View From a Blue Moon: The making of John John Florence's surfing epic
Most surfers will never have to worry about being blown off a wave by the rotor wash of a helicopter, but that was an occupational hazard for John John Florence while filming for View From A Blue Moon.
A 60-minute feature film, which premieres in eight cities worldwide on November 11, captures all of Florence’s lightning quick surfing in 4K resolution. The collaboration between Florence and filmmaker Blake Vincent Kueny includes segments from Hawaii, Tahiti, Africa, Western Australia, and Brazil, took almost three years to finish, and spared no expense for, yes, even helicopters.
“Shooting with helicopters, there is pressure to land something while the heli is there,” Florence says. “Other than that, I was surfing how I always surf.”
Florence is accustomed to spotlight. The 23-year-old from the North Shore of Oahu is widely touted at the heir apparent to Kelly Slater—the 11-time world champion.
“You’ll be surfing one foot slop and he’ll do a backflip,” Koa Smith says of Florence. “Some of his stuff is so next level that it shatters your confidence a little.”
Smith, 20, from Kaui, remembers the first time he surfed against his fellow Hawaiian in a contest—the the NSSA Nationals at Lower Trestles in San Clemente, Calif. Smith was six and struggled to catch a single wave. Florence didn’t. He dropped into dozens of “solid” waves and was doing “real” turns.
Florence caught his first wave at Pipeline when he was eight. He competed in the Triple Crown, a series of three of the most prestigious events in Hawaii, when he was 13. He won the Triple Crown at 19, then again at 21.
Now, Florence is a constant world title contender on the World Surf League Championship Tour, and is known for his progressive, yet seemingly effortless style.
“John doesn’t try to mimic any other surfer,” says Kueny. “He is unique. He takes a foundation from a bunch of other surfers and builds upon it.”
Florence’s acumen verges on that of a surfing savant. While Kueny was whittling down the massive amount of footage to a workable form for View, a process that took four months, he’d receive texts from Florence with an intricate description about a certain wave he wanted to include in the film. The messages would describe the conditions on the day, at what point in the session he caught the wave, and his entire sequence of maneuvers.
“His memory for the waves he’s surfed is unbelievable,” Kueny says.
And while Florence is a transcendent talent in the water, he still obsesses over how every facet of his repertoire—from aerials to barrel riding—and it’s apparent back on land.
After surfing from sunrise to dusk, Florence would never just call it a day or rest up for the next eight-hour session. Instead, he’d take the memory cards from the cameras and was always the first to watch the footage, analyzing each of his waves second-by-second.
Maybe it’s that attention to detail that has hastened his rise to the top. The signal of the changing of the guard arrived last December when Florence earned the top spot at the SURFER Poll Awards.
Slater had won the last 10.
“I’m super stoked that John got this,” Slater said while on stage. “It’s the happiest I’ve ever been getting second place.”
The prodigy is now a star.
Kueny took a more circuitous route to the center of the surfing world.
His foray into filmmaking began on the baseball diamond instead of the beach. In the summer of 2005, Kueny wasn’t on the 12-player roster of the Rancho Buena Vista Little League team.
A self-described “nerd” while growing up, Kueny was more interested in computers and cameras than baseball. But a few of his friends were on the team, so he started attending their games. He brought his camera. When the RBV team advanced to Williamsport and a third place finish at the Little League World Series, Kueny traveled with them and documented the journey.
But around the time he was 14, Kueny set aside filming to pursue a dream shared by most teenagers who live near the ocean in Southern California: become a professional surfer.
Those dreams were dashed when Kueny ruptured his spleen after he caught an edge snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain. He spent four days in the ICU and six months recovering. The injury and downtime did have an upside, though: it renewed his passion for filming.
When he was 16, he secured an internship at Transworld Media in marketing.
“I hated it,” says Kueny. It didn’t last long.
He walked into the office of the online editorial director and explained he already had two edits published on their website and that his skills could be better utilized.
Kueny went from mulling over excel spreadsheets to filming some of the top pros in the sport.
“It has been insanely fast,” Kueny, 23, says of his ascent from little league to the majors of surf filmmaking.
