From ‘Thrashin’’ to ‘Kids’ and Beyond: A History of Skateboarding Movies
Two recent releases—‘Skate Kitchen’ and ‘Minding the Gap’—have ushered in another resurgence in the genre. Fifty years on, the directors, producers, and skaters who made these movies explain how they have evolved.
The plot of the 1965 short film Skaterdater is simple, but packs a lot into its 18 dialogue-free minutes. A barefoot boy rides a wooden plank attached to four wheels down the streets of Southern California’s South Bay, leading a pack of kids in matching jackets. The boy locks eyes with a girl on a bicycle a couple of times. The boy becomes transfixed by a mermaid fountain that shoots water out of its nipples—OK, that part’s weird—and then he crashes into the girl on the bike. The pair go on a few chaste dates before the skate crew finds them at a pond and laughs at him like he’s a chump. The boy competes for control of the group with another boy and loses. The other skaters leave the boy, but the girl on the bike is there for him. In the final scene, the boy has ditched his jacket for a sweater and walks off with the girl as the skaters pass in the opposite direction. Two new girls see the skaters and two more of the boys can’t look away. Surf rock plays over the credits.
When producer Marshal Backlar began work on Skaterdater with writer/director Noel Black, skateboarding was still in its infancy, not far from being considered an annoying kids’ activity. For the film he cast seven members of Torrance’s Imperial Skateboarding Club, all of them between the ages of 12 and 15, and none of whom had any acting experience. Though Backlar thought Skaterdater would impress audiences with the camera techniques they’d developed, he hoped it would also convey a broader idea. “At that point in time in the boys’ lives, skateboarding was a symbol of masculinity, it was a symbol of novelness, of innovative-ness,” he says. “It seemed to be the perfect symbol of the story that I wanted to tell, which was about the evolution of these young boys using the skateboard as a symbol of masculinity and [that] evolving into a girlfriend as a symbol of masculinity.”
Skaterdater won the Grand Prix for Best Short Film at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar, making it both the first film about skateboarding and probably the most acclaimed. In the five decades since its release, its themes of finding identity and place within a community have become essential DNA strands for the dozens of skate films that have followed, from the silliness of Thrashin’ to the rawness of Kids to the devotion of Lords of Dogtown. “I’m watching it and I’m just like, not much has changed,” says Eli Morgan Gesner, the cofounder of the Zoo York brand and a longtime chronicler of skate culture. “Coming-of-age stories work really well with skateboarding. That’s where they’ll always go.”
In the new films Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap, those central ideas of connection and self-determination surface in new ways. Skate Kitchen, from The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle, flips the genders to examine the challenges of being a woman skater while also navigating the intimacies and conflicts of female friendship. Minding the Gap, which earned a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, finds director Bing Liu delving deeper into the emotional turmoil that causes people to start skateboarding in the first place. Later this year will see the release of Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s directing debut, which looks to be the tale of a boy finding a new family, bolstering the genre’s usual tropes with now-nostalgic visions of CD jewel cases and Ren & Stimpy T-shirts. Plus, Sheryl Crow jokes. Somewhat surprisingly, 2018 has become the year of a legitimate skateboarding film resurgence.
“[Skateboarding] tends to be a place for those who can’t find another place to be,” says influential street skater Tommy Guerrero. “It’s a place for the outcasts and the black sheep. I always said, with skateboarding [in the 1980s], we were the black sheep of the black sheep. Skaters were getting grief from all of the factions in school and in life. Skateboarding was a safe place for us, and for me personally as an individual.”
For more than 50 years directors have searched for the cinematic potential in skateboarders, individuals figuring out their place in a society that might not necessarily want them to be a part of it. “I went to school for literature, and mostly it was criticism. I remember reading Marx and learning the term ‘lumpenproletariat,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god! That’s like skateboarders,’” says Liu. “They very much feel like the margins. People on the edge, people that are very interesting, people that were quirky, but also so human and so charismatic.” Which has made skateboarders compelling film subjects over the years, whether they’ve liked it or not. Usually, they haven’t.
