On the crest of a wave

Martyn Robertson on Ride The Wave and surfing star Ben Larg

by Jennie Kermode

Ben Larg in Ride The Wave
Ben Larg in Ride The Wave Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Many people think of documentaries as slower films with a heavy focus on talking. Ride The Wave takes us into the thick of the action with no time to spare. It’s the story of Ben Larg, who is just 12-years-old when it begins and already making a big impression as a surfer. Not just a sports film, it also looks at the effect of his thrilling but dangerous career on his parents, and on Ben’s experiences at school. The very first shot grabs viewers’ attention, plunging us down underneath a wave. As he prepared for its screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, I asked director Martyn Robertson how that was captured and why he chose to open the film that way.

Martyn Robertson
Martyn Robertson Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“We worked with a range of filmmakers who specialise in working with water, whether that be from the air, from boats or vessels, or underwater,” he says. “Some of the first shots in the film are some underwater shots captured by Mike Guest who is a surfing underwater filmmaker from Edinburgh. Mike very kindly did some underwater stuff with us of the ocean and remarkably managed to capture some of the amazing clarity that you get under the ocean in the West of Scotland. You would think it could be somewhere in Hawaii or something but it's actually Scotland. And then of course, you move into the big crashing waves of Southern Ireland after that, so, yeah, I think the underwater stuff is good for getting inside Ben’s head and understanding what it feels like to be underneath the water when you do get pinned down from a wave.”

It also emphasises just what good surfing is available off the coast of Scotland, I suggest.

“The fact of the matter is that Scotland does have fantastic surf,” he agrees. “The only challenge is the cold. So you know, the difference is, in Scotland you're wearing a six or seven mil wetsuit to keep dry and keep you warm. But yeah, I mean, look, people come from all over the world to surf in Thurso and in Tiree, and some of the hardcore of Europe’s elite say that some of the waves in Thurso are the best in the world. So again, it's maybe unknown, but it's a big a big draw for people, and yeah, we wanted to celebrate that. But largely, the film is about Ben's journey elsewhere in the world. But I know from talking to him even just last week, he's always a massive ambassador for surfing in Scotland.”

So how did Martyn first meet his young star?

“We first met because Ben's uncle is my best friend and was also my best man at my wedding, and so I kept in touch with the whole family over the years. As young Ben became a talented surfer I started watching the media and following his story. And one day, I found his dad – they were on a beach in Spain – and I said ‘Look, I think we should start following the story. I've got a feeling that this might go somewhere exciting. I think Ben's at the stage of his life where he's not only on a positive trajectory with the surfing but he's growing up. He's becoming a young man. And I think we could we could follow that story.’

“So we started following, and initially, we thought we were making a film about the Tokyo Olympics. Ben's aim was to be the first Scot to represent Great Britain in surfing at the Olympics. And so we went round competitions all over the world, following them, and that's what we thought the plan was. And then various things collided and Ben had a change of heart and changed his focus as a surfer, which was great. We embrace that as documentary makers and I think it's for the better of the film as well as for Ben's career.”

Ben on the beach
Ben on the beach Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Was the project always intended to become a documentary in this kind of format?

“The project initially was part of a scheme and we got down to the last two – a scheme for a half hour broadcast on Scottish television, supported by Scottish Documentary Institute. And it didn't go with them because they couldn't be sure of what the ending of the story was, it was such an odd proposition at this point that nobody could be certain of what the the arc of the story was going to be, so it was really difficult to get telly on board. But Screen Scotland came on board. They believed in me as a director and a producer, and they also believed in the story that I was putting forward at the time. And they really, really made the difference between getting made or not, and it developed into a feature doc. And I think the reason it developed into a feature doc is probably because we realised that we were making a film about much than surfing, a film about a boy growing up, about parenting. And we knew that we were going to see this boy change quite remarkably over those years that we were filming. And so I think that, coupled with the more cinematic approach to filming the ocean, meant it had the ingredients for a feature doc audience.”

