Interview: The Paskowitz Family Of Surfwise

Sitting down with four of the eleven members of the Paskowitz family, they seem like any close-knit family. They talk and laugh over one another, finish each others sentences, and patiently repeat questions for the patriarch Doc, whose hearing is pretty much the only thing about him that’s faltering at 87 years old. But then they start telling stories about washing dishes in the ocean, or making sexual double entendres, and you realize—yes, this is family that deserved to have a documentary made about their lives.

Surfwise catches up with the Paskowitz family 30 years after they ruled the surfing world, after father Doc abandoned the medical practice, loaded his nine children and wife, Juliette, into a camper, and traveled all around the country. In the meantime the eight sons—David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, and Joshua—and one daughter, Navah, became world-class surfers, all while strictly adhering to their Jewish faith and keeping a diet that included no sugar and no fat. Eventually the Paskowitzes went on to found a surfing camp, which several of the brothers run to this day.

The documentary explores the wonders of such a childhood, from growing up on the sea to a frank recognition of the realities of life, as well as the pitfalls—most of the Paskowitz children, all adults now, recognize that their upbringing poorly prepared them to lead normal lives. But despite the bitterness on display from some siblings, the overall portrait is one of a loving family that perseveres as a unit despite every reason to have fallen apart.

Jonathan Paskowitz produced Surfwise, and he was joined at an interview in New York by his youngest brother, Joshua, as well as his parents, Juliette and the famous Doc. Much of the interview is difficult to capture in a transcript—lots of echoing laughter and knowing glances passed around—but, I’ve got to say, it was one of the most fun interviews I ever did. Read below and learn more about this extraordinary family, and catch Surfwise when it opens theatrically on May 9.

Jonathan you seemed to be one of the first people to want to make this film. Why did you want to make it?

Jonathan: A little bit before this, I was working for Rhino Films. A friend of mine who had been to surf camp, his parents are famous actors—his mom is Mary Steenburgen, his step-dad is Ted Danson. He said, ‘I want to do a television show.’ We came up with the idea of a dentist from the Horowitz family who brings his wife and his kids to the beach and starts a surf camp. We sold a script called Making Waves to Touchstone/ABC, and I had to unite everybody to get everybody’s signature on that. I agreed to share the wealth in 11 pieces to everybody. In the process, and working at Rhino Films, I realized the power of the documentary. I had several things that I wanted to do with the power of documentary. One, I wanted to elevate my father, because I believe that he has a voice and that people should hear it, and he should be on a soapbox telling people what’s right and wrong. And number two, he had just finished his manuscript, Surfing in Health, and I wanted to see it popularized.

So when you guys, the rest of the family, heard about this, did you think, ‘Oh, I don’t want any part of this, I don’t want to be analyzed?’

Juliette: It sounds to me like you’re quoting Doc. He did not want anything to do with it. So I had to get on my hands and knees—that sounds weird. [Everyone laughs] I had to beg him to do it. First of all, because this fellow here [she gestures to Jonathan] is so precious to me, and I saw a way for him to succeed. I said, ‘We have to, I’ll do anything.’ I’ll take my clothes off to help my son. And he said, ‘No, no, no.’ So I beseeched him.

But, Doc, once you’re interviewed on-camera, you’re very open with what you say.

Juliette: He is a very good professor. He likes to talk, and he likes to preach.

Doc: Well, my thoughts were very simple—‘I don’t want this film, I don’t want anything to do with this film. I won’t watch this film. It’s a bad deal.’ But, when mom said, ‘I beseech you, I want Jonathan to have a chance at producing it,’ then I said to myself, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Now once I said I’d do it, you know how I feel about doing things half-assed. I just put my whole heart and soul in it.

And how do you feel about the result?

Doc: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it.

What about the rest of you? Have you seen it?