In the 1970s, a transformative, spectacular form of skateboarding emerged in Venice, California, led by teenage innovators Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams, and the rest of Dogtown’s Zephyr Team. Using newly developed urethane wheels, their dynamic skating allowed them to climb up the walls of swimming pools emptied by California’s drought until they eventually took flight. Both their shaggy personal style and their emergency room–tempting tricks forever altered skateboarding’s outdated reputation.
At the time, this movement resulted in a few minor cinematic by products. Freewheelin’ from 1978 is a decidedly and incongruously mellow quasi-documentary about Southern California’s skate scene, told from the perspective of Stacy Peralta’s onscreen girlfriend. Then there was 1980’s Skateboard Madness, a raggedy flick that again costars Peralta, though his first name is misspelled in the credits. Produced by surf filmmaker Hal Jepsen, the film is structured—and I use that word very loosely—around a Coastal California skateboarding trip narrated by a pre–Saturday Night Live Phil Hartman doing a newscaster impression. In between a series of nonsensical vignettes, there are extended montages of skateboarding, along with roller skating and surfing. Mostly it feels like post-hippie cosmic slop.
Mainstream Hollywood soon tried to capitalize on the trend with skating scenes in Back to the Future and Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. Patrick O’Dell, the creator and host of Epicly Later’d, Viceland’s skateboarder documentary series, was a kid in State College, Pennsylvania, when he saw Marty McFly outmaneuver and outwit Biff and his goons on a primitive skateboard. Soon after he went to a store and got a Variflex. He’d skate around his neighborhood, but it was years before he even figured out what an ollie was. “People always get into skating through dumb stuff, like stuff that skaters hate on,” says O’Dell.
In the mid-’80s, Catherine Hardwicke moved to Los Angeles from a town on the Texas-Mexico border to become a director. She befriended Peralta after they took an acting class together and worked on a Roger Corman film. (“I think it played in drive-ins in Cambodia, or something like that,” she says now.) Her first legit credit came as the production designer on the skatesploitation film Thrashin’—although in the credits, they also spelled her name wrong.
“I was dancing crazy at a club one night in Hollywood and this producer comes up to me, like, ‘Hey, who are you?’” says Hardwicke. “I’m like, ‘I’m a film student at UCLA and I’m a former architect.’ He goes, ‘Oh perfect, why don’t you production design my skateboard movie?’”
That producer was Alan Sacks. At the time he was in his 40s and had already co-created the hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Interested by youth culture, he’d become fascinated with L.A.’s punk scene, and had just directed Du-beat-e-o, a bizarre, postmodern movie about a director who’s trying to make a movie out of the leftover footage from a scrapped project on Joan Jett and the Runaways. When the film came out, LA Weekly ran an article about Sacks. His profile took up half a page, and on the other was a piece about an all-female skate crew called the Hags. Intrigued, Sacks asked some of the punks he knew about skateboarding, and they sent him to Venice. After checking it out, he decided to set a Romeo and Juliet–stylestory among the skateboarders. “I read the CliffsNotes, looked at West Side Story, and said, ‘OK, this is perfect,’” remembers Sacks.
Thrashin’ tells the story of a talented young skater from the Valley played by Josh Brolin who pisses off the Daggers, a villainous Venice skate gang, and falls in love with their leader’s little sister. Sacks’s visions for the film were grandiose, even if the budget wasn’t. “He would just come up and tell me, ‘I want you to build me a ramp leading up into heaven,’” Hardwicke says. “I’m like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Make that ramp go into heaven. Create heaven on the PCH, at that curve there.’ Then the more adult producer would be like, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that.’ So every day I was learning what’s real and what’s not real, because he had a very wild imagination.”
While making the film, Hardwicke was confronted by a group of V13s after she cluelessly painted over some their graffiti on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. She also used a crack house as the headquarters of the Daggers without getting permission from whoever owned it. (“I was so naïve, I go to the crackheads, ‘Dude, would you help scrub all this residue off the table?’” she says.) She begged skateboard companies for free gear to use in the film, but then other members of the art department would sell the boards, along with drugs. “The whole thing was absolute madness, and the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” Hardwicke says.
But Thrashin’ presents a scene far less gritty than the one it was filmed in. The blinding neon kitsch is overwhelming: Brolin seems incapable of buttoning his shirt, or even keeping a shirt on, and the skate joust scene where the rivals battle in a drainage ditch is peak goofiness. Its heavy-handed references to both The Wild One and Brian De Palma’s Scarface imply far more sophistication than what’s actually on the screen. “There’s a little cheese in it, it’s not high art, but we hit some really great chords,” says Sacks.
