Surfing penguins? I'd never heard of such a preposterous and funny idea. Or so I thought. I was at the bus stop about a month ago, and I noticed a poster for Sony's latest CG-animated feature Surf's Up. The tag line read: "Based on a True Story!" Suddenly, these images of real surfing penguins began to weave their way through my brain. I could literally see them there, swifting along on pieces of driftwood.
Had I watched a program about surfing penguins sometime in the past, and forgotten about it. Did this poster's tagline bring those memories rushing back? Maybe I saw a documentary about surf-enabled waterfowl on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel? The postcard image was a little foggy in my temporal lobe, but I could suddenly swear it happened. Maybe I saw it as part of some surfing documentary from the late 70s. Or, maybe, those words "Based on a True Story" were strong enough to trigger whatever creative juices I had left swimming around in my skull. Did I created this authenticated visual scenario on my own? I wasn't sure.
Never the less, I didn't question the poster's quaint proclamation. I got on the bus and went about my business. I didn't give the notion a second thought until I went to a screening of Surf's Up. Before the movie started, I was handed press notes. There, again, were those words: Based on a true story. What does that really mean? Especially in terms of this film? Over the last decade, the cinematic landscape has seen an increasing number of films purporting themselves to be based on fact. If you look deep into history, just about every theatrical endeavor could claim itself authentic. Couldn't it?
If every single bit of minutia spouted in the name of religion was true, couldn't we get away with saying that Return Of The Jedi was based on an actual incident? Isn't Knocked Up somewhat about Judd Apatow's own life experiences? How come it's not being touted as a true story. I'd buy that. Even Mr. Brooks seems slightly possible in its own weird way. But surfing penguins that hold their own competitive memorial competitions? How could that possibly be based on fact? Darn it, I was going to have to get to the bottom of this.
I enjoyed Surf's Up. I especially loved Jeff Bridge's performance as Big Z. He brings a certain type of authenticity that lifts this sort of entertainment off the ground. It's one of the few truly original films being released this summer, and I can see it becoming a tiny classic in the annals of family film history. The surfing is phenomenal. I'd even go out on a limb and say that it's the best fictional surfing movie made in the last twenty years. Watch the film. That's a statement you can't really challenge.
Still, sitting there, starring at it's beautifully rendered waves, that "True Story" idea kept bothering me. The whole time I wondered, "Where are these penguins now? Where do they really live? What was changed in the story to make it more interesting to the human public." I was plagued with idealistic fantasies regarding the fictionalized content of Surf's Up. These thoughts started to overcame my everyday life.
I poured over the press notes, but to no avail. There was little to no information about the real penguins that the film is based on. I did find this little nugget of information: The real Cody Maverick, the champion surfer played by Shia LaBeouf in the cartoon, actually wrote a book. It chronicles his experiences with the making of the film. Entitled Surf's Up: The Art and Making of a True Story, you can order the manuscript if you CLICK HERE.
Looking at the front sleeve, you'll notice that it's true. Our mysterious penguin did, in fact, authorize this beautiful hardcover coffee table book. I purchased the 150-paged tome and dug deep into its narrative. I was saddened to realize that Cody doesn't tell his own personal story in print. The account focuses primarily on Cody's time spent with the Sony animators. It is a detailed summary of the Surf's Up artists and their craft. It has nothing to do with the actual surfing event that Cody may or may not have lost back in his early years. Even though the huge novel is meticulously put together, it failed to deliver what I was looking for. The truth.
Then I got the news. They were sending me to Hawaii to cover the Surf's Up press junket. I knew for a fact this would lead me to the clues I needed to piece this story together. I would fly out to Oahu, where I would met up with some of the cast and crew of the film. Surely they'd know a thing or two about the real Cody Maverick.
Before I left Friday afternoon, I went to the library and did some research. I found out that there was a small Island off the coast of Waikiki not easily accessible to man. It also happened to by the only place in the United States inhabited by the Rockhopper Penguin. Usually found off the coasts of Chili and Argentina, the Rockhopper served as the model for most of the penguins in Surf's Up. Could this be because the real Cody Maverick was also a Rockhopper? Could he possibly be from this island? Hmm? I figured I was onto something. The fact that the island's name is Fengull Isle, and the name of the island in the film was Pen Gu couldn't just be a closely named coincidence, could it?
