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Film : Interview

Tristan Patterson

by Pamela Cohn

Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer is a portrait of Josh “Screech” Sandoval, a So-Cal skateboarding punk romantic. Pamela Cohn spoke to the filmmaker about the difficulties of capturing such a mercurial personality on video.

Courtesy the Drag City Archives.

Tristan Patterson’s debut film, Dragonslayer—which both took the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s SXSW Festival, and won Best International Feature at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto—captures a primal year in a young renegade skateboarder’s life in suburban Southern California, land of the forever young.

In the time Patterson shot the film, his protagonist, local skate legend, Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, becomes a father at the age of 23 as his relationship with the mother of his infant son falls apart. Also during this time, Sandoval meets a young beauty named Leslie, just as lost as he is, and falls head over heels in love. Patterson, a screenwriter who hails from Los Angeles (as do I), portrays, in many ways, the quintessential Southern California punk skater experience in Dragonslayer. But unlike other films of the recent past that have portrayed punk skate posses living life on the fringe, Patterson intuitively stumbled upon an exceedingly intelligent, sensitive and riveting subject in Sandoval and frames him in a lush cinematic landscape befitting this unrelenting wild and free spirit, a kid with the strength and pathos of someone who lives life completely on his own terms, since he knows no other way of living it.

Drag City, the US theatrical distributors of Harmony Korine’s equally un-categorizable film, Trash Humpers, will launch a theatrical release of Patterson’s film in early November. I talked to Patterson, at home in Laurel Canyon, via Skype from my home in Berlin, and at the end of the conversation, I mentioned to him that the early-morning LA light he was sitting in, and the sound and timbre of his voice, made me feel so at home. He got up and moved his laptop to the window to give me a glimpse of that soft, gentle light glowing in his small backyard. There’s nothing like that light.

Pamela Cohn You’ve received some strong support and backing for the film, as well as a highly experienced, some might say "legendary,” exec producer in Christine Vachon. The film has won major festival prizes out of the gate, and now you’re looking at an imminent theatrical release. Heady stuff?

Tristan Patterson Yes, a bit. I mean, I made a film that I’m extremely proud of. But at the same time, it’s always amazing when someone shows up to see it. All the responses to it have been amazing.

PC I think the fact that it’s such an exceedingly personal piece is definitely part of its appeal. The collaboration between makers and protagonists is palpable throughout. And while this isn’t a by-the-books doc, a documentary is what it’s being called. So in terms of documentary, to my mind, that’s absolutely everything, that collaboration I’m speaking of. It’s an ineffable thing—you can feel it if it’s there, and you certainly feel it when it isn’t.

I grew up with people like Josh. They were my friends. And I actually remember wanting to be one of those skate punks, but I just sat on the sidelines and watched and admired. And was a bit intimidated, as well, at the freedom they seemed to exude, and not only when they were skating. But Josh is far from typical in so many ways.

TP I’ve thought about this a lot, that moment of discovery when I met Josh and then trying to find a way to articulate exactly what that was. It’s probably a hundred different things. I think the main thing for me is that when I first met him, or maybe it was six months to a year after meeting him, there was this giant collapse of our economy and the foreclosure crisis. It felt like apocalyptic times. There was this collision going on.

I was going to see this punk band with guitarist Rikk Agnew, formerly of The Adolescents. They were playing this driveway in Chino. Somewhere inside me, I was thinking of that original punk generation and the correlations between that generation and the times we’re living in now. The punks that represented that generation were also coming out of a war; there was a recession then, too. And what followed that was the Reagan era. It’s not like the eighties are right around the corner again. I don’t know what’s around the corner but it’s not that.

When I was at that party, here was this kid who could be any kid. But there was just something so incredibly singular about him. Instinctively, I felt he had this kind of strange poetry about him that spoke to the times. He had a completely singular way of being and expressing himself. As I got to know him, all of those weird instincts started playing out. Here is this kid from Fullerton, California and the music he listens to is New York punk rock from the seventies. There’s a continuum in the spirit Skreech represents that’s been around for a while. There’s also something brand-new about him, too. When we started filming, I didn’t know what I was setting out to make, but I think the original idea was to make something authentic and trust in that, and to figure out a new way of doing it that felt exciting to me. So, in that collision of all of these things, I was able to shoot him in a certain way.

I’d also given him a Flip camera and I started seeing the footage that was coming back from him. On the one hand, I felt like it was close to reality TV, or a YouTube kind of thing. And yet, it’s also a brand-new kind of kid that you’d never see on those channels. It had high art; it had elegance. I knew that I didn’t know what that movie was going to end up looking like, but it was a movie I wanted to see. It was worth pursuing.

