To Be Frank – A short film distills the warmth and wisdom of ‘surf familia’ godfather Frank Paine
by Mark McDermott
Anna Wilder Burns was new to the area, and to surfing, when she encountered a heavily mustachioed man sitting on his surfboard south of the Hermosa Beach Pier. He scared the wits out of her.
It was late summer 2021, and Burns had recently relocated from the East Coast. She was 22. She grew up in Maine and graduated from the University of New Hampshire the previous year, launching her adult life right into the eerie isolation of the early pandemic. Burns had a degree in journalism and a gift and a passion for filmmaking. Somewhat boldly, she had moved to the far side of the country to work as a freelance cinematographer.
Burns wanted to surf, and to meet new people, and so she found her way to Morgan Sliff, a local longboarder renowned for her surfing streak. On July 21, 2021, Sliff celebrated her sixth year of surfing every single day — 2,190 days — and was joined in the water south of the Hermosa pier by her “surf familia,” a burgeoning group of friends that by this point included dozens of surfers. Burns and her boyfriend Christopher Miller joined the group in the water that day, and then went out with Sliff a few weeks later on a less momentous and less crowded day.
Sliff, of course, is rarely alone on the water, particularly when she surfs south of the pier, where she has surfed since she was a child. On this day, she paddled alongside a pair of older men, and introduced them to Burns.
One of the men — the man with the mustache — struck up a short conversation.
“Where do you usually surf?” he asked.
“We surf a lot of time down by Martha’s,” Burns said, referring to the restaurant near the beach at 22nd Street.
The man turned to his companion.
“We got to fix that,” he said.
His voice was low and gruff. He sounded like an ornery cowboy, sort of like, “You are not from around here, are you?” Burns interpreted the comment as unwelcoming, a warning shot denoting localism at this beach: outsiders not allowed.
“We were new to this area, so we were like, ‘Whoa, are they scary locals?” Burns recalled. “He was so intimidating and scary. Because, I mean, you have that mustache, and that makes him look like he’s always frowning.” Burns had just met Frank Paine. As is the nature of conversation while surfing, one or the other caught a wave, and that appeared to be the end of it, except the little bit of lingering trepidation Burns was left with. What she could not have fathomed, at the time, is that Paine would soon become her indispensable guide and inspiration, both in surfing and in life. She could not have dreamed that in less than two years, she would make a short film titled To Be Frank in which he was the subject.
“I was scared of him. He seemed kind of mean,” Burns said. “Looking back, I’ve just like literally made a film about how this is the most welcoming, non-localism guy. But our first impression was he was going to the salty local.”
“She told me later they were intimidated by me, like, ‘Here is this local, he’s big and old and gray and scary,’” Paine said. “I started to laugh. ‘God, you know, I am old and gray and I do look scary, I guess.’…. But you know, that’s not the way I am. The cover doesn’t really show you what the book is, in my case.”
Burns became fast friends with Paine and, looking back, isn’t even sure what happened in the first encounter on the water.
“ I’m not totally sure that’s what he said, or even if it was to me, but I definitely got a healthy level of intimidation that was quickly quashed over our first burrito together that same week.”
The film, which was produced by Sliff, is essentially the Book of Frank. Its very first words are his (albeit credited to his nickname, The Professor) scrolled across the screen: “When the surf breaks, we’ll fix it.” Because when Paine talks about fixing something, he’s almost always in the act of bringing someone into the fold. In a gorgeously shot and happily passing 11 minutes and 25 seconds, this mini-documentary shows not only the kindness, humor, and easygoing wisdom of its subject, but also the simple beauty of the life he has carved out for himself. To Be Frank premiered last month with a showing at the Hermosa Beach Historical Society and also debuted on the festival circuit at the prestigious action-sports 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado.
“To Be Frank explores authenticity and surfing in Frank Paine, a 73-year-old humble, local legend whose life orbits around a two-block stretch of beach,” says the 5Point film synopsis. “His unforgettable mustache and magnetic spirit are what most first notice, but Frank’s deeper layers expose a depth that might answer some questions that us surfers continually ask ourselves.”
