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Shelby Stanger: This episode is about a Hawaiian waterman, lifeguard, and stuntman, Brian Keaulana, but I'm also sharing a little my story because I met Brian at a pivotal point in my life. I just quit my job in 2009 at the height of the recession and talked myself on a boat trip with some of the best surfers on the planet to an archipelago of islands called the Mentawai's, it's off Indonesia and we were on a famous surf boat called the Indies Trader.
On this trip, Brian, who you'll learn about and hear from after I tell this story, he gave me some awesome advice about not only dropping in on the waves in the surf but in life as well. This legendary Hawaiian also has some great insight into traditional Hawaiian values and culture, respecting mother nature, how he made it as a successful stuntman in Hollywood and living a life with intention. I'm Shelby Stanger and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living.
Brian Keaulana: No matter how strong you are, no matter how much you know, sometimes it's the mental part that really helps you survive, especially in the ocean, because if you understand the ocean, especially with surf, it surges and it stops. It's finding those moments to create safety where safety doesn't exist.
Shelby: Here I am, 10 years later. I'm on a trip to Hawaii with my mom, and we're paying homage to her mom, my grandma Dorothy who live there in the 80s and 90s, we're also having a little mom-daughter time. I really want her to meet Brian because he was just so impactful to me at a pivotal time in my life.
On this trip, I was the only female, which I was cool with, but the waves are bigger than anything I'd ever seen in my entire life. They weren't mushy waves that broke over sandy bottoms like I was used to back in San Diego, they were fast and broke over shallow coral reefs filled with amazing tropical fish that could rival any aquarium. When you fell, it would hurt really bad.
My job on this trip was to be a writer, not the surfer, but a few days on the boat and really humid tropical conditions, I just wanted to get out there. For one, I had a lot to prove to everyone who thought I was absolutely crazy for quitting an amazing job at Vans. I also wanted to prove a lot to the guys on the trip who I don't know if they thought a girl could hang, but mostly, I just had a lot to prove to myself.
The problem is, I was terrified. Every time I went surfing and fell, I got held under water for much longer than I've ever been held under water. When you're held underwater, it feels like eternity. The waves there were just so powerful and I was also under boarded. I had a five foot nine surfboard which was way too small for these waves, and so I kept falling.
I asked Brian, this Hawaiian godlike looking of a man, who I had just met a few days prior on his boat trip for advice. I learned pretty quickly that among his many jobs, Brian had coached the actress Kate Bosworth in huge waves for the movie Blue Crush, which, as a younger person, was one of my favorite movies.
When I met Brian, I have to tell you, he had this aura about him that immediately resonated a sense of peace, safety, but also he just commanded respect. I respected him immediately in a way that I just didn't normally feel about people. He just had this strong but calm reassuring sense about him that was really enjoyable to be around, and I could listen to him talk all day.
Finally, I got the courage to talk to him. I just asked him, “Brian what do I do? I keep falling and I get so scared underwater,” I told him. “Oh, you just sing a song,” he said. Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was something that was playing on the boat, which was some jingly Don McLean's song that goes, "Bye bye miss American pie." It's a great song to have in your head except for when you get to this phrase, "Cause this will be the day that I die." That is not a good song or lyric to have in your head when you're underwater wanting to live.
I told Brian my song choice and the lyrics and he just laughed and smiled. “Pick a different song,” he said. I picked the first thing that came to my head which was You are my Sunshine. I must been just staring at the sun. "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine." Every piece of advice he gave me was so simple yet, so poignant.
We had a lot of conversations over those next few days on the boat, but by day four or five I really just wanted to catch a good one. I’d finally mastered falling and singing, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," and I also finally borrowed a bigger board that I could ride. It was 6'4", much bigger and better for the waves there. Now I really wanted to catch and ride a solid wave, a wave that was awesome. The problem is I'd get to my feet and the waves were so fast, I just kept falling.
"Shelby," Brian said, “Just say 'make it, make it, make it.'” He told me this one day when we found ourselves as the only two out when everyone else had gone back to the boat for lunch. We were at a place called Mutz, which is a really left handed wave, and, to me, was terrifying.
By default, when I'm scared is to kind of be neurotic and ask a million questions to whoever is next to me, to distract myself. Here I am, I'm in the middle of the Indian ocean, just Brian and I alone and I start Barbara Walters-ing him. Asking him how he got Kate Bosworth, this model and actress, to surf big waves for the movie, Blue Crush. If she could do it, I thought so could I.
“Oh that's a good story,” he says. "I took her to Waimea Bay the first day." If you know anything about surfing, Waimea Bay is a place where the waves are ginormous. “Well, that way that would be her normal,” he told me. "Because if I started her off in Waikiki - which, by the way, is where most people start off, because it's relatively small and easy and mushier - well, then that would be her normal," he said.
I don't get to hear the rest of the story, that he actually only took her out on a jet ski and a snorkel in the channel away from where the waves are breaking, but I'm imagining this dainty, blonde model careening down a 50 foot wave, who hasn't really surf that much in her life or less than me.