Joshua: I have seen it, but I blocked it out of my memory. No, I was very, very upset early on in the filmmaking process, when I saw one of the earlier cuts. I would wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning in cold sweats, thinking ‘Oh my God, our whole legacy of all our family and everything is going to be reduced to this made-for-TV movie. All the goodwill and everything that Dad believes in is going to be basically destroyed.’ As sarcastic as I was about that cut of the movie, I am just as excited and believing in this version of the movie. I think it’s well-made. Doug has spent a lot of time with some very, very complex material and come out with a pretty clear vision of what it was like to be a Paskowitz. On that DVD, you can put it in your TV set, sit back in the comfort of your own home, and have that exact same fussy, hungry, hot, heckled and harassed feeling you had when you were in the camper and you were wandering around from place to place.

Juliette: I was amazed at what he did. I thought it was really a work of art. It’s magnificent, and the editing is fabulous. And of course, I like to see pictures of my preciouses when they’re babies.

Jonathan: My brother Adam [and I] don’t communicate as actively as I’d like, because he’s from Venus, and I’m from Mars. But he calls me up and goes, ‘Jonathan. God you made me look so good in this thing.’ I heard the same thing from my sister, I heard the same thing from another brother. Each one of them would say the same thing—‘I have the best part. You made me look better than everyone else.’ So one of the reasons I think my brothers and sisters love their part is there is a balance, there’s an order to the process and the way the curve and the arc of the story goes. Everyone got in just when they were supposed to. It’s not a surfing film at all. It’s a story of this oddball family and how they found a utopian life and managed to survive in society. I think when you look at the bad parts of it, they really are overshadowed by the good. I don’t think the bad really ends up in your craw at the end. Most people that I’ve spoken to have had a positive reaction to it. And on a personal level, David is part of the family again. The brothers are all talking to each other. Healthy interaction and communications are going on.

[Jonathan talks a little while about what went in to making the film so good.]

Jonathan: We had the right directors, the right producers—we had the right family. Not to sound disingenuous or vainglorious or anything, but I love my family. I think my family is a shining example of how fucked-up you can be and still pull it off, and come back and have a wonderful life with what you’ve got. If you showed me a perfect family that’s absolutely perfect perfect perfect, somewhere is a horrible skeleton. We don’t have many terrible, horrible skeletons.

Joshua: We do, they’re just hanging out.

Jonathan: There aren’t any real horrible, Dr. Phil things

Juliette: I love the way Doc says [in the movie], ‘You’re not going to get help, not with Dr. Phil.’ He hasn’t seen it, so he doesn’t know.

Joshua: Can you imagine getting a movie made about yourself and not seeing it?

It must have been hard to watch. I definitely wouldn’t be able to watch myself onscreen.

Joshua: It’s very painful to watch. But, like Jonathan said, the therapeutic value of the movie was unforeseen, but very powerful. It really gave us a perspective, to be able to look up at everything from a completely outside point of view—a detachment there that was really unique. We had never experienced that before.

In the film you see a lot of archival footage of you guys being interviewed on the news for your surfing achievements and other things. How was this different?

Joshua: Oh, much different.

Juliette: In the other interviews, they were a lot younger, weren’t there? And they were wrapped up in the whole battle of the surfing contest. And then a long time went by, and then all of a sudden here’s a microphone and a camera in front of you.

Jonathan: And also the depth of the subject matter.

Juliette: Doug Pray was a very easy person. You could talk to him. That’s why I think it was so natural. The way Doug made me feel is that I could just talk to him.

Jonathan: But it didn’t start that way. When we sent Doug for the first trip to Hawaii, Dad read him the riot act. He told him he was a son of a bitch, told him he was overweight. We really thought there was no way we were going to pull it off, that there was no way that we could come to some understanding that would allow Doug to work with Dad. He was a bit of a—

Juliette: Pain in the ass.

Jonathan: Yeah, pain in the ass is the word for it, because he’s your father.

Joshua: We had an upbringing that was so unique, so amazing,, so—

Jonathan: Visceral—

Joshua: So primordial—

Juliette: Animalistic—

Joshua: --that is was really hard to get your mind around it. 10 years, 12 years after the camper thing was already done, all the stuff, each brother wrestled with their own version of the story of the family. In one artistic swoop, Doug and Jonathan and the people involved with the Surfwise film, have been able to unify all those disparate vision into one single, clear story. We’ve never been able to get that close to completeness ever. Just to round up the herd of cats that is the Paskowitz family and get them all pointed in one direction is an impossibility. We’re all very proud of Jonathan and everything that he’s done. We believe in the movie 100%. we feel like people will get a lot of out it. There’s some message that we all believe in.