The film opens in that soft golden glow that imbues the dawning of certain days locally, with Paine beginning his morning routine, opening the hatch to the attic of his Redondo Beach home and pulling down his wetsuit from where it hangs, then ambling out to his VW bus to head for the beach.
“Surfing to some humans on this planet is absolutely necessary, vital, important. An analogy for everything else,” Paine intones. “Some people who don’t need it are never going to see it; it’s never going to exist for them. And I feel kind of sorry for them. But for those of us who found it, we need it.”
As the music shifts from soft classical piano to a surf guitar groove, a question appears on the screen. “Who is Frank Paine?” Several people try to answer that question, but former pro surfer Mike Purpus, his face still smeared with sunblock following his morning session, reacts with a startled question of his own.
“Frank’s not dead, is he?” Purpus asks.
“Frank’s just a vibe,” says young surfer Milly Hortsmann.
“One of my idols,” says shaper Jose Barahona.
“The mayor of the South Bay,” says Marco Leao.
“A father to some,” says Michael Leko. “A mentor to many.”
“The myth, the legend,” says Boris Vishnevsky. “And just the kindest, sweetest man I know.”
“Just a heater of love,” says Jose Bacallao.
“He is the person everyone wants to grow up to be,” says Christian Stutzman.
Leave it to Paine himself, however, to provide the perfect introduction.
“I am Frank Paine,” he says. “I have the soul of a clown and the feet of a woman twice my size.”
Burns, though not on camera, also provides a pretty good summation.
“Frank Paine embodies all the best parts of surfing,” she says, “and is who we should all hope to grow up to be like.”
Gift from the curse
Surfing and surfers have been the subjects of countless films, most of which seek to be epic in nature. To Be Frank does something different. The film hews closely to the sweet routine of a single surfer’s life and the impact his steadfastness has on those around him. This is a film about small acts of devotion that accumulate into a larger sense of communing, with both wild blue nature and with each other.
Frank Paine has been a well-known commodity in this community across six decades. He is a man who is not passive about community, but proactive. He connects people, knitting together the fabric that makes community, and has done so for a long time. He does it through the simple act of welcoming.
Purpus, who is a contemporary of Paine’s and grew up in Hermosa, went on to become among the world’s most famous surfers (and most flamboyant) as a seven-time finalist in the World Surfer Championships in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (and a Playgirl centerfold). He’s arguably the most famous living surfer residing in the South Bay. Yet even Purpus credits Paine for helping him into the ocean. In the film, Purpus remembers being welcomed into the water by Paine along the Avenues in Redondo Beach when he was still a kid, and other locals were trying to scare him off.
“He was the first guy to welcome me and say, ‘Hey, I am glad to surf with you, and I’m glad you are here,’” Purpus says.
The irony is that Paine’s own childhood lacked both continuity and community. His father was a peripatetic dairy man — he made dairy products, and the family followed him around as he opened up dairy stores all around the country.
“As a young kid, I went to seven elementary schools and three or four junior highs before we landed in Redondo,” Paine said. “I think that’s part of my longing for community and stability and a place to call home and to make your own…It was like, ‘Yeah. I like this place. I want this place to be my home. And I love Redondo.”
One of the key turning points in Paine’s life occurred when he enrolled at El Camino College after graduating from Redondo Union High School. He has always been a book lover in possession of insatiable curiosity, and so he began as a history major. But he happened to take a few art classes and fell in love with making things. Paine went to his guidance counselor and told him he was thinking of changing majors.
“And I said, ‘You know, I’d like to become an artist. I’d like to study art,’” Paine recalled. “And he goes, ‘Why do you want to do that? You know, out of 100 kids who are art majors, 99 of them don’t succeed. What makes you think you’re gonna be any good?’ And even though most of the time I think I would have said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I’ll get back to being a history major.’ But something about his attitude pissed me off, so I decided I had to be an artist even if it killed one of us. Fortunately, it killed him.”
He ended up finishing his bachelor of arts degree at the newly formed Cal State University-Dominguez Hills in Carson, and after graduating was hired on by the school as a graphic artist in 1972. He eventually became a media production specialist and worked on CSUDH television and long-distance learning. Paine’s life was going merrily along as a real live working artist when fate took another interesting turn.