PC There’s also a collision that takes place stylistically in the film that I found hugely appealing. There is this mash-up, if you will, where you flip back and forth between this scratchy, hand-held madness, and scenes shot in quite sophisticated cinematic language where the framing, the lighting, all add to a sense of film noir that is extremely stylish, particularly when you’re shooting the scenes that comprise the love story between Josh and Leslie. It’s a relationship where, obviously, these two people are very much in love, but have no idea how to navigate their relationship in the landscape in which they find themselves. You put these two completely lost people into this sophisticated frame and it’s quite moving and beautiful.

TP The definitive way I approached filming him was to observe him as unobtrusively as possible. And in that search, I was looking for moments. You go out and shoot all day and hope to find three or four moments and have faith that those moments can start adding up and accumulating, even though you don’t know where the road is leading. Maybe each moment is peeling back a layer so you can get closer to an essence. When we would go film, we would stay pretty far away, as much as we could. We’d put a lavalier [microphone] on him and let him go roam. Directing became pushing back against any kind of instinct that we should do something just because we were filming, you know? Anything that felt to me like it was happening because we were filming was problematic, because the person or people you’re shooting start to have this instant self-consciousness; they start coming up with suggestions of what you could film that would be interesting.

I knew that the best things to film would be like scenes where he goes to a diner that he’s gone to his whole life with his girlfriend, even though they intuitively might think that that’s not something worth watching. And, as I said, he had a camera, too. He’s a really creative kid in his own way, able to work without any direction. I just told him to film things. I knew he would go out and shoot all sorts of strange ephemera creating a certain kind of portraiture, or collage. And then I could figure out how my footage might inform his footage, and vice versa, trying to create a rhythm between those two elements that would also capture something about his life and experience. It’s a practical decision: how long can you stay in observational footage without a blast of energy, and how long can you stay in footage shot by a kid with a Flip camera going nuts without grounding it contextually? Where’s the balance? The search was for those moments that organically seemed to fit together, juxtaposed in a way that made sense.

One of the things I think makes him such a great subject is that it’s an extremely courageous thing to do to put yourself out there fearlessly, not caring what anybody would think about you. That’s the way he is in the world. But to also be able to do that in a movie and just not give a shit is rare. I felt like the way to honor that about him was to stay as authentic to that as possible. When I was editing, anything that felt too manipulative was out. That information might be useful to the audience, but that’s not the way he would characterize himself. In a traditional documentary, we might learn up front what the back story is of this guy. But, rather than tell you up front what his back story is, I’m going to put you inside of a Flip camera seen through his eyes and you’re going to experience what’s it like to be him. That’s how you’re going to get to know him. And then we’re going to pull back and observe this world and maybe our camera will find the poetry of that world.

PC There is some sort of generational resonance built this way, as well, since kids of Josh’s generation encounter media totally on their own terms. Just as much as media uses them they, in turn, know how to use it for their own purposes. As sort of “out there” as he is, risk-taking as he is, I also felt a protectiveness—not only of himself but for those people around him, those he cares about, in a totally authentic way, without the contrivance of the whole, I love you, man, kind of bullshit. The bonding is true, accompanied by a huge amount of acceptance. This pack protects one another and, particularly protects its weakest members. I don’t see this generation captured that way too often.

Courtesy the Drag City Archives.

TP There is this generational punk way of being and we were really able to tap into that, especially when we spent time at the Fullerton skate park. I think a lot of kids that skate or that are drawn to that place are escaping from something. They show up there and they’re taken into this family when they’re as young, sometimes, as eleven or twelve. There’s a generation that’s a bit older than they are already there and so there are these cycles that go on. Those kids really look out for each other in that place. There’s a code of being as to how they all treat each other that has, as you said, an amazing amount of acceptance. There are all different types of people of different ages and what unites them all is really that place which is Fullerton, and specifically a municipal park that has a chain-link fence around the skate park that’s been shut down by the city. Skreech says in the film that his dad would drop him off there in the afternoons when he was eleven and he’d be there until three in the morning. To me, that says everything you need to know about where he’s coming from.

You see that in his relationship with Leslie, as well, as it starts to develop. He jumps over a fence and he tells this girl that he’s never seen before, “Your lips are so red, super red.” That’s when I realized there might be a shift in direction for the film. What is this? Because this is something about youth and two kids coming together in a way that I think is so much more original than these clichéd impressions we would have about how kids are interacting. There’s a gentleness to it and a surprising quality that’s better than fiction. If I wrote those lines of dialogue, they would write true, but people would think it was so literary and wouldn’t quite believe, perhaps, that those kids would say something like that.