With a five-hour flight under my belt, I arrived on the island of Oahu Friday afternoon fresh and ready to go. I had plenty of time to kill before my big meeting with the makers of Surf's Up. I hailed a taxi from the airport to my hotel, and was lucky enough to get Robert Laemoa as my driver. He is a local, born and raised in the city of Waikiki. Seeing as how we were stuck in rush hour traffic, he graciously pointed out every little thing in sight and described its history in detail. This was a man well educated in the landmarks of Hawaii.
He told me where I should go, and what I should see during my short weekend visit. He pointed out Todai, the all-you-can-eat sushi bar. He then showed me the Pagoda restaurant which was also, conveniently, a boat. "That is very exciting. You get to eat, and watch the sunset. You are out on the water. Very beautiful, but very expensive. The food...Not so good. But if you are a romantic, you can't beat it for the visual experience alone."
That was all well and good, but I'd seen floating restaurants before. My mind was elsewhere. I wanted to get to the bottom of this "True Story" matter, and I took Laemoa as someone who could help me out. I waited for the right break in our site-seeing conversation to breach the subject, "So, have you heard of this movie, Surf's Up?"
"Is it true that it's based on some sort of local legend?" His eyes darted up into the rearview mirror. He was checking me out, suspicious. Suddenly, the sky grew overcast. Tiny rain droplets pelted the hood and roof of the taxi, "I've heard that the movie is base on a true story. That there really are surfing penguins on the tiny island of Fengull"
"You can't really go out there. It's a natural wildlife preserve. A few folks have swam out to the island, it's just a short distance from the beach up ahead. But they have guards that monitor it pretty closely. There's actually this big Samoan fellow that lives out there. He's nice. He might just give you a sandwich and tell you to be on your way."
"Is it true that the Rockhopper penguins on the island surf?"
"Yeah, yeah...Every once in a while, you'll see a bird sitting on a piece of driftwood that gets picked up by a wave. And they seem to be having a fun time doing it. I don't think they compete with each other. Penguins aren't competitive by nature. Those birds are soul surfers. They just do it for fun. But then, who knows what goes on inside the brain of a penguin? They are probably smarter than you and me, my friend."
This sounded about right. The entire theme of Surf's Up is to stay true to yourself. Winning isn't everything. It's the idea that surfing isn't so much a competitive sport, as it is an act of soul searching. So, there's your true story right there. One must bring the penguin aesthetic into any given individual sport be it surfing, or skateboarding, or sailing, or snowboarding. That still didn't tell me a whole lot about this penguin in the movie, Cody Maverick. Out of all those Rockhopper penguins on Fengull Island, how did he get a movie made about himself?
Laemoa dropped me off at the Moana Surfrider Hotel. You should have seen this place. Historic. Beautiful. Known as the First Lady of Waikiki, this massive white building sat right on the blue beaches of Oahu. It truly was a self-contained paradise. It's own small community nestled into the middle of a downtown city sidewalk. I couldn't believe the sheer magnitude of it. Just gorgeous.
I ran inside the monumental structure and checked into my room. Perfect. A suite fit for John Goodman on a weekend bender. I clocked the patio, up there on the 8th floor. They'd given me a clear view of the powder blue ocean. I could see surfers and palm trees. My first inclination was to pull up a chair, pop a beer, and watch the sunset. But an investigative journalist never sleeps.
h5The Surfrider Hotel
It was out the door and upstairs to the Surf's Up hospitality suite. I checked in and let them know that I was ready for my cast and crew interviews. Those wouldn't be happening until tomorrow, though. They handed me a goody bag and wished me well. "Enjoy your free time."
Yeah, right. Enjoy my free time. How could I do that with this story nagging at my bones? I took the goody bag back to my room and dug through its contents, hopeful that I would find some sort of "True Story" clue. Nope. Just a bunch of Surf's Up paraphernalia. Some pretty neat stuff, though. The bag itself was a beach knapsack with the Surf's Up emblem emblazed on the side of it. There was a Cody Maverick stuffed penguin from the Build-A-Bear Workshop. A beach towel in the shape of a surfboard. A Quicksilver wetsuit undershirt. A Surf's Up T-shirt. Some sun balm. Another copy of the Surf's Up hardcover making-of book. But not one inkling of a real penguin feather, or anything of that nature. Darn my luck.
