Adventure Film Review: Q&A With ‘Big Wave Guardians’ Executive Producer Marty Hoffman

I got a sneak peak of the new film Big Wave Guardians, a feature-length documentary showcasing the dramatic stories of lifeguards who put their lives at risk to save others in the world’s most dangerous waves. The film, produced by Marty Hoffman Films in Association with MacGillivray Freeman Films and directed by Luke Stirtz, looks at the intertwined history of surfing and lifeguarding on Hawaii’s North Shore and the progression of safety measures in big waves. 

Providing both historical context, honest and raw interviews with some of the biggest names in the surf scene, and stunning imagery, this film sheds light on the incredibly selfless work of lifeguards and the appreciation of the surf community. 

Not only was I able to check out this film before its international release, but I sat down with the film’s executive producer, Marty Hoffman, and chatted at length about Big Wave Guardians. Here’s what he said:

Watch the Big Wave Guardians Trailer Here:

Mitch Bowmile: Thanks for chatting, Marty! I was so excited to get a sneak peak of your new film, Big Wave Guardians! Congratulations on the film’s release, how’s reception been so far? 

Marty Hoffman: We’re getting amazing response. The movie has been playing in Hawaii, Florida and here in California, and everybody who sees it seems to really like it. We’re also getting really positive press reviews, which is nice. The film is getting more national distribution this week and through the summer, so more and more people will see it. 

MB: What made your team want to take on this project? 

MH: I made a film about my dad (Walter Hoffman) and his friends Hobie Alter (Hobie Surfboards) and Grubby (Clark, Clark Foam) and all these different guys who were early creators of the surf industry and realized that it was a very specific surf story. So, we wanted to make something that would feed that into a story that’s really interesting about the surfing world, so we made this one about the lifeguards and surfing. This is one of the chapters that goes into a bigger story about the entire surf world. People can watch this, appreciate it, and then watch another chapter in the bigger story about surfing. We’re working on the entire series, which will be six different movies, and it’s called This Surfing Life.

MB: Why is this film needed right now given the current climate of lifeguard shortages?

MH: We really wanted to build the awareness of who and what lifeguards are and just give them a shot in the arm and give them the spotlight that they deserve, because every year they save hundreds of thousands of people from dying, and they rarely get the recognition.

MB: Who are some of the main subjects that viewers can look forward to hearing from in the film? 

MH: The movie really opens with Brian Keaulana and his family, his father Buffalo Keaulana, and their connection to the ocean. Then it tells about Brian and Terry Ahue pioneering the use of jet skis with the Hawaiian lifeguards in the 1990s. It also traces the history of lifeguarding in Hawaii from Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki Beach Boys in the 1920s to Eddie Aikau on Oahu’s North Shore in the 1970s. The cast also includes some of the world’s best watermen and women, like Kelly Slater (11-time world champion), big-wave chargers Mark Healy, Greg Long and Keala Kennelly; Hawaii’s top lifeguards like Clyde Aikau, Terry Ahue, Mark Cunningham, Dave Wassel and Johnny Angel. Plus, you hear from a number of different surfers who have been saved by the lifeguards.

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MB: How important was it to include the history of lifeguarding and the history of surfing in this documentary? Learning about the history of surfing coming from the Polynesian culture to the modern surf and lifeguarding scene originating from outliers like Duke Kahanamoku, Jose Angel, Brian Kealana and Eddie Aikau was fascinating.

MH: Yeah, if you study the history of how surfing almost disappeared, the lifeguard / Beach Boys of Waikiki are the ones who probably kept it from fading away into oblivion. Those were the guys who kept surfing alive through a period others were trying to quash surfing. So luckily, these guys kept it going and it evolved out of the old guys like Wally Forsyth and Tom Blake and different guys who came out of that period who kept surfing alive and then grew it from there. As surfing grew, lifeguarding did too, and there’s a fascinating story of how the two developed together, which this movie really highlights. 

MB: The scene showing archival footage of Brian Keaulana’s split-second grab to rescue that stranded surfer in such a dangerous spot really shows the extent that lifeguards (or Big Wave Guardians) go to save lives in big surf. How important was it to share actual footage of rescues like this one? 

MH: I think it’s important. When Brian saved that guy from a cave, what you don’t realize is that the rock is lava and it’s so razor sharp and so nasty. If you come into a little bit of contact with it, it just shreds you and cuts you up. He was in a really, really scary, bad place.

It’s true that very few people could have pulled that off that way, saving him with the jet ski. In the old days, you’d have to swim in there and swim back out. It could have ended up being a real disaster for sure. But I’ve watched these guys for years and years actually saving people’s lives with the jet skis and it’s become a huge tool for them.

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MB: In one interview, Big Wave Guardians are described as having specific personality archetypes with traits of selflessness and a love for the water. Did you find that description to accurately portray the BWGs you interviewed? 

MH: Yes, these lifeguards are so selfless. They are here to protect us all, and they don’t ask anything in return. This movie is a big way to say thank you to them. 

MB: The film touches a lot on the importance of community in the Hawaiian surf scene. How important do you think that sense of community was to the development of surfing and lifeguarding in Hawaii? 