Just as I'm imagining Kate Bosworth careening down this giant monster of a wave, this triangle of water juts up from the horizon in the Indian Ocean, it's a wave coming right towards Brian and I and we're still the only ones out. Brian looks at me with serious eyes. He looks back at the approaching wave. He looks back at me again. “You're going to go?” He asks in a way that basically says "you better go. I’m gifting you this wave." You're going to really want to go.
I'm so terrified, but I lie on my surfboard and I paddle my little heart out. The wave looks huge. Underneath this jagged shallow coral that I know could really cut me up, but I look forward and I paddle as hard as I can. I look ahead and I remember all the advice Brian has given me so far. "You are my sunshine my only sunshine." I paddle a few more times, the wave picks myself and my board up and we start zooming at what feels like lightning speed.
I quickly pop to my feet and we're going so fast it feels like I'm on a small skateboard going down a really steep hill. "Make it, make it, make it." I'm going so fast the board's fins make a hissing sound as they glide through the surface of the wave. "Make it, make it, make it." I'm now finding my balance and getting in the groove. I'm in the perfect spot of the wave and all of a sudden the wave speeds up even more. It's gets incredibly steep, so steep I think I'm going to fall. "Make it, make it, make it." I keep going fast, it feels like a roller coaster.
My gut reaction is to close my eyes when I go so fast, but I keep them wide open, and I'm so grateful I do because, all of a sudden, the waves lift begins to throw itself over my head. I'm enveloped in crystal white blue water.
The site is like nothing I've ever seen. The feeling is magical. I'm in the barrel for maybe a nanosecond, but I feel changed, I feel totally different. I could hear Brian hoo and say, "Nice one." I don't feel like he can really see it though. I mean, he's behind me. I kind of wish someone could see it at that moment. There happens to be a photographer in the channel that day, I had no idea he was out there, and not just any photographer, but a guy named Dana Edmonds. He's a legendary photographer from Hawaii. He captures it all on film. "I got it." All bragging rights for eternity. In the photo, I have awful style, my booty is totally sticking in the air, but I have the most epic smile.
This is the wave Brian coached me on. It's funny because I'd interview a famous surfer a few years later, his name is Micky Munoz, and he told me that he once caught a wave so good in Indonesia, he came out of the barrel 10 years younger, it just had that much magic. I'd say that one wave gave me an uber amount of confidence, the confidence to pursue the life I'm living right now, and I really have all the men on this trip and especially Brian Keaulana to thank for that. Brian, welcome to Wild Ideas Worth Living. We're in beautiful Makaha, this is so pretty.
Brian Keaulana: Yes. Last time we were in beautiful, was it Indonesia?
Shelby: You told me this sentence. We were sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I had been terrified the whole time to catch a wave and you gave me some advice. Then all of a sudden, a triangle of water comes up, and you say, "Are you going to go?" That's the best.
Brian: [laughs] Yes, that was a fun trip and stuff, but it's all about being in the moment and just watching. Sometimes we tend to overthink things rather than just let the moment happen. Sometimes to let that moment happen, you got to put your mind on a different place. Like I said, if you're going to make it, sometimes let your body be there but let your mind be someplace else and just sing a song while you're going through that journey.
Shelby: That was the first piece of advice you gave me; sing a song. That was really helpful. You do that in other situations too?
Brian: Yes, one of the things I learned growing up was really about no matter how strong you are, no matter how much you know, sometimes it's the mental part that really helps you survive, especially in the ocean. Because if you understand the ocean, especially with surf, it surges and it stops. It's finding those moments to create safety where safety doesn't exist. In between all the chaos and the mayhem that happens and stuff, it's how to create that serenity or that calmness in chaos.
Singing a song is putting your mind someplace while your body go through this turmoil. You're been thrashed around like going over Niagara Falls and being pummeled all around, but, in time, that's going to end. It's really surviving for that duration of that time, that's the whole thing. If you sing one song-- Like this with the ocean, it's like a surf. You're probably underwater for maybe 10 seconds. Just for that 10 seconds, can you sing a song? How long can you sing a song? We can sing a song for at least a minute and try to finish that song.
Again, I think what people lose track is you think about breathing and your breath, but, really, in survival, it's not about your breathing or your breath, it's all about how much oxygen do you have in your bloodstream because it's more about oxygenating your brain. Doing breathing exercise before you go out is like eating a big meal. Breathing correctly is again being calm is really utilizing that blood flow. Because when you get panic or when you tense up, you're burning a lot of energy, you're burning a lot of oxygen, so you're throwing everything away. Again, in times of chaos, be calm, be cool, relax and let time pass so you can come up with oxygen, come up with energy.
Shelby: What song do you sing when you're underwater?
Brian: Oh God, what song do I sing? I don't know if I sing a song. With me, it's just like I dive inwards, meaning that if I'm going to go under, I dive deep within myself and I just go blank really, just not think of anything, get through the part. I think maybe the closest is meditation, like what the monks do; not really think about anything. That way, you rely on your senses - your feel, your touch, what's your body doing, that kind of thing and not really letting my emotions control my actions. I think to that level maybe before I was younger, I probably thought more but now I don't even think, I just kind of more just be.
Shelby: As you can tell during our interview, Brian and I are sitting on the Lanai right over Makaha Beach. I know the ocean is really important to Brian and also to the Hawaiian culture and traditions. I wanted to hear more from this amazing Waterman about how his background influenced his life and career. You are as Hawaiian as Hawaiian gets, can you explain to us what that means?
