“What’s so wonderful about surfing is that it not only connects you with the ocean but also a certain energy in nature. When you’re surfing, it’s like you really are tapping into that source.”
Novelist/screenwriter Kem Nunn
“Let me hasten to say I’m not comparing myself to St. Paul. But I know what it is to do what you never dreamed of doing, what you never thought you’d be capable of doing. The utter mystification that you experience. ‘How did I get here? How did this happen?’”
Four-time Primetime Emmy winning writer David Milch
The Writer’s Voice
HBO’s John from Cincinnati (2007) was created by David Milch and Kem Nunn and used the sport of surfing as an integral backdrop in a way that was as refreshing as it was obscure. You didn’t always don’t what you were watching, but you knew you were watching something different. There was supernatural levitation and artificial medication, a family with three generations of active surfers, and Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business) as a late forties pretty attractive grandma, all set in the border town of Imperial Beach, California.
The show only lasted one season. Perhaps due to the fact that shows that are existential and mystical tend to have a wee bit harder time finding an audience than, say, the average reality show. Still the final episode had 3 million viewers.
“Perhaps the most important aspect of writing truly great television (and naturally something I’ve always been good at) is coming up with dialog that just barely resembles what each character is trying to say. When people have to work to understand what the hell is going on, they presume (correctly!) that they must be watching fine art.”
The David Milch School of Screenwriting
(That link even has an example from John from Cincinnati to explain what he means.)
Milch did his undergraduate work in English at Yale, earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa before becoming an Emmy-winning writer on the TV shows Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He’s perhaps most well-known for creating the HBO show Deadwood. In 2006 he was awarded the Outstanding Television Writers Award at the Austin Film Festival.
“My understanding of the way the mechanism of storytelling works is …whether or not the audience is conscious of the process, apart from the audience awareness that there is a process, any story is constantly appending specific values to the meanings of words, and of the actions of characters.”
Variety article “John from Cincinnati”: David Milch Speaks
John from Cincinnati’s co-creator, Nunn has been called ”America’s most accomplished surfer novelist.” He graduated with an MFA from the writing program at UC Irvine, and his first novel Tapping the Source was nominated for an American Book Award, later followed by The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits which he calls his ”surf trilogy.” On the back cover of Tapping the Source writer Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) wrote,”Kem Nunn is one of a rare breed, a novelist who knows how to plot and tell a story. There is amazing energy here.”
Like it or not, you have to applaud HBO for allowing John from Cincinnati to step up to the plate.
Pete from Cincinnati
Speaking of stepping up to the plate, when I think of Cincinnati one of the first names that comes to mind is Pete Rose who used to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. Through he holds the record for most hits in major league baseball he’s barred from MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame—for gambling on baseball. Since I grew up in the ’70s putting together a scrapbook on The Big Red Machine and wanting to be Pete Rose I’ve followed his life story with great interest. (Even went to a baseball camp he did one day at Tinker Field in Orlando.) The other day I came across this short piece on Rose produced by ESPN that I found as an engaging chapter in his life, and one I was unfamiliar with.
Rob from Dayton
How does Rob Lowe pop up on this post? Simple, he also grew up in the 70s following the Cincinnati Reds and is a surfer. He started acting as youth while living in Dayton, Ohio (about an hour’s drive from Cincinnati), before moving to Malibu, CA during his high school years on his way to being an actor in The Outsiders, Wayne’s World, The West Wing, and currently Parks and Recreation.
I met Lowe at a John Mellencamp concert at the Universal Amphitheater in LA. It was 1984 or ’85 I believe and he was sitting right in front of me so I was like, “Hey dude, I was born in Dayton.” You can imagine how impressed he was by that revelation, but he was gracious. (Later learned that Lowe went to Oakwood Junior High just a couple of blocks from where my grandmother lived on Harman Avenue in the Dayton/Oakwood area.) Dayton has a well establish history in theater and I remember going to Marion’s Pizza as a kid and seeing walls full of black and white photos of famous/semi-famous/used to be famous actors who had performed in Dayton.
As these posts on surfing have been kicking around my brain for the last week I started to write down ideas for a story that takes place on the East Coast of Florida. Right now it’s just 3X5 index cards of notes of personal experiences, people and places/surf spots between Amelia Island and Sebastian Inlet. And on one of my note cards I have written “Rob Lowe-Surfer.” Writing actor bait? Why not? Tell me that a very in shape Rob Lowe wouldn’t want to be in a movie that featured him as a surfer if the script was good.
Same reason the athletic Kevin Costner did three baseball movies (Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, For the Love of the Game), one golf movie (Tin Cup), and one bike racing movie (American Flyers). So there’s my stake in the ground—we’ll see where it leads.
Slater has said, “I have acted, I wouldn’t consider myself an actor” and when asked by CBS what Baywatch did for him he smiled and said, “Ruin my street credibility.” So don’t look for him to be acting anytime soon. But maybe if Lowe gets involved in The Kelly Slater Foundation they can at least produce a project on surfing together.
I have one more post to write following this surfer thread and it will be about a man who was born, raised and died in Wisconsin yet was a key part of the modern-day surfing movement. Gotta love the outsiders.
In the meantime, in the spirit of Edward Burns seeking true honeymoon situations for his film Newlyweds, if you have a surf anecdote you’d like to pass my way send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be as simple as a sufer friend of mine San Diego way who had a shot on Facebook recently of his foot in a bucket of water with a caption about his 39th stingray sting. According to him, “Coronado is the motherload for stringrays.” Don’t remember ever seeing that in a surf film. I’m not looking for story ideas, just that stingray kind of authenticity.
P.S. Nine or ten years ago I produced a TV program that featured Katrina Petroni when she was an up and coming surfer. I’ll see if I can find some photos from that shoot we did at her home in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
NPR article on Rob Lowe as a kid meeting Liza Minnelli in Dayton, Ohio. She reportedly told him, “See you in Hollywood, kid.”