I huffed it down to the Hotel bar, which sat right on the gorgeous, overlapping shores of the beach. I was stunned by this awesome sight: The North Shore. I wanted to put my head down and dive right in. One problem, I didn't bring my swim trunks. So, instead, I took a seat and decided to dive into a different kind of liquid refreshment. A Kona Long Board Lager.
Beer in hand, I turned to watch the surfers off in the distance. It was hard to tell from where I was sitting, but they all looked pretty human to me. Not one penguin, or chicken, in sight. I sighed, taking a long, cool sip off the Lager. It was pretty tasty. The bartenders all looked like locals. I tried breaching the "Cody Maverick" subject with them, but they weren't taking the bait. They laughed off my inquires as to where the real bird lived, thinking I was some kind of stoner drunk. Makanhi, my main server, poured me another drink and told me that the pulled pork sandwich was pretty good. I took him up on his suggestion. He then told me to have one of the Hotel's signature drinks. Maybe something with a little Brandy in it. I obliged his wishes.
So, a couple hours go by. I'm sitting there, stuffed with pig and Island brewed hops. I have no lead, and less of a story. The people splashing around in the nearby pool all look drunk. Red-faced. They wouldn't know a penguin if one accidentally walked off with their beach towel. My first night in Waikiki was a bust. Or so I thought. While drinking what I believed would be my last Scorpion, an older gentleman sat down next to me. He was alone. I soon found out that he was a widower. His name was Raul "Tootie" Maedo. He had special military privileges, and was visiting from a nearby base on the Island.
Tootie had been a paratrooper in Vietnam. When he got back to the States, he opened a bar in Massachusetts. He had to quite that business, though. He let one thug slide on a pricey tab, and soon he earned a reputation for being too soft. As you may have noticed watching The Departed, you just can't have that while doing business in Boston. He also used to point the horse jockeys in a winning direction, "We would have to tell those guys when to win, and when to lose. They'd come in for a drink, and we'd say, 'Sorry, Pal. Today is not your day.' The understood. Or, they got their arm broken."
h5Paulington with Raul "Tootie" Maedo
Tootie told me he used to bring his daughters to Hawaii when they were little. Maybe three or four. But he hadn't been out to Oahu in awhile. This was his first vacation since his wife died of cancer. That topic swung the mood of the conversation down. Instead of following that trail of thought, I turned to the issue of entertainment. We talked about movies, and liquor. He then told me, "Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake broke up." This sounded funny coming from an old, rough-tough son of an American bitch. I laughed. I then asked him if he had heard of Surf's Up.
"Oh, yeah. That's that movie about surfing penguins. Me and my girls used to go over to that building...See that big building over there?" He pointed his finger towards a forty story white building. Maybe it was an old Hotel. It was kind of hard to see, as the sun was starting to set, "We used to go up on the twenty-fifth floor, cause they had a telescope up there. And we would watch those Penguins surf for hours. Out on this little island, maybe a couple of miles off shore from here. It's really funny. Those little birds looked like they were really getting into it."
"So, there are real surfing penguins out on that island?"
"Yeah. I think they're probably just floating around on the driftwood, you know. But it's funny to watch. I used to go up there and watch them all the time after the war. It would take my mind off it, you know? The beach is so beautiful, and these animals are dancing around. How can you think about the atrocities of war when you're watching that. It was very soothing."
"What about the penguin in the movie? Was he a real penguin?"
"Come on, man. I doubt it. I don't think there was one penguin out there that was better than the rest. My guess on that is, some of these locals who used to watch them all the time, probably spotted the same bird once or twice. Maybe he had a red spot on his head, or some other marking. They saw him out there on the driftwood every time they went to look. They got attached. It doesn't mean that he had a name, or that he was some surfing guru. It's just the breeding of familiarity."
Was he just a rambling drunk at this point? Was he telling me the truth? I didn't know, but it did make sense. After a steak sandwich and another couple of Kona's, we went our separate ways. I went upstairs and went to bed. He went across the street to try and pick up some old Taiwanese woman at a frog legs restaurant.