Brian: It's so funny we talk about our culture, our past or really our genealogy. My cousins were researching our family background going back. The Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiians actually was one of the most educated cultures. If you look back, most of the Hawaiians were literate actually, where they could read a lot. Our Queen before, wrote a lot of books, wrote in two languages - Hawaiian and English.
It's neat to see generations of where we came from and where my father and my grandfather and my great-great grandfather. It's always been practice to recite your genealogy from your father and what lineage you came from, what bloodline you came from, and stuff also too. It's neat having that solid base, understanding who we are and stuff too.
Besides knowing our genealogy our culture was-- It's funny because the way we grew up in Hawaiian way of thinking it's different from Western way of thinking. When we talk about, say, land issues in Hawaiian way of thinking, in our land, was we never owned land and we never owned water, but we were always stewards or caretakers of the land or caretakers of the ocean or being responsible for the environment or things that feed us or provide for us or surrounds us. Versus the western way is, I own this piece of property, or I own this surfboard, or you work for me kind of thing. It's just different.
Even though the words that you use in Hawaiian, it's probably a lot more different because it's more poetic way of speaking. When you hear the word Aloha, people look at that word just as a word versus in Hawaiian way of thinking it's not a word. It's more of an intention. The way you say it, Aloha can mean a lot of things like I care for you, a love for something, or it's just a deeper meaning.
I don't deny either part of who I am, where I live, the culture we live in right now, I think of myself more of a hybrid where I put culture and science together and blend the two, especially for life saving. When I was growing up in the ocean with my father, right here in Makaha Beach, my dad would throw us in before we could walk. We could all swim before we could walk. He would throw us in the current and swim with us and make us understand that this current is going to take you down the coast.
It's utilizing those energy to augment where you're going and what you can do and how you can get out of it, or if you're caught in an undertow or time, how you can relax and those kind of things.
At a young age, I see that not just myself, but when you go down to the beach over here at Makaha, you see a lot of the younger kids, like two, three years old, playing in a show break and especially with a lot of the parents or friends. They learn along the ways what I call when you go in the ocean, you're going to two things - you're either going to school or you're going to church.
One, you're going to school you can get educated about what the ocean want's to share with you. The other one, if you're not going to be listening to what the ocean is saying, you're going to church and you're going to be talking to God at same time. Like, "Oh my God, what I got myself into?" Try to go to school before you go to church.
Shelby: It's interesting because I interviewed Cliff Kapono last year or the year before, and he said very similar things about Hawaiian culture. You're basically traced to the king?
Brian: Pretty much. It's neat seeing how that lineage keeps going, going, going. Both my cousins did separate research and came up with the same kind of things. It's neat watching our family grow. In fact, we just had a family reunion and met some of our family that we never met before. So that was kind of neat.
Shelby: That's really cool. I love that your father would throw you into the current before you could walk and you'd become this amazing waterman.
Brian: Again, just growing up, my father being probably want to know pioneer surfers.
Shelby: Buffalo Keaulana.
Brian: Buffalo Keaulana, yes. In times where Makaha Beach was the mecca of surfing in the whole world, the wide world of sports where you would see him on TV, really happened here at Makaha. My father was one of the competitors, but he also was a world bodysurfing championship too. Just growing up with that and living the lifestyle of the ocean where my dad was the park keeper at Makaha Beach, our house was literally a two-story house on the beach in the center of Makaha Beach. I just remember at a young age, we never went hungry because my dad would go into the ocean and he would dive. He wouldn't just catch fish and spear for just the family, he would feed the whole beach - friends, tourists, whoever was there. If you were walking on the sand or swimming in the ocean, you became part of our family.
Everyone ate and then one of the locals or my dad or someone would pick up an instrument like a ukulele and just start entertaining and playing music and just enjoying. For me, it was such a rich upbringing with so much life and energy and happiness, and that's what Makaha is really about. It's really about, our family is like, not just a community but a village, and it spreads really far and wide where everyone knows everyone.
One of our cultural practice before was what we call Hukilau. Hukilau is everyone from different parts of the neighborhood would come in the hundreds, and they would bring rope, and they would tie the rope together. Guys would climb up the coconut trees and cut down leaves, and they would string the coconut leaves, and they would surround this whole bay from where we at right now all the way to the other end of the bay with ropes and coconut leaves hanging down.
All the men would go out and swim with bamboo goggles or whatever face masks they would have and some without fins and they've just phenomenal waterman and all the elders and the kids and people on top would be pulling the rope. They would yell, "Huki." Huki means to pull. Lau is rope, Hukilau.
Shelby: I know the song, "Huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau."
Brian: Someone made it to a song, but it was practice. That was practiced from eons back where you would pull on the rope and the fish would get scared and because of the coconut leaves and the guys be splashing around the whole bay. They would pile the fish into this humongous fish ball, and then they would take a net, and they would surround the school of fish, and then they would start bringing the fish up slowly.
What was neat was all the people in the community would have the different containers. Some would say, "I like redfish," or, "I like sailfish," and they would divvy them out. What I remember was we didn't take every fish because once everyone had their fill, my father and everyone would release whatever was there left and just let it go. We wouldn't do a Hukilau consistent, it would happen maybe like once every two years or once every five years.