So how did Ben feel about this whole project?

“Well, Ben went around the world, right, as a complete underdog. And every team that we met around the world had dieticians and all sorts of coaches and guys doing analytics and stuff of technical skills on waves. Ben had his dad, who didn't really know very much about surfing, to be fair. He thought he knew a lot, but he didn't really know an awful lot. And he had his film crew. And so we were Ben's tribe. We had a little team and it was his only team, and we became the Scotland team. And so that's what got us into these competitions. And it was a privilege to be part of his team and travel in his car.

“This project started without any money whatsoever, so we were literally sleeping on the floor of Ben and his dad's apartments, and we were travelling in tiny hire cars with loads of equipment. When we went to Japan with them, all of our bags got lost in the airport. We got all our camera stuff, but we were stuck wearing the Scotland t shirt and a set of very heavy kilts for ten days in the seething heat in Japan. So we became like this ridiculous circus act, walking around beaches where there was lots of kind of amazing surfing bodies, and we're walking around with sweaty T shirts on.

“Of course, it's a small world, the surfing community. So people started recognising us from competition to competition, and we made lots of great friends. It was good fun. But once the project gained a little more traction, we presented some serious trailers and we began to get investment, and we were able to upsize our crew. And it became a project that had a really strong team, from something that was initially just really shot by myself.”

Competing for Scotland
Competing for Scotland Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

I note that, being so closely involved, it must have been scary for Martyn himself watching some of those waves and seeing the risks that Ben was taking. Was that something that made him feel uncomfortable as a filmmaker?

“That's a really good question,” he says. “Because you worry as a filmmaker, that somehow you're influencing them to do something dangerous. But of course, this is a conversation that we had openly with the family on a regular basis, and with Ben himself. And we said, ‘Look, you know, we we do not want you to do anything for this film, we want to follow what you want to do.’ Because of course, when you're standing watching 30 or 40 foot waves, and you're looking at a 14 year old boy in the sea, thinking wow, something could go really wrong here, you do not want to be that filmmaker, you don't want to be that friend standing in the corner just watching that, witnessing that.]

“So that was an ongoing conversation. But Ben is a boy that has no fear. And as he's matured, he has no fear with knowledge now as well. I suppose it's mainly been his mum and dad that we've had to work hard with to calm down and keep calm in order for him to succeed, and it's understandable because for any parent, watching their 14 year old son surfing a wave that could kill them must be horrific. I can't imagine it. I wouldn't let my son do it.”

There are some amazing conversations in the film, particularly with Ben’s mother.

“As a filmmaker, you have to work in the moment in these projects,” he says. “I think you ask the questions that are relevant at the time. As a director, I could see the times where Ben's mother was overwhelmed by the fear of what might happen. And of course, as a filmmaker, you have to ask them to talk about that and to express that fear. But ultimately, I was also asking that so that the conversation was out there was out there with the family, and it wasn't just being bottled up in the corner. Not that they’re that kind of family anyway, but it was that dichotomy: they really wanted to support their son to do something that he's always wanted to do, but equally, they've got a responsibility to be a safe parent. So it's a hard one, it's a really hard one.

“It was like a crash course into extreme parenting, and it was a really interesting process. I have different views now than I perhaps would have had before I became a parent myself. I suspect that lots of parents will really be able to connect with this film on lots of different levels, perhaps not as something as extreme as big wave surfing. But, you know, whether it's riding a bike or going downhill skiing or something like that, you know, I suppose it will strike a chord with other parents.”

In his element
In his element Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The film also includes footage of Ben’s wee sister on a horse, and a lot of people watching their kid do that kind of thing would be really nervous in case they fell off.

