Drive thru window on surfing

Surf filmmaker Greg Browning makes it real
by Danny Brown
Published July 5, 2007

Greg Browning suggested they make a surf video.
A little over five years ago his older brother had run into one of those rough periods in life involving a divorce and career change. A month long sojourn from their South Bay homes along the California coast seemed like the natural remedy. His brother would get to refocus. Greg would get to film. And both of them would get to surf.
When his brother backed out to start his own business, though, Greg was already set on the trip. He had scrounged together some funding from surf filmmaker Taylor Steele’s Poor Specimen production company, and called up a few friends — Donavan Frankenreiter, Benji Weatherly, Rob Machado, and Shawn “Barney” Barron — all well-known surfers in the surf world. They gunned it up the coast in a rented RV to pick up Barney in Santa Cruz, and then slowly wound their way back down. Greg called the project Drive Thru California.
“I had traveled with Benji and Donavan before, and they were the funniest guys you could ever want to hang out with. What I wanted to do was to show the experience by letting their actions and surfing speak for themselves,” Browning said during a recent interview at his Torrance home. He acknowledged that the iconographic surf movie Endless Summer helped shape his initial approach, but rather than narrate over the events as most filmmakers do, including Endless Summer’s Bruce Brown, he would let the dynamics of his surf stars shape the story.
The seventh edition to this series, Drive Thru Caribbean, premieres next Thursday at the Hermosa Beach Community Center. The film has been airing as an eight-part show for the past several months on Fuel TV, titillating viewers with footage of his zany crew while they romp through the Jamaica, Barbados, and Puerto Rico, carving up crystal waves along the way. The DVD is a condensed version of this adventure, packed full with surfing and some of the nitty-gritty scenes that weren’t tame enough for cable.
A man of medium height with an adenoidal surfer’s voice, Brown has the broad shoulders of someone who has logged a lot of time in the ocean. In addition to his film work, he has been working with Body Glove for 20 years, since they sponsored him for surfing when he was 13.
“Every morning Greg wakes up and gets the machine going,” commented surfer/songwriter Donavan Frankenreiter in a recent interview with TransWorld SURF (August 2007). “He’s like the camp director, and he’s so amped and always keeps things moving.”
Sitting in an office cluttered with stacks of external hard drives, tacked up dead-lines and photographs, a small couch, and two large computer monitors, Greg joked about how haphazard the first Drive Thru was. “When we drove to Santa Cruz to pick up Barney I called him and he said, ‘Are you serious? This is a real thing we’re doing?’ We had to wait for him to pack for almost three hours.”
Browning laughed off the memory, but despite all the joking and light-heartedness that characterizes his seamlessly carefree surfing and work lifestyle, Browning is a hard working man.
Several weekly commutes to San Diego to work on Drive Thru Caribbean, traveling to tropical atolls for photo and video shoots (this week he is in Bali), overseeing Body Glove ads, and being a dad takes stamina.
“There’s usually three nights a week I don’t sleep because I have so much stuff to get done,” he explained, “and I want to spend time with my kids.”
The South Bay in the seventies and eighties was a different place. You can still see remnants of what it was once like scattered here and there throughout the area, where the odd, aged beach house with chipped paint and sagging roof is caught between new mansions. Browning and his older brother grew up near Clark Stadium at 11th Street and Ardmore. They surfed every day on the south side of the pier, picking up a group of guys on the way to the beach to go out with them. When they got good enough, they switched to 16th Street, on the north side of the pier. On 16th Street, in one of these older beachfront houses, he met his mentor Howard Eddy. One of the benefits Eddy enjoyed as a retiree from Panasonic was access to Panasonic’s new video cameras and editing equipment
“He would come down to the beach and video every day,” Browning said. “Me and the Brewer brothers and Matt Walls, we would all go over there after school and watch ourselves surfing and rewind it. Then I started editing stuff on old video inputs with an overlay, to try and get sponsors and stuff. Howard taught us to hook up all the equipment and use everything he had.”
