In the wake of three-time World Champion Andy Irons’ untimely death in 2010, countless articles have been written about his life, trying to sum up one of surfing’s most complex characters, but ultimately leaving us all with questions. There have been allusions to battles with substance abuse and personal demons, but the extent of the role they played in his life was only known to those closest to Irons. Until now, that is. On Wednesday, May 2, a new film about the life of Andy Irons, titled “Andy Irons: Kissed by God,” will be premiering in Los Angeles. The film addresses Irons’ demons head on, shining a light on his long and tragic battle with mental illness and addiction. Before the film hits the big screen, we rang director Steve Jones to discuss how the project came together, and his goal to create a film that would finally allow surfers to truly know Andy Irons.
So I know you come from a snowboarding background, and your production company Teton Gravity Research has mainly worked in that world. Did you follow Andy’s career very closely while it was unfolding?
Yeah, we grew up on the east coast and learned to surf over there, and we always read SURFER and Surfing magazines, so I remember when Bruce and Andy first came onto the scene and my brother Todd was just like, “Look at these guys. They’re so radical. They’re going to change surfing.” When we moved out to Jackson Hole and got into snowboarding, we still followed what was happening in surfing and were very aware of Andy’s impact. We actually filmed Andy in 2002 in South Africa for an NBC World of Adventure Sports piece. We also did a surf TV series for Fuel called “Untracked” that Andy was in. He’d come out to snowboard sometimes as well with some of the other Billabong athletes, so that was when I really got to know Andy a bit more on a personal level. I wouldn’t say that I knew him very well, but we did cross paths now and then over the years.
For a story like this, where you want to really capture the truth about Andy’s life and come at it from an objective angle, it’s probably better that you weren’t very close to him. Would you agree?
Yeah, 100 percent. I think if you were really embedded in the surf scene and close with Andy, it’d be hard not to come with preconceived notions or feel some kind of bias because you know these people and might want to protect them from certain things. But we definitely felt like we were outside of it enough that we could approach it objectively.
So why now? In the immediate aftermath of Andy’s death, it seemed like no one close to him wanted to address the darker elements of Andy’s story. What changed so that the people closest to Andy wanted to have an honest conversation about what had happened?
I think that everyone familiar with Andy’s story knew that he was a very complex person and there was more to his story than what was out in the public. As a filmmaker, of course I would have loved to have the opportunity to make that film and shed light on what happened in an intimate and truthful way. We didn’t want to touch this thing unless Lyndie and Bruce and everyone else involved was ready to be completely honest and tell the whole story. But we had heard from some people close to Lyndie that she had gotten to a place where she might be open to talking about that stuff, so we flew out to Oahu to meet with her and talked for a few hours. It became pretty apparent that she was ready to open those vaults and let the whole story be told. From her perspective, it had been really difficult keeping this story bottled up because it had invited all kinds of speculation and accusations and that weighs pretty heavy. She wanted to get it out there and she wanted it to be the real story. Andy was so dynamic and he touched so many people, but he was also wrestling with mental illness and depression and was self-medicating, which led to his opioid addiction. It’s a very complex story, and you can’t tell it if the people involved weren’t committed to the truth. So once Lyndie was ready for that, we knew it was the right time to tell this story.
And I’d imagine that most of Andy’s friends would follow Lyndie and Bruce’s lead on this. While they maybe didn’t feel it was their place to talk about Andy’s darker side before, they would do it if Lyndie and Bruce were onboard.
Exactly. When Lyndie said, “Let’s do this,” and we left that meeting, we knew that the other big thing was getting Bruce onboard. When we talked to him, he made it clear that this was something he was ready to do, and he wanted to get in the hot seat and tell all. Once those two were onboard, everyone else followed suit. Anybody who had any doubts about the project, Bruce would call them and tell them “It’s OK, don’t hold anything back, just tell it all.” So that was pretty incredible, and really the only way that this film could have worked.
From the way you guys have approached this film, it seems like you tried to make something that transcends surfing and connects to a broader audience. What is it about Andy’s story that you feel warranted that approach?
