Screenwriter captures young surfer’s tale of survival in movie script

Michael Berk has some notable awards from Hollywood. His movies have won multiple Emmys and garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for his writing and producing.

Most recently the film "Soul Surfer," for which he was the lead writer, was nominated for a 2011 ESPY Award for Best Sports Picture. It tells the real-life story of Bethany Hamilton, 21, a surfer who returned to compete in the sport despite a devastating shark attack that took her left arm when she was 13.

The awards were held July 13. "Soul Surfer" lost to Mark Wahlberg’s "The Fighter," about the early years of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward. Berk appeared nonchalant at the outcome.

"Boxing is more popular than surfing," he said. "But surfing is certainly sexier."

He should know a thing or two about beach shows being sexy. The Summerlin-area resident co-created the internationally popular "Baywatch" TV series, which made beaches, surfing and wishful sightings of Pamela Anderson elements of the ultimate American lifestyle.

Because the show was a virtual recruiting tool for the lifeguard department and the Coast Guard, he was granted access and ride-alongs to gather more material for stories. One time, when a rip current took two young boys out to sea, a lifeguard had to choose between saving one over the other. The rescuer dove to recover the second boy and brought him back to the surface.

Berk used the scenario for a "Baywatch" script titled "Submersion," showing the psychological effect such a situation could have on the lifeguard. In the show, the hospitalized child recovers and lives, the veritable happy ending. Unfortunately, in real life, the child died.

The TV series won the first Spirit Award from the American Red Cross for educating people on the basics of CPR and using the technique in real-life emergencies.

" ‘Baywatch’ was a lot more than people gave it credit for," Berk said.

For "Soul Surfer," he had to walk a fine line when writing the script, trying to keep it as true to life as possible but taking some literary license to make it more dramatic.

Berk added a near-death experience, something Hamilton did not claim to have. He also added an "epiphany moment" on deciding whether she would resume surfing. In real life, Hamilton always maintained she would return to surfing.

"She was fine with it," he said of him taking poetic license. "She understood the necessity of dramatization."

What he couldn’t do was make AnnaSophia Robb, the actress who played Hamilton, taller. Hamilton is 5 feet 11 inches tall. Robb is 5 feet 2 inches tall. When Hamilton did the one-arm surfing stunts, the crew had to shoot with surfboards built to a different scale so the height difference wasn’t obvious.

Robb wore a green sock on her arm, and movie magic made it appear as though she’d lost a limb.

Berk didn’t have an encounter with a shark, but he too almost lost a limb. The long scar on his left arm is from a childhood accident that completely severed his hand when he was 6. As luck would have it, the hospital where he was rushed was hosting Dr. J. Vernon Luck, a pioneer in the reattachment of limbs.

The result was that Berk was one of the first people to have an extremity reattached. But he lost all feeling from his encounter with the plate glass window. Every day, he squeezed a ball relentlessly in an attempt to regain feeling in his arm and hand. After four years, the pinprick test saw him reacting to the pain as his feeling returned.

He used the experience for a writing contest on why he wanted to play baseball. Berk won the contest to become a batboy for the Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles’ minor-league team before the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west.

Berk moved to Las Vegas in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake destroyed his home on trendy Mulholland Drive. He divides his time between L.A. and Las Vegas and has been active in the local community here. He has helped induct stars into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame and helped create the CineVegas Film Festival.

He said the town is different from L.A.

"In Vegas, when someone says, ‘Let’s do it,’ they generally mean it," he said.

These days, he’s involved with Players Network, a 360 Media and Marketing company that owns the Vegas On Demand television channel on Comcast and DirecTV. These days the company is getting "phygital," converging digital media with physical involvement in live events for its TV, online and mobile viewers. After watching a program, viewers can connect online with other viewers, as well as interact with the stars of the show they just watched. They also will be able to get coupons and order tickets in the "phygital" world.

"It’s the Holy Grail for sponsors," Berk said.

Peter Heumiller, president and COO of Players Network, has known Berk about seven years and called him a talented, creative individual whose genius goes beyond movies to include branding.

"He wrote the programming (pitches) to get people excited about it," Heumiller said of the new venture. "The brands love being in this town; the audience turns over every week."

Contact Summerlin and Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at or 387-2949.

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