“That was cool, and then my boss had a heart attack and they said, ‘Hey, could you run the department for a while?’ And I said, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing.’ And they said, ‘Well, here’s more money.’ Just like that, all of a sudden I was the boss of all these people who I’ve been colleagues with, which was weird. For the next 20-some-odd years, I ran the instructional media department.”
A more difficult plot twist occurred midway through his life when, in the span of two years beginning when he was 38, Paine lost both his father and his mother. His reaction surprises him to this day. Paine developed agoraphobia, a type of anxiety disorder that involves fearing and avoiding situations that might cause panic and feelings of being trapped or helpless. Agoraphobia often manifests in the avoidance of being in unfamiliar or public places.
“My acrophobia was exacerbated by my mother passing away and my dad passing away. I don’t know why that affected me in that way but it did,” Paine said. “As much as my career as an artist influenced a lot of the things I’ve done, I think that dealing with that mental health problem probably forged me out of all of that, as well.”
To Be Frank touches briefly on this time in Paine’s life, because surfing turned out to be his antidote, his way back into the world.
“I think the best thing about surfing is the people, and it always has been,” Paine says in the film. “I had really bad agoraphobia for about 10 years. I had trouble leaving the house. It was hard for me to go surfing because I’d be afraid to be out there. And people said, ‘Hey, let me hang with you. Let’s do this, let’s do that.’ And it was like, ‘Whoa, I’m not alone. I’ve got people who care about me.’”
The curse that is agoraphobia was transformed into a gift, for Paine, and for the many people he would knit together into his surf familia. Those who would come to know Frank Paine would never be alone.
A little more than eight years ago there was a young woman who used to sit at a picture window in Manhattan Beach and look at the ocean. Somehow it looked a million miles away, even though Morgan Sliff had grown up in Hermosa Beach playing in the waves.
Sliff had married young, and it was not working out. The sadness of the failing marriage crept into every aspect of her being. She was 24 years old and had not surfed in four years. In May, 2015, she took her first tentative steps back to the water, surfing in Manhattan Beach. The water brought her back to life. She ended the marriage and returned to Hermosa, and her favorite surf spot, south of the pier.
Frank Paine was waiting for her. He’d spent most of his life surfing Topaz and the Avenues in Redondo Beach, and had been part of a crew there called the Lost Boys. But recently, he and one of his closest surf buddies, Jose Barahona, had relocated their surf spot to Hermosa.
Paine and Sliff had never met, but something about his comforting presence helped make things right again.
“I started surfing again, and then naturally went back to my happy place, which is the Hermosa pier,” Sliff said. “And you know, Frank had really solidified himself there. I just remember this welcoming force, kind of magnetic, and it was really easy to return home. It was easy to go back to this place that I’d been missing for such a long time because Frank was like this happy gatekeeper.”
Some kind of mystical surf congruence was afoot. At about the same time, Paine had taken another bruised soul under his wing. Boris Vishnevsky was in his early 40s and had just gone through a turbulent chapter of his life, succumbing to drug addiction and the many attendant problems that attach to that dark pull. He’d already cleaned up, and in fact had been doing a fitness bootcamp of a sort. But when it ended he was thinking about trying surfing, and across the counter at Brother’s Burritos on 11th Street in Hermosa, he met Paine.
Paine’s habitual curiosity is not centered on books. It’s about other human beings. He has a knack for gently interrogating people he’s just met and sussing out their life story. Very quickly, Vishnevesky felt like he had another father, a kindly man with a mustache and a slow easy way that inevitably led to the water.
One morning in January 2015, he asked Paine to teach him how to surf.
“I want to go out and surf,” Vishnevesky told Paine.
“Well, it’s too cold out now,” Paine said. “You want to try it? Let’s go in the spring.”
Vishnevsky agreed, and didn’t think about it again until March 20, the day before Spring Equinox, when Paine broached the topic.
“Are you ready to go tomorrow?” he asked Boris.