Shelby: You understood to keep the ocean sustainable?
Brian: Yes, sustainable. Back in the days of the kings and queens, there was laws put in place of certain fish you wouldn't catch. Aquaculture was a big thing in Hawaiian culture and also land management, what we call the ahupua system, where certain families would live way up and then as they go down, when the water spreads out, you would have all this taro or it's like our Hawaiian potatoes that we make poi and all this substance for.
Shelby: When you say they would live high up, like in the mountains?
Brian: In the mountains, yes.
Brian: In the valleys and the mountains. You wouldn't have a big, big village way up on top, you would have-
Shelby: Just people spread all through from the mountain down.
Brian: Like on a triangle because as things come down, it spreads out into water management and then land management kind of things. Again, it was managed more of caretakers, more than ownership kind of thing. That was, like I said, the Hawaiian cultural way. It's funny because knowledge circle back around for the rest of the world. When you talk about sustainability, our culture it's already been doing that, it was already practiced and thrived and living, same with the ocean.
When I was a kid growing up over here, oh man, you remember how much fish in Indonesia that we saw in abundance, especially when I went through the Maldives also too. I used to grow up like that here in Makaha Beach where you would see the ocean just move just with life. It's been over-fished, Hawaii, it hasn't been managed. Now my kids don't experience the same thing I did when I grew up. That's the sad part but again, we can learn from all past and try to reestablish some footing into setting some rules of what not to fish and try to bring things back.
Shelby: What I love about Hawaiian culture and I learned this when my grandma died too, is just, like you said, how community oriented they are. When she died, people came and they didn't bring-- In our Western culture, people bring flowers, which you don't need when someone dies, but they would bring food and they would bring money to actually help pay for the service and the ceremony.
What other practices? I remember once you told me about when your daughter was born, you took the umbilical cord and buried it in tea leaves, I think or I'm not sure. Maybe you can tell some of the great practices that you've kept in Hawaiian tradition.
Brian: Being a parent it's again, a cultural practice from the past. For our Hawaiian culture, the umbilical cord, when the child is connected to the mother's womb, that umbilical cord has the nutrients that sustains life, oxygen that sustains life, energy. Everything goes into the baby from that umbilical cord, it's the lifeline. When the baby is born, the umbilical cord is detached, but when it dries off, it falls off.
For us, what we do is we take that dried umbilical cord, we call the piko, and we wrap it up with a lava stone and tea leaves, and then we'll place it into one place of connections. For us, my piko, my umbilical cord is actually here at Makaha Beach. It's been practiced because, same with my kids, it's at Makaha point where I surf, but what that does it reconnects all the knowledge, all the skills, all the energy that the ocean can give. You're connected to that part of that land or that ocean or that energy.
Vice versa there's some families that were part of the land and great farmers and they would bury it under a tree and that tree going to be given another life. You're connected to the land, you understand the land and the importance of the land. Or you would be a sailor and you would sail because we were celestial navigation people. You would burn it into the wind so it would go up in the sky so you're connected to the wind.
I think that's one of the things that people don't understand that even being Hawaiian, it goes deeper into Polynesia because we weren't separate it by land, we were connected by water.
Shelby: Brian took his knowledge of and respect for the ocean and he turned it into a very successful career in the entertainment industry as both a stuntman and a stunt coordinator, as well as helping do water safety for many different agencies. Hear him talk about how he got into the industry and some of the projects he's worked on after this message from our sponsor.
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In addition to coaching people in water safety and lifeguarding practice, Brian also has a thriving career, working on films and TV shows. In both coordinating stunts and doing them himself just as he does in the water, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the set. After doing some modeling commercials in his youth in addition to becoming one of the best lifeguards on the planet, he got a job on Baywatch, which helped pave the way for his entertainment career.
What lessons from Hawaiian culture have you taken to your jobs?
Brian: Oh, God.
Shelby: You're a stuntman. You were this incredible life guard and you helped make, I'm just going to say it for you, you're the guy who helped build the jetski rescue sled, which I just saw version of it almost on your truck. It looks like--
Brian: The supsquatch?
Shelby: A supsquatch which is like a toy sled. If you guys have ever seen the supsquatch, it's this giant that wide inflatable stand-up paddleboard, that can fit how many people on it?
Brian: Five to seven people.
Shelby: We've fit a lot more than five to seven people on it.
Brian: Yes, yes, yes.
Shelby: You can put a ton of friends on it. It is like the most fun toy ever. You invented this amazing sled, you're very much a pioneer in stand-up paddling, we see you for a waterman and now you do these stunts for a lot of great movies that are filmed in Hawaii. Are you working on Magnum P.I.?
Brian: Yes, Magnum P.I., Hawaii Five-O, it's funny.
Shelby: Blue Crush, my favourite
Brian: Blue Crush, yes, Pearl Harbor, Waterworld
Brian: Aquaman. Actually, Aquaman is my cousin, Jason.
Shelby: He's your cousin?
Brian: Yes, my real cousin.
Shelby: Oh, funny.
Brian: I actually got him into the business. I was working on the original Baywatch.