“Yeah,” he nods. “In the film, the horse riding just seems the softest thing that's happened. Yes, I mean, there's a scene at the end of the film where Robin and Lily are standing on the back of a horse. But at the end of the day, that just seems nothing compared to what Ben's doing at the same time, which is surfing that 30 foot monster off the northwest coast. I'm privileged to just have lived that lifestyle for a while, you know. I'm not a surfer. I typically work in urban environments, often. And to become part of Ben's team and live with his family and really immerse ourselves into that life was was great, you know? It was tough as well, because making a film by the sea can be challenging, in the sand and water and rain. And there are a lot of challenges, technically. But there are a lot of benefits as well. We got to see some beautiful places.”

There's another thing in the film as well, which is obviously putting a lot of stress on the family, and that's the bullying that Ben's facing at school. It’s clearly important to the story, but was it difficult to balance that with how he might feel about its inclusion?

“I think that Ben, perhaps, wasn't very proud of the situation, as a young boy who was finding himself alienated on his own island and his own community and his own school,” he says. “But as a filmmaker, I felt it was really important to include that as part of his journey, because it was part of his journey at that point, and it had a big impact on his decision making and his desire to prove to himself that he could be a success. In this case, with this surfing. We had no intentions of lingering on the whole building story, which is, of course, a much more layered story than we perhaps go into in the film, but it was really important to tell that part of the story that this was happening to Ben.

“Ultimately, there are two things that motivate Ben to go and surf big waves, instead of competition surfing, and that is that he is a surfer in Scotland in cold waves and can't compete with the guys in all these other countries who are in warm water for a lot longer, and they can become a lot technically more proficient in those waves. So that's the kind of sports side of it, that was the reason that he decided to switch his focus. And the other side is that he was having a tough time at school. And I think inside himself, he wanted to go and do something remarkable. And he knew he was capable of that.

Looking to the future
Looking to the future Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“So those two things colliding were very much part of Ben's reasons for setting himself the mission of going to Ireland and surfing this big wave. And so it was really important to highlight the fact that even a kid like Ben, one of the coolest kids that you could possibly meet, can encounter bullying at school. And it goes on everywhere in Scotland and beyond. I felt like it was important to include it and to show other young people when they're watching this film that perhaps, you know, even if you're a little different, and you are suffering from some challenging behaviour at school, you can overcome and you can go and do something remarkable with your life.”

Was Ben wanting to be an example to other young people when he was doing this?

“For Ben, I think, it’s a little simpler than that. Ben is interested in surfing, but also he wants to live on the beach. He wants to buy a beautiful camper van and live all over the world in his camper van. But if highlighting this part of his life in the film can have a positive impact on other young people, then he's delighted to do it. And he's also shown that he's absolutely overcome all of it. And he's well educated in a different form that suited him and the family and his lifestyle. And he is really achieving now. This is a boy that only last week became the youngest boy in the world to surf a 50 foot wave in Nazare in Portugal. So we have on our hands here, one of Scotland's most successful sportsmen emerging, and I'm really proud that we've managed to capture the backstory.”

So how does the team feel about the Glasgow Film Festival screening?

“We're totally delighted about Glasgow,” he says. “The weird thing that happened with this film is that we released it during the pandemic. With 15 film festivals, we couldn't attend in person to 14 of those. We were lucky enough to be selected as part of the great eight films coming from Britain to the Cannes Film Festival but we couldn't attend. And then luckily, were able to attend our UK première at BFI London Film Festival last year. But getting the chance to screen your film on your home turf in your home film festival, which is a fabulous festival, is really exciting. It's exciting for Ben and all of his friends and family, but also for me as a filmmaker.“

I ask him what his plans as a filmmaker are now.

“I'm working on a number of TV projects that we're pitching to broadcasters,” he says. “And I'm also developing a new feature doc, about a man from Liverpool who works with badly behaved horses, saves them from being shot and gives them a second chance and makes them competable horses again within a five day period. We're pulling some of the members of the team from Ride The Wave back together to work on that film. And we're really lucky that Screen Scotland have invested in that film in development alongside Sky Documentaries as well. So I’m working on that and developing a few other ideas and looking forward to the UK cinema release of Ride The Wave as well, which is coming up in May or June.”

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