Taking this newfound passion for film to the North Shore, Browning soon caught the eye of surf filmmaker/photographer Taylor Steele.
“Taylor was doing his first movie and I gave him some music,” Browning said. “And over the course of time, just doing contests and traveling we became friends. Sometimes I’d surf for a few hours, come in and tell Taylor I’d film, and he’d grab my board.”
For the majority of his formative years, Browning’s love for film remained on the backburner as a hobby, while he pursued his surfing career. Friend/co-worker Matt Walls describes Browning as “No stranger to a contest jersey.”
In 1991 he won the NSSA Men’s Open, one of the most prestigious surf contests an amateur can win. His lifestyle as a professional surfer during the ‘90s put him in close contact with some of the biggest names in sport — Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Kalani Rob (all of whom would later appeared in his films) — and took him to the furthest regions of the globe. He was too busy living life to film it.
During this period Browning became the go-to guy for Hermosa surf and action sport photographer Mike Balzer. According to Walls, Browning would put together photo shoots with pros that were passing through. Balzer would sell the photos to the magazines and the pros would get bonuses from their sponsors for the exposure. Balzer’s photography and Browning radical surfing earned the team regular magazine sales, including lucrative cover shots
And then about 10 years ago Eddy got Cancer. Browning and the crew ended up taking care of him. “He didn’t have any family. We were like his family,” Browning remembered, staring at his set-up of high tech editing gear. “He actually left his walkstreet house to Matt, who had been his tenant. We all stow some boards there, now.”
But it’s strange, Browning pointed out a while later after talking about Eddy. For all the changes the South Bay has been through, a lot of things about the surf scene haven’t changed.
When Browning grew up, there was a handful of South Bay guys who competed at the professional level.
Now, even though surfing’s more popular than ever, there’s still only a handful of top talent.
“There are more surf schools, sure, but it seems as though there are fewer people actually pushing their surfing to the competitive level. Considering the number of people in the water, we’ve got Alex Grey, Holly Beck, Dane Zahn, and a few other kids who are really stepping it up.”
Browning had the same to say about the tight-knit web of the South Bay surf community
“Surfing’s turned into a lifestyle that everybody can grab onto without having to actually do it. But then there’s still guys that run the shops like ET and Spyder Surfboards, who do what they do because they love surfing, and are more than willing to nurture any up and coming local talent.”
What started off as a ragged, low budget operation has grown into a prosperous venture that has taken Browning and his crew on Drive Thru’s Japan, Central America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and most recently the Caribbean Islands.
Browning’s last four Drive Thru's were picked up by Fuel T.V., giving him a popular showcase for his DVD’s -- not to mention, a much more comfortable budget to work with. He’s filmed the best surfers in the world, including eight time world champion Kelly Slater and his boyhood idol Martin Potter, who was the world champ in 1987 and 1988.
In the newest Drive Thru Browning invited along Yadin Nicol and Otto Flores, two Aussie debutants who are at the forefront of modern surfing. Their lively down-under personalities serve to augment those of Drive Thru veterans’ Donavon, Pat O’Connell, Benji Weatherley and Kalani Robb as the crew hoofs it around the Caribbean between surf sessions, mixing with locals, riding dolphins, or petting sharks.
On a recent morning, Browning hopped into his truck to check the Redondo Breakwall before making the two and a half hour schlep to San Diego. There wasn’t any swell and the ocean was choppy with a slight, on-shore wind.
Browning shrugged. “If you’re a surfer you go to the beach no matter what. There might be days you don’t paddle out, but you’re still down here hanging out with the other guys that are doing the same thing. That’s really the best part about it.”
Drive Thru Caribbean premiers Thursday, July 12 at the Hermosa Beach Community Center. Proceeds benefit the Hermosa Beach Historical Museum. The evening will also include vintage and local surf videos, a local band and raffle prizes. ER