Shelby: Like the one with Kelly Slater and Pam?
Brian: Kelly and Pam. Yes.
Shelby: Pam Anderson?
Shelby: Really quickly tell us the story of how you've got the job on Baywatch. That's so interesting.
Brian: Well, even before Baywatch, I was life-guarding at a young age, summer hire. Then I also was surfing professional. So that was kind of the two jobs, but I landed a national commercial with Cheryl Rae Tiegs, and was more in modeling. Got really involved in the film work to just modeling, and then seeing the type of money you can make. Then from there it was like, "Wow." Just explore all these different venues and jobs.
We worked safety in different movies, and things like that, and did the original Point Break with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. We were at safety back then, and then ended up what was my first job in stunts. I think heart to heart was my first one. I was doing stunts, and working in the film industry in my teens, and then just kept growing and growing, and did Waterworld, which was probably one of my first biggest ones feature. Then just progressing to City of Angels, Feel, Lords of Dogtown. You can IMDb me, and I think I did just in much movies as I have surfboards.
Shelby: What are stunts? What does that look like? What does that mean you did?
Brian: Well, when you talk about stunts, you're talking about the cream of the crop in the world as far as the most knowledgeable, talented people in the world. Guys that do X Games, and things like that. I worked with the best car drivers or the best guys that can do fire or the best fight guys, and things like that.
Shelby: Basically, anytime in a movie you see someone crash off of a cliff or get in a surfing accident or--
Brian: Well, with water, yes. Water was my specialty. In the film industry, you can't be just a one-trick pony. A lot of times we try to share our experience and knowledge, and we cross-train. Like right now, I actually get called more for driving than water work right now, so for just stunt car driving or--
Shelby: You do the actual driving?
Shelby: You're still doing it?
Shelby: That's awesome. What kind of a car trick that you would do?
Brian: A lot of it is really hitting your mark, staying in control, those kinds of things and stuff like that too. Then again, we work with some of the best car drivers I consider in the whole world. Guys can look like they are out of control, but they really in control. The stunt road is really small. It's not big. Everyone pretty much knows everyone, and you can reference people.
A lot of times, there's new stunt people that come on. A lot of times when I coordinate a movie for stunts, I'll not only look at the resume, but see who they work for, and ask one of my friends that probably work with them, and get some background on that person. Again, a lot of trust is built in you dealing with lives and safety, and because I teach, and practice risk management a lot, then for me that's the bigger thing to again, create safety where safety doesn't exist, and create the visual, physical effects that we do on camera also too.
I don't just work in Hawaii. I work probably all over the world. Then not just in the water, in the ocean, but also land, sea and air no matter what. Everything from skydived, I've been lit on fire, I've crashed cars. All of those kinds of things, and stuff too.
Shelby: Was there a Baywatch story that you wanted to tell?
Brian: Oh God, we had so much-- It’s hard to say what-- We've done so much different movies and shows. On Baywatch, a lot of stuff. Even with Jason, I think that's one of the greatest things is, Jason was modeling.
Shelby: Aquaman Jason?
Brian: Yes, Aquaman Jason. He, from a young kid, always spent his summers with us. He always hung out with me, and I took him down to the beach, and then he started modeling, and being a great model. When Baywatch Hawaii came, I told Jason, “Jason, you should try out because they can pick two Hawaii - one girl, one boy,” and he went out. I told him, I said, “Brag about-- Tell them that you're related to me. Tell them you're better than me. Just get in.” He did, and he got in on his own foot. He was so proud of himself. Besides Jason, there was Kala'i Miller, and Stacy Kamano, two other local actors and actress, so they picked three altogether. That was neat.
Then Jason, he made himself, because it's so funny me and him was just talking. I did a movie In God's Hands, and brought him with me to the premiere, and he fell in love, and it's like, wow, he wanted to explore this. I think Jason has the same bloodline as me. When people tell you, you can't, or no or this, and that, you just study harder, fight harder, because Jason did Baywatch, I think he got stereotyped also too, and he fought his way out.
It's funny what people say about certain things because even for me, when I think about like in Baywatch, I probably think that was probably one of the best production that understood water. I mean, from the producer to the director, they rocked. It's hard to even compare some of the other people because the way that they move, and how they move was unbelievable in the water.
Shelby: I think a lot of people are going to want to know, how does one become a stuntman?
Brian: I get that question a lot.
Shelby: I imagine.
Brian: It's like anything else. You have to ask yourself-- When you’re trying out for stunts, you're competing with guys that probably-- Like, how do you get in the red bull team? It's like at that level, the elite of the elite kind of thing. Looking like an actor or an actress, and having the skills to perform to the level of that need. Stunt work, a lot of people, they misinterpret like, “I'm willing to get hurt.” That's not a great stunt person, to say, “I'm going to go out, and I'm going to hurt myself so I get paid.” A smart stuntman actually is going to actually get all the visuals, and be smart of staying in control, and minimize the injuries or minimize the risk or minimize the hurt.
It's funny how some people they think, but again, if a stunt, say you have to perform to this level, and some people say, “I'll do it,” and they don't perform to that level, that's probably your last stunt, you'll never work again. The power of no, and saying that I can, is just as important of saying yes. Know your limits, and abilities. The great stuntman's that I've worked with, know their abilities, and know their limitations.
