circa last year. From California to Hawaii to Australia to Indonesia, everybody’s drooling for a giant swell of Devil Dust. Call it what you want: glass, amp, crank, speed, white cross… it’s all ice. Ice, baby.The surfer/speed connection ain’t as new as it seems. In 1989, San Diego was considered the Crystal Capital of North America. Yet, it’s always been stigmatised. The drug-enjoying surf community will think nothing of marijuanee, special k or coke, but don’t bring no methamphetamine around. No, no, no. It’s yucky. It’s low-brow.
Like I said, though, underground use is growing! It’s considered an “epidemic” on the North Shore, a “very serious problem” on the Goldie and a “cancer” in Bali. Fuckin’ good news for a fuckin’ great drug! Seriously, at the present growth rate, each and every one of us going to be addicted to the shit pretty soon. It looks like it follows good waves around, so unless your homebreak is Penrith, west Sydney, you are going to be snorting pre-surf lines of crystal off your cracked dashboard. Nobody stops “epidemic serious problem cancers.” The thing to do is roll with it, baby. Ice, Ice baby.
There’s only one element we need (besides baggies of evil yellow), and that’s a leader. Someone who has walked the path of the white dragon. Someone who can show us all how to live in our tweaky new world. Someone who has been to methamphetamine nirvana and returned to earth; an awakened one. A Blanco Buddha.
Stop right there, because before shab-soaked Pipe, Kirra and Uluwatu there was Steamer Lane. There was Anthony Ruffo.
Anthony Ruffo is a Santa Cruz surf icon, tow pioneer, Teahupoo charger, enlightened meth buddha and convicted felon. He was busted on July 28, 2005 for “possession and sales” of methamphetamine. Fuck, yeah! Sounds good… sounds like he was walking the walk! What the world knows about the show is courtesy of the boring ol’ media. Newspapers, magazines and television stations across the country jumped all over his story like hipsters into skinny jeans.
Santa Cruz CA: Professional surfer Anthony Ruffo was beat like a drum last night. Narcotics officers invaded his house and found him shoving blue funk into the veins of a 12-year-old girl. He was subsequently arrested and will spend his life behind bars sharing a cell with Charles Manson. Burn in fucking hell, Mr. Ruffo. Back to you in the studio! Ruffo was treated badly. Very, very badly. His good name was dragged through Northern Californian dirt by respected, highly-valued, chaste news outlets and… GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK. Like, newsmen don’t all snort coke together at the end of a tough day? All of them, in their ugly ties and foam covered microphones, lining up around a giant glass coffee table piled high with yayo taking turns licking and snorting and babbling incoherently about Bill Clinton’s sweet titties. Fucking please.
Oh, and the surf community jumped right in, too.
Ruffo is a disgrace to everything we stand for. We hate his poohead guts. He’s a jerk. He did very naughty drugs and now our squeaky clean alternative sport won’t be as beloved in the Midwest. Boooo on A. Ruffo. Booo all over him. (Toke toke. Snort snort). Assholes.
He was tried and convicted a junkie pervert in the court of public opinion. Luckily, he had a better lawyer for the court of law (a waaaay better lawyer, but we’ll get to that). After doing his “time”, Ruffo gave a couple interviews to the magazines that smeared him, apologising for his wayward life and said he was a changed man. “I got in a little to deep; I’m glad that everything is behind me…blah, blah, blah… .I’m a bad guy…blah blah blah.”
What tkind of shitty, ham-fisted drivel do you expect when douchebag editors are asking, how’s it going staying clean?
Dumb. Boring. Unoriginal. Not helpful.
With his legal situation in check Anthony’s determined to make only good come from the bad. ARGH! Fuck that motherfucking shit! Ruffo is like a saffron robe-wearing Tony Montana, sitting cross-legged underneath the lighthouse at Steamer Lane. I decided to go on a pilgrimage to fucking Santa Cruz to talk with Bohdisattva Anthony Ruffo myself. I will find him sitting under that lighthouse and bring his experience of enlightenment back to the surfing masses so that we, too, can walk his path.
