Talking with Turtle: What we can learn from that one ’80s movie about wave pools & Hawaii

Flashdance, E.T., Die Hard, Terminator and other ’80s celluloid gems have nothing on the North Shore. Let’s face it, an Arizona wave pool surfer taking on the Pipe Masters is just as unreal and magical as a buff cyborg cruising the time-space continuum for Sarah Conner.

North Shore follows the hero’s journey storyline as Rick Kane confronts and learns what really matters in this life via the narrative of surfing. It’s vintage ‘80s cheese, and surfers globally have memorised all the most biting lines. Played by surfer/actor John Philbin, Turtle’s words are some of the most enduring in the pop culture confluence of Hollywood and surfing, “When the wave breaks here, don’t be there!”

Turtle has spawned fan pages, YouTube edits, a dedicated Instagram account and countless memes. Despite roles in Return of the Living Dead, Children of the Corn and Tombstone, it’s Philbin’s role in North Shore that he is most well known for (at least in wave pool surfing circles).

The film wasn’t Philbin’s only surf-themed movie though. He also played a bank robber in Point Break, the sport’s other cult celluloid treasure. Cast as Nathanial, the Jimmy Carter mask-wearing bandit, his character takes a bullet from a pissed off Gary Busey in the final clutches of the film.

Today, 30 years later Philbin (who is also a stylish goofyfoot) runs the Pro Surfing Instruction surf school and is still busy acting. He will be staring in his first lead role in 15 years in the upcoming “Undateable John” with Tom Arnold and Daryl Hannah and has parts in three other new releases.

To better understand the gravity of what the North Shore means to surfing, we recently tracked down John in Indonesia. During his annual surf trip to GLand we tossed questions back and forth across the global divide to find out how a film about a wave pool surfer spawned some of the most memorable Hollywood surf dialogue ever.

What were your thoughts when you first got the part and how was the movie received?

When I first got the audition I felt I was born to play the part. I had never before or since wanted a part more in any other project. But I couldn’t convince the director of that. I auditioned seven times! He didn’t see it. I was fat and dark haired and hadn’t surfed in years and was playing a cowboy or a bank robber but I kept begging to go in again and again until the producer Randal Kleiser said, “Just give it to him. He’s a method actor. He’ll transform into the character.” So when I heard that I got the part of Turtle, I was pumped. But I knew I had a lot of work to do. Mainly I was so excited to be in a movie about my favourite place to surf, Pipeline, with my all-time here Gerry Lopez. I didn’t want to embarrass myself to the surfing world.

The movie was not well received when it came out in theatres. It’s big and colourful and corny and used a lot of local actors and non actor/surfers in it. I had the time of my life filming the North Shore and made lifetime friends in the process. I was just moving on with my career and not too invested in the box office results. But it wasn’t a big hit.

Matt Adler, John Philbin and Gregory Harrison in North Shore. Photo by Universal Pictures

At what moment did you realise the movie was a big hit, well more of a cult classic?

With the invention of VHS, North Shore was given a new life. Fans could now watch and rewatch a movie that spoke to them in specific ways. Ten years after we made it, I was invited to a screening at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles to introduce the film and when I arrived there was a line around the block full of happy, enthusiastic surf families. That night, speaking to a full arthouse, I felt a love for the film I hadn’t known existed. Since then the movie has grown into a cult classic that everyone involved in the making of can be proud and grateful for having participating in.

Philbin (in Jimmy Carter mask) in that other surf cult classic, Point Break. Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp

What parts of your life and philosophy overlap with Turtle’s?

Turtle is way cooler than I am. He’s a craftsman. He makes his own boards, and carves out his life in a respectful way. He shows kindness to strangers in need. If I’m ever in a selfish mode, feeling sorry for myself, or negative about some aspect of life, I can think that I should go help someone in need or be really nice to a stranger. It gets me out of my own head and into being and doing something positive for the world and the people in it. Matt Adler (who played protagonist Rick Kane) and I are best friends to this day because of that movie.

A goofyfoot, Philbin wanted the role in North Shore so he could work with his idol Gerry Lopez

Do you think with the current wave pool boom that North Shore could actually happen – that we’ll see a champion trained in freshwater?

I am loving the wave pool universe! Riding waves of any kind, created any way, is pure joy! It feels like magic. It used to be unique to the ocean and connected to weather patterns, but with our scientific minds trained on wave creation, we are able to create new ways of riding energy, and that’s fantastic.

Nothing can replace the experience of learning how to recognize, catch and ride waves in the ocean, but kids from all over the world will someday be able to feel the pure joy of riding waves. Some exceptional athletes will emerge and dominate particular waves with gymnastic flare and repeated practice in our lifetime! But Hollywood doesn’t do reality. It does fantasy, myth-type escapist entertainment, and North Shore is a formula film of a young man’s hero journey to another world.

Images from North Shore owned and copyrighted by Universal Pictures

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