It was a hacksaw laugh that dissolved all problems and summoned you right into the task at hand, which more often than not involved something wild, adventurous, and maybe a little absurd.
Sonny Miller -- photographer, filmmaker, possessor of giant joie de vivre -- died of a heart attack yesterday. He was 53 years old. As I write, his Facebook page swells with tributes and remembrances and bursting love, something Sonny had in spades.
His nickname was Cap’n Fun. When he was hitting his straps, which was often, he’d break from whatever hysterical rant, eye you with that rosy-faced glint, and in a playful boast, say, “It’s Miller time!”
Sonny did water photography on Hollywood films, worked as a hired gun on countless surf films and videos, but he is best known for The Search series in the nineties, which he shot and directed. Traveling to far-flung locales with Tom Curren, Frankie Oberholzer, and friends suited his temperament. He loved the unknown, loved to wing it, was at his best with a map spread across the steering wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle on some washboard dirt road a hundred miles from the nearest town.
Hanging out with Sonny was loads of fun. His raw, no-bullshit, squeeze-every-last-drop approach was infectious. In the early nineties he showed up to the Marui Pro in Hebara Beach, Japan with a suitcase full of hideous polyester outfits from the disco seventies -- canary yellow bell bottoms, vomit green shirts with giant collars, white patent-leather loafers, glitter ball necklaces, purple porkpie hats.
He summoned a band of merry pros over to his hotel, outfitted us, and led us on a wild romp through Tokyo’s Roppongi district. Whiskey was slugged from the bottle on the long train ride for which we’d bought no tickets. Ghetto blasters were hijacked. Dance moves, choreographed by Cap’n Fun and partner-in-crime Brad “The Gerr” Gerlach, were mastered (“Push, push, in the bush”). Fire extinguishers were plucked from their hangers and blasted across cars. Turnstyles were hopped. Cops were outrun. Hoity-toity nightclubs were snuck into. Dance floors were dominated. And belly laughs of the sort that may cure terminal diseases were had by all.
Sonny leaves us with a heap of great movies and images, but as someone who traveled with him a whole bunch, it’s his great sense of joy that I’ll remember most. There was no such thing as a bad time with Cap’n Fun.
Which is not to take away from Sonny’s robust work ethic. Yes, he was the last man standing at the bar or nightclub, but he was also the first guy up in the morning, pounding coffee, checking wave cams, loading vehicles with his extensive camera gear, and pushing, always pushing, to get the proverbial shot. At the 2006 Fiji Pro I found him shooting from the exposed reef at Cloudbreak long after all the other photographers had bailed. The tide was rising, and soon the spot where he was standing would be buried in Pacific Ocean. But the waves were good, and the light was golden, and Occy’s hacks were tossing spray all the way to Namotu.
“Do you want me to get one of the boatmen to pick you up?” I asked him as I was leaving to catch a ride back to Tavarua.
“No,” he said and nodded at his waterproof Pelican case. “When the water gets too high I’ll just pack everything in there and swim out to the lineup. I’ll find my way back to camp, no worries.”
Born in 1950 in San Jose, California, Sonny learned to surf at age 11 in North County San Diego, which would serve as home base between his frequent trips abroad. He began his career shooting still photos for Surfer and Breakout in the mid-eighties, and started making movies shortly thereafter. These were the early video days, but Sonny was a strong believer in film, shooting mostly 16mm.
“This thing about ‘filmmaker’,” he once told me, “It’s totally misleading. They’re calling video guys ‘filmmakers’, guys who’ve never once shot film.”
In 1997 Sonny won the Surfer Magazine Video of the Year Award for Searching for Tom Curren.
Sonny leaves us with a heap of great movies and images, but as someone who traveled with him a whole bunch, it’s his great sense of joy that I’ll remember most. There was no such thing as a bad time with Cap’n Fun. Plane delays, flat tires, waveless weeks at remote surf spots --Sonny always saw the bright side, always found the humor. From the very start of these adventures he’d hone in on something funny and turn it into an inside joke that would get batted around and bastardized and repurposed. By the end of the trip he’d have created a kind of secret language, eternally punctuated by his hacksaw laugh.
I spoke to him less than two weeks ago. He was looking after his dying mom, Suzanne, who’d had dementia for the last seven years, and with whom Sonny was both adoring son and best friend. She passed away on July 2. Sonny posted a loving note on Facebook which prompted a flood of condolence notes from friends. His final post was a self-portrait of a bearded, bright-eyed, smiling face toasting his cup of coffee at the world. His final words:
I get by with a little help from my friends! Live to Love! Love to Live! Love You Live! Hope to see y'all real soon ! #keepsmiling #relaxolivin #suzanna