Curt Harper a mentor to champions.
A few weeks back I discovered, through the editor’s choice on Vimeo – CURT – The story of surfing’s oldest grom. We posted the awesome short film for all you folks to watch. But I couldn’t let it go. I found it wonderfully moving and a great example of not only the pleasure everyone can get from our passion but also the acceptance of those who enjoy it. If you surf, then that’s cool. Not much else matters. Still I felt compelled to know a little more and so I tracked down filmmaker Brendan Hearne and Curt Harper ahead of the US Open of Surfing.
MB. Hi Curt. Thanks for talking to us. You have the title ‘the world’s oldest Grom’ are you happy with that? How long have you been surfing now?
CH. Yeah, that title is really cool. I really like that a lot. I’ve been surfing for 39 or 40 years.
MB.Is there anyone who loves to surf more than you?
CH. There’s a lot of people who like surfing. There’s so many people. But I like surfing a lot.
MB. What would you do if you couldn’t surf?
CH. If I didn’t surf, if my family didn’t move out here, I would have been motorcross riding, or stand up paddling, or paddle board racing.
MB. Autism can be a gift as well as a challenge. What are the good and bad points in your view (if any)?
CH. If it’s really bad, like if a person is severely autistic, sometimes they can’t talk and they have to be institutionalized. But one good thing is that there are people that are smart. And there are guys who are autistic who are married and have kids. And they become grandfathers and great grandfathers.
MB. You’ve seen a lot of groms grow up and turn pro, what advice would you give British groms?
CH. My advice is surf more, stay out of trouble, stay in school, don’t drink or do drugs.
MB.Is it cool being a role model for the groms?
CH. Yeah, it is. It’s really cool. I’m a role model to these groms.
MB. In the film while chatting to Dane Reynolds you mentioned Rob Machado, my hero. If you could have a four man heat at any of the WSL contests where would it be and with whom?
CH. It would be with Rob Machado, Kelly Slater, and Mick Fanning. It would be at C-Street or on the North Shore, like at Pipeline.
MB. Who’s going to take this year’s title?
CH. I hope Kelly Slater does.
MB. You’ve seen some of the world’s best. Who is the next big thing to come out of California? Who should I put my money on?
CH. Eithan Osborne, he’s the next upcoming professional surfer. I know for a fact. He just won the world junior Billabong series.
MB. Finally on a personal level, I know many young people with Autism what advice would you offer them?
CH. I’d say if you get frustrated to go and talk to somebody. If something happens, or something starts bothering you, you should tell somebody. Don’t try to solve the problems on your own. If there are problems just walk away from them or get help.
MB. Hi Brendan, thanks for taking time out to talk. Were you one of Curt’s Cohorts?
BH. Yeah, I grew up with Curt. I’ve known him since I was about 11 or 12. He would take me and all my buddies surfing. We were just like the kids you see in the movie. That was over 20 years ago, but not much has changed.
MB. How did you guys meet?
BH. I can’t remember exactly how I met Curt, but it was either at Topanga, the beach where me and all my buddies grew up surfing, or at one of the amateur contests we would do. Curt was just always around. Everyone knew him, and he’s really outgoing, so if you’re in that world, it’s only a matter of time before you become friends with him.
MB. As someone looking in from the outside what were the challenges Curt faced growing up and surfing in California?
BH. Surfing has had an incredibly positive impact on Curt’s life, and most people who meet Curt love him, but I’ve seen him encounter people who aren’t very tolerant. They don’t take the time to understand him, which is really unfortunate, because if they made an effort they’d realize how great he is.
Also, as great as the dynamic between Curt and the groms is, sometimes the groms don’t know where to draw the line when they banter with Curt. It gets pushed too far. However, Curt doesn’t really let that stuff bother him. They’re just kids being kids and he understands that.
MB. In regards to mental health, do you think mentalities and perceptions are changing in the US?
BH. It’s hard for me to say, as I’m definitely no expert on mental health in the U.S. The goal in making this documentary was really to tell Curt’s story. Autism obviously plays a very big role in it, but we just wanted to honor Curt and the incredible life he’s made for himself. However, I will say this, there are a lot of organizations that work with autistic kids in the California surfing community such as Therasurf and Surfing’s Healing which are doing incredible things right now. They weren’t around when I was younger, so I could point to that as a big change, and it’s very cool to see.
MB. What were the challenges of making the film?
BH. There was no budget for this, so people were working for either free or very little. Everyone was down for the cause, but we had some really long days. Curt wakes up around 4am, so we’d be asking the crew to do us a favor AND have a 4am call time. That was tough. Also, Curt only eats Subway for lunch. So the lunch menu wasn’t kind to the guys on the crew who didn’t like Subway.
MB. It’s a gentle and positive message you are putting out, did you start out with that in mind?
BH. From the beginning we knew we wanted to make an uplifting film about Curt, but what we thought would be a 4-5 minute film ended up being 17 minutes, so the course it took really surprised us. We had a rough idea of the things we wanted to shoot, but we captured so much stuff we never anticipated, such as Curt’s father, Alex, talking about Curt’s doctor recommending institutionalization. That was something we weren’t aware of, and it was very brave of Alex to discuss. Learning that information really helped shape the narrative. Suddenly, our message was clear. We knew we’d build up to that moment, so we basically wanted to set it up by showing how full and incredible Curt’s life is.
MB. What’s your best Curt tale? Or the best one you’ve heard (remember I have to print it)?
BH. Haha! That’s tough. There are so many great Curt stories. A funny random one that pops into my head was from when I was a kid. My parents would drop me off at the bus stop to go to school every morning, which was right across the street from my local surf spot. A lot of times Curt would just be getting out of the water as we were getting on the bus, and every time he’d see the bus he’d run over and moon it, which would crack us all up. There are so many funny little things like that with Curt.
Here’s another one. This didn’t make it into the film, but Curt’s father, Alex, told us a story about Curt’s memory, which is incredible. When Curt was younger, Alex gave him a book of U.S. presidents. Curt quickly flipped through it and put it down. Alex asked Curt about a few of the presidents, but Curt couldn’t answer any of his questions. However, Alex obviously knows how Curt operates, so the next day he calls Curt from work and says, “Curt I’m having a disagreement with somebody in my office, who is the 33rd president?” Curt says, “Harry Truman.” Alex continues, “And the 39th?” Curt says, “Jimmy Carter.” Curt knew all along, but you have to approach him in roundabout ways to find out what he knows. He doesn’t reveal things unless he really cares about something, and in this case he didn’t want his dad to have a disagreement in his office.
MB. Do you have any advice for young filmmakers?
BH. Every project I’ve done has taught me something new, so my advice is to just make stuff – films, shorts, commercials, music videos, whatever. Make mistakes, fail, fall on your face. But keep going. I think Malcolm Gladwell has it right with the 10,000 hour rule. The more you do it, the better you get.
MB. Who’s you’re money on for this years title?
I’m gonna have to go with Fanning, particularly after J-Bay. If he can fight off a shark like that, he’s got the title in the bag.
MB. What’s the next project?
I’m actually not sure. Kicking around a few ideas, but I haven’t pulled the trigger on anything yet. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks guys, its been a real pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with everything.
Images with thanks from Heidi Tappis