When I got to the Lane, Ruffo wasn’t meditating meth nirvana. He was ripping a five-foot swell. This whole place is his domain, anyhow: from the lighthouse out to middle peak. He is the top dog, height of the foodchain. Westside shot-caller par excellence. Awakened one. In a vicious lineup, no one dropped in on him for two hours. Three helpful guys standing on the bluff pointed out which neoprene water dot was Ruffo. I told ‘em I was going to have a chat with him. They said he was the best left-handed surfer at the Lane and told me to have fun with the cons. (If there were cons around it was going to be sick! At that point, I knew no more then you do now. Anthony Ruffo had been busted for meth-am-phet-a-mine and had reached enlightenment. I really hoped there would be cons around.)
Ruffo soon exited the freezingness and fielded congratulatory “Way to go, bro” from his comrades. They love him here, or at least the guys who matter. I marched up and told him my name was Charlie and I was there to interview him. “Coooooool, bro.”
His voice was soft, sunny warm and full of secret knowledge. He introduced me to all his buddies and called me “Scottie.” It’s cool, dude. All Santa Cruz surfers have nicknames: Condor, Skindog, Ratboy, Barney. I guess mine was now Scottie. Charlie “Scottie” Smith. Fuckin’ badass. His bros were Darryl “Flea” Virotsko, Anthony “Taz” Tashnik and Nathan “Cromagnatard” Fletcher. Flea suggested that everyone join him at his house, hopped into his 1972 pimped-out purple Impala, picked up two stray girls and sped out of the lot. I followed in my recently wrecked, bottom-ofthe- line Saturn sedan. Fucking badass, Scottie.
The moment I walked in to Flea’s house I knew that Ruffo held the keys to enlightenmeth. The house was a total fucking disaster. Mungey clothing strewn empty shot glass all over a blackleather couch underneath a glass bong no fish in an algaefied fishtank giant cardboard cheque decorated wall disaster. Ruffo tailed me in, pushed some shit off the couch and crossed his legs. “So bro, what do you want to know?” “Please, please… tell me how to get to Yellow Barn Nirvana. I’m not like those others, those hypocrites. Show me the way. Tell me what I need to know.”
He began to share his noble eightfold path.
FIRST: RIGHT VIEW
It all started when Ruffo was a grom, a little fella. At the time, the older Santa Cruz surfers were making a living off surfing, but they weren’t sponsored (in the traditional sense). They were selling Thai weed and coke in order to support their surf habit. Self-sponsored, making good money, surfing everyday, and not having to answer to some dickhead “team manager.” Every so often, they’d throw lil’ Ruffo bags of weed to roll.
Here, kid. Get to work. Wide-eyed future Meth Buddha soaking it all in.
These self-sponsored older surfers had chicks and waves. Ruff was like, “Fuck, all I want to do is surf everyday.” As he got older, he started to rip, which meant olde fashioned regular surf co. sponsorship… but the image of those guys, those early guys, was always in the back of his head. So, pretty soon he started growing weed in his backyard to pay off the surf trips he accumulated on his credit card. That was his thing, his boogie.
He got into sweet sha-bang in either 2000 or 2001 because his dogs died, and…“Meth? It’s a good high, man…very unlike coke.”
Coke is a 15-minute up and down then you want more, more, more. Leave the coke to WCT judges.
“The high off coke is crampy, you know? It’s so fucking… I don’t know… the high when you do a line of meth… you’re way more clear. It’s not an up and down thing. Snorting a line, it hurts, but your high is 10-to-12 hours.” He could see where it wasn’t good for everyone, but for Ruffo – the shit was the shit.
So, he was hanging around with these different people (aka former convicted felons), doing his shizznittlebang, but wasn’t making a lot of money. He just barely scraped by with sponsorship and side jobs.
Then, it hit him. Hit him like a giant sacred fig falling from a Bodhi branch. He perceived a void, an emptiness, and thought, “Fuck, there are people who want this shit and, I know, A plus B… I can put them together and I can make some money.”