“It’s like he had it in the calendar,” Vishnevsky recalled. “I didn’t realize it was that exact. So all I had to say was okay, and then [the next morning] he brought me a towel, he brought me a surfboard — because of course I didn’t have a surfboard — and he brought hot water. There was probably no other way I would have gotten in the water or even stuck with it. I just wanted to hang out with Frank.”
On July 21 that year, Sliff decided, as a way of re-dedicating herself to surfing, to embark on a year of surfing every day. Paine became the guardian angel of her quest. As the days trickled into weeks, Paine chronicled the journey on napkins, creating a little piece of surf art with the number of the day she’d just completed and affixing it to the window at Brother’s Burritos.
“He believes in everyone,” Sliff said. “He is like the tinder to your fire. Because he encourages you, he motivates you, in whatever you are doing. So for my streak, he supported me in so many different ways, like drawing pictures of the numbers of days I was on and putting them in the window. He did that for a year straight. He drew every day, starting on day 17.”
There is nothing like a mission to galvanize a group of people. Sliff’s surf streak became the cause that Paine and this small but steadily growing group rallied around. Nearly eight years later, they are still rallying, and the streak is ongoing, at 2,865 days, heading towards year eight. Her quest, Paine said, forged a real familial bond.
“That cannot be stated strongly enough,” he said.
Ron Garcia, the owner of Brother’s Burrito, has watched the group grow through the years from his vantage point as the proprietor of its main gathering point outside the water.
“It just kind of grew, and without a doubt, Frank is the nucleus of that,” Garcia said. “We are grateful to have them at Brother’s, and all that good vibe. And it really is a good vibe. Normally, you go to different surf spots, there’s a negative vibe. This one is positive. It’s different.”
The term familia is thrown around a lot, especially around surfers, which is part of the reason the crew that orbits around Paine has played with the phrase, and now calls themselves the “sruf familia” (the word “sruf” actually has its source in an Easy Reader typo, referring to “srufer” Christian Stutzman). They are mostly longboarders, and not taking things too seriously is part of the ethos of longboarding. It’s not about shredding, but smiling, hopefully with a little style thrown in the mix.
Garcia several times used the word “gravitate” referring to Paine’s place at the center of the group. Usually, when we think of someone who “has gravity,” it’s associated with gravitas, or a dignified seriousness. In Paine’s case, he’s a big nourishing planet around which more and more goofily-shaped moons keep being discovered in orbit.
“I have heard him called a pied piper,” Garcia said. “He’s just got people who follow. He’s easy to be around, and just whatever you’re doing, when he’s around, it’s more fun. He’s just a cool dude. So that familia goes from 10th graders to retired lifeguards and everybody in between. The other cool thing is that you look at that lineup, either in the water or at Brother’s, and it just varies, but everybody gets along. It’s cool.”
Like any family, smiles sometimes occur through tears. Two years into her surf streak, Sliff lost her younger brother, David. Through years of grieving, her surf family rode the waves alongside her. She rose from bed some mornings only through the gravitational pull of those around her. And a little later, she suffered a series of physical injuries that would surely have ended the streak, but the familia literally paddled her out and helped push her onto a wave every single day to keep the quest intact.
“It really is a family that comes with responsibilities and things we have to show up for,” Vishneveksy said. “We’ve gone through a lot together — a lot of celebrations, and a lot of tough times.”
The story of To Be Frank, Sliff said, is not just about this familia, but others like it.
“Obviously, Frank is at the center of the story,” she said. “But it’s also a larger story about community that just happens to be tied to surfing, because we surf. It tells the story of so many little families all over the world that surround any little trade or activity that they like to do and that helps bind them together. A story like this hopefully can help solidify those families a little bit more, and inspire us to create that more, to understand what really matters.”
Barahona has known Paine for a quarter of a century. He emigrated from war-torn El Salvador and first found his footing in the United States through the larger South Bay surf community. As a high school kid in the early ‘80s, he’d bicycle 25 miles from Los Angeles to sweep floors at the Becker Surfboard factory. Phil Becker taught him how to shape boards and years later he established his own shop. He and Paine met each other surfing the Avenues and became so close that Barahona calls him “Tio,” or uncle. They’ve roasted many a backyard pig out by Paine’s “Tiki Bar” workshed, surfed together in Cuba, El Salvador, and Mexico, and gone through the highs and lows of life together.
