Bones Brigade: An Autobiography - Featured

Interview: Stacy Peralta

Once one of the best professional skateboarders in the world, Stacy Peralta hasn’t moved far from the scene that has made him a prominent name, but he certainly has evolved into the rare breed of former athlete and businessman who can be also considered an artist. After having directed some of the pioneering and much passed around Bones Brigade VHS tapes in the 1980s, Peralta turned his eye to the world of documentary filmmaking with his much beloved and deeply personal Dogtown and Z-Boys (which he also fictionalized with his screenplay to director Catherine Hardwicke’s actorly remake Lords of Dogtown). He followed that with the surfing film Riding Giants, and an out of character and underrated look at the LA chapters of the Crips and the Bloods in 2008’s Made in America.

Now after previously having written off making a film about skateboarding and his past, Peralta returns to the world of ollies and grinds to tell the oral history of the crew of clean-cut, young skaters that made his Powell-Peralta brand of boards some of the most sought after in the industry. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography chronicles the formation of a masterful squad of champions like the moody and shy, yet brilliant Rodney Mullen, the youthful prodigy of Steve Caballero, and the estimable Tony Hawk. The film follows the crew’s formation, the backlash, the deeply personal turmoil in the minds of the skaters, and finally to the dissolution of Stacey’s partnership with co-founder George Powell in the early 1990s.

In an appropriately old school looking classroom on the U of T campus, Peralta sits alone taking interviews for his double duties as a producer and director at this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival. Not only is he in town to promote a labour of love nearly a decade in the making, but also to talk about his role as a producer on director Parris Patton’s No Room for Rockstars, which takes a look behind the scenes of the Vans Warped Tour.

Dork Shelf sat down to talk about both movies with Mr. Peralta and looked at why he needed coaxing to come back to skateboarding films, the similarities between touring rockers and skaters, and why his darkest hours as a filmmaker were spent working on television.

Dork Shelf: Now was Bones Brigade something of a passion project for you? I know the original idea for it had been kicking around for about a decade.

Stacy Peralta: The guys actually asked me to make it around 2003, 2004 and I didn’t feel comfortable making it back then. I didn’t want to be a director AND a character in a film again. I did that in Dogtown and I thought to do it again was too risky. So I declined the guys’ invitation to do it, but they kept at me over the years, and finally a year and a half ago and they said “We are now older than you and Tony Alva were when you made Dogtown. We really have to make this film now. We’re going to be 50 years old now.” And that’s ultimately what really got me. I said I would do it now because the timing felt right. I just said “Damn the torpedoes and let’s do it.”

DS: Do you think some of that was also because you had to go through Dogtown twice now, seeing that you also scripted the fictionalized version of it?

SP: Well, I didn’t want to do anything more in the skateboarding world, really, because how am I going to make it look different than Dogtown? There was all that worry, but the primary thing, but really it was mostly the idea of the dual role of director and character. That bothered me the most.

DS: I can see that, but I also don’t mean this as disrespect in any way, but calling this film an autobiography feels like a misnomer in a way. It’s really more of an oral history.

SP: I really only put that on there because my wife knew how concerned I was about this, and she said that if I put An Autobiography under the title that it alerts people that might have an issue with it right off the start.

DS: And as the guy who started the crew at the heart of the film, the buck pretty much starts and stops with you, anyway.

SP: Right, but this way I can also tell people that if they aren’t fine with that to exit the theatre right now. (laughs) They can’t fault me for it. I’m just a little sensitive about things like that. That’s all.

DS: When the guys were trying to setup this story, did you know if there was any push back from within the group to NOT tell certain elements of the story, because Tony and Rodney in particular have to relive some really hard memories?

SP: Rodney was VERY nervous because he told me that if he was going to do this, he was going to really unload and open himself up. But he also said he was afraid to do it, so it took time for me to build that trust up again to tell him that I would protect him and that everything would be okay, and if he looks at the film and there’s something too personal in there, we will deal with it. He had that option. So just for him to know that really helped to pave the way. And after every moment I spent with him and every interview I did with him, we would spend time decompressing the situation before we would part, It was very, very helpful to him.

Before the first screening I prepared him for it and I told him that this was going to break his circuits. He wasn’t going to be able to interpret this based on one screening. It was going to take time and he had to be prepared. He came to the first screening very nervous, but he had some very close friends with him to see their reactions to let him know it was okay.

DS: And his story is something that’s pretty universally relatable, which is being young and awkward and having to decide if you want to turn the one thing you are good at into a lifelong career. There’s a lot of mixed feelings there that can stay with you that can stick with you your entire life.

SP: Oh yeah. Totally. In his case, he’s revealing a very intense relationship with his father that certainly shaped him, but also cost him a tremendous amount of emotional grief. And he was very straight with us about it and what he had to deal with in terms of his father not understanding skateboarding and not liking skateboarding and not approving of it, and I know that was so difficult for Rodney to deal with that head on. But it’s such a huge part of who he is and he knew that he had to discuss it.