PC True, but that’s the beauty, then, of articulating cinematically their story and that’s why all that high art, as you called it, fits perfectly fine. Because, in essence, you really don’t have to commentate since your camera is capturing that. It’s reflected in the editing, as well. Can you talk a bit about how you tackled this process with your editors, Jennifer Texiera and Lizzy Calhoun?

TP There wasn’t any editing being done until we were, ostensibly, done shooting. Most of the movie was shot over the course of nine months. I knew Skreech and Leslie were going on a road trip, or I knew that they were going to leave it all behind. So I thought that would be our stopping point. I’d been watching footage all along and I could also say that after the first day of shooting, I knew the kind of movie I was going to be making.

There’s a voiceover at the end of the film where Skreech talks about what his ideal world would be; he does this whole speech about freezing time. I don’t even really think he would be able to explain to you what he meant when he said that. He would just say, I don’t know; I was just saying some shit. But I was really fixated on that because, somehow, I thought it was essential to the story. It’s a youth movie, so there’s something inherent about the theme of fleeting youth. Everybody, on some level, wishes they could freeze time, to keep that moment endless. I was also thinking about it in terms of his relationship with Leslie and his relationship to his son. In my mind, I’d always been framing the movie as a love story, but I think, ultimately, it really is about this kid and this moment in time in his life. He was 23 when we shot it, going through a profound evolution. It’s not a “lovers on the run” movie. There’s another layer to this and so we picked up six months later with our cameras to capture that last chapter of the film when they return from their trip and are back in California.

PC The narrative trajectory, this moment in time that you captured, is remarkable. I think that has a lot to do with this magical “luck of the draw” in nonfiction filmmaking when the universe, somehow, conspires to bring certain people together to capture something profound and meaningful. It can’t really happen any other way. But it’s always a gamble.

TP Part of the instinct of wanting to make the movie was to make a certain kind of movie. His life could have gone in a lot of different directions and there could be a lot of different versions, but they all would have worked for me. Maybe some might have taken two years to shoot or if his life had gone another way, maybe we’d still be shooting now. There are stories in everyone’s life; you just have to find them.

I think part of the reason the movie works is that I didn’t overstay my welcome. I wasn’t in his face every day. I was really trying very hard to be agenda-less. Every time we shot, I would find things that I was excited about shooting. Every world he took me into was interesting to me because it was connected to him. I was getting at something that I liked. That was all I cared about. It wasn’t about, Oh, this movie will only work if . . . There were no imperatives about what we absolutely had to capture, whether it was some big skating competition or trying to track his competition schedule. I didn’t care about stuff like that—compete, don’t compete. It was all about gently observing until I felt like there was enough footage to capture something that had weight to it.

PC Just by virtue of using this method, somehow weight is added to every moment.

TP Yes, it’s a movie about moments and when those moments crystallize, you know? If it works, part of the reason it works is that the whole film becomes one big crystallized moment made up of these smaller crystallizing moments. I mean it wasn’t Machiavellian. I can look back and kind of see how this intuitive aesthetic formed that was true to the subject. And so shooting that way feels true to the subjects of the movie and is authentic to their story. There’s really no other way to make a movie about him.

PC Well, sure there is. There are infinite ways, in fact.

TP Yes, but it wouldn’t be the movie that I would want to see.

PC Is this the movie that Josh wants to see? When he watches this film about himself, what is that experience like for him?

TP I didn’t show him any footage while we were shooting because I didn’t want his behavior to change. At the same time, I think it’s a little different because the movie is also shot by him. He’s helping to shape the movie in a way that’s different. There’s an inherent collaboration between filmmaker and subject. But I never talked to him about what he was shooting and he never talked to me about what I was shooting. He would let me know about some place he was going to be and we’d go and shoot. A couple of weeks would go by and then he would give me a memory card and not tell me anything about what was on it.

I was really nervous to show him the film. And time had passed. The editing took a year. He doesn’t make movies, so he has no idea what that looks like. If he did know what it looked like, I think he, rightfully, would look at it as something totally crazy. Like, what are you doing with your life, man? (laughter) You add the fact that there’s a relationship that’s at stake in the film that wasn’t part of the movie going in. Leslie became a participant and a collaborator, as well. It’s a different relationship than the one I had with Skreech. The original reason I picked Skreech as a subject was that he was authentic and fearless and when he finally watched the movie, he was authentic and fearless. He came to the editor’s house to watch a final cut of the movie and he brought Leslie with him. I didn’t anticipate her being there.