MH: There’s a really tight community of people who are very connected on the North Shore. When you see the rescues at Pipeline and everyone is helping out, it’s because they all know each other. And on a bigger level, which we tried to explain in the movie, surfers are connected wherever they go, and while everyone is trying to catch the same waves, if anyone gets in trouble, really at any spot around the world, the other surfers will be the first to help out. 

MB: I found the scene with Kohl Christensen describing his December 2019 head injury and rescue scary, emotional and authentic. What value do you hope surfers get from watching and hearing about experiences like Kohl’s? 

MH: That scene just points out, like he says, he goes out there a lot of times and you never know when your time’s going to come up that you might suffer a serious injury in the water surfing. It can come anytime for anybody. Pipeline in particular is that kind of a place where I’ve had my run-ins there. I’ve known a million of my friends who have gotten slammed on the reef. People get all kinds of injuries there. Face injuries. Head injuries. Leg injuries. Body injuries. I can tell you so many different crazy injuries. Singer Jack Johnson, who surfs there all the time, he’s slammed his face on the reef. It’s happened to many, many of the guys who really know what they’re doing out there.

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MB: It was so emotional to listen to Sion Milosky’s friends and family discuss his unfortunate passing, but the work that they’ve done since to protect surfers across the world is incredible. Are you hoping that with this film more people will learn about the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group and safety in the surf community? 

MH: Absolutely. Before this movie, to be honest, I had heard of BWRAG, but I wasn’t totally aware of what they were doing. But I’m really impressed with how well they’re teaching these other surfers. A lot of surfers are the first ones to help save a friend in the water if they get hurt, but so many don’t know what to do once they get to the person. 

Now people really need to learn what to do to help save people and BWRAG is helping with that. This group has really expanded the knowledge about what to do in the lineup. And there’s one story in the movie about a kid named Hayden, and the kids who got to him first when he was injured had just taken the course a week earlier! They knew the hand signals to give the lifeguards and knew how to save Hayden. It’s been incredible. 

MB: I found it profoundly interesting that many lifeguards seem to experience a lack of gratitude for the incredible work they do. The film touches on this at the end quite a bit. Do you think sharing this will increase people’s gratitude for lifeguards? 

MH: Totally. The lifeguards are doing so much day-to-day to watch over everyone, and they deserve so much credit. People will definitely look at lifeguards differently and be much more thankful after watching this movie. 

MB: What actions do you hope are taken after the release of this film in both lifeguarding and surfing communities? 

MH: I hope that this movie will increase the overall awareness and understanding of what a lifeguard does. I think after this film comes out it’ll be like when Dana Brown made a movie called Dust to Glory about off-road racing in Baja California, Mexico, and the next year the entries went up from 250 to 450 total. I really think that by next year, the signups for lifeguards will be doubled. I hope the lifeguards all show this movie to the junior lifeguards and help spread the movie and show them what it’s really like. They are all so understaffed all over the world. There’s such a need for more lifeguards around the world.  

MB: Why did your team think it was important to put together a film that highlights the efforts of lifeguards in big surf? 

MH: Because the average person is unaware of what they do. If they see this movie, they’ll appreciate it more, and get immersed in it, and some will fall in love with it. I hear people walking away from the movie saying how much they learned about lifeguarding and surfing from the movie. I learned a lot, too, and I’ve been around the surfing and lifeguarding world my whole life.

MB: Thanks for sharing such an important film with us and taking the time to chat today! When will Big Wave Guardians be available for Canadians to watch? Will it be released online eventually? 

MH: The movie is currently playing in theaters around the United States and we’re hoping to have Canadian distribution soon. It’s such a powerful movie, it’s really great to see it on a big screen where the huge waves take up the whole screen and give you a closer feel for what it’s like being in those powerful and scary waves. We’re working on a bigger digital release plan soon. Check our website for more theatrical dates and more news about the digital release.

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Marty Hoffman Films is creating the ultimate anthology on surfing through the series This Surfing Life. Marty Hoffman, an executive at Hoffman Fabrics, was a professional surfer and has traveled the world in search of surf and fabrics. He, his father, uncle, and cousins are often referred to as the first family of surfing.


Big Wave Guardians is a feature-length documentary that tells the dramatic stories of Hawaii’s big wave guardians—the lifeguards who risk their lives in the world’s most dangerous waves. The 90-minute movie traces the history of lifeguarding in Hawaii from Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki Beach Boys in the 1920s to Eddie Aikau on Oahu’s North Shore in the 1970s, to Brian Kealana and Terry Ahue pioneering the use of personal watercraft (jet skis) with the Hawaiian lifeguards in the 1990s, to the death of big-wave surfer Sion Milosky and the formation of the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group in the 2011.

Intertwined with the history of lifeguards is the growth of surfing, from the early days of Waikiki to the big-wave discoveries on Oahu’s North Shore. Throughout the documentary, a cast of some of the world’s best watermen and women, such as 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, big-wave chargers Mark Healy, Greg Long and Keala Kennelly; Hawaii’s most notable lifeguards including Clyde Aikau, Terry Ahue, Mark Cunningham, Dave Wassel and Johnny Angel discuss the risks of surfing these life-threatening waves and the role of these lifeguards. Along the way, hear the true life-saving stories from top surfers who wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for these selfless big wave guardians.