Josh Landan loves trains. “You can just cruise,” he said. “You don’t sit in traffic. You can read a book or do work or take a nap. And it’s cheap.”
Landan also loves surfing and cinematography, so it was only natural he’d eventually combine all three. “I wanted to film something that anyone can do—anyone can hop on the train and surf the spots along the way,” he explained. “That was appealing to me because most surf movies are filmed in locations that are exotic and expensive to get to, but a train is an economical way to take a surf trip.”
Nonetheless, The Union Express—Landan’s resulting film, which screens on June 10 at the Channel Islands Surfboards store on Anacapa Street—was actually surfer-musician Timmy Curran’s idea. In trying to figure out how to visit his pro-surfer friends along the coast, Curran learned that Amtrak offered a 350-mile-long passenger route called Pacific Surfliner that stretched from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, with stops in surfy cities like Oceanside and San Clemente. “I thought the Pacific Surfliner would be a really cool and easy way to check out the Southern California coast,” he said. “Just taking a trip from Ventura to Lompoc and seeing that coastline sounded really interesting, and I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we just take it all the way?’”
So in late 2008 at Los Angeles’s Union Station, Curran, Landan, and Ben Bourgeois boarded Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, which goes further north than the Surfliner, and 10 hours later they arrived in San Jose, where Keith Malloy awaited with a car. For the next week, they ripped frigid wind-swell wedges at a San Mateo County nude-beach nook and lucked into some shapely sandbars at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. For the next two years, Curran and Landan worked southward with calculated, individual trips, spending considerable time aboard the roomy Pacific Surfliner cars.
Making the movie took some time, said Landan, because “Tim and I couldn’t be in eight places at once. When a swell hit, we had to pick where to go, and we had to figure out what surfers would be home at the time.” Among other stops, they hit San Luis Obispo to see Nate Tyler’s yurt and surf Big Sur; Santa Barbara to talk point breaks with young upriser Conner Coffin; Oxnard to surf perfect Silver Strand with Dane Reynolds and Curran’s little brother Nathaniel; San Clemente to schmooze with Cory Lopez and the artsy Mike Losness; and Oceanside and Solana Beach to sample San Diego gems with Damien Hobgood, Rob Machado, and Taylor Knox.
“Josh and I were doing something that we’d never done before, but it was so easy,” Curran said. “Getting to hang out with my friends in each town and getting to know them better was like the perfect movie for me—because, really, all of California feels like home when you’re used to traveling the world.”
For filmmaker Landan, it was also an ideal, if time-consuming, project. “There’s a little bit of a storyline, people can get fired up to surf, and that’s it,” he said. “It’s not sexy. But it’s Timmy’s best surfing of his career in a movie, and that was huge for me.”
Shot on Super 16 film and HD video, with Curran as narrator, The Union Express is a 36-minute ode to alternative surf travel anywhere steel rail tracks exist. Could be Europe or Japan, Africa or India—the option is there, and it’s easy on the wallet. In the U.S., Amtrak’s lines typically run far from the coast, but the Pacific Surfliner and a few East Coast routes offer ample opportunity for something new. And boards ride for free.
“If I could take the train everywhere in the world, I would,” said Landan. “If it was like 28 hours from here to Japan, I’d be in. I’m claiming it’s the best way to travel, hands-down. There’s not even a close second-place.”
After making The Union Express, Curran, who will also be playing music at the June 10 screening, is also a rail convert. “Instead of always thinking about taking a car,” he said, “now I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe I should take the train because it’s so easy and relaxing.’ Everybody should take at least one surf trip on a train somewhere—it’s well worth it.”
The Union Express screens at Channel Islands Surfboards store, 36 Anacapa Street, on Thursday, June 10, 8 p.m. with a musical performance by Timmy Curran. Call 966-7213.