Creator of the iconic epoch-defining film Free Ride dead at 72…
Earlier this morning, I got a hit from the surf historian Matt Warshaw telling me Bill Delaney, creator of the epoch-defining film Free Ride, had died.
In these instances, when a pivotal figure in the culture slips into the loving hands of god, one must create some sort of obituary, yes?
This interview took place an hour or so ago, between Bondi Beach, Sydney, and Seattle, Washington, where Warshaw lives.
BeachGrit: How’d y’hear?
Warshaw: An EOS viewer emailed me day before yesterday. Randy Rarick and PT confirmed. Bill had been in pretty poor health the last few years.
Describe for me your first thoughts?
It may be shameful and wrong, but every time a famous surfer dies I get this initial rush, almost like a fire alarm going off. Can I bang out a video? Do I have an interview? How fast can I post? Then when I dive into the material, like I did all day yesterday and this morning with Delaney, I feel the loss. I knew Bill, going back to when I worked a bit on Surfers: the Movie. We stayed in touch over the years. He was all-in with EOS, basically gave me the keys to his film library, which in turn helped me leverage a bunch of other people to let me use their stuff. So my memories of Bill have to do both with his movies, and how good he made us all look, and also with him personally. When I started playing the interview reels with Bill yesterday, to make the edit, it became real and sad that this smart, generous, very classy, very creative person was gone. Same thing when Bruce Brown died last year.
A sweet man, yes?
Yes, mostly. But he took no bullshit, and let you know quick if you put a foot wrong. About 10 years ago he lit me up for something I wrote about Free Ride; I think I said he’d poached the music and that was why the film never came out on DVD, which was totally wrong. Bill and his wife worked really hard to clear rights for all the songs, but apparently he didn’t have permission to re-release outside of the theaters. Something like that. Which is why Free Ride to this day is a black-market-only treasure. But again, he didn’t burn the bridge, he took my call right after, we talked it over, I apologized, he accepted, and we were good.
Free Ride, from 1977, defined a generation, a time, as much as Morning of the Earth did a few years earlier, yeah?
Absolutely. Where Earth was more impressionistic and stoney, Free Ride was a bit more pointed. It had narration. We got that great long loving look at Rabbit. Whereas Alby made a choice not only to skip the narration, he didn’t even bother to ID his surfers. I loved Earth as a kid, but when Free Ride came out, we were so ready to move on from the trippy stuff into something with harder edges, something we could get a grip on. Which of course was MR’s top-turns, Rabbit’s pinball-playing, and Shaun’s tuberiding. That said, the Free Ride photography, especially Dan Merkel’s water shots, were as mesmerizing and ethereal as anything in Morning of the Earth.
Shaun Tomson owns Free Ride. MR and Rabbit were still on the rise, but Shaun at Backdoor and OTW was life-changing, beyond progressive. There’s a slow-mo shot of him at dusk, coming out of a long tube, and his face just breaks into this huge grin as he heads for the beach. What Shaun was doing right then, at that very moment, inventing a better way to ride the tube, was new to HIM, as well as us, and he just can’t help but smile at what’s going on. MATT WARSHAW
Best moments: The pivotal scene of MR and Shaun weaving an Off the Wall tube together, which was painted as a moment of symphony when it was MR who had the shits with Shaun hence the drop in, and Rabbit on the swing. Talk to me. Your best moments and why.
Shaun Tomson owns Free Ride. MR and Rabbit were still on the rise, but Shaun at Backdoor and OTW was life-changing, beyond progressive. There’s a slow-mo shot of him at dusk, coming out of a long tube, and his face just breaks into this huge grin as he heads for the beach. What Shaun was doing right then, at that very moment, inventing a better way to ride the tube, was new to HIM, as well as us, and he just can’t help but smile at what’s going on. Not in a claiming way. It’s just pure joy. He’s thought about surfing a certain way, worked really hard at it, and here he is making it happen, and it’s like waking up inside a dream. And Bill Delaney caught it! Every time I see that shot it cheers me up.
An undervalued film is Surfers: the Movie, Bill’s film for Gotcha. The Miki Dora interview is still being used in popular culture: on the Anderson Paak album Malibu, there’s a couple of samples.
The Dora bit is for sure what Bill liked best about the movie. He filmed it in his living room, just him and Miki, nobody else, and I’m not sure that anybody but Bill could have pulled that rant out of Dora. People trusted Bill, and felt comfortable around him. But I don’t think he has totally happy overall with how Surfers came out. He wasn’t specific, at least not on record, but there may have been some creative differences during the edit. I do know that he talked about making one last film, a third film, before quitting altogether. But that never happened.
Tell me how he’s going to be remembered.
Free Ride, obviously, is the signature work. Surfers is great too, if for no other reason than the Dora bit. I’m always so impressed by people who set and keep their standards as high as Bill did. Which has nothing to do with output. He made just the two features films, so you might think he left something on the table. But I think just the opposite. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill, deep down, wished he hadn’t done Surfers. Free Ride said everything he wanted to say about surfing. For it’s time and place, it is perfect. Part of being really good at something is knowing when to let it be.