Seen the MP Doco 'Searching for Michael Peterson'? It's Online Here This Weekend

25 Jun 2020 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

MP in the 1977 Stubbies at Burleigh. Photo: Peter Crawford

MP in the 1977 Stubbies at Burleigh. Photo: Peter Crawford

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL | EVENTS

The global online premiere of Searching for Michael Peterson, included in your Coastalwatch Plus membership, will show from Friday, June 26 to Monday June 29. If you’re not already a Coastalwatch Plus member, sign up for a 15-day free trial here. The film will be available for download/purchase on June 28 — you can pre-order it right here.

Does any hero really stand up to scrutiny? When young film-maker Jolyon Hoff decided to see if he could capture something of Australia’s mythical dark wizard of the 1970s, he didn’t really know what he was taking on

To make a good film about someone, about anyone really, you need to find a way in.

Jolyon Hoff’s way in to this fascinating documentary was through his Uncle Bill. “I grew up reading those old Tracks magazines with MP and all of those guys when I was a tiny little kid,” he recalls. “But my uncle Bill was a hero of mine. He moved up to Lennox Head, dropped out, went surfing. My parents were more normal, and they tried to steer me away from his example a bit.

“As I grew up I realised he’d taken a difficult path, that he had a real struggle, and that maybe my parents had had a point. He was my fallen hero, in a way, or flawed hero. And Michael was everyone’s fallen hero. I wanted to explore why we were drawn to such people, why we were attracted to the flawed hero.”
 
Jolyon Hoff had a hell of a search on his hands. Michael Peterson, the King of Kirra, for a few brilliant years the best surfer in Australia and possibly the world, then…what?

There’s a deep poignancy in this tale of a phenomenal young man broken on the twin wheels of hard drugs and schizophrenia, a tale that for many years remained half-hidden behind the doors of surf culture memory. That poignancy carries Searching For Michael Peterson to some place beyond the sum of its parts. Jolyon’s simple formula of homespun interviews, cut with the small handfuls of available MP footage, somehow manages the magic trick of revealing and concealing its subject — telling the story, while retaining the mystery.

So: the story. If Californian surfing’s seminal moment was Malibu in the 1950s, Australia’s was Kirra Point in the early 1970s. Kirra was Malibu on steroids, or speed, or both: flat sand bottom, cyclone swells, draining pits, broken boards and bodies.

Malibu had its own flawed hero, of course. But MP was no Miki Dora. Michael and his brother Tom were born into working-class poverty. They lived with their mother Joan, put up with a step-father, and never knew their father. They didn’t have much, but they had Kirra, and Greenmount, and more than enough energy for both.

Tommy was the extrovert, running a hairball surfboard business from under Joan’s house. Michael the introvert took it out on the waves. Between 1971, when Albe Falzon shot his famous three and half minute Morning Of The Earth sequence of the 19-year-old wizard demolishing Kirra, and 1977, when MP literally terrified Mark Richards out of the final at the first Stubbies Classic, he was almost unbeaten in competition.

He also wasn’t well, which may explain his vanishing act between then and 1983, when he was tangled up in a police car chase, briefly jailed, then institutionalised for treatment of his schizophrenia. By then the surfing world had moved on, but in his absence the MP mythology remained, drifting like smoke through the culture he’d once dominated.

Jolyon was at film school, wondering how to tackle this huge idea, when he met producer Mike Vanderfield. Mike had his own reasons to be involved; he’d lost friends to the heroin plague that ran through Australia’s youth culture at the time, and felt stories like MP’s needed to be told, if only to honour the fallen: “It was documenting Australian history on a number of levels.”

Mike asked Jolyon to write a treatment: “He was pretty persistent, and we started talking more seriously.” Mike chipped in some cash and office back-up, and Jolyon went to see the Petersons.

By this time MP, overweight and medicated, had long been released into his mother’s care. Jolyon sat with Michael and Joan around the kitchen table. “He wasn’t talkative but he was still in control, still able to listen. He’d say something sharp every now and then.” Jolyon spent a while making a short version of the film, then had a screening for a handful of interested parties, including MP and Joan. “What do you think, Michael?” he asked.

“It’s different,” MP said.

Encouraged by this, Jolyon and Vanderfield went to Screen Australia, the national film funding body. They were knocked back, then another project dropped out of the funding round, and they were in.

“It was a very loose process,” Mike recalls. “There was no script. We talked about it being organic, not staged.”

MP again at the 77 Stubbies in Burleigh. Photo: Peter Crawford

MP again at the 77 Stubbies in Burleigh. Photo: Peter Crawford

As part of this — and also because they didn’t have a big budget to play with — Jolyon threw out the standard documentary interview style, where the victims are dragged into a studio setting and shot in carefully managed light and sound. Instead he roamed with a camera, talking with people where he found them: Albe at his farmhouse, MR on the beach near Merewether, PT on the hill at Greenmount, Rabbit in the old ASP offices, Joe Larkin in his caravan park, and most notably the surf photographer Frank Pithers in the beach carpark at Grassy Head, NSW.

Pithers says about the most insightful thing I’ve ever heard from a surfer about drug use, but I won’t spoil it by quoting it here.

The interviews gave Jolyon his own insight into the core question of why people love flawed heroes. “I began to realize MP was whoever people wanted to see in him. Because he hardly ever talked, you could see whatever you wanted in him. He was a sort of projection.

“People don’t like the truth either. Michael probably wasn’t the most friendly guy, he might not always have been the nicest guy. And all the time he was battling the mental illness. He was basically in the care of his mother the whole time. That was the truth of it. Joan had to hold down a job and look after her schizophrenic son all his life. That’s a huge task.”

Jolyon thought about including an interview with the actual subject, but Mike Vanderfield talked him out of it. In retrospect this is a master stroke. The last you see of Michael in the film is a long shot in Super-8 film: MP late in life on the beach at a small Gold Coast contest presentation, bulky and aged beyond his years, cap and sunglasses firmly in place. Is he looking at the camera, or isn’t he?

“I like that there’s still a mystery around it,” Jolyon says. “I was really naive. I also projected my idea of MP on to him, like everyone else. Ten years later I know how much I missed — how much more there was to tell.”

The last 100 DVD copies were eventually sold four years ago, as a fundraiser for MP’s funeral, and the film has sat there unwatched since.

The film’s aftermath left Jolyon drained and disappointed — as every good piece of work does. “I didn’t like it for a long time. I look back and I’m happy with it now. But I really enjoyed showing it. We went up and down the (Australian) east coast, then California and the US east coast, we even took it to Wales (UK). It got all the old guys out, started a lot of conversations. I love the idea of film becoming part of the community — that’s where surfers pass their stories around, and that’s where MP’s story belongs.”

Uncle Bill would be proud.

This interview also appears on Surfline

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