“That’s why I call him uncle,” Barahona said. “When I went through a divorce, he was always there, just giving me advice, that support you only get from a family member…. Frank gives you that kind of feeling like no matter how hard or easy life is, you know he is always there for you.”
When the familia coalesced, it became like a Frank Paine force multiplier. Barahona tears up when he recalls the time a few months ago when he fell from a roof and suffered a major back injury, and was laid up in bed for months bored out of his mind. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and a merry band of “srufers” bearing pizza and beer and board games filled up his lonely house.
“They came just to keep me company, you know? They showed up, they brought me food, and they brought some cards and different games, and they sat over there for three or four hours,” he said. “And everybody’s got busy schedules nowadays, but they went out of their way to show me that they care about me. And that’s the group that Frank has created. We follow him like a father.”
Duncan Avery, the head surf coach at Redondo Union, got to know Paine a decade ago. Paine was volunteering as an assistant surf coach at Bishop Montgomery and mentioned one day that he’d love to coach at his alma mater, RUHS. Avery jumped at the offer.
“I said, right there, ‘You are hired,’” Avery recalled.
Avery said bringing Paine into the lives of all these young surfers is like giving them a gift that keeps unfolding.
“When you’re a good person and you do the right thing, like Frank — he just touches so many lives,” Avery said. “It’s almost weird when you go down to the beach, and like every single person knows Frank. You meet him one time and you feel like you have a friend for life. He just has that personality, the type of demeanor, and I am just so fortunate to have him in my life, and the kids to have him as a coach.”
One of the many things RUHS surfers learn from Paine is how to respond when things don’t go their way. Avery said one such kid was Zach Siegel, who as a freshman didn’t make the team and was absolutely heartbroken about it. But not long after, Siegel went to surf south of the Hermosa pier and found himself alongside Paine. Over the next year, Paine took Siegel under his wing.
“That whole year Zach was working every day with Frank at the Hermosa pier, and Frank was giving him feedback,” Avery said. “Finally, his sophomore year he made the team. And now, Zach is a senior and one of the best longboarders we’ve ever had at Redondo Union, and a leader of our team. With coach mentoring him that freshman year, encouraging him to get in the water every day and giving him tips, he came back stronger. Now he’s our senior captain.”
Paine said that the young surfers have been his teachers. He is continually amazed that the kids have the discipline to be at the beach just after dawn every morning while balancing schoolwork and jobs and the tumult of teenage life, and doing it all without complaint.
“I can’t tell you how much the kids on that surf team have taught me,” Paine said. “They have taught me how to be kind to one another. They have taught me generosity. Maybe we have an unusual group of kids. I don’t think so. But they are certainly models for any number of things. I just find them to be fascinating and capable. All of them.”
Paine said that he has also learned from Avery as much as he’s ever learned from another human being. Avery and his wife, Nohea, had two children, Kalea and Noah, who in 2018, at ages 6 and 4 were diagnosed with the same rare form of brain cancer. The family bravely fought the disease together, and did so publicly, inspiring people around the nation with their love and strength. Both children passed away in the last year. Paine bore witness to his friend’s unfathomably painful loss and came away in awe.
“Duncan Avery is so brave and so centered and such a capable human being,” he said. “He has really influenced my life a lot. He is a fabulous character.… It’s amazing. What he says is this. There are two things you can control: your attitude, and what you do about it. And those words have really stuck with me, and I hope they’re resonating in some way. I hope they’re making their way into what I do and how I comport myself. So whenever I’m faced with being an asshole, I try to remember,
you know, one of those things.”
Avery said Paine’s steady voice is one of the things that has helped him through the last few years.
“There are days when the kids will be surfing and we’re just sitting and talking and he’s giving me wisdom and life stories,” Avery said. “You know, everything I’ve been through with my family — he has been that rock for me, as a friend and as a mentor.”
When Paine was first approached about being the subject of a film, his response was, “Huh?”
“Humble embarrassment,” Sliff said. “Like getting kind of shy, and coiling up a little bit. ‘About me? No.’ It was all genuine, too. It was so funny.”
