When pro surfer John John Florence gets excited, he appears short of breath. He clips the ends of his words. As he dug into breakfast at New York City's Standard Grill—two over-easy eggs with rye toast—the sentences flowed seamlessly into each other. "I love cameras, and the real reason I made this movie was to work with cameras and learn how they work," he said.
Florence was in town just before the release of his new film, View From a Blue Moon, which premieres in seven different cities across the globe on Wednesday (and will be available for download starting December 1st). True to Florence's word, the movie combines the latest in camera technology with Hollywood-level cinematography. Florence and director Blake Vincent Kueny partnered with Brain Farm, a leader in action sports videography, to shoot the film on Red Dragon and Phantom Flex cameras. They also employed helicopters equipped with Shotover F1 stabilization systems. The film has been unofficially (though widely) credited as the first-ever surfing film shot entirely in 4K resolution.
"Both Hurley"—Florence's sponsor—"and Brain Farm told us this had to be the best surf movie ever made, something that would transcend the sport," Kueny said.
When Florence was preparing to sign with Hurley almost three years ago, he was fresh off a fourth-place finish in the 2012 World Surf League and was just about to release Done, an artistic surf film he co-directed with Kueny. People were hailing him as the future of surfing, but Florence, then 21 years old, felt he needed a new challenge. In conversations with Kueny, he essentially storyboarded what he hoped to accomplish in the next few years of his life. One of those goals was another movie, and in his talks with Hurley, the surfer was blunt: the company needed to support his next film.
"Hurley agreed to allow John to make the film the way he wanted to make it," Kueny said. "It wouldn't have gotten the green light without him."
The original concept was to shoot the film entirely in Florence's native Hawaii, but he and Kueny eventually added locations in Tahiti, Western Australia, Brazil, and the west coast of the U.S. to the itinerary. With carte blanche from Hurley, the production team was able to visit each shooting location twice, reshooting what they missed or nature hadn't provided on the first visit—a rarity in surf films.
Florence was able to spend more time composing shots, rather than just shooting from the hip, and both he and Kueny learned to work off a shot list. "When you have a helicopter with a cineflex in the front, it's not just, 'Hey go out there and shoot some stuff!'" Florence said.
"I went into this project with the mindset, 'I am going to spend as much time as I need to, to make this a good movie,'" Florence said. "We didn't set a deadline for when we'd finish until about a year into filming." Kueny wrapped up editing the film only a few weeks before its premiere.
The formula for the majority of surf films these days is to shoot as many amazing moves as you can in a short time period, slap an obscure but catchy song onto the clip, and then promote the work on as many social media outlets as possible. The goal is to score a viral number of shares and re-shares, but those clips are often lost in the white noise of the internet.
View from a Blue Moon aims to be different. "This film comes at a time where the instant, now gratification of content is at its peak," says Kueny. "This was a unicorn in a sense of long-form projects with big budget and with surfing—these films have typically failed so miserably."
"The storyline is solid. It is not a feature film—it is still definitely a surf film—but it is going to be cool," said Florence, who was a little more reserved when not discussing the camerawork. You can forgive Florence if he undersells his own production. The hype beast that surrounds surfing is as rabid as any other sport, and Florence is very familiar with it. He has been labeled the next Kelly Slater, the 11-time WSL winner, since he was surfing North Shore's Banzai pipeline in grade school.
"I didn't want to hype this movie up a year before we would release it," Florence said. "Word was getting around that I was making another film, but I didn't want people to think View From a Blue Moon is something it's not."
View From a Blue Moon wound up taking three years and roughly $2 million to make. Now that the film is complete, though, don't expect another Florence-Kueny collaboration for at least a few years.
"A dream of mine was to finish this film. Now that I've done it, I want to focus the next two years entirely on contest surfing," Florence said. After enduring some significant bumps—torn ligaments in both ankles sidelined him at various points during filming—his body is finally healthy, and he aims to devote himself wholly to the WSL tour next year. Producing View From a Blue Moon made it difficult to establish a competition rhythm: he was on the road upward of 300 days a year shooting the film.
Florence's talent is obvious during practice sessions and tour events. He approaches barrels with lackadaisical ferocity. His lithe 6'1'' frame makes the maneuvers look effortless—until he explodes amidst a spray of sea foam, carves at an impossibly steep angle, or launches from the water in an acrobatic melding of skateboarding and surfing. Watching him, it's easy to forget that he has finished in the top five of the WSL year-end rankings only twice in his five years on the tour. Florence wants to change that, and as he explained his evolving competition attitude, his sentences blurred together.
"I've spent the last few events trying new things and testing," he said. "Next year, I'll have a refined routine. I'm not changing my surfing, but I have had to learn a different kind of surfing."
Before, Florence had a habit, in his words, of "going for the biggest waves and hoping to land them," but the relatively low percentage of making those crowd-pleasing waves effectively hamstrung his professional success. His focus now is adapting to competition-style surfing and putting up high scores on the WSL tour.
"There is a 50 percent chance of making a big wave, which equals out to the same percentage of getting a 9 or a 10 [from the judges]," he said. "Whereas other guys can just do what they need to do, and have an 80 percent chance of getting a 9 or 10. I need to adapt to what they are scoring."
The WSL competition circuit is a grind. To avoid burning out on heats and contest surfing, Florence has a new hobby. He recently bought a 35-foot yacht that he has big plans for during his down time.
"Have you heard of the Volvo Ocean race?" Florence asked me after finishing his breakfast. "They sail around the world, going 25 knots into these crazy storms."
"I want to sail to all the islands and just surf," he continued. "I just had my boat hauled in and had some stuff redone, so I am super excited to get back on to the water."
And therein lies a hint of whatever might follow View From a Blue Moon: "For that movie, I want to get a big race boat and go places in like a week," he said. "We don't have this huge monster behind us anymore, but after I take a break for a while, I'll start working towards getting everything figured out for it."
Florence sounds relieved as he looks back at the past three years, and with his epic goal behind him.
"I can do anything at this point, it's wide open. I could become a free surfer and make a living off it. I could become a contest surfer and maybe win the world title. Or I could live on a boat in the middle of nowhere and not talk to another living being. However View From a Blue Moon comes out in the end, I've already accomplished what I wanted to do."