The Return of The Runman
REWIND AND FAST FORWARD WITH MORGAN RUNYON ICONIC SURF CULT FILM AUTEUR
Interview by Brendan O’Malley Photographs by Mike Selskly
Before YouTube and fail videos, before the Jackass genre, before the youth revolted against the establishment and then became it, there was the seminal surf film cult classic The Runman Trilogy. To quote The Surfers Journal, “Runman is to surfing as Sonic Youth is to music. Eccentric, playful, raunchy, raw and real; cacophonous to many, but uniquely emblematic of a time and a spirit.”
More than two decades have passed since my review of Runman 69, the third installment of the Runman Trilogy, in which I wrote, “A surf movie that is in part a revolt against our times: Reagan era censorship, the bland neon bloat of the surf industry and cookie cutter contest surfing… there are certain scenes in this movie that cannot be explained – they must be experienced.” The Runman series is most aptly described by some of its own disclaimers: “Best digested on an empty stomach and an open mind” and “Made for the pleasure of viewing. Not for corporate advertising.”
It is, in retrospect, ironic that what the Runman films mocked and opposed—the commercial appropriation of a surf subculture—has been turned into a boilerplate marketing strategy for the industry. Now anti-corporate and anti-establishment imagery and personalities are part and parcel to a surf company’s mainstream branding strategy.
In his resume bio, Morgan Runyon, the co-creator of Runman films, lists some of his skills: a hands-on art director, production design, product design, interior design, and architectural building using reclaimed materials. To that I would add restaurateur, cool dad, and community artist.
I caught up with Morgan at his childhood home in West Malibu. The house, built from vintage reclaimed materials, is a rustic, eclectic time capsule of cool, filed driftwood sculptures, found objects, and three generations of family artwork. It’s a house so well lived in and loved it makes you feel more at home than in your own home.
As we broke into the interview, the perfunctory Q and A gave way to an exploration of the grounds from board house to beach fort with a detour to the tequila cellar and concluded in the folds of the Santa Monica Mountains at his family’s roadhouse restaurant.
How or why do you feel that your and Ray Kleiman’s underground surf cult classic movie(s) the Runman trilogy has influenced the surf culture and beyond?
I suppose looking back, it’s obvious that it influenced people. That has been mentioned to me on numerous occasions. People ask if I made a lot of money from it or say that I should have made a lot of money off it. If I had wanted to make money that was possible, but it was not what we set out to do.
It’s like cooking; you get influenced by what’s going on around you in that scene. Who is using what ingredients, what tastes good with what? You make a stew but you can’t really own it. Runman was a collective work of people living in this area, my friends and our fucking crazy lifestyle at the time when the street culture was blending with surf culture. Runman was put together documenting this, but just because it’s documented doesn’t mean it is history. I mean it’s a history. You could say history is written by the conquerors. Maybe now history is written by the people who do the best job documenting it or capturing a certain moment in time and putting it out there in the most easily digestible format.
Why did you feel the need to document it?
Well, Ray (Klienman) did the documenting; he was my partner in the Runman films, the camera guy. You know the youth will always have fun and do stupid shit. I was more involved on the other side of the camera doing stupid shit. I was the “let’s do stupid shit guy” on the other side encouraging all my friends to do stupid shit. It was as much for our own entertainment as anything else.
You created the posters and iconic visual style for Runman as well?
Yeah, I put together the imagery, the art, and all the other stuff. Well you know, we were going to have a little surf company, sell surf products, so the look and feel was part of all that. The low production value branding was as much about a lack of a budget as it was anything else. It was more of an honest assessment of what was available. We didn’t pay anyone. Our soundtrack was pirated. Surf films back then tried to look real slick. We went the other direction because, fuck it, making something slick wasn’t an option.
I guess for our own good we never got too big and the Runman films remained true to what they were. This is the beauty of it. You know it never got sold out. Volcom did that.
Do you still work as an Art Director?
I still work in commercial film production and art direction… but I work for my free time. What I’ve learned over the years is that you have to put a value on your free time, a value greater than work time. Your most precious thing is time and how you use it. So I work hard for the time in between; my free time is worth more than my work time. That’s my storyboard.
Work to live rather than live to work?
All you’re going to have in the end are your memories and those are of your life. Not as much of that’s from your work life.
Can they be intertwined?
You can combine the two at times when you’re creating something new and having fun doing it, just avoid having regrets. You know sitting with my dad as he was dying was a painful process. In the end it was the best, last, and most important lesson from him. It made me realize that each day is life-in-the-moment and that while you don’t necessarily have to make the “most” of that day you should make something of it. Do something and then be happy with that. That’s where I’m at right now.
So living in the present, not in the past?
