With Tribes of Palos Verdes, Emmett and Brendan Malloy Ride the Wave in Hollywood (But Not Too Far)
If you were hypothetically to peruse the LinkedIn page of brothers Emmett and Brendan Malloy, (hypothetically, because it doesn’t exist), it would quickly become evident that its non-existence is due to the sheer internet-breaking brilliance of their work. During their 20-year tenure, they have served as surf-filmmakers extraordinaire (with their friend Jack Johnson), music videos and commercial gurus for everyone from Jack White to Gatorade to Nike, and award-winning feature film directors. But it wasn’t always such.
We had the good fortune to run into the brothers when they were screening their new film Tribes of Palos Verdes at the Hamptons Film Festival. The film, based on a novel by Joy Nicolson, with Jennifer Garner, Justin Kirk, Maika Monroe and Alicia Silverstone, is something of a family drama in wetsuits and boardshorts.
Our very own Jesse Joeckel sat down with the brothers to discuss bad surf movies, broken bridges, Biggie Smalls, and then look for waves in Montauk.
Meet the Malloy Brothers
Brendan: We came from making surf movies. Then we did music videos for seven or eight years straight where we were really doing all the big videos for a lot of punk bands, and rock bands, and hip-hop, and we did that for a long time. We started doing commercials, as well, for Nike, and Budweiser, Toyota, and brands like that.
We had done a big video for the Foo Fighters, and two weeks after we did that video we got a call from a major studio saying they have a movie that they want us to direct, and we were so new. And so we were in no position to say no to anything, but we also knew that it was maybe, it was a funny script but–
Emmett: It wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece.
Brendan: So, we said yes, and we did it, and we had a great experience doing it, and met up with a ton of fun people, and it was cool. But at the end of the day, it didn’t do well at the box office, and it definitely was not reviewed well. People like it, young people like it. It’s definitely just kind of a stoner–
Emmet: It’s Zach Galifianakis’s first movie. So things like that are in it, so with time it evolved into something that people have a fond memory of.
Brendan: But it’s just tricky ’cause after we did that, the only thing that would come our way is another movie like that.
Emmett: We were doing alright … we had a nice body of work. We had done Thicker Than Water … we did these great, seminal surf movies with our friend Jack Johnson, and we did all these documentaries, and an HBO documentary series. But when you go on IMDB there was only one movie, and it was hard to shake it no matter what we’d show people, somebody would always stumble upon that.
Jesse: How is, just as a whole—surfing and Hollywood—How, and will, that bridge ever be?
Emmett: I don’t think it will ever be good because certainly, I think everybody knows the ones they like, and mostly they’re for campy kinda comical reasons. Those are the ones like North Shore and Point Break. But like Big Wednesday still seems to hold up, and I think one thing for us, we knew that.
We knew it’s difficult when you try to have an actor play a real dynamic surfer—a real, good surfer, you’re hosed. ‘Cause they’re never gonna get that good, and then you’re always having to use doubles, and try things just to be like, “Oh we gotta sell it.” Like in Blue Crush. I think people just at the end, just felt like it got unrealistic. And then our movie, luckily our kids were just learning to surf. That was the whole premise of the story, so we got to show the innocence of it, and in turn, it made it–
Jesse: It makes it real.
We don’t want this to be a surf movie.
Emmett: Yeah and that’s what like, when Jack Johnson watched our movie, that’s the thing he was most, he’s like, “Oh I was so glad that you just let them kind of—even when you use the double, she surfed like a beginner.” And it was real, believable to him, it never took him out of it, and he just saying that was a big compliment.
Jesse: Tough to do, yeah.
Emmett: And I think that’s kind of why that bridge is so wounded, because over the years there’s just not much attention. And for us, we spent our whole time going, “Oh, we don’t want this to be a surf movie.” And all that Brendan said about how we prepared for the characters and the parts, and so not doing that, but at the same time we knew we could do that part really easily.
We would just watch the waves and the waves were really good. It was an el niño year, so it was pumping surf in spots that would never be surfed. San Pedro looked like Kirra, or something. It looked crazy the whole time, and that was happening right below us. So we knew we could just scope for a good hour, and we’d jump out with Maika, who is a pro kiteboarder weirdly, and had at least dedicated herself to be comfortable on a surfboard. And the best thing about her is she could get out in real surf, and be out there-
Jesse: Hold her own–
Emmett: And it created all this great imagery because again we didn’t have to show her winning a contest. We just got to show her out in the water, and in the heavy stuff. Even when she wasn’t getting waves, it was still heavy for her to be out there and paddle.
Jesse: And it’s real.
Emmett: Yeah, and so that stuff became what we got to show, which spared us a lot of the missteps in surf movies. And then that whole PB, the Lunada Bay and the Bay Boys, which is such a huge part of the book. But we knew that would be a tough thing to get across in a movie, because it’s just, “You can’t surf here, man!” So we addressed it, but we made it a very, you feel it, but we didn’t have any real scenes where it takes over the family stuff. It becomes it’s own thing, and I think people will be quite relieved when they see the movie, and see that it’s not going down that road.