We thread a fine line. All of us do, and sometimes we tip over the edge, and we'll head into that part where we’ll get hurt, and we get in danger. It's the support, and the preparation that we’re surrounded by. I think that's the thing that a lot of people don't understand, especially a great stunt coordinator will set up not just his primary person for the stunt, but they'll set up their perimeter off camera. Whose safety is for? If a person's doing a burn, who's going to put them out? What they're going to do? What kind of medical procedures are going there and stuff also too. That's the thing.
I like working with a lot of the stunt people because for me they’re probably some of the most safest people on set. Because we create all chaos, and design all dangers, and look at things from so many different perspectives. We're not just looking at it one way, we're looking at it 360 degrees of, how can this escalate into a bigger thing? The worst thing is not capturing it, because you don't want to do it all over again.
Shelby: If the film guy blows it, you’re--?[laughs]
Brian: Well, that's one of the reasons why I got not just into stunts or stunt coordinating, but I got my DGA directing to second unit direct. When you direct you have control of the visual, of the creation, of the story points. It's fun in that design because then not just a stunt coordinator working with the director, but me being a director itself, have a lot more control over the outcome, especially in editing too.
Shelby: While Brian works in entertainment industry, he also trains all of agencies in safety and lifesaving practices. He's really the ultimate teacher. He's background, upbringing and Hawaiian values help him prioritize what's important in living a way he's proud of.
You do risk management, you do safety, you've done all these stunts. I'm really curious about how your Hawaiian upbringing has contributed to some of the lessons that you apply to your work today.
Brian: Well again, try not to forget, one of the things I've talked to my son about is just being honest to yourself first. One thing I treasure is my word, if I say that I'm going to do something, I try to follow through. Sometimes in life it's like--
I remember this one-- I was in Tahiti training the Tahitians how to do rescues and life saving and running on class and up there for the Billabong Contest, Teahupoo. I got called to do Transformers and I couldn't leave because if I left, it's kind of a balance between my word and also I'm balancing money and life.
I know if I stay, I'm keeping my word but also it's going to help save someone in the future because of the teaching and the knowledge that we're giving. If I go to Miami and do Transformer, I would end up making a whole bunch of money but again, in the end how much is money worth? How much is a life worth? It's always a balance of things.
I think for me it's more about the word enough that I treasure more than the word success, because if I live with enough then I'm satisfied and I'm successful. If I try to be perfect in someone else's eyes and try to strive to get millions, then it's something that;s going to be just hardworking or I'm working for somebody else's vision rather than my own vision.
Shelby: I love that, enough. I think that's something that I could really use to stake right now. Rather than always reaching for success, reach for enough.
Brian: That's being successful, enough is being successful. For me, I have a happy life, I have a great wife, great two children and I live through them now and try to achieve their success and try to be supportive in anyway and stuff also too. It's great even, I just purchased property for me and stuff that's way up in a valley that I can grow my own food and raise my own. I'm living my dream of what I want to do.
Shelby: Living off the land.
Brian: That's the whole thing what I want to do.
Shelby: Me too, it sounds amazing.
Brian: My dream is off-grid and just self-sufficient, sustainable and not relying on anybody. Not just not relying but to the point where I can share and give. If I grow a bunch of fruit trees, vegetables, for me it's all about, whatever's on my property has to be something usable, medicinal, has to be something that you can use to survive or thrive.
Shelby: That's how Hawaiians did it and from the beginning of time.
Brian: Yes, exactly. Like I said, it's just a great way of honoring back my culture.
Shelby: It's so weird, you have such a dual life, there's a Hollywood life and then there's a compete opposite life of living off the land, pretty much off-the-grid. It's pretty cool to marry those worlds.
Brian: Yes, it is. I think that's the thing is funny because one of my friends told me, he said, "Oh now you're involved in Hollywood and Hollywood changes people. You're going to change." I told him, "I've got a different attitude." I think the attitude is I'm going to change Hollywood, Hollywood is not going to change me.
I think I've done, especially in Hawaii, because a lot of times production used to come to Hawaii and demand a lot of things and here you have to ask permission before you get permits, you have to go talk to grandma and grandpa or the people that you're going to affect in that community or that area and ask permission. Because if it's a blatant no, don't do it, that's the respect.
Then again, if you ask with respect and you try to get people involved and educate them of who you are and what you do and what you're up against and how you're going to try to portray this, then you get welcomed in and you actually get more of one big advantage because you're sharing the local knowledge that already exist, you're sharing the local skills that already exist.
I remember, God, there was one time that we had to access one certain and one tree fell down and then the production was like, "How are we going to get across?" Just a phone call down the street then one of the guys who was working there had one machine and came over there, pick up the tree, moved it aside and boom we've got filming all day. That's because we asked permission before we actually went to that place.
Shelby: Being kind especially to your community is really important.
Brian: Oh yes, especially in Hawaii because the difference here is, you're on an island so if you make someone mad, they probably relay it to everybody else.
You're not going to get anywhere, you're going to have to fly someone in to kind of replace the person that you probably got rid of.
Shelby: One of the things you taught me in Indonesia was this beautiful approach to fear. You just said something really simple to me, everything you said is very simple but was poignant. Also, it was at a very pivotal time in my life but you just said fear is just the unknown.
