It was the summer of 1986 when filmmaker Bill Kiely fell in love with surfing. As a teen, his father took him boogie boarding in Ventura and he later became a Junior Lifeguard.
“Ventura water was freezing, you really had to want it,” Kiely said.
Kiely has great memories of the coed Junior Lifeguards where he made a lot of friends.
“It solidified that love for the ocean and the escape aspect of it; the camaraderie aspect is a big part of the Junior Lifeguards,” said Kiely.
In his new film, “Age of Summer,” filmed entirely in the South Bay, Kiely returns to the summer of 1986 and the Junior Lifeguards. Hermosa Beach is the setting of this coming-of-age tale of a teen who tries out for a spot on the Junior Lifeguards while balancing challenges of new friends in his new home town.
“Age of Summer” makes its premiere Thursday, Sept. 6, beginning at 6:30 p.m., which is free to the public at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, located at 710 Pier Ave.
Casting with local talent
Kiely began his career as a director of commercial and documentary projects for brands such as Vans, Nike and Bud Light. He's also produced a number of films under Windowseat Pictures, a Hermosa Beach-based company he founded.
"Age of Summer," which he wrote in collaboration with David Harris, is his first feature film to be released in theaters.
When Kiely lost an actor he wanted to cast in the film in the summer of 2016, he decided to switch gears. He started to cast mostly new talent.
“The challenge was finding a couple actors and surrounding them with the best local talent that we could find to play the other roles,” Kiely said.
The young actors he cast vary in the degree of experience in the ocean. Percy Hynes White plays the lead, Minnesota, who in the film recently moves to Hermosa Beach. A native of Newfoundland, White grew up surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and was familiar with ocean-related life, but he never surfed.
“I was in the middle of both of those worlds,” said White, who can be seen in the X-Men related TV series “The Gifted” on Fox. “I was kind of into skateboarding. I was kind of ocean friendly. I was kind of cool, kind of not cool, just like Minnesota is. Then I got to be with people who were on both sides of that spectrum. We all came together and became friends.”
Kiely was also looking for some fresh talent with experience in the water. He approached all of the local surf shops, Becker Surfboards, ET Surfboards and Spyder, and asked the owners if they could help them with casting. Kiely said he met around 70 at each surf shop.
“Each surf shop kind of has its own community... they all came in and taped and we saw a lot of fun faces and narrowed it down,” Kiely said. “Then there were follow up interviews.”
Out of the casting call, thanks to Spyder owner Dennis Jarvis, Charlotte Sabina, a local surfer and singer, landed the role of Brooke, who is Minnesota’s main crush.
Sabina said she didn’t know what to do, so she showed up to the audition with a guitar. “Singing is like acting,” she said. She got a call back and landed her first acting gig.
“I was immediately relaxed when I met Bill (Kiely)... because Bill's clearly a surfer, knows what he's doing,” Sabina said. “All of a sudden I was alright 'He's awesome, he's a pro. I don't have to be nervous about this being someone who doesn't understand the ocean.' Bill totally gets it.”
Kiely said he was looking for authenticity when he cast Sabina. He auditioned five female surfers who were “dynamic,” but Sabina had the personality and professionalism he needed.
“Who can surf at the camera and not hit it and could handle memorizing a screenplay and would be fun to work with would take it seriously?,” Kiely said. “I met the girls he mentioned and a couple from other places... actresses who claimed to surf.”
Kiely hired an acting coach to help Sabina.
“I admire what she did on just a personal level, going from zero to 60 as far as jumping in front of a camera,” Kiely said. “When you're in front of the camera, there's like 60 people behind it. They are all judging you because they all have their own perception of what this project is supposed to be. It was a really mature thing to say yes to a project like this and see it through.”
Preping with 'ocean time'
White and co-star Jake Ryan, who plays Minnesota’s best friend, weren’t required to surf, but they needed to spend a lot of time in the ocean.
“I tried to go into the pool almost every day a little bit before we went, but it was pretty draining because I just got out of major (spinal) surgery, the scars were still healing a little bit,” Ryan said.
Ryan, who this year is also in the film “Eighth Grade” and did voice work for “Isle of Dogs,” comes from the East Coast, so he was unfamiliar with beach culture.
“Everyone on set was super cool and they weren't really jerks about me not being physically adequate in the ocean... Bill took all of us surfing on one of the first days. He would help us prepare for that, help me prepare for that, Percy and everybody else. We had a feeling what we were up against.”
Bryana Salaz, who plays Felice, a character who gives Minnesota some life lessons, lives in San Pedro, and learned how to surf a bit while living in Hawaii. She said it felt good to get back in the water when they stared filming, but she wasn’t quite prepared when the principal cast went to the beach early in the shoot.
“Everybody shows up in their wetsuits, 6 a.m. ... I don’t have a wetsuit at all and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to make an impression, I have to prove that I’m a surfer because I definitely made it sound like I was way better than I was,” said Salaz, who launched her career as a competitor on Season 7 of “The Voice.”
“I was really nervous... but it ended up being really funny and really fun because I had no idea Bill could surf like that.”
White said he had fun every day shooting and when Kiely showed him around the South Bay.
“He’s not a regular old guy, he acts like he’s my age,” said White of Kiely. “He’s just cool.”
Kiely said they were on the beach for 28 days.
“I wanted to surround them with fantastic water people who could foster them and make them feel comfortable in the water... for them to really go through the transition of being in the Junior Lifeguards,” Kiely said.
“It’s so cool seeing kids go through this program and start without a tan and end up three weeks later with a tan and that confidence from the exercise that you get all month long.”
Sabina added, “We really did see the kids go from being paler and not necessarily very strong and by the end muscle tone, tan, blonde kids, it was definitely a great experience all around.”
Beach remains timeless
There are some autobiographical elements to “Age of Summer,” according to Kiely. It was a time where it was his formative years as a teenager. He wanted the film to be set during the “technology free” 80s.
“I just took my son and nine of his friends sailing to Catalina last weekend and I took away all of their cell phones on day one,” he said. “It was a lot nicer than just staring at the internet.”
In “Age of Summer,” Hermosa Beach returns to 1986, thanks to the fact “surfing appreciates its history,” according to Kiely. Some residential streets haven’t changed in 30 years and he rented vintage cars from a friend. Some apparel companies, such as Birdwell, continue to make vintage looking clothing. They did need to digitally remove some things, but the “beach is the same as it was in the 80s.”
“The only thing that's changed is the trash cans,” Kiely said. “They were metal, now they're plastic. You don't need anything else to make the beach awesome... It's the authenticity thing. I love that time period.”
Sabina, who surfs for Mira Costa High School, said she watched videos of surfers from that time period and said it was a different experience surfing in a bikini, no wetsuit, and using a vintage board.
“It was awesome to hear surfer dudes reminiscing about that time period what it meant to them... it just gave me so much new perspective and respect for the legends in the South Bay that built the surf community when it wasn't as easy,” she said.
“Age of Summer,” which is PG-13 due to some mature content, makes its debut in Hermosa Beach Thursday, Sept. 6, followed by a release in 10 major markets. It will then be available on iTunes, Amazon and Hulu.
For more information, visit facebook.com/ageofsummer/.