Surfers use drug money to start various surf biz' and then fuck each other, literally and figuratively, as they realise that no one is immune to the siren call of big cash…
If you’re into what show biz people call the trade papers, you’ll have seen the notices for a new TV series called Barons, a big-budget production that’s going to stick its fork into the genesis of the surf industry.
The first series, of a planned five, is eight episodes long and follows a group of surfers treading that early-seventies golden triangle, Australia, Bali, LA. They use drug money to start a wetsuit company, a boardshort company, and then fuck each other, literally and figuratively, as they realise that no one is immune, not even soul brothers, to the siren call of big cash.
Production begins in early 2020 and will be shot on location.
If it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, dripping with cheese and cliche, you might be surprised, reassured even, that the muscle behind it includes Mick Lawrence and Nick Cook, the Maroubra-based film producers who made Bra Boys, as well as Taylor Steele, whom you know, and a writing and production team of Australia’s best talent.
Of course, one can never talk surf history without pivoting towards the keeper of the flame, Matt Warshaw, the former Surfer magazine editor turned fastidious archivist.
He ain’t convinced.
DR: The holy grail of television, and movie, for surfers, has always been this belief that, one day, the wonderfully sordid stories of drug money and so on being used to fund the surf industry, would be breathed life. The series, Barons, is using hybrid characters and fictionalized surf co’s, I believe, to tip-toe around lawsuits and so on. You know the history. What are the essential stories y’think have to, or will, get told?
Warshaw: If Barons had been sprung in 1990 or even 2000, maybe I’d be more excited. But in 2019 the topic feels played out. Phil Jarratt covered it in two or three of his books. Sea of Darkness never went public but everybody knows the punchline, which never seemed all that radical to begin with. Drugs were how a lot of surfers made money in the 1970s, and some of that money went into the ground floor of the surf industry. In business terms it wasn’t even that much money. And surfing being what it is, looking as great as it does, it was the lowest-hanging fruit on the activewear tree, it was always going to be a force even if Hakman and the rest of the Quik gang had been hardcore Amish. I mean, Bob McKnight went to USC School of Business, so he’s at most two degrees of separation removed from venture capital. At this point, the fact that drugs were involved in surfwear’s foundation story is a marketing point. Using hash profits to float your new company is more surfy than hitting up your college roommate’s dad. But either way, we end up right where we are.
I may’ve leaned a little hard on the drugs angle. It’s in there, I believe, but the juice gets squeezed from the human side: surfers playing the soul-man line only to get hard lessons in biz when they realise that they, just like the establishment they despise, are not immune to a love of money, and betrayal of friends comes easier than they think. That’s got legs. I’ve seen it up close, I’ve felt it. Oh, and Barons is loosely based on Jarratt’s book Salts and Suits, which was originally optioned for the series.
So let’s presume that the writers are guns, the actors believable and every talent in LA and Sydney is loosed onto the project, which according to the presser they are.
How can it make that seventies-era industry start-up era in Australia really sing? I would suggest a draft-dodging Wayne Lynch character fleeing the cops and disappearing into Nat Young country, for one…
Yeah, Derek, I’m not being contrary on purpose, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong. But I’m not feeling it like you do. I’m not against a dramatic surf series. Just not one set in surfwear. Surfwear by definition is throwaway. Surfwear doesn’t mean anything to anybody, really, apart from the companies themselves. We looked better before surfwear existed. So I guess I’m not seeing how you build much on something that doesn’t really mean anything. Succession works because of the ridiculous amount of money and power at play. Those Rupert Murdoch fuckers can start wars, launch rockets, elect presidents, bring down democracy. Succession works because of the writing and acting, but that in turn I think works in part because of the arena the show is set in. You want to watch because the stakes are so high. Barons is set in surf because we photograph well. That’s it. And watch, they’ll lean too hard into the surf bits, they’ll go back to it again and again to remind viewers of how beautiful the sport is, and beautiful surfers are, and that will feel contrived and forced, just like it does with surfwear in general.
What is the greatest untold story about the surf biz?
The origin story for the surfboard industry is where the real drama is. The push and shove between the labels in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was vicious and personal and Godfather without the cut-off horse head. The labels were like gangs. Hobie was the jocks. Velzy was Animal House. Then here comes Dewey Weber, the adorable little national yo-yo champ with his Buster Brown suit who grows up to out-flash everybody at Malibu—then puts a fucking shiv in Dale Velzy’s business. And Velzy was Dewey’s mentor! Weber was really, really hardcore. He worked with Dale, likely embezzled from him, and also knew that Dale was a flagrantly no-fucks-given businessman who lit his cigars with Past Due notices—and sure enough, 90 seconds after the IRS dropped the big hammer of Velzy Surfboards for unpaid taxes, Dewey was hanging a new Weber Surfboards sign in front of Velzy’s shop in Venice. The Hobie-Weber-Velzy saga is a thousand times more interesting than the birth of surfwear.
They’re planning on making five seasons of the series, from the seventies through to the nineties. If the seventies was about running hash and smack (oooh, street words!), what were the eighties and nineties about?
Scaling up, I guess? I don’t know. I lose interest as the whole thing moves further away from actual surfing. In other words, the surfboard biz thing I talk about above – surfing itself needs that industry. Delete the car industry and there is no more driving. Delete the surfboard industry, and—okay, we’d still surf, but it would be some kind of post-apocalyptic DIY thing. Delete the surfwear industry, and who cares? No contests and fewer video edits. So what? We’d be fine. As far as Barons goes, who knows. I’ll watch anything if the script is sharp, if the actors know their stuff, and maybe Barons will hire all the right people and do something incredible. If it’s good, it’s good. And there is SO much good TV these days. That said, I’ll take 50-to-1 that Barons is gonna suck. Although I will of course seek counsel with JP Currie before booking the bet.
Would you do a series, if the choice was yours? And how would you play it?
It has to be comedy. Which is still impossibly hard, but at least you’ve got a shot. I’m thinking Letterkenny, but in the OC; the shows jumps from one subgroup to another, all directly or tangentially related to surfwear and to each other. So the Salts and Suits, like Jarratt talks about. But also the geezers in their chairs at San Onofre bullshitting about the old days, and the groms glued to their phones in somebody’s basement, and the local CT-level pro and his entourage. No surfing at all. Just dialogue like daggers, and then you slip in just enough heart and warmth that the viewer understands that everybody on the show, on some level or another, even if it’s been misplaced, really loves riding waves.
(Editor’s note: We’ll keep readers in the loop re: screening dates etc.)