It’s so much more than a surf story, it’s really a human story. The struggles that Andy had are shared by countless people around the world, and I don’t think you need to be a surfer necessarily to relate to him and connect to his story. A lot of people have these things that they feel ashamed of and feel they have to hide, whether it’s mental illness or addiction. Everyone always referred to Andy as “The People’s Champ,” because he wore his heart on his sleeve, he was flawed and he was relatable. Our goal with this film has always been to try to create something that you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate. We want a 50-year old woman living in the Midwest who has never even been to the ocean, but has maybe been affected by mental health issues or the opioid epidemic, to be riveted by this story.
Between Andy’s substance abuse issues and his bipolar disorder, the extent of his struggles weren’t well known to the public. Did you know how deep that stuff went when you started on this film or did that only become apparent during production?
We had a base understanding of it, but nowhere near the full extent. We knew that he had struggled with substance abuse, but we didn’t know how long or to what extent that went. We didn’t know he’d won contests high on cocaine and pills, or how many times he’d been to rehab. We had some idea of his bipolar disorder, but we didn’t realize how deeply it affected him and how central it was to his story. There was a lot of discovery for us, and through talking to doctors and experts about these things, who Andy really was came into focus in a way none of us could have predicted.
The interviews for this film were incredibly emotional, and I’d imagine it was pretty difficult having these people relive their experiences with Andy. What was that process like?
There was a lot of pre-production involved with determining who were the right people to talk about different periods of his life. We knew we wanted Bruce to be the common thread if he was up for it, and we did a lot of hours-long interviews that were just incredible. He was so open about everything and he wasn’t afraid to share every detail. But we talked to so many people who knew Andy from when he was a kid in special ed to when he became the icon that we know him as now. It was definitely an intense process. Every single interview was at least two hours long, and all of them ended in tears–not just the interview subjects either, but the crew as well. Sometimes we were doing three of those types of interviews in a day, so that was really emotionally draining, for sure. The interview we shot with Kelly was five hours long, and he went really deep, getting into how emotionally charged their relationship was and how much Andy got under his skin. In the five-hour interview, Kelly never even got up to go to the bathroom. At a certain point, some of the guys we interviewed–and I’m talking about guys who were seen as heavy North Shore enforcers–were calling the chair we had them sit in “the therapy chair.” I think a lot of these people felt like they couldn’t talk about this stuff before out of respect for the family, so they’ve had it all bottled up for the last seven years. You could see the weight lifted from these people after the interviews were over. Just overwhelming relief. Everyone gave us amazing stuff, and what made the film is really only a fraction of the incredible anecdotes that people had about Andy, whether it was the good times or the bad. So we’ll be putting that stuff out separately, because we feel like this stuff just has to see the light of day.
I’d imagine by the end of the production you’d feel pretty connected to these people through so many hours of emotionally charged conversations. Do you feel that you were able to maintain an objective perspective on the whole thing and tell Andy’s story the way you wanted to?
I believe we did, and a big part of that was that everyone shared that goal of telling the complete truth. There was a quote in the film from Kaiborg about how Andy had gotten 200 oxycontins and a couple grams of cocaine and mixed them all together and went on a run and was missing for two days after his wedding, and we were worried about how Lyndie would react to that being talked about openly, but every step of the way she just reinforced her view that the truth is what mattered most. As much as we wanted to tell the whole story, she did to.
How do you think people are going to see Andy after this movie comes out? Do you think people are going to walk out of the theater with a very different perception of him?
Yeah, I definitely think that will be the case. The feedback that we’ve gotten so far from people is that the film is much more intimate than what they were expecting. I think it’s a glimpse into Andy that the public has never had before. I think people will understand his complexities more, and understand where some of that erraticism came from.
After working on this film, how would you sum up Andy’s life and what do you think his legacy will ultimately be when people know his whole story?
I think one of the most poignant moments of the filming process was about four hours into our interview with Slater when he said that Andy had approached him and said he wanted to make a movie with him, he wanted to tell his whole story and he wanted to take it around to show at schools. Apparently Andy had told Kelly, “If I can change just one kid’s life, I’ll feel like my career has been a success.” We’d never heard that before, so to hear that Andy wanted to make a movie–essentially telling the story that we’re telling now–was pretty incredible. And I really hope that this movie has the impact that Andy would have wanted and is a positive thing for kids to see and understand the dangers of drugs. Andy was a very complicated person, and I think that’s ultimately going to be his legacy.