‘Cause those guys are tough… We all do it, even when you’re talking to your buddy in line getting a coffee, and you can tell everybody’s listening, and just having no idea what you’re talking about. The waves, the tides, “It was good here. You gonna go surf there?” And even when we’re the bystander of that conversation, it always even sounds funny to me to listen to a bunch of people talk about surfing. ‘Cause you realize then how stupid you must sound to everybody else. The movie had temptations to be almost all that, and somebody else might have made that version, but luckily we didn’t.
In Brooklyn, New York City, Where They Paint Murals of Biggie
Jesse: Do you have anything else in the works as of after this?
Emmett: Yeah, yeah we’re doing the Biggie documentary. So the comprehensive documentary on Biggie, and that’s something we’re doing with the producers of Searching For Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom. Those were two Academy Award-winning documentaries, and we’re doing it with Valletta Wallace, Biggie’s mom. She hired us, and that feels like a pretty great opportunity.
Jesse: That’s huge.
Emmett: For us, and something we’re just really excited that we got kind of in on that, and that seems to be the thing that will line up next for us.
Jesse: So a lot of time in New York coming up?
Emmett: Yeah, Brooklyn. It’ll be funny too. It’ll be a really interesting thing, but I think we got hired because we’re kinda outsiders. And they were really looking to do something that felt more like a movie, and less like kind of a documentary—an insider documentary. So we just caught a good day where we pitched an idea that resonated with them, and yeah but we’ll be here chasing that whole story.
That was an era in which everybody wasn’t filming everything. So there’s a lot of stories to be told somehow. We’re about to start all the research, so once I see what we have, then you’ll start looking for crafty ways to do something. Like an animated type element, or some of those cool tricks that you see in good documentaries, where they help tell a story without footage to back it up.
Fuck! What if we make the one bad White Stripes video?
Jesse: Yeah, and how big is your team? As far as when you’re doing the research and all that?
Emmett: Yeah, just like five people. It’ll be us, and there’ll be a writer. That’s the one thing I’m sure to have on that, so it’s less of a, “Oh, we’ll figure it out as we go.” We really wanna make it without interviews, like talking head interviews. We’re really trying to see if we can make a more interesting type of documentary, and less of a PBS style one.
Jesse: One that hasn’t been done, ’cause it’s a pretty popular topic.
Emmett: He’s real popular, but he’s never had a good, he had a good biopic, but I guess the big difference in what we’re doing is that everything to date on him has been about his death. They go through his life in like four percent of the film, and then it gets to really the East Coast, West Coast beef, and then ultimately the conspiracies around his death. That’s almost all the content that’s done on him since his death, and our movie’s about his life.
I don’t know where we’ll phase it out, but the whole movie’s about him. Why this young, overweight kid became the greatest MC of all time, and it’s because of where he grew up. And his mom’s from Jamaica and took him there every summer. There’s all these beautiful cool reasons as to why his talent was what it was, and the movie’s just gonna focus on that. It’s gonna be a real uplifting film and not a, “Who killed him?” And that I think will be the pleasant surprise for people. Is that they’ll walk out pumped, and just get a different version of his life, which I think people will appreciate.
Jesse: It sounds amazing.
Emmett: Yeah, it’ll be cool. That one feels like a lot of pressure in the good way. Where everybody, even the people we’re making it with stress me out in a good way where it’s like, “Oh shit, the producers of this film have won 2 academy awards for documentaries, so the pressure is on us to make a film that sits on that level.” So it’s something that you have that good pressure where you feel, like when we would do a White Stripes music video, you felt real pressure to not make the shitty one.
They had always had great videos, and when we got one finally I was so excited, then I went home and I stayed up all night going, “Fuck! What if we make the one bad White Stripes video?” And it’s just a little game that you could play with yourself, maybe to get you pumped to do it. Like staying up before a big game or something, where you’re nervous. So I hate the feeling, but it usually means you got a pressure-filled project in a good way.
There’s Always a Little Something
Emmett: We have Alex Knost in Tribes, too.
I’m real excited about it, ’cause he kind of went for it as an actor for us. ‘Cause when I spoke with him I was like, “It’d be great, but I would like it if you were more than just a surf guy. If you wanted to do this scene.” And he looked at it, and liked the idea of doing something more, and I told him the producer of Dallas Buyers Club was doing it, he was like, “That’s my favorite movie. Literally my favorite movie.” So he got kind of excited to put in some work, and he did, but it’s like he plays kind of a tough role to take. So it’ll be fun for people to see him go for it a little bit.
Jesse: On the whole surfing, acting thing. You couldn’t have someone play Alex Knost.
Emmett: No, yeah I know.
