Interview – Rocky Romano, Director of “Learning to Breathe”

The inaugural SMASH Film Fest 1 is underway this Thursday, and if you are looking for a film that will change your perspective about professional surfing and the human spirit make your way to the screening of “Learning to Breathe” by award-winning director Rocky Romano. “Learning to Breathe” dives into the touchy and often taboo story of drug abuse in professional surfing told through the story of professional surfing legend Anthony Ruffo. After falling from grace due to a severe drug-addiction and five-year stint in prison, Ruffo realizes the impact he’s made on the Santa Cruz surfing community and tries to win the sympathy of the court. We caught up with Rocky to talk about the film and why he was compelled to tell this cautionary story.

Congratulations on your acceptance into the SMASH Film Fest 1. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?

 Thank you. I was honored to be selected to the inaugural SMASH Surf Film Festival, especially as one of only eight feature films that were selected. The quality of the films selected is humbling. I was also relieved that this film was selected to a surf film festival as several festivals have told us that the film was too controversial for their audiences.

Your film exposes the touchy subject of drug use in competitive surfing. What inspired you to approach this taboo subject through Anthony Ruffo’s story?

 The subject of hard drugs in surfing is a difficult and controversial story to tell. I was inspired to take it on through Anthony’s story because he is the perfect example of what can happen to even the best when addiction takes hold. I was living in Santa Cruz working on several surfing related projects and first learned of Anthony via the newspaper where he had made front page news for his second arrest for methamphetamine related charges. This, coupled with the cover-up of the death of former world champion Andy Irons lead me to think about how little the action sports world does to talk about the hard truths. We love these sports so much that we tend to let this happen, and I did not want to continue the tradition of silence. I wanted to be a part of the solution. I have an eight-year-old son that has been in action sports since he was two and I felt that as a Dad, action sports athlete, and filmmaker that I had a duty to take on this subject. I have been working with an educational specialist in Santa Cruz and we hope to create a curriculum based around the film and get it into high schools and juvenile detention centers across the country.

Did you experience a lot of backlash from the professional surfing circuit while creating the film? What is the biggest take-away you hope viewers walk away with?

All of the sponsors that had originally agreed to back the film eventually pulled out due to their fear of being associated with the story and I ended up having to finance the film myself. At one point we even had a major sponsor email us and ask us not to use a particular story that we had used in the film. It was disappointing to not get help and support from surf brands, as I feel that they have a responsibility to address these issues. We definitely are not making friends with powerful brands that would rather have this story buried. The film doesn’t promote their bullshit “Corpo” perfect surfer image. However despite the lack of support from the surf industry, I could not be more proud of my team and the surfers that stepped up and broke the code of silence that has existed for so many years. The credit really goes to them.

Although the consequences in the film are very real, I did not want to paint a picture of an addict or a dealer as an unforgivable monster. These issues are very human, and I think the film does a good job of showing that. I hope that audiences will feel the same way and that the film will help continue a very important conversation that is so often ignored.

You mention this is a film for our youth. What was your son Kadin’s reaction to Learning to Breathe and do you have any advice to parents who are struggling to talk to their children about the dangers of drug use?

Ha, as aforementioned my Grom is only eight so it will be a while before he sees the film, but I hope that this film will provide a great message to kids starting around high school age.

The best thing you can tell your kids about drugs is the truth, the sooner the better. No kid wants to hear about “dangers” through gimmicky PSA’s or bullshit clichés, so if you are having a hard time doing it yourself, then expose them to real stories (like Anthony’s) and let them see for themselves. In fact, that is exactly why I made this film.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Rocky. Looking forward to watching the film on the big screen.

“Learning to Breathe” will play at SMASH FEST 1 on Friday, July 26th  7:00 PM

Villain, 50 North 3rd St, Brooklyn, New York.

Tickets are now on sale at:

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