I awoke bright and early the next morning, taking a Van to the Surf's Up press junket. We arrived at the Kahala Resort & Hotel in Honolulu around 9 am. The place was just as gargantuan, and as gorgeous as the Surfrider hotel. It, too, was parked right on the lip of the beach. Only, it was in a more secluded, residential neighborhood.
The roundtable interviews went off without a hitch.
The first person I approached about the truth behind the "True Story" of Surf's Up was Jeff Bridges. He's someone I have admired for a long time, and he seemed to have a really good sense of humor. I almost didn't recognize him, though. He'd lost a good hundred pounds. His head was shaved. And he had one of those Tom Hank's Cast Away beards. He told us the look was for his upcoming role in the Iron Man film.
When I asked him if he spent some time with the real Big Z, he just sort of laughed it off. Then said, "Yeah, sure, me and ol' Z hung out a bit." He smiled, genuinely amused by the question. I asked if there was anything he could tell me about the guy, "Yeah. They seem to have made him a lot fatter in the movie. I told them, 'Come on, he's not that fat.' But it was challenging for me. He's pretty far removed from my personality."
This isn't the first time Bridges has played a real life public figure. He's also portrayed Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and Jeff "The Dude" Dowd in The Big Lebowski. Were there any similarities between Big Z and the Dude? "Yeah, but The Dude smokes weed. Big Z does clams."
Next, I approached Jon Heder about the real Chicken Joe. He confirmed the rooster's presence on the set during the voice recording sessions, "Well, they had that guy there. In the booth. But I had him sit in the corner because he was annoying me. Because nothing he said made since."
So, was the performance a strong bit of character acting on Heder's part? "Yes," Heder told me, "I studied the chickens. I did a lot of head bobbing." Shia chimed in, "You ate a lot of chicken."
What about Shia? It actually turns out that LaBeouf spent a lot of time with his onscreen doppelganger. The story goes, Cody Maverick had spent sometime on the Zoo circuit, touring and doing shows. Shia attempted to go deeper into the famous penguin's psyche, stating "I not only hung out with him at the zoo, but also massage parlors, and AA meetings. Penguins are F'ed up, bro. You think they are just cute little animals, but penguins have a lot of addiction problems. At least the one's I worked with. I mean, Cody was a real F-up. And all those kids. All those illegitimate children?"
So, I nailed down the information I was looking for. The real Cody Maverick. According to Shia LaBeouf, this penguin surf star was a mess. I guess a lot of that didn't make it into the movie. Shia was quick to turn the other cheek though, "There was a lot of drama. But at the end of the day, (he) were very professional. Especially on the day I worked with (him)."
I left the junket somewhat disillusioned. It seemed as though the makers of Surf's Up had recreated history. They left Cody's bought with depression and alcohol out of the film. They never showed him going to the message parlors. They'd turned this dirty little bird's story into a quaint kid's movie. Oh, well. I enjoyed it. Maybe the truth was better left out there on Fengull Island.
I still had a bit of time before I needed to return to my hotel room. Sony was throwing a big luau for the movie, and I didn't want to miss it. I walked over to the dolphin tank, which was just outside the conference room where the interviews took place. I watched those mammals dance and play. This was the first time I'd ever been so close to one of them. I put my head down and thought about my quest.
What a wash.
That's when Gracie swam over to me. She was a beautiful blue bottlenose. The girl started squeaking and snorting. Was this dolphin laughing at me? What the heck?
A super foxy blonde in a cutoff wetsuit popped up out of the water next to her, patting the dolphin on the head. The woman's name was Alaia. She explained that the dolphin had something important to tell me. "What is it?"
The dolphin snorted again. "She says that someone has something important for you at the front desk."
"The dolphin just said that?"
"Yeah. You heard her. You better get in there."
So, heading the call of insanity, I ran back into the hotel's main lobby. There, at the check-in desk, stood a large Samoan man. His demeanor was off putting. His grimace curled back to reveal missing teach. Little did I know, this was the man the taxi driver had told me about. The one that lives on Pen Gu Island, "Are you Paulington?"
h5The Samoan Protector of Fengull Island
"That would be me. Am I in some kind of trouble or something?"