Jonathan: If we could just carry on a little bit and the rollout by having people enjoy it, and hopefully come to sur camp and buy dad’s book or help the Paskowitz product. I don’t’ think one Paskowitz has a 401k or a savings account. Maybe Israel does—

Joshua: I have a savings account.

Jonathan: You do? Ah, you holdout!

But having money and savings is against what you grew up with, right?

Jonathan: No, the whole thing is to be more solvent! This is the dawning of a new era.

Juliette: I’m ready. I’m ready to live in an apartment now. I’m ready to have nice shoes—

Joshua: You deserve it mom.

Jonathan: I love doing dishes now. Just having the hot water running over your hands feels like such a blessing.

Because as kids you guys did the dishes, what, with the hose?

Jonathan: I had to do the dishes in the sea! I haed to go to the water’s edge—

Juliette: Navah says she did all the dishes, all the time.

Jonathan: I always did the pots. That’s such a lie.

Juliette: And you put sand?

Jonathan: Yeah. And I stood in them. Because your foot—

Juliette: Jon! Eww!

Jonathan: --your foot cleans them better than your hands.

Juliette, you said in the movie that you were breastfeeding or pregnant for 10 years straight. Did you ever get to surf during that time?

Juliette: Nooo… I did not surf while I was breastfeeding and having babies. I didn’t start until I was almost 40-ish.

Jonathan: You let us roll you around on a surfboard when you were pregnant with Josh or Navah or Adam, and we held you like a chicken egg underwater so we could see the silhouette.

Juliette: Yeah, I learned to surf when the kids were a little bit older. like I told Doc, when we went to Cabo for so many years, and all those years that we went all the way down to the tip of Baja, I never saw the scenery. I was always looking out for the kids. When everybody was gone and we would go out there alone, I’d say, ‘Oh my God, look at that mountain!’ And he’s say, ‘We’ll, we’ve been here 15 times!’

Joshua: Not to be too much of a n-e-r-d, but if we equate the Paskowitz family with country of America and the founding fathers, Dorian is Thomas Jefferson, but Mom is George Washington.

Juliette: Aww…

Is there anything else you guys want to mention?

Doc: There’s one more thing I would like to mention. All of these wondrous things that have gone on in my life, really as a father and as a man, a husband, and a father, but my profession as a doctor and my passion as a surfer—I put together in a book called Surfing in Health. That book is really the amalgam of what actually ahs been done in order to pass on the wisdom.

Jonathan: And, oddly enough, it was the mechanism that allowed me to trap Doug. Once he read the manuscript, he was hooked.

Doc: Have no doubt about one thing. Whatever I am or whatever I’ve become or whatever I will be portrayed us, could never happen without my mate. You can’t—

Juliette:-- have kids by yourself?

Doc: Be a soldier of fortune, and run around and be bravado and braggadocio. Really in a way, that’s not too hard if you’ve got the balls it takes. But when you get like Hawaiians, and get on a double-hulled canoe and nothing is in front of you but 2,000 miles of open ocean, and you’ve got your wife with you, and grandma with you, and your family with you—that takes real courage. They gave these great explorers the courage that it took to immigrate—not just to go sail off into the Pacific and find something, but to find Hawaii, find Polynesia. And that’s what my wife did. She helped me find Polynesia—my own kind of paradise.

That’s a great thing to say.

Doc: It’s true. My wife—

[Juliette starts singing scales in the background and gives me a knowing look]

Doc: -- from a Mexican-Indian family, came across the Rio Grande with not much money, not much. My wife became the greatest contralto singer in America.

[Juliette whispers “It’s a lie.”]

Doc: She was asked to sing at the Queen of England’s coronation.

Juliette: That part’s true.

Doc: She gave it up to get in the back of a 1949 Studebaker. And she’s embarrassed now that I tell you this.

And no regrets, right?

Doc: No.

Juliette: No. I wouldn’t have had these creatures! [Josh makes what can only be described as a dinosaur noise.]

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend