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'Soul Surfer' director talks about surfing, movies and religion

As his movie opens nationally Friday, Sean McNamara shares the challenges of bringing Bethany Hamilton's story to the big screen.

Thirteen-year-old Bethany Hamilton was surfing with friends when a 1,500-pound tiger shark attacked her, biting off her arm.

In the years following Hamilton gained celebrity by adopting a positive attitude toward her personal tragedy and continuing to surf despite her handicap. In 2010 Hamilton ranked 20th on the Association of Surfing Professionals tour and won the National Scholastic Surfing Association competition just two years after losing a limb.

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures
AnnaSophia Robb starring as Bethany Hamilton sandwiched between Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt who play Hamilton's parents.

Hamilton has repeatedly said her faith in God and her love of surfing have gotten her through hardship. Hamilton wrote about her journey in a memoir called Soul Surfer, which has been produced as a film opening in theaters Friday.

After director, co-writer and co-producer of Soul Surfer Sean McNamara read Hamilton’s book he had a vision for bringing her story to the screen. But realizing the film was a journey all its own.

On April 5 McNamara and executive producers Dominic Ianno and David Tice came to the Newhouse School to speak about their investment in the film, both personally and financially.

"I know it's cliche but it really does take a small village to get a film made," Tice said. A self-proclaimed money-guy, Tice was passionate about the film from its beginning stages. But he acknowledged there were struggles to getting the film made. The timeframe, for one, was a challenge: it took nearly seven years to complete the project.

The first round of writers skewed Hamilton’s story so drastically -- crack whore subplots, etc. -- that the Hamilton family would not permit production to continue. Time and money was wasted sexing up a genuine girl’s life. After that McNamara took control of writing the script along with Deborah Schwartz who used to write for Baywatch. Bethany and her family worked closely with McNamara throughout the process of writing and producing the film to keep it as accurate as possible.

In 2008 production of the film was halted due to the economy crashing. But after a slow recovery and the perseverance of the producers “Soul Surfer” went on to acquire an A-List cast. Carrie Underwood signed on to play Sarah Hill, Hamilton’s youth minister. Oscar winner Helen Hunt, a surfer herself, agreed to play the role of Bethany’s mother. The high-powered actors were inspired by the real life Hamilton.

"Bethany is the real deal. She’s authentic, she’s motivated and she’s inspiring,” Ianno said.

The same can be said about the makers of this film.

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