For Thrashin’, Sacks enlisted Tony Alva as a consultant and hired Peralta, by then a burgeoning director, to handle the second unit skateboarding scenes. Peralta had cofounded his own skateboard company, Powell-Peralta, and put together a team of skaters dubbed the Bones Brigade, featuring ascendant stars like Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero. Members of the Bones Brigade worked as stunt doubles on the film, and the skate montage on Hollywood Boulevard bears stylistic similarities to the New York City segment Peralta filmed in the touchstone skate video Future Primitive.
The Bones Brigade’s services were also used in Police Academy 4 and Gleaming the Cube. “There were certain shots that were a little more sketchy than others, so they’d give you a stunt bump,” says Guerrero. “They’d say, ‘Could you do this? And if you can, we’ll give you a stunt bump.’ You know, $500 extra to basically try and kill yourself. ‘Try and ollie over this fountain. You think you can do it?’ Yeah, sure. Anytime that came along, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ because the truth of the matter is that we’d been doing that for most of our lives and to actually get paid per move was pretty incredible.”
By the time they were working on 1989’s Gleaming the Cube, Peralta was trying to push the Bones Brigade toward acting and getting them actual lines in the film, but most didn’t make the final cut. (The product placement for Pizza Hut probably gets more character development than they do.) Still, Guerrero and Hawk were able to make extra money from the production when they got hired to teach Christian Slater, the film’s star, how to skate. “We were paid to go meet him at a school yard ... but he wasn’t into it at all. He was like, ‘You guys go do whatever, I’m going to try and learn on my own,’” says Guerrero. “I don’t think he really wanted to take the amount of time that it does to learn, so me and Tony would just split and go skate all day.”
Like Thrashin’, Gleaming the Cube tries to graft skateboarding into a different film genre. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin originally wanted to set a crime story in the growing Vietnamese community of Orange County. Slater’s alienated teenage skater becomes an amateur detective, trying to figure out who murdered his adopted brother.
Zoo York’s Gesner says that he was among a group of New York City skaters that the studio brought in to test screen the film before its release. It did not go well. “We were probably hating on it more than we should, but I remember being like, ‘Why gleaming the cube? Why did you make up this term?’” he recalls. “It just seemed so fraudulent. It’s like they were exploiting skateboarding, but then they didn’t like what they saw, so the writer had to make up this term.”
“I thought [the movies] were all really, really corny, really shitty, poorly done,” says Glen E. Friedman, the photographer who began his career as a teenager shooting the Dogtown skaters, and who considers himself a “pure skater.” “When the movies started happening, skateboarding was beginning a little bit of a downturn, as it does. … I think a lot of the guys who participated were just desperate to be in something, and to be popular again they were in these corny, shitty movies.”
But in this era before streaming video, social media, or even widespread DVD production, any footage of pro skaters was welcome to young devotees around the country who were going to make it a Blockbuster night. Thrashin’ and Gleaming the Cube might have been narrative messes wrapped in goofy-ass ’80s aesthetics, but they had some material that viewers could crib ideas and moves from. The same could be said for how punk and hip-hop from this decade were depicted in films like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains and Beat Street. “There weren’t a whole lot of places to see skateboarding,” says Jeff Tremaine, the editor of Big Brother magazine and co-creator of Jackass. “You could see it on [skate] videos, but there weren’t even that many videos. [The films were] kind of cool, in a way, to see skateboarding, even if it was being misrepresented or just in some kooky Hollywood guy’s interpretation of it.”
The skateboarding film with the most lasting cultural impact is 1995’s Kids, though it barely has any skateboarding in it. Directed by Larry Clark and written in a week by a then-teenage Harmony Korine, the plot is ostensibly about Jennie (played by Chloë Sevigny) trying to find Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) to tell him that he’s HIV positive and is spreading the infection to every virgin he sleeps with. But mostly it’s about a group of teens roaming the streets of New York City, getting high, stealing, fighting, talking about sex, thinking about sex, trying to have sex, and having sex. Much of the young cast were skaters, including the pros Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, and Telly was originally going to be played by pro Quim Cardona.
