The making of Point Break
Over the edge…how a dude, a dancer and a girl invented extreme filmmaking…
by Adam Smith
The Chinese calendar, in all astrological sophistication, somehow missed the Year of The Dude. The year in question was 1991, and Keanu Reeves was about to undergo a career transformation.
Previously, the 26 year old had pursued an erratic career, popping up in flicks as diverse as Dangerous Liaisons and Parenthood. More recently he had found an unexpected kind of stardom as slacker Ted Theodore Logan in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. But cinema's über-dude was about to become a bona fide action hero. Which for fans of the genre may be considered to be a moderately good thing.
Without Point Break there would be no Speed, and without Speed, The Matrix would have been an unlikely proposition. We should therefore count ourselves lucky that Matthew Broderick had other things to do.
Point Break began life as a screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (from a story by Iliff and Rick King), whose previous works amounted to an episode of Tales from the Crypt and '80s video rentals 'classic', Prayer Of The Rollerboys, starring Corey Haim. Originally titled Riders on the Storm (it was renamed Point Break early on to avoid music association - the term refers to an area in the sea where the swell hits a flat reef, thus providing ideal breaking waves for surfing), the screenplay attracted the attention of up-and-coming director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Blue Steel). "It had the potential to do many things at the same time," she told Empire shortly after the film's release. "On the surface it could be a rip- roaring action movie, very fast-paced, a lot of adrenaline, working in very different landscapes - like the surfing environment and the aerial sequences - that hadn't really been explored in a dramatic context before." But it wasn't only the , "100 per cent pure adrenaline" of the eventual tagline that drew her to the project. "Far more importantly, there was this wonderful psychological tug of war between these two men," she said. "There was a notion of spirituality and self-realization between them."
It would be her first foray into the usually male-dominated territory of the action flick. To assuage any studio doubts that a "mere girl" could pull off the necessary testosterone tsunami required of the genre, her then-husband James Cameron - who was in the early stages of shooting Terminator 2 - was brought in to executive produce. Cameron's spare time generated enough adrenaline to rival any of Point Break's set-pieces; filming a promo, Cameron lashed a camera to the wings of an ultra-high plane, undid his seat belt to get a better grip and pointed the plane downward. While most couple's courtships involve dithering over who should put the phone down first, Cameron and Bigelow raced each other to meetings, smoking down the freeway at 120 mph while exchanging sweet nothings on cell phones. As the relationship blossomed, quality time for the pair meant off-road, four-wheel-drive antics, crash landing in a hot air balloon, horse riding, ice skating and shooting AK-47's in the desert. And this was over only one weekend. Though it was never made explicit, it must have been in the studio's mind that should Bigelow prove wanting, Cameron could be parachuted in to finish the movie.
But before the Point Break team could even begin to consider the complexities of the shoot itself, Bigelow needed to find herself a couple of action heroes. Patrick Swayze had been in the frame since the start. The 38 year-old Texan had been sporadic box office gold since Dirty Dancing in 1987, and had cemented his rep. As a reasonably reliable leading man in 1990 spook love story Ghost. Initially he was offered the choice of both roles, finally deciding on the part of spiritual surfer and bank robber, Bodhi. "There were so many things that excited me about it," he said later, "because it's not your typical action movie. It's not about how many things you can blow up in two hours. Here the action is truly beautiful. It's like a celebration of the beauty of the human body moving through space."
With Swayze on board and enthusing about Bigelow's "wet Western" (as she was now calling it), the second role - the brilliantly-monikered F.B.I. Agent, Johnny Utah - remained to be filled. First to be approached was Matthew Broderick who, despite being in the process of trying to shake the teen image he had fostered with War Games and Ferris Buellers' day off, turned the role down in favor of the disastrous comedy Out On A Limb.
Keanu Reeves was next in her sights. She had first seen him in his 1986 critically-acclaimed drama, River's Edge (though he and Swayze had previously appeared briefly together in little-seen Rob Lowe ice hockey movie, Youngblood (1986)), "I've been an enormous fan of Keanu's since River's Edge," Bigelow said. "I thought his innate physicality, intelligence and charm would make him perfect to play Utah. He holds the screen and he's got a magical ability to put the audience in his back pocket. In addition, this was a departure from the work he'd done in the past. We felt that it would be a fresh approach for the picture."