Brian: Yes, that's all fear is. This is why I tell people is, what if I was to say that you can control your outcome, anything that you do, you can control your outcome, how much fear would you have?
Shelby: Not much at all because I'd be in control, I'd know exactly what was going to happen,
Brian: It's kind of like, no matter what you do, if you're knowledgeable and have the ability to perform anything. For me, it's kind of like, I understand mostly the creation cause and effect in the ocean, not just from the past and the culture, but also in science from going to school, the physics of water, of how the density of water. Because I dive into the salinity of the water, because what is the difference between saltwater and freshwater? The impact. Have you ever been hit by a freshwater wave and hit by a saltwater wave? What's the difference?
Shelby: Saltwater wave, I don't know, I feel like in saltwater you float more. I've never been hit by a freshwater wave, I haven't been to Kelly's Wave Pool yet.
Brian: Oh yes? [laughs]
Shelby: But you can get me an invite.
Brian: Again, the volume of water, it all depends right? The energy and those kind of things.
Shelby: What's the difference?
Brian: Well again, salt, the salinity, the thickness of the water, the density of the water. I think that's the thing with people.
Shelby: Which one hurts less?
Brian: Well, they both can hurt, that's the thing. It's just salt water and me surfing around the world just feeling the energy from different places, I can compare. I think that's the difference is, a lot of people can't compare because they haven't experienced that but the people that have traveled and have been hit by different waves around the world, they can compare. They know the feeling of what it is.
Again, don't take anything lightly because you still can drown in freshwater, you still can drown in three feet of surf. I think sometimes people look at the obvious being like, this coming weekend we have 50 foot waves coming in here and people see the obvious danger. If you look right now it's only three feet right now and a lot of people are out but they don't consider the danger so they're not looking for it.
Shelby: I only get hurt surfing when it's tiny.
Brian: Yes, most people do. It's funny being a lifeguard, it's most of our statistics kind of show that people get hurt in small surf more than big waves. That's because people see the obvious dangers considering not the obvious. They're out here, what I call beauty and the beast, they're looking at the beauty but not understanding the beast. Whereas I look at beauty and the beast the whole time. People will look at the swaying palm trees, the blue oceans, they want to fulfill their fantasy but they got to work with reality.
Shelby: So good, you're so full of good one-liners. [chuckles] It's how you've been an actor.
Brian taught me a lot of lessons, both in surfing and in life. First, fear is just the unknown, if you're scared you just need more knowledge. Second, if you're being held underwater and you're scared, try singing a song, preferably a happy song, and always show respect. If you're going to take, take only what you need and give a lot. I wanted to talk to him about the other lesson I learned from that trip to Indonesia; "Make it, make it, make it."
There is something else you taught me that was so valuable on that trip. I kept backing off this one wave, and you were like, "Shelby, you keep backing off" I had just seen Bruce, this other guy with us, come off the boat all bloody, and you're like, "Are you going to go on?" I was like, "No." I was like, "I’m done, I have surfed." He's like, "You're not done, you're just scared." I was like, "Yes, I'm scared." I paddled back out and I kept missing it and I kept kicking out early and you were like, "Just say 'make it, make it, make it.'" I just said make it, make it, make it. Finally, caught a wave.
Then there is that other time in Indonesia, the very first wave that was actually like a real wave that I'd ever caught. You said, “Are you're going to go?” You asked in a way that said "if you don't go you're going to be really sorry." I paddled and I just said, "Make it, make it, make it." I popped up to my feet and for like a nanosecond the wave goes over my head. I'm like so ecstatic thinking this is the best moment of my life. Then I was thinking, "God, that would be so great if someone else could see it." Dana Edmonds happened to be in the channel, he took the picture. I have it forever, bragging rights forever.
Brian: Yes, yes.
Shelby: I think that wave changed me. I interviewed Micky Munoz, who's a professional longboard surfer, and he said he once surfed a wave in Indonesia and came out the other side and his body chemistry has changed. He said he was a younger man and it changed him. Do you feel like the ocean changes you?
Brian: You know I’ve always considered the ocean to be the fountain of youth because when I look at-- You don't see all the football players playing football still, but you do see a lot of all the surfers out and just living life. I remember one of my friends who was out of shape, and we were a stand-up paddleboarding just to cross train. He got into that, and he lost so much weight. Then from stand up paddleboarding, he started swimming. Then he started getting back to shortboarding, and now he's back in the water.
To me, the ocean is a fountain of youth. It's just creating movement. The ocean is not a swimming pool, it moves. So, you have to go out there. I think that's one of the other lessons, is to understand if you can align yourself with the wave itself.
I remember when you were paddling for that wave, and what I was thinking is, "If you give enough energy of yourself and create the speed you need to get into that wave. Once you create the speed and you get up, now you're one with the wave." That's the whole about the surf, is aligning yourself with the wave. It's not you’re separate from the ocean, it's being one with ocean.
Shelby: That's a good lesson for just having success in life. You got to have enough speed to catch up to whatever you want to do.
