‘These guys are legit’: Could the best Santa Cruz-centric surf film ever made be quietly in the works? 

Westside legend Darryl "Flea" Virostko shows he's still got the flow Tuesday at Steamer Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ten years after Hollywood gave us “Chasing Mavericks,” based on an iconic young Santa Cruz surfer, Jay Moriarity, who overcame odds and died too soon, there is another Santa Cruz-based surf film percolating. Because of the star power involved in its conception by the acclaimed filmmakers of “Nomadland,” and the fact that filming could begin soon, the anticipation is palpable.

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Shhhhh. No one is supposed to talk about a movie-in-the-making.

But could this finally be the definitive surf-culture film Santa Cruz deserves?

“You don’t want to jinx it,” said Darryl Virostko.

Better known as “Flea” in the Santa Cruz surfing world, Virostko is the main person involved in what many are hoping is the cinematic representation surfing — and Santa Cruz surf culture — have long yearned for.

Virostko was willing to talk only in cryptic details about the developments on a movie that has been buzzing across Santa Cruz for the better part of three years now — one for which he has served as the primary consultant.

The hush-hush, minimal-detail update is this: One of Hollywood’s most-talked-about filmmaker couples has taken a serious interest in telling a surfing story based in Santa Cruz, and the long journey to create a credible script is hurtling toward completion.

Filming of the yet-unnamed movie is set to begin in the spring, though the script is still being finalized. But the involvement of Joshua James Richards and Chloé Zhao — most famous for the cinematography and direction of 2021 Best Picture-winner “Nomadland” — have locals in the cinematic know excited despite a lack of firm details.

There was a local casting call in late August that got the speculation train rolling.

As the return of the Cold Water Classic brings the surfing world’s focus back to Santa Cruz, here’s what we know and what we don’t yet know about this flick-to-be. But keep it on the down low, please — this one could be worth not jinxing.

How the movie came about

Out of the blue, Richards reached out to Virostko and requested a visit nearly three years ago. The British cinematographer had taken an interest in surf culture and heard Santa Cruz was among its most hardcore of American heartlands.

Virostko’s own success, struggles and redemption are well documented. He won the Mavericks big-wave contest three times — the Flea-peat — and then spiraled into a level of addiction that nearly took his life.

He came out the other side thanks to a close circle of family and friends, and by being an essential resource for others, forming a surfing-centered recovery program called FleaHab.

While he believes his real-life persona will play a central part in the movie, and is working with a young surfer who figures to play a primary acting role, Virostko remains circumspect about the plot lines as the script shifts through other hands.

“It touches a lot about life’s struggles,” he said. “But these guys are legit. The filmmakers have a really good feel for what they want to do.”

Virostko is crossing his fingers as he waits to see a new revision of the script. He knows this is a process that, while he’s been intimately involved in for years, is far from within his control.

Jay Moriarity on a big wave
Jay Moriarity drops into infamy at Mavericks at age 16.
(Via JayRace Instagram / Bob Barbour)

“It’s a really cool opportunity and I’m stoked for it,” Virostko said.

How will this latest effort to get at real Santa Cruz surfing culture deviate from what’s already been done before with movies such “Chasing Mavericks” and “The Westsiders”? Depth, Virostko said.

I think it will help more people.

— Darryl Virostko

“I think it will help more people.”

He’s not the only one who feels as though this will work out to be something special in the celebration of Santa Cruz surfing culture when it finally comes to fruition, probably sometime in 2024, according to Virostko.

“I really liked the people involved,” said Bob Pearson, a surfer and shaper on the Westside since the 1970s. “They want to do it the right way, telling a story with real humanity. That’s cool. That’s good. I think they’re going to do a great job.”

What a ‘Nomadland'-like effort could mean

If the best elements of a film like “Nomadland” were to be applied to a Santa Cruz-based surf flick, what might that look like?

The film starring Frances McDormand as a van-dwelling woman in her 60s who lost everything in the Great Recession drew accolades for its unique camera work by Richards and its depth of character brought out by Zhao’s direction.

Frances McDormand as Fern in "Nomadland," a role for which she won Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards.
(Via Searchlight Pictures)

The critical kudos run the gamut but focus centrally on depth and unvarnished truth too often untold — something surfing and Santa Cruz provide a wide berth for telling.

“‘Nomadland’ is a radiant celebration of humanity and community,” read one review.

“Watching ‘Nomadland’ feels like gazing out on one long, gorgeous sunset,” read another. “If that’s not your thing, so be it, but for those on Zhao’s wavelength, the movie is a marvel of empathy and introspection.”

Others haven’t quite hit the mark

Before this yet-to-be-named film, there were “Chasings Mavericks” and “The Westsiders.”

Chasing Mavericks,” released one decade ago last month, was not a bad, or poorly representative, movie. Generally speaking, Jay Moriarity comes off as the uniquely stoked and built-to-charge kid that he was.

But it was a bit overtly Hollywood and flat for some tastes. Not a complete wipeout, but bland for a movie centered upon something as awe-inspiring as Mavericks. The Washington Post called it a “tsunami of schmaltzy melodrama.”

Chasing Mavericks

Respected director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) got ill during the filming and had to hand off to Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), which could explain some of the film’s choppiness.

While it was noble of Scottish actor Gerard Butler to actually put himself in harm’s way while filming in big waves at Mavericks, critics panned it as a “surface-scraping, by-the-numbers sports flick” that is sunk by its “hokey sequences on land.”

“Floating atop the explosive breakers,” wrote a Village Voice critic, “like an overabundance of phytoplankton, is a roiling colony of cliches that stops at nothing to dominate the screenplay.”

Perhaps an Austin critic summed it up best: “A more fitting tribute to Moriarity’s legacy? Go buy a board and hit the deep blue yourself.”

Money never tells the full story of a movie, but the tale of “Nomadland” versus “Chasing Mavericks” is interesting.

“Nomadland” took $5 million to make and produced $39.5 million at the box office. “Chasing Mavericks” cost $20 million to make and grossed $7.9 million at the box office.

But let us not forget “The Westsiders”, the documentary from Santa Cruz filmmaker Josh Pomer in 2010, which took the naturally dramatic beginnings of Westside Santa Cruz surfing culture and pushed them a bit further than necessary.

Virstoko said he hopes the new film will be more accessible and representative of the place he calls home.

“It’s a surf movie,” he said. “But I think it’s going to really connect with the culture of Santa Cruz.”

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