The story of the genesis of View From A Blue Moon, didn’t begin in some tropical locale but instead on a snow covered mountain.
It was January 2012. Kueny was at Mammoth to film a "day in the life" feature about professional snowboarder Eric Jackson for Red Bull. Florence was there too, decompressing after his first full year on the championship tour.
Florence and Kueny first met a year prior on a trip to South Africa to film for Jordy Smith’s feature film, Bending Colours. Kueny was Smith’s principal videographer and had already earned a reputation as one of the best young filmmakers in the industry.
While at Mammoth, Kueny and Florence, born only six months apart, found a common bond skateboarding. They talked about their dream projects and about how far they thought surfing, and surf filmmaking, could still go.
One day Florence asked Kueny to join him at breakfast at a cafe called the Breakfast Club. Florence told Kueny that a big swell was coming to Hawaii and that he was leaving the next day. He also asked Kueny if he wanted to film for him.
“It was kind of a trial period,” Kueny says.
He passed. The product after one year of traveling, filming, and editing was Done, Florence’s first independent release and Kueny’s first feature directorial project. It was a hit. The film set an iTunes record in the action sports category and earned the “Movie of the Year” Award at the 2013 SURFER Poll Awards.
Still, Kueny and Florence had bigger plans.
“[Done] was a case study of what this project was going to boil into and how to scale that project into this,” Kueny says.
This is why Kueny and Florence decided to team up with Brain Farm Digital Cinema, the production company that had partnered with Travis Rice’s to create his redefining snowboard film The Art of Flight in 2011. This is why Kueny spent on average 200 days away from home over the past three years and then up to 90 hours a week editing at his studio in Oceanside, Calif. This is why Florence suffered a high ankle sprain and was out of the water for six weeks after attempting an alley-oop while surfing in Brazil this past May.
And this is why some have claimed View from a Blue Moon, is the most anticipated surf film in over a decade, and why the film has garnered attention from the likes of Rolling Stone and SportsCenter.
“It’s almost like a National Geographic-type film with its amazing cinematography mixed with incredible surfing,” Koa Smith says. “It’s going to blow people’s minds.”
Despite the magnitude and mainstream appeal of the production, which includes an original song by Jack Johnson and narration by John C. Reilly (Step Brothers and Talladega Nights), Kueny stressed that he did not want to alienate the core surf community.
“We wanted the film to still have a grassroots feeling to it,” he says.
While the film boasts top World Surf League pros like Jordy Smith and Filipe Toledo, it also features Florence’s younger brothers, Nathan and Ivan, along with several of Hawaii’s top surfers that Florence is close friends with, like Koa Smith, Kiron Jabour, and Eli Olson. They will all be on hand at the Sunset Beach Elementary on the North Shore to watch the premiere.
The film also bucks the trend towards direct, instant content. When Florence and Kueny were growing up, even though it was less than ten years ago, you’d have to wait until a major feature film, like Taylor Steele’s Stranger Than Fiction, was released on DVD to see new footage of your favorite surfers.
Now that access is available with the click of a mouse, and any surfer can be his or her own production company. Most pros have their own blogs to increase exposure and demonstrate their relevance amidst the non-stop progression of the sport.
Just look at Smith. LastNameFirst.tv, is where Koa and his older brother, Alex, catalogue their favorite travels, music, food, and, of course, their surfing.
That clip has over three million views.
“Now you can upload an edit from one day and get as many views as if you took four months to film,” the younger Smith says. But he’s also quick to add, “I don’t think feature surfing films went anywhere.”
Yet, we might not see another feature production from Florence for some time.
“I think I will take a step back from the filming for a little while,” Florence says. “I will still surf and do edits, but making another movie may be a couple of years down the line. I want to put energy into training. … During this movie I was going to events to free surf and then straight into an event.”
The rarity of the film is conveyed by its name. After Done, Florence wanted a longer title, like that of a novel. A blue moon refers to the second full moon to occur in a single calendar month. They happen roughly every three years. The next will be on May 21, 2016.
But since he first saw Florence surf in South Africa and has witnessed his continual growth, Kueny believes the title holds an additional meaning.
“What John is doing is something that is only going to come around once in a great while,” he says.
Additional reporting by Tim Newcomb.