It wasn't a "fresh approach" that 20th Century Fox were very enthusiastic about. "Convincing everybody that he was the right person took a hit of doing," she admitted. "It was perceived as a stretch for him. But he was already thoroughly committed to playing this part. I mean, he was already doing research and we were working together on the background to his character long before he was actually cast. He went off to Hawaii, which is probably one of the most difficult places to learn to surf, and started to teach himself after just a few initial conversations with me."
Reeves' research also included time spent football training with UCLA coaches, some days with the LAPD learning firearms handling, and at the FBI learning the Bureau's procedure. But it was the surfing that provided the greatest challenge. For Reeves, like his character Johnny Utah, the learning curve was a steep and painful one. "The first time I went into the water the board just smacked me in the head - but eventually I could do it. I could stand up, depending on the wave," he remembers. "It was kind of a small summer wave-wise, but some waves you see me on - that's me. And the falling - that's definitely me. I did all my own falling - I got real good at it."
In fact, Reeves also had some help form director of cinematography Don Peterman, himself an ex-surfer. "We used long lenses to make the waves look much bigger" he revealed. "During summer in California waves are usually very small, but we could amplify their size - when Utah is first learning to surf, the waves were in reality only about four feet high."
Peterman's other concern was achieving the specific "look" of the movie which, Bigelow had decided, "Should not be the standard sun-drenched California" idyll of classic surf documentaries such as Endless Summer or John Millius' Anthem For Doomed Dude, Big Wednesday.
Instead a grittier look would be needed, but one cliché that Peterman couldn't get away from was the ubiquitous slo-mo for the surf sequences themselves. "It's kind of strange, but you can't shoot surfing at normal speed" he says. "It looks like you've speeded it up, like something out of a Buster Keaton film. Your eye is just trained to see surfing in slower motion."
Shooting began on July 9, 1990, first on various California beaches, from Long Beach in south LA to as far up the coast as Ventura Country. Then it was on Hawaii, which stood in for California for the majority of the film ( a small amount of second unit photography was also done on Bondi Beach, Australia). For Bigelow, the 77-day, $25 million shoot was the biggest challenge of her directing career. Every action scene was meticulously storyboarded.
For the surf sequences, Don Peterman brought in Yura Farrant and Ron and Bob Condon, all expert surf photographers whose major challenge was the final "Bell's Beach' sequence, in which Bodhi surfs the "ultimate wave" in the midst of a tropical storm. Waimea Beach, Hawaii, doubled for Australia and surf double Darrick Doerner performed the stunt. February 9 was expected to provide a massive swell, which would peak at 10:30 am. The crew waited for Doerner to give the action signal. When he finally did, they watched alarmed, as Doerner vanished nto a gargantuan wave, taking more than a minute to surface. His board later washed up smashed to pieces on the submerged rocks.
While both stars participated in much of the surf action, only Swayze actually shot part of the groundbreaking freefall sequence, much to Reeves' disgust. "The insurers were very worried about twisted ankles and death," he observed sourly, Swayze was equally baffled - mainly because he considered the stunt to be a picnic after the surfing. "I got beat to death, I broke a couple of ribs. The funny thing is that the insurance companies screamed, yelled and hollered about jumping out of planes, but never said one word about surfing.Surfing is insanity - I almost died countless times."
Point Break was released to a decidedly lukewarm critical reception and a just about reasonable box office of $43.2 million. While critics almost unanimously praised Bigelow's inventive handling of the action sequences, as would become a regular occurrence, Keanu Reeves acted as their whipping boy. "Risible… he offers only two expressions - gormless and unbelievably gormless," yelped the Daily Mail.
"Reeves suggests a guy who's suffered too many tackles without a helmet," snorted one American critic. Others eagerly cut a trope that was to become the bane of Reeves' life: in an analysis echoing Quentin Tarantino's famous deconstruction of Top Gun, many noted that Point Break can easily be read as a gay love story, with Utah increasingly obsessed with Bodhi to the point of pretty much ignoring his girlfriend. Suggestive lines like, "You want me so bad that it's like acid in your mouth," and, "Try it, you might like it," were cited in support of the argument.
Whatever the film's deeper meanings, it launched Reeves as an action star and Bigelow as possibly the world's only successful, female action-director. She was certainly now half of the only pair of married purveyors of high quality octane. As one observer at the time marvelled, "Can you imagine the fridge notes she could leave? "Honey, your dinner's in the oven, and your film's in the can."