Brian: Yes, because if you back off, you can get thrown over the falls. If you stop and deer in the headlights you can get whacked by the wave. Safety is really aligning yourself and matching that speed of that wave. Again, you have to have the right equipment and the right frame of mind to get yourself into that speed of that wave.
Shelby: There's so many metaphors for life, and I think the last thing I took from that was, if I'd stayed in the boat and ate lunch with the guys and not dropped in, I would have just gotten seasick and sunburn.
Brian: Oh, yes. [laughs]
Shelby: If you don't drop in you’ll never know.
Brian: Yes, yes.
Shelby: Everybody listening to this podcast probably wants to quit their job move to Hawaii and become a stuntman, which is not always possible. People just want to live more free, maybe take the road less traveled. You've definitely taken a path less traveled, just advice on how to achieve it.
Brian: I think no matter where you go, home is wherever you lay yourself at. I think what's important is not just yourself but who you surround yourself with and try to create that world that you want to-- What I tell my son is not just mimic but embed. What you project, you get back. Because if you project a negative or anger, that's the world that you live in. If you're always projecting just joyfulness and just sharing and happiness, and it's infectious, that's the thing.
That's why I say we live in an infectious place, Makaha. We live in such a happy place because of our community. We live in such a fruitful baring place because of the way everyone thinks. It's a magical place because we've created it.
Shelby: When I went to Hawaii earlier this year I was reminded of the magic of these islands and the people who've lived there for thousands of years. Talking to Brian about the lessons he's learned from his background and upbringing was really enjoyable. Thank you so much to Brian for sitting down to talk with me about your culture and career and also for teaching me those lessons 10 years ago that helped me in the surf and life ever since. I hope we get to surf together again soon, I'm sure you'll have more pearls of wisdom to share.
Thank you also to all the guys I met on that magical trip to Indonesia on the Indies Trader, you know who you are. That was really the trip of a lifetime for me. To my mom who talks as much as I do, for not saying a peep during this interview. She listened intently, and then she asked me this really funny question, she asked me what that trip called the barrel roll was. I think she meant the barrel but it was really cute.
This podcast is produced and edited by Annie Fassler and co-produced by Chelsea Davis. It's supported by REI, a brand that helps us go on more adventures and get outside. I hope when you go outside this week you really breathe in the world around you, respect it, the power it has, the strength, and the peace. I hope if you're feeling a little sad and you're salty or you're a little scared, you also sing a song and drop in.
Tune in week after next to hear from an author who channels his energy to focus on adventuring, and how he's encouraging the next generation of kids to do the same by writing fiction books for kids about adventures. If you can please give us a review on Apple podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to this show, and remember, some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
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Here’s the Wild Idea
Today’s guest is Brian Keaulana, a legendary waterman, who gave me magical advice at a pivotal point in my life. Born and raised in Hawaii, Brian grew up on the water near Makaha Beach fishing, surfing, and spending time with friends and family near the ocean. He became one of the top lifeguards on the island, and is credited with not only creating the jet ski rescue sled, but also some of the first commercial standup paddleboards. His heritage goes all the way back to Hawaiian royalty, and his insight into traditional Hawaiian values and culture has made him the ultimate mentor.
I met Brian in 2009. I’d just quit my job at the height of the recession to pursue a career in “adventure journalism,” and I talked myself onto a boat trip to the Mentawais, an archipelago of islands off islands off the coast of Indonesia, on the Indies Trader III with some of the best surfers and standup paddlers on the planet. The waves were bigger than anything I was used to in San Diego, and even though I was just there to write, eventually I just had to get off the boat and drop in. I was absolutely terrified, and kept falling while surfing, but Brian shared wisdom with me in the water that not only helped me catch a wave that changed me forever (which I talk about on this show), but has helped me in life to this day. There’s a picture below. I have awful style, but the biggest smile.
A highly respected lifeguard and teacher, Brian advises all sorts of agencies from the military to police forces around the globe on water safety practices, and also works as a stuntman and stunt coordinator on TV shows and movies filmed in Hawaii.
Above all, he’s Hawaiian to the core and a family man. He gives sage advice about respecting mother nature, giving back to his community, and even how to make it as a stuntman. I love the way he lives his life with intention, one where he not only spends a lot of time in the outdoors, but also honors his heritage, the land around him, his community and family, and teaches others to do the same.
Listen to this Episode if
- You want to hear from one of the most legendary Hawaiian watermen ever.
- You surf or do any water sport activity, or want to try but are scared.
- You have been (or want to go) to Hawaii.
- You’ve ever thought about being a stunt man.
- You think it’s important to respect nature.
- You want to hear a story of my life-changing moment in Indonesia while surfing.
- 0:15 – How I met Brian Keaulana on the Indies Trader.
- 10:40 – Brian says you have to be in the moment and create calmness in chaos.
- 14:45 – How Brian’s Hawaiian background has impacted his life.
- 19:20 – The ocean was a big part of Brian’s upbringing at Makaha Beach.
- 25:40 – What traditional Hawaiian values Brian and his family still practice.
- 28:50 – How Brian started out in the entertainment industry.
- 36:50 – How to become a stuntman.
- 41:00 – Applying Hawaiian lessons to his career.
- 46:40 – Fear is just the unknown.
- 50:15 – The ocean changes you.
- 53:55 – Home is your community.