Jesse: You could take the best actors in the world, and I don’t have any faith in anybody portraying–
Emmett: Imagine a Tom Curren. If somebody tried to play him in a move it would be so bad.
Jesse: Yeah, you just can’t. It’s weird. I wonder why that is.
Emmett: I don’t know, Chasing Mavericks was a good example of kind of a good story, and you’d probably say that kid did good in casting. But it was so bad as an overall experience, where just it didn’t feel realistic to me at any point in that movie. That story of his life, Jay Moriarty would be a real great movie. So you’d read that script and be like, “Oh my goodness, I could make something great with this.” And somewhere along the line I just feel like again, it’s just that dialogue and everything that is realistic, it just somehow comes off real corny.
Jesse: I think we’re just the harshest critics, maybe.
Brendan: But it’s weird you saying … Like we told our actors, even some of the extras, and some of the background people we were like, “Just don’t say ‘bro,’ and ‘sick,’ and don’t say any of those words.” But then the bad part is I say those words all the time-
Jesse: Yeah, but you don’t feel you’re saying it.
Emmett: And kook-
Brendan: When I say it on camera, don’t say it! We were yelling, “Don’t say it!” And so they didn’t say anything, they were just scared, and they just kind of stood there. But it was kinda better.
We could take surfing out of this movie and it would still be fine.
Emmett: It was crazy those scenes. On the day, even though we made all those adjustments, I felt like I watched ’em and we’re like, “All right, that was pretty good. I think the kids look good. That scene worked all right.” And then when we cut it into the movie next to all this heavy real life stuff, and all this family stuff, it felt like a different movie. And it wasn’t the acting, it was just the part felt so corny in the movie, that we just ended up losing all of it. I mean literally, we kept enough in so you understand kind of surfing, and what it was for her to kind of work her way into the lineup. That was it. That’s kind of what we then got to focus on.
Brendan: But we could take surfing out of this movie and it would still be fine. It was really just a teen girl who was not accepted by her mom because her mom was having such issues. And she, by not being accepted by her mom, she didn’t feel like she could put herself out there and make friends. And it was really just the ocean was a place she would go to. We always said, “It was the place she would go to to be embraced.” By just getting in the water, it felt like it was the one place where she could be hugged, or–
Jesse: As it actually is.
Brendan: Yeah, but not even the surfing part of it, but just the ocean was somewhere, where she would escape when she had nowhere to go. And she couldn’t go to her mom, if you can’t go to your mom who can you go to? And so that was-
Emmett: And it was cool ’cause Maika brought this up last night, which she didn’t even bring up the whole time. But that was kind of what life was like for her being a kiteboarder, she was like, “That was my refuge, that was my salvation, and the ocean always was as I moved from different towns. It just became this constant connection for me.” And it was wild. I’d never heard her get that deep with it through our whole time.
Brendan: But if we put those lines in the movie they’d be terrible. We don’t even have her talking about it. There was that one point, it was in the book and she said something to her dad like, the dad was asking why she likes surfing or he just didn’t get it and she’s like, “I wanna be the first girl to surf the bay.”
And it was fine, but then they put it in the first trailer that we got. That was the seminal turning point, and we’re like, “Get rid of that.”
Brendan: We took it out of the trailer, we took it out of the movie.
Emmett: It felt like all the movies that you see. That all those other surf movies, they all do depend on Shane Dorian, and getting the biggest wave. Or her winning the contest, and overcoming that accident.
Jesse: That’s what sells.
Emmett: Yeah, and that’s the pitfall, and the same with Mavericks. You’re ultimately leading to his big wave, and you’re down that path, and then you’re kind of hosed. So I feel like ours we got to avoid that, which was a huge blessing. And I think our surfing in it is fun to watch. There’s real surf, and we got the Marshall brothers out for a few waves, and had the right guys to help the movie feel like it had some exciting surf moments. So I think at least you watch it and feel like, “Oh, it kind of was a surf movie.”
Even though we say all this shit to disclaimer it, but it is kind of at the core, there’s a cool surf experience in the movie, which is real.
I think people like other people, the people last night [at the HIFF screening] who probably have never watched a surf movie, the surfing blew their minds in a way. Where they really thought it was so cool, and they spoke a lot about it, but it’s real subtle in the movie, how the story depends on it. That could be like golfing or something, and it would kind of work okay, and you could just shoot a few different scenes. Her out on a golf course by herself, and it would kind of work, “I found golfing. Saved my life.”
Jesse: Interesting stuff.
Emmett: There’s no waves now, huh?
Jesse: I didn’t really look. I’ve–
Emmett: There’s always a little something.
Jesse: There’s definitely a little wave, for sure.
Brendan: Yeah, we’re just gonna jump in for a second.
Listen to the whole interview to hear Jesse, Emmett and Brendan talk about The Affair, Stranger Things and how Emmet’s wife might like him more if he’d created Game of Thrones.