DS: Were you ever concerned about reliving how divisive the role of the actual Bones Brigade was within the skateboarding community at the time, and how some saw them as being “above it all” with their clean cut, mostly clean living images? Were you afraid of reopening some of those old wounds with some of the people you interviewed?

SP: No. I wanted to open that up and I wanted to go directly to that and let them vent and voice their feelings about how straight the team was. I thought there would be great humour in that and that it would be interesting and unusual to finally see a group or a sports team that didn’t end up in rehab. (laughs) They we’re straight. That’s the way they were, and we didn’t sidestep it. I even make fun of myself in a couple of places because of how much I promoted safety in the 70s. We all take a shot at ourselves. I mean, we all rip apart that movie that we did, Animal Chin.

It’s something that I learned myself as a filmmaker, too. We never took those shots at ourselves in Dogtown. I wish we would have because I think it would have made for a more interesting film. But I’m a better filmmaker now, and I realized going into this that these people are some of the best in their field, but we’ve got to find some weak areas where we can point and poke fun at ourselves.

DS: Which is something you almost have to do for balance when talking about people like Tony Hawk who comes across almost like this mythical figure nowadays.

SP: But you also see where this guy comes from, and through those points you see how exactly it was that he got there.

DS: And that’s something that the movie makes very clear, which is the amount of work that went into their craft.

SP: That’s exactly one of the things that these guys wanted to get across. They wanted to deconstruct the myths that sort of surrounded all of them for their careers, and let people know that this was always their goal and they wanted to become good skateboarders, but it was never something that was handed to them. They really had to put in their time and pain. All of them.

DS: Are you surprised now by how culturally relevant the style of filmmaking you helped pioneer with your skate films has become with it showing up constantly on MTV and youth oriented programming? Did you ever think while making something like Animal Chin that you admit was somewhat embarrassing now that it would almost become somewhat of a norm?

SP: Never. Never ever ever ever crossed my mind. (laughs) I never thought that those videos would have a lifespan even two years after their shelf life. Never.

DS: It’s also kind of lead to this culture where kids who fancy themselves as up and coming skateboarders have become really image conscious about who they are and how they come across on camera because they’re afraid of how it could affect their potential sponsorship deals. Do you have any real feelings about that?

SP: I mean, it’s kind of always been a big deal because it’s a potential door opener for some of these kids, and a lot of them know this, especially when a camera is around. If they’re lucky enough to have a career in skateboarding they can get paid for it and travel around the world, and they can get to do what they love doing on someone else’s dime, if you will. That’s a huge deal.

DS: And in many cases these kids would never get the chance to have any of these opportunities.

SP: Exactly, but here’s the deal. Just doing it for the rewards, there’s really nothing to be gained from that. But if they’re doing it because they love doing it, that’s the real test. That’s something that Lance (Mountain) said, is that this could be something that’s really going to help the kids out there because they’re getting involved in skateboarding for sometimes the wrong reasons. He said he hopes that it opens them up to see the other side to it.

DS: Now from pioneering this type of filmmaking, you got called in to do some work on Hollywood during the Bones Brigade time to work on movies like Police Academy 4 and Gleaming the Cube. What was it like making the transition from that sort of DIY ethic and was that sort of the seed that led to you eventually parting ways with the crew and with George Powell?

SP: It was unusual because everything was legal. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to climbing fences and always looking over my back. When I was working in Hollywood, not only was everything legal, but you had police blocking off streets for you to do whatever you wanted. That was kind of fascinating. It gave me a chance to work with better equipment, for sure, and I also had a team of people helping me to do something. It was a different way of doing things. It was way more collaborative with producers and whatnot. It gave me a taste of what filmmaking was and that it was something I could potentially do in my life.

It let me know that I could leave and go somewhere else, ultimately. I knew that I didn’t have to stop what I wanted to do. The fact that I knew that George and I were having problems and that I was eventually going to leave some day meant that I at least knew that I had a potentially other career somewhere else.

It wasn’t until a few years later after I had been working in television that I decided that I wanted to start making documentary films. I started off on features doing second unit stuff, and then I got a chance to go to television to work on a variety of things from comedy to documentary to various MTV jobs. It was this mythic thing, but I hated television. It was the worst thing I had ever done in my life. It was the first time I ever felt like I was going to a job.

It’s the job where they tell you up front that they’re hiring you because they like what you do and they want you to break the box open, and then the second you do, they say “NO NO NO! STOP! We can’t do that!” I found that a creative straightjacket and I couldn’t wait to get out. Thank God I was saved by documentary filmmaking.

I really enjoy that because I read a lot. I read primarily non-fiction, and I just find that when I make films now I get to learn about subjects that I don’t know about or that I want to know more about them. Either that, or it’s a subject that I know a lot about and I just want to connect the dots of a given time period. I really, really enjoy seeing that come together. That’s fun as a filmmaker to me.