Well say, for instance, when you asked me about Runman. I can say hey, remember the good old days when we were young, good looking and had hair… well we aren’t now and we don’t have hair, at least I don’t. Those days exist in the past. You have to keep moving forward. Runman was a great documentation of our time of our youth, but that was then; this is now. My wife and I have a daughter, Mackenzie and you have a daughter and that’s the great thing that is happening right now. You know the saying “a good business plan is one that changes as you go?” As we go forward it’s good to keep finding the balance between life and work and keep improving that ratio.
Your new work and life balance involves the family restaurant. You took over running, The Old Place, which was described by the LA Times as “a rough-hewn roadhouse on the Mulholland Hwy with simple fare favored by the famous and famously interesting.” Can you give us some background on the restaurant?
My dad started the restaurant. I think it was because people used to say to him you throw such great parties maybe you should open a restaurant. He was here in Malibu in the ‘30s buying property for $38 an acre. You know, he was a pilot during the war and a writer after, but the land is what helped sustain him.
In the late ‘60s he went out and bought possibly the worst location, demographically, to open a restaurant. The restaurant was built around a structure that once housed a general store and post office. He bought it because it was so cheap. Bikers, hillbillies, and riffraff that couldn’t afford to buy property at the beach, when the beach was fucking dirt-cheap, populated the hills at that time.
In those days, the crowd was mostly locals and the occasional celebrity that didn’t want to be treated like celebrities like Steve McQueen. Recently we expanded the menu, but for forty years it consisted of steamed clams, steak and baked potatoes. So the draw is as much the ambiance, a lack of pretenses, and the frontier saloon type feel. We don’t just serve good food, we serve history.
See the piano over there? My dad told me that years ago Bob Dylan came in here a couple of weekends in a row and would just play away on the piano. At some point one of the people at the bar told my dad, “man, that guy looks a lot like Bob Dylan – he sounds like him too.” And my dad said, yeah, well that’s probably because it’s Bob Dylan.
What was Malibu like when you were a kid?
Well for one thing, there was a lot more sand back in the day. There’s been a lot of erosion over the years. There is no real permanence in nature. You figure in fifty years the houses built down on the beach will be gone.
Well when I was real young I would just go down to the beach and play with whatever the tide brought in. It was fun with found objects to make it up as you went along. There was this rock that I would play on, you know, it was kind of like my rock. One day Elvis was down here filming a movie (Live a Little, Love a Little) and they covered my rock so they could jump this dune buggy over it. They asked me, “Hey, do you want to meet Elvis?” And all I said was, “Hell no and get your stupid dune buggy out of here, I want rock back.”
My favorite location in all of Malibu is here at the Runyon compound. Can you give me some of its history?
It resonates with a lot of people. There are layers and layers of Californian history. Everything here has accumulated from the late ‘30s on when my grandmother had it built. My dad started building on to it with reclaimed materials in the ‘50s when doing so was not considered cool or more like frowned upon.
The oak paneling and the big floor-to-ceiling mirror are salvaged from an old Victorian hotel in Oxnard. The carved pieces on the outside are from the Santa Barbra Mission. The mirror is cool, it has a silver film on the backside of the glass; it’s pre-turn of the century. The backing is falling off in spots and the degrading gives it even more character.
So has that passion for building with salvaged materials and creating art from found objects been passed on to you or maybe just in your DNA?
Probably a combination of both family and the environment I grew up in. You know, when we were kids we didn’t have a TV. I can remember going to school and everyone was talking about the Six Million Dollar Man. I would make some vague remark like, “yeah that was cool when he did that thing.” It was too awkward to try and explain that we didn’t have a TV and my dad had no plans to ever get one. At the time, you know, it sucked. But looking back it’s easier to see how that was a great service my dad did for my sister and me. You know, you get a lot more creative when you have to entertain yourself.
So what do you have over here?
Whale bones: grey whale vertebrae and rib stuff that washes up. We used to make a sweat lodge on the beach with the whale ribs.
The kids around here must love this beach fort playground area?
Yeah, my daughter loves it. She says I’m a good fort builder. It’s basically just drift wood stuff that comes in with the surf and reclaimed wood for the roofing. There’s no reason a swing set can’t be made out of driftwood. It’s here on the beach; anyone can come along and use it. One day a mom asked me if it’s safe. Hell, I don’t know. What’s your definition of safe? You know everything shouldn’t be safe. Kids should take risks – kids like taking risks. It’s sometimes more fun to play in something that looks unsafe.
It’s a great family gathering place, the ocean is right there. You can get a nice fish and some lobster and cook it up right here on the sand and have a nice little beach party.
Just like his father, Morgan throws a hell of a party. And like his father he has always been a beacon for interesting people. He’s a human bug light creating art that brings people together, an artist of community. It’s in his DNA.