Enlightened fucking epiphany, baby. Sir Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree; Pythagoras discovering that the world is round; Buddha’s awakening – epiphany.
Ruffo didn’t start selling to be cool. He was already cool. He simply saw that he could make good money and, again, surf all the time. A self-sponsored pro. Just like his forefathers.
Meth wasn’t big in Santa Cruz at that time. The white wave hadn’t washed through. Of course, everybody had heard of it from places like biker bars, and fucked-up backwoods towns, but nobody was really using it. Plus, it was looked down upon. Stigmatised. Everyone using coke would say that they were worried about the guys doing twack. Yet, they would preach this shit while high as fuck on cocaine.
Ruffo was like, “I’ll listen to you, bro, if you’re telling me this at three in the afternoon instead of three in the morning. Look at you right now. You’re a mess. You’re doin’ an eight ball, and I did one line of fuckin’ the shit and you’ve done – how many lines now? Six or seven already? I mean, I’m worried about you, bro.”
Weird social clashes. Ruffo had to keep his shit low key. Under the ray-dar.
THIRD: RIGHT SPEECH
Along with methamphetamine sales came some new friends. Now Ruffo had two whole separate sets of pals. His surfing bros helped him patrol the Westside line-ups, tow into macking Mavericks, and party like a rock star.
His convict buds helped him move the quartz to all those enlightenmentstarved souls… and also party like a rock star. The cons are actually called Norteños (or Nuestra Familia), and are a prison gang that started in 1960’s California. American jails have always been a slice of shower rape hell, but you know what they say, When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Northern California Mexicans had it doubly tough because their Southern California counterparts thought they were farmer douchebags, and would beat the shit out of them. Thus they got doubly going and started to kick ass. Drugs, guns, drugs, death, drugs. It’s their ruthless cut-your-fucking-headoff- while-you-sleep commitment that has made them one of today’s most powerful gangs, in and out of prison. They are armed to the gills, wear red, claim the number 14 and rule large swatches of the American drug trade. Ruffo was cool with them because he was a trustworthy dharma cat, which is rare in the game. He had hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in and going out. Tempting to dip into the coffers… unless you’re awakened. He also had other gangs coming after him, trying to co-opt his network. No worries, mate. The family provtected him. Nortenos run all out mafia style. Shot-callers, hitmen, muscle, omerta. The full 14 yards.
Usually things went alright for Ruff-O’s awakened business venture, but there were times he had to call on the gangster “know-how.” If guys were being pricks and not paying, then they would get “dealt with”. That’s the way the boogie went. Fist-flying extravaganzas of pain resulting in immediate restitution. Sometimes these “scuffles” would happen at his house, and he witnessed how powerful those Norteños were. Blood-stained carpets. Samsara, baby.
The ever-important cycle of suffering dished out on those who needed some correction. “Now go, my child, and next time DO NOT FUCK WITH BOHDISATTVA RUFFO!”
FOURTH: RIGHT ACTION
He never made the shit (mashing up the Sudafed with the Drano, etc. etc.). That is for mountain hicks, and Ruffo ain’t no mountain hick. He was a distributor, a first-class salesman.
“The shit” was all coming out of Mexico. First it would come out as crank, the raw, orange-y junk. Then, “certain people” would turn it into “shards.” Shards, for the uneducated, is what you have when the orange-y junk is purged. They clean it which makes it more powerful, potent. Pretty soon, it was just coming in as shards (crystal), because they were purifying it in Mexico. The dudes who were bringing it up lived in Nor Cal, but had their ties down south, so they’d just go over the border, get their boogie and bring it back. Smuggle it in. Ruffo simply received the quantity and got rid of it. Easy as 1,2,3. He had guys working under him who were engineering most of the person-to-person sales. Ruffo, the ever-powerful businessman and networker, was great at his job. He reached Fizz Wizz Nirvana. Fully awakened. Now he was the Master, tweaking under the Bodhi tree.