DS: I’m going to switch gears a little bit and talk a bit about No Room for Rockstars for a bit since elements of the two films and the idea of an extremely rugged work ethic definitely seem to go hand in hand even though you’re the producer on this one and not the director. Now I know you had done some work with Vans in the past, but how did you come to work on this one?

SP: They originally came to me and wanted me to direct the film, and I really didn’t have any interest in doing it as a director, but I did want to stay on as a producer. So, Agi Orsi, who also produced Dogtown and Riding Giants, also helped produce this, and we had worked with (director) Parris (Patton) before as an editor and we thought he would have the best take on this and the right tone, so we hired him to do it. That was it.

The idea was that they had made a lot of films about the Warped Tour over the years, but they had never made one that was personal. They weren’t good films. They were just montages. Every seven minutes these films would repeat themselves and just end up being the same thing over and over and over again. So we thought that if we do this, we have to follow several bands over the course of this entire tour, and hopefully the bands and the personalities would be different and get a sense of what this is really like.

But the other thing it was going to require was a director who was always on set all the time. Parris actually followed twelve bands and shot over 300 hours of footage, and we only ended up with about four of them because the others just didn’t pan out or the band members weren’t that interesting.

The thing I like so much about the movie and how it came out, is that it’s kind of like a great primer on what it takes to be in a young band today and to emerge. I mean, twenty years ago to get a hit song you had to play it on the radio and – BOOM – instant access. It’s not like that anymore. These kids don’t get played on the radio or MTV, so the only way they can get to their fans is to get on a tour like this where it’s a crazy carnival.

DS: And that’s something that tends to get lost in this kind of storytelling and reality culture where we tend to overly mythologize and skew what it takes to be a success.

SP: Totally, but you look at someone in this movie like Mike Posner who doesn’t let any stone go unturned, or you look at (Never Shout Never lead singer) Chris Drew who says that he loves what he does, but that he doesn’t want this where he says that he loves Warner Bros, but he hates being affiliated with them. It’s two sides of the same thing, and then you have someone like the guys in Suicide Silence who say that if they aren’t on the road for 300 days a year that they can’t pay their bills or support their family. Then you have the guys sleeping in the backs of their vans just trying to get on the other side. It covers things from all these different angles.

DS: Now it was a bit after your time, but skating used to be a huge part of the Warped Tour scene. Did you ever get a chance to witness that and do you think the tour might have gotten a bit more commercialized without it?

SP: I didn’t know it at that time. My assumption, and this might not be correct, is that they just pulled skating because it wasn’t generating enough interest. I would imagine, though, with the saturation of just how much skateboarding there is on television and in videos is that it wasn’t special enough anymore to bring it along because kids could see it anywhere. That’s my assumption. I in no way know if that’s true or not.

DS: In a way, like a lot of the musical styles on Warped Tour now like emo and pop-punk, it seems like something that just becomes oversaturated until the bottom drops out of it.

SP: Well, with Warped Tour, it was always started as a punk tour, but now it’s all over the place. You’ve got these guys like Mike Posner and Chris Drew in there who never would have been there in the beginning. So it’s evolved into something that was a little different from it’s original mandate, and with that change I think that skateboarding just kind of got thrown out because it was just so tied to punk rock music.

DS: Which is why it goes pretty nicely that you’re here promoting both this and Bones Brigade because both are designed to show that you have to put in that hard work to succeed.

SP: All the time. You see these guys getting up insanely early and pushing their gear around and setting up their tents and all this crap all over the place and they are not just mentally involved, but physically invested in their own success. It’s not an easy situation. I know what it’s like to go from hotel to hotel and place to place and podunk town to podunk town. And we were building a sport in the 1980s that didn’t exist. It only existed in the vacuum that we created, wondering if it was ever going to become of everything. And at the beginning of the 1990s, it did kind of drop off like that.

DS: Did you guys start to see the writing on the wall at that point or was it sudden for you.

SP: We saw it, but then we realized that the sport – much like with music – doesn’t die. It just cycles up and down, but every time it does cycle down, it cycles down lower than it did before. We finally realized that it was par for the course. It was good for a ten year run.

DS: Which is strange to think about when you talk about a sport, most of which rarely fluctuate in popularity.

SP: Yeah, but it burns very hot when it’s popular, and those who love it stay with it, and those who don’t shed it off, then it starts to cycle back up again and a whole bunch of fresh new kids come into it, and when they come in to it, they always bring something new to it.

DS: Now that you’ve finally made another skateboarding film when you previously said you weren’t going to, would you be willing to tell another one?

SP: I think there’s a whole bunch of stories, and a whole bunch of events, and a whole bunch of personalities and pieces of time where things happened. I was asked this same question after I did Dogtown and I would say that I can’t imagine myself doing another one, and here I am having just finished another one. I can’t imagine it now, but there’s a fantastic collection of people where any one of them could make a great story.