"Come with me."
I followed the rather oafish, severely intimidating man. We went through the back of the lobby and through the conference hall. I saw Jeff Bridges once again. I nodded. He laughed. I'm not sure if he remembered me. We kept going, out the back door and past the dolphin tank. I passed by Gracie, who also seemed to be laughing at me. We made our way down a serene path, past a could of tents, and then down the beach a ways to this little secluded spot. "Stay here."
I shrugged. I didn't know what my dumb luck was up to. The Samoan disappeared behind a rock, only to return minutes latter with a tiny Rockhopper penguin in tow. It was Cody Maverick. The bird was a little pudgier. A little more rough around the edges, but I would have recognized him anywhere...
Here is the short interview I was granted with the Penguin:
Cody Maverick: I hear you've been asking about me?
Of course. I saw the film based on your quest to win the Big Z Memorial Surfing Contest. I just wanted to know more about you, since they're putting it out there as a True Story.
Cody Maverick: There ain't much more to tell. It's all there in the movie.
Well, didn't the movie lie?
Cody Maverick: They may have fudged some facts, but I got paid.
Have you seen the film?
Cody Maverick: Yes. And I'm very proud of it. I do have some issues with it. Namely the ending.
Please, Mr. Maverick, we don't want to give away the ending. We want it to be a surprise for the kids.
Cody Maverick: I'll tell you this. Chickens don't surf. It says it right there in the name. Chicken. There's a reason people call you chicken when you don't want to do something, or try something new. It's because they are afraid to do just about anything. Eating squid. That's all they are good for. Look, chickens are even afraid to fly. And they're birds!
Penguins are birds, and they can't fly.
Cody Maverick: Don't get smart with me. That's hereditary.
So, you're calling Chicken Joe out as a fake?
Cody Maverick: No. Not a fake. I will not begrudge him his talent. Look, Joe and me go way back. We were friends before the Big Z Memorial Surf Off. They made up that whole story about us meeting on the isle. I guess for dramatic purposes. Personally, I think he gets a little too much attention in the film. My cousin, this kid that works at the San Diego Zoo, says there's a giant billboard of Chicken Joe overlooking the highway.
I can confirm that
Cody Maverick: Why? That's ridiculous. The guy is totally riding my coattails. I'm supposed to be the champion. But there's his giant goofy face.
I thought it was supposed to be all about soul surfing, not winning a competition.
Cody Maverick: It is. But why him? He's so lazy. It's kind of like when Kramer got so popular on Seinfeld.
You watch TV?
Cody Maverick: Sometimes. What is this interview for? Online?
Yeah, fell free to swear as much as you like.
Cody Maverick: No, I keep it clean. No, that kid they got to play me in the film? Shia LaBeouf? He's got a dirty mouth on him, that one. I was in the studio with him one day. The guy was dropping one F-bomb after the next. Shameful.
He told us that you like to frequent massage parlors and AA meetings. And that you have a lot of illegitimate kids.
Cody Maverick: He's a little liar. He lied to you all about Indiana Jones 4, didn't he. Of course he's going to make stuff up about the penguin. That's alright. I like the kid. He's a little funny in the head, always joking around. But I have a feeling he's going to be a big star. Look, I have to get out of here. My kids are waiting for me. I'm going to get in trouble if I don't stop by and see them today.
Cody Maverick: I just wanted to tell you one thing. Don't bad mouth me in the press.
I wont. I promise.
Cody yelled out for the large Samoan. The guy swooped him up, and the two disappeared behind a large rock, never to be seen again. So, that was it. I'd gotten a chance to talk with the real Cody Maverick. I gathered up my recorder and headed back to the Surfrider Hotel. There, I fell asleep and missed the luau.
When I got back to the States the following day, I noticed something strange. The "Based on a True Story" tag line had been removed from all of the Surf's Up posters. It was replaced by: "A Major Ocean Picture." Catchy, but not as thought provoking and inspiring as what they original tried to go with.
So, there you have it. The truth behind the real story of Surf's Up. The film opens in theaters on June 8th. Go see it. You won't be disappointed.