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Cary Brokaw, 69: Filmmaker, Surfer, and Style Inspiration

Humble, polite, and down-to-earth, Cary Brokaw is an avid surfer and award-winning filmmaker working with A-list actors. He discusses the importance of being adaptable in work and life, what makes a good story, and how to find your personal style.

Cary and I met at a dinner a few weeks ago as strangers. There was no real introduction and I had little idea what he did, nor did that matter. We chatted about the ocean, about living a life of daily involvement with the water. My impression was of a humbly polite man with an amazing haircut, someone quite interesting, fully engaged in life, who loved surfing, and who was highly attuned to the world around him. I was intrigued, thinking his forward-looking view on life would be wonderful for AGEIST.

In the entertainment business in Los Angeles, often the first thing people want you to know is how important they are. It is a pecking order power thing, not one of the finer features of that world. In the process of preparing this interview, not knowing much about what Cary really did, I asked him for a bio, and was truthfully bowled over. Honestly, he just seemed like a guy who took good care of himself and may have some insights to share on how he does it. It turns out, that in addition to ocean swimming, he has been rather busy.

Award-Winning Filmmaker

Rather than attempt to summarize a vast and vibrant career, here are a few paragraphs from that bio: Winner of Emmy Awards for Wit in 2002 and Angels in America in 2004, the PGA Vision Award in 2004, three Golden Globe Awards, three Spirit Awards, four Humanitas Awards and two Peabody Awards, Brokaw has developed, financed and produced over 50 motion pictures including Kiss of the Spider Woman, Down by Law, Nobody’s Fool, The Object of Beauty, The Player (nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture), Drugstore Cowboy (voted Best Picture of the year by the National Board of Review), After Dark, My Sweet, Short Cuts, The Field, Restoration (Winner of two Academy Awards), American Heart, Mindhunters, The Resident (starring Hilary Swank), Closer (starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman and Winner of two Golden Globe Awards), The Merchant of Venice (starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons) and Lullaby, starring Garrett Hedlund, Richard Jenkins, and Amy Adams.

Brokaw and Avenue Pictures have over twenty film projects in active development including: a contemporary version of Treasure Island, based on the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, titled Silver’s Gold: A Return to Treasure Island, adapted by George Gallo and to be directed by Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive, Holes), Almighty based on the graphic novel by Ed LaRoach and written by Ken Nolan which is currently out to directors Garlic and Sapphires, based on the best-selling memoir by Ruth Reichl, adapted by Jonathan Tropper, The Moviegoer based on the acclaimed novel by Walker Percy to be directed by Tom Hooper (John Adams, The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) (TriStar Pictures), and Cities of the Plain based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, adapted by Andrew Dominik, to be directed by Edward Berger (The Terror, Patrick Melrose).  

It goes on and on like that. What I find so wonderful about Cary is that he never mentioned any of this. He said he was in entertainment but, heck, it’s LA — everyone is in that business. Here is a guy who is just in love with life, and I get the feeling that although he is proud of his past work, it really doesn’t matter that much to him. He is one of those people who do what they do just for the fun of it, and if he wasn’t having fun he would just do something else.

How was the surf this week?
Not bad. Waist to chest high SSW swell.

CARY BROKAW

How often do you get in the water?
Totally depends on the swell and the crowds. Surfing locally has gotten very challenging, particularly during and after COVID-19. It seems like everyone and their brother learned during the pandemic and they all think they can surf just anywhere, which means most decent breaks are overrun with newcomers, which, unfortunately, makes the sport dangerous and very frustrating for those of us who’ve been surfing a long time. More and more I have to travel to surf in good, less crowded waves. For me, this means Southern Mexico, Hawaii, Fiji, and other more exotic locales.

“I look at surfing as a reward when I’ve accomplished something significant professionally”

Why do you prioritize surfing when you have so much else going on at work?
Work almost always comes first.  I look at surfing as a reward when I’ve accomplished something significant professionally. For example, when I finished a film in the UK a number of years ago, I rewarded myself by going surfing in Morocco for nine days.

CARY BROKAW

How did COVID constraints affect you?
Film and television production obviously ground to a halt, so that was pretty devastating.  It’s started back up and is flourishing, but that’s led to a shortage of established talent.  Many top directors and actors are booked for the next two years, which creates another challenge.

You have a lot of projects in the works now; what are you most excited about?
Many things, but the first two that come to mind is a contemporary action-adventure version of Treasure Island titled Silver’s Gold: A Return to Treasure Island being directed by Andrew Davis, who did The Fugitive and Holes, and Cities of the Plain based on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel. 

Are there any books/ideas that you would like to see made into films?
Many, but, sorry to say, I need to keep those to myself!

Actor/director/writer that you want to work with but have yet to?
So many.  I’d name names, but I don’t want to exclude anyone!

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been partners with, and worked on multiple films with Mike Nichols and Robert Altman”

You have worked with some of the greats. Who did you learn the most from?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been partners with, and worked on multiple films with Mike Nichols and Robert Altman. While very different, both were truly original artists and phenomenally gifted filmmakers. I learned so so much from both of them.

You have been involved in the film business for some time. How have you changed in your approach to the film business?
To endure you must learn to adapt and pivot constantly. Nothing stays the same. Today the streaming platforms have transformed the industry yet again, and they are forging a new kind of relationship with the audience. Good stories about interesting and complex characters, well told, is still the essential currency of entertainment content the world over. 

One never knows if a film will succeed or not. How do you handle uncertainty?
It’s an occupational hazard when you do what we do.  As William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” And while that’s very true, you have to trust your instincts and judgement, and be guided accordingly. My personal code is to ask myself what this project brings to the world. Does it add insight to the human condition? Does it enlighten and inspire, as well as entertain? Like life itself, the uncertainty is a given and acceptance is the only way to endure, let alone be happy

CARY BROKAW

What do you see as the future of filmed content delivery?
I believe theaters will sustain, but for unique experiences, and we’ll be watching filmed content at home, on our phones, and in other ways we’ve yet to even imagine.

What is your biggest goal this year?
I have many. There are three films and two series I’m obsessed with getting made, and I’m also in the process of bringing on a partner to further capitalize my company. Surfing will take a back seat for awhile!

How do you imagine your life to be in 10 years?
I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful to love what I do.  I expect to continue to produce entertainment of quality that offers complex and satisfying stories that are also life-affirming. I also have four remarkable grown daughters, who are my favorite people in the world, and I hope to spend quality time with them and their families.  I work at keeping healthy and fit, so I also hope to surf, swim, sail and hike for many years.   

“I’m a ferocious reader and I truly love to learn”

How do you stay on top of what is happening in the culture?
I’m a ferocious reader and I truly love to learn, but I particularly love the New York Times, The New Yorker and I’m semi-addicted to the travel magazines! And Surfer’s Journal!

What are you reading these days?
I have so many scripts and books to read for work that it’s a rare pleasure to read for pure pleasure. I recently read and loved Lydia Millet’s Children’s Bible. I also loved rereading David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories and essays titled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Hysterical.

Favorite streaming episodic show?
Again, so so many. Amongst many others, I love Ted Lasso, Fleabag, Succession, Ozark, Collateral, and rewatching the BBC series Spooks.

Favorite getaway destination?
Southern Mexico, Costa Rica, and dying to go to the Maldives.  All great surf destinations.

You have fantastic style. What would you say to guys who are more style-challenged about how to approach it at our age? 
Thanks, David. I love style, so I’d say educate yourself. Pay attention to what you like and seek it out. Figure out who you might emulate, and take something from here and something from there, until you cobble together what you look and feel good wearing.

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AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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