When he saw his own footage, he started laughing, asking, Did I do that? What was I talking about? There were moments he didn’t remember. There was a fascination on that level. He was mostly concerned with Leslie feeling good about it, which I thought was really sweet. I really like the unspoken elements in this exchange. There was this collaboration that happened between two people that isn’t orchestrated; it just happens. The movie just lets that be. That goes back to your first comment about a film with a feeling between filmmaker and subject that’s just there; no one talks about it.

PC Both of you were working in the same vein in an intuitive type of communication. The only way that can take place, not just in this relationship, but in any relationship, is if you do come at it as gently as you possibly can. For a film director, for someone in that role, this is a challenge. But since this is your only experience, thus far, and it was a successful one in terms of what you meant to do, I’m wondering how this might inform what you do next? Because whatever that might be, just by virtue of being the next thing, there might, perhaps, be a bit more self-consciousness. I don’t know. There was freedom with having that tabula rasa that’s not anchored anywhere in your professional life—it’s just hanging there by itself right now. What has it taught you about yourself as a filmmaker, I guess is what I’m asking?

TP I never thought about making a documentary before I made this movie. While I was making it I didn’t think of it as a documentary. But the film had rules like any good film has rules, a point-of-view. One of the rules of this film happens to be that the story it tells is going to be absolutely authentic to its subject’s experience and that won’t be tampered with. The way in which it reflects what I might do next is that I like stories that are about characters that have some sort of poetry in them that they’re struggling to get out. I like movies that take you into worlds like this one, which happens to be a very specific California movie and it’s a very specific movie about youth. If I were to do a narrative film next or a documentary film next, the approach with my subject would be very similar. If you’re writing a character, you’re still trying to let that character speak for him or herself; you’re still trying to let that character lead you, intuitively, to a conclusion that’s original and unique. There was something about making this film that was particular to it. I haven’t made a film before. There was nothing I could show Skreech, so he had no idea what I was going to do. That makes me seem really crazy to people while making it. All they can have faith in is the vibe they get from me.

PC And your obvious commitment. Just as these people, individually and collectively are making commitments to certain things. They, too, are anchored in their commitments to this lifestyle, the people that surround them. The way in which a human being comes at making art is complicated and it’s so easy to trip yourself up in so many ways.

TP This point takes me back to that moment of meeting Skreech for the first time, because I can say that he didn’t, or doesn’t, have an agenda for his life that involves me. He’s not using this movie to change his life. There have been great movies about subjects who are using the movie that’s being made about them, but that’s a different kind of movie.

One of the things about reality television or YouTube or all of this stuff is that none of it has really been incorporated into the language of film. It’s as if there’s this implicit gross thing, this exploitation that goes on while these people are being filmed. I want to see something that is beautiful like Laguna Beach is beautiful, but doesn’t have the exploitation element, something that’s truthful and honest. It’s going to be a different type of kid. If you pick subjects that suddenly have paparazzi trailing after them wherever they go, it’s not really authentic anymore. What’s authentic is in the air beyond that.

PC What have you seen that’s been inspiring to you in that kind of “beautiful” way you speak about, something that, consciously or not, informed the way you chose to work on this film?

TP There are a lot of different answers to that question. But I think of this photographer named John Divola that did these portraits that are called the Zuma Series. He broke into this abandoned house on Zuma Beach on the Pacific Coast, and he took photographs of this house as it was being taken over by nature. It was changing over time. Through a window of this house, you can see the ocean. He paints the house himself, at one point, and other people sneak in when no one’s there and they leave behind whatever trash they leave behind. And he just keeps returning over and over to the house, continuing to document it. Probably what initially drew me to the photographs is that I saw them and thought, That’s fucking Southern California. There’s also something that’s almost primal and tragic in them because you’re watching something change. But the ocean remains. He gets at something powerful just by simply returning and observing it over and over and over again. He paints a wall, so he’s putting his own mark on it, but it’s the totality of the elements that amounts to a beautiful portrait of time taking hold.

Those were the kinds of things I was thinking about when I was making the movie. In terms of movies, what’s excited me recently are the earlier Lukas Moodysson pieces like Show Me Love, Together, and Lilya 4-Ever, those kind of youth portraits. When I met Skreech, I thought he seemed like a kid out of The River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)—you know, Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979), River’s Edge, suburbia movies type of kid. I think he reminded me a lot of Linda Manz in Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1979). Those are things that I thought about upon meeting him; I wanted to make a movie about a character like that. But I would never write that movie because I’ve seen ten versions of that movie done that way and they’re great. But there’s got to be a new way of doing it. It’s not like I’ve never watched documentaries, but maybe I could say Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972)? (laughter) I like the way that’s done. It has art and a point-of-view to it. That’s what inspires me.

Dragonslayer opens at Cinema Village in New York on Friday, November 4th.

Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.