“I hadn’t really seen anything quite like it before,” says director Bing Liu, who watched Kids for the first time as teenager drinking beers in someone’s living room in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. “It’s weird seeing many aspects of your surroundings and your milieu reflected like that, and that took skateboarding in a way where it’s not the focus of the story, just something really woven into the fabric of what that group of young people did. It was just something that was part of their world.” In Liu’s Minding the Gap there’s a part where Kids is playing on a TV during a house party, a generational rerun of the same way he first saw the film years ago.
While many of the characters in Kids carry boards, the only featured skateboarding lasts a few seconds when Pierce’s character Casper accidentally knocks into a guy while riding in Washington Square Park. Their altercation ends with the man getting jumped and almost beaten to death. Skateboards get more screen time as weapons.
What skateboarders respond to in Kids is that they can tell it wasn’t conceived by an outsider trying to translate their world for a broader audience. It was written by Korine, one of their own, someone who knew the language and details, like how to roll a blunt or boost a 40. That was usually enough for them, even if the HIV McGuffin that Clark came up with now feels like something out of a panicky sex education movie. As Fitzpatrick told Rolling Stone in 2015, “The smartest thing [Clark] did with the film was have Harmony write it. Because he knew that he needed a kid to write Kids.”
Kids was divisive at the time of its release: Critics considered it either a troubling but honest portrait of modern times or a sensationalistic manipulation. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed, “What sets Kids apart as daringly original, touching and alive is its authenticity,” while Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote, “Except for pedophiles, it’s hard to imagine who’ll be drawn to this irresponsible Little Bo Peep show.” On its 20th anniversary it was memorialized in extensive articles, multiple oral histories, and a capsule collection from Supreme.
Patrick O’Dell remembers seeing Kids at an arthouse theater in Columbus, Ohio, upon its release when he was young, but is pretty incredulous about the devotion it still inspires. “I understand why I watched it in 1995 or whatever, but it’s interesting that it’s still being watched,” he says. “When I interviewed Leo [Fitzpatrick] about it for Epicly Later’d, he was telling me that he was at Tompkins [Square Park] and some kids was like, ‘I love that movie, I moved to New York because of that movie.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s a cautionary tale. There’s nothing inspiring, it’s not a happy movie.’” Gesner, who helped Clark throughout the making of the film, says, “When I watch it, I don’t feel like I’m watching a home video. I have tons of video of all those people, from that exact same time period, of us just walking around or skateboarding or being idiots. That’s not what watching Kids is like to me.”
In his episode of Epicly Later’d, Korine tells O’Dell, “It’s interesting to me to see skateboarders now because for the most part they seem so much more peaceful. Then, when we were skating, it was so much about violence. Probably because of all the people that fucked with us.”
Larry Clark went on to direct two more films about skateboarding, 2002’s Ken Park and 2005’s Wassup Rockers, both of which have more footage of skating in them. Neither film resonated as much as Kids. Set in Visalia, California, Ken Park manages to present an even more fucked-up view of the world. It starts with the titular character skating through his town to a busy skatepark. He sits down in the middle of it, turns on a camcorder, and then shoots himself in the head. Ken Park was never officially released in any format in the United States. I tracked down a copy at one of the last video stores left in Los Angeles. When I popped in the DVD, the mandatory warning about unauthorized use was in Russian.
“[Larry Clark] is an exploiter of culture, and I don’t like people who exploit culture. And I think he used it to his great advantage,” says Friedman. “He was probably inspired by [skate culture] in some ways, and he liked the rebelliousness that he saw in it, 15, 20 years after it really took off. He grasped onto these city kids [in Kids] who were really not very good skaters, but they were skateboarders and their culture was legitimate. But by that point, skateboarding was really just fashion in a lot of ways.”
As the decades have passed, cultural polyglots like Pharrell Williams and Tyler, the Creator have signposted skateboarding as one more dimension of their creative existence. Skateboarding is no longer just the domain of aimless, nihilistic youth. It’s become a vehicle for the aspirationally industrious who want to design sneakers and make beats and put together limited edition zines and do a million other things. Mikey Alfred, the 23-year-old founder of the skate brand Illegal Civilization, grew up in North Hollywood. His mother is the longtime assistant