Director Lorcan Finnegan Talks ‘The Surfer’: ‘You Can’t Surf if You Don’t Suffer’

Irish director Lorcan Finnegan – already behind “Vivarium” – returns to Cannes with “The Surfer.” Starring Nicolas Cage, it follows a man who just wants to surf on a beach next to his old childhood home in Australia. But he is not a local anymore and he will have to fight for it – or lose his mind.

Nic’s character actually references “surfing as a metaphor for life.” Why did you want to explore – and maybe also mock – this philosophy? 

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I met Thomas Martin, who wrote the film, years ago. We wanted to do something together and then he mentioned “The Surfer.” It was about this one man, trying to deal with who he thinks he is and what he actually wants over the course of five days. It felt very contained, challenging and appealing to me as a filmmaker.

At the beginning of the film, The Surfer says: “You either surf, or get wiped out.” It all relates to the pressure he’s under, but I think it’s something we can relate to. You have to be ready for pain in order to move forward.

I made a firm decision early on that we were never going to be cutting to nice, sexy surfing scenes. Instead, it’s a tease for that character. It’s this distant thing he desperately wants to do. This title is probably misleading at times, but that’s why we love “The Swimmer” with Burt Lancaster. We went: “We will call it ‘The Surfer,’ but it doesn’t mean it’s a surf movie.” It’s this character’s name and all he wants to do is to go surfing with his son.

Surfing can feel so glamorous but here, everyone is aggressive and territorial. This whole Zen-like quality is just gone. 

We talk about pain in this film, so they had to be mean to him. It’s a weird therapy he undergoes in order to find himself, but surf localism really does exist. And not just in Australia!

A lot of surfing beaches tend to be in wealthy areas. You have bankers, CEOs, all these “strong” guys who are confused about their masculinity and fall into a weird trap. They listen to Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson, explore neo-shamanism and long for a tribe, which makes them vulnerable to “father figures” like Scally, played by Julian McMahon. We had fun exploring it in the film.

I have surfed but I am not a surfer, so that whole world is fascinating to me. Also, surfing is quite brutal. You get smashed around all the time. You can’t surf if you don’t suffer. Also, the story takes place over Christmas, underlining the whole theme of rebirth.

“The Surfer” could become one of these surprising Christmas movies, like “Die Hard.” 

Exactly! That’s what we set out to do [laughter].

It’s a fine line to simultaneously thread this sort of absurdism and tragedy. The key was to keep everything subjective. We are with Nick all the time. It’s all told from his perspective – we feel how he feels. When he goes crazy, we understand it. Deep down, he is a romantic. He has this vision of how his life could be, but it keeps evaporating from his grasp.

Both Thomas and I are from Ireland, but we love Australian New Wave, from “Long Weekend” to “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” All these odd, little gems. We thought: “This could be like one of these films.” We are obviously not Australian, but “Wake in Fright” was directed by a Canadian and “Walkabout” by a Brit. We were very much interested in the outsiders’ perspective as a way into the film. Nick’s character doesn’t belong there either. He has a warped sense of place and this idealism slips through his fingers, like sand. When Nick Cage’s name came up, I just thought he would be perfect.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t get enough credit for how quickly he can go from perfectly normal to completely insane. Did he surprise you? 

He is an amazing collaborator. He immediately understood it wasn’t just an action thriller and got the Kafkaesque vibe from the story. I was just in awe at how prepared he was. He didn’t need a script, ever. He had it all memorized in his head.

I’ve seen him play tender roles before, in “Adaptation” or “Leaving Las Vegas.” I knew he was one of the great actors, but when I finally met him, I also understood how sensitive he is to everything around him. He was great at injecting a little bit of levity into scenes that could otherwise be too tragic. When he is walking around the car park in the film, close to breaking point, talking about puttanesca pasta, asking people if they know his broker and eating bird’s eggs… I was just in tears, laughing. We were very improv-y on that scene and he came up with all these amazing lines.

The whole thing with the dead rat wasn’t exactly scripted, either. He became very attached to it and liked to keep it in his pocket.

For the longest time, he can’t escape or let go of his past. In your previous film, “Vivarium,” you also showed people who were stuck. Why are you interested in that? 

I love that you picked up on that, because this location could be seen as some weird purgatory. It probably appeals to my dark sense of humor. But also, we are all trying to escape something. There is this feeling of always being slightly trapped and waiting for the next thing. There can be beauty in that struggle. It doesn’t go too well for the couple in “Vivarium” [played by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots] but at least they try.

In the end, he gets what he needs, rather than what he wants. To me, “The Surfer” is an uplifting movie, but it leaves you with just the right amount of ambiguity, which I like. Hopefully, it will continue to live on in your subconsciousness after the credits roll.

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