Then the camera started rolling, Paine was, unsurprisingly, a natural. And while the experience has certainly been fulfilling in many ways, one aspect stands apart. Paine can now say, with some degree of accuracy, that he is a sponsored athlete.
One of the warmest scenes in To Be Frank was shot in his Tiki Shack, which he explains on camera was originally a garden shed containing “all of the dullest tools in the South Bay,” which he proposed turning into his art studio. “That lasted about two years,” he says to the camera, a twinkle in his eye. What the shed became is explained when he leans down to a little refrigerator and turns to the camera. “Do you want a PBR?”
Despite her young age, Burns is already a veteran, well-connected filmmaker. She’s made award-winning films, including a Nike-sponsored film on soccer star and Olympian Alex Morgan and mini-docs on Team USA Olympic bobsledder Kaillie Humphries, and Team USA Paracyclist Clara Brown. She’s worked with Red Bull, and North Face and has had work appear in Outside magazine and the New York Times. She has thrived as an independent cinematographer and visual storyteller in part because her creativity is abundant both in how and what she films, and in her knack for finding funding. This film was a passion project for her, one she didn’t go into thinking about festivals or sponsors. But once it gained momentum, she reached out to a friend who was a marketing director.
“Hey, can you take a look at this and let me know what brands fit? Maybe we could send it to them and see if there is interest. And he was like, ‘Well, have you thought of any heritage brands, like, I don’t know, PBR?”
She’d just edited the scene in the Tiki shack.
“No way,” she said.
It took one phone call. PBR was all in. The revered, old beer company ended up paying for flights to festivals, providing pizza and beer for the Hermosa Beach screening, and endowing Paine with a big bathrobe emblazoned with PBR logos, which he took to wearing frequently and proudly.
Lest Paine got too big-headed, an old friend reminded him of deeper priorities before the Hermosa screening. Donny Souther is a legendary South Bay waterman, a retired LA County lifeguard.
“He’s a great human being,” Paine said. “He said to me, ‘You know, I’m not going to be sailing on Thursday night. I’m going to be able to come down and see your film.’ And I was really excited about it. I was kind of puffing up and I was going, ‘Well, Donny, that’s great you are going to be there.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, 25 cent beer and free pizza. That has my name written all over it.”
“There you are,” Paine said, laughing. “That is life.”
Paine’s daughters Julia and Suzanne, and wife Annie, whom he met in an art class at Dominguez back in ‘72 (“She was better looking than the life drawing model,” Paine said) have also kept him in check.
“Annie’s voluble sense of humor has probably saved our marriage from time to time,” he said. “I think she’s waiting to see what I’ll do next. She keeps me grounded and is the reason I survived my agoraphobia issues.”
If To Be Frank is in part about community, one of its lessons — and possibly whatever instruction Frank Paine’s paddle through this life can offer us, seen from this beautiful birdseye view — has something to do with the giving and receiving between people. A lovely line in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assissi (who likely would have been a bushy-haired longboarder had he lived today) is, “It is through giving that we receive.” Paine gives gentle wisdom and constancy to his surf team; what he receives in return is inspiration beyond what those kids know they are giving. He is a rock for Coach Avery; the coach, in turn, teaches him how it’s possible to contend with the worst waves that roil our lives. Paine knits together his surf familia; they in turn give his life deeper resonance, as well as this short cinematic ode to togetherness.
“You keep the threads of your community together by being as authentic as you can be,” Paine says near the end of the film. “We have a little kid who’s surfing with us now. Joking around, I said, ‘Why are you hanging around with all these old people?’ And she says, ‘You guys are inspirational…I can learn stuff from you guys. Part of the familia is raising our children — raising each other — to learn the ways of good surfers, of good people, to be conscious of something bigger than themselves. I think we have to realize that, once we start to behave like there’s something important about what we do.”
“We create our own traditions. Surfing for Halloween [for example] can be very powerful. You know, there’s a little bit of magic in all of this.”
To Be Frank will screen at the MountainFilm Festival this weekend, and will be released to the public online on May 30. You can find more information about screenings, links to the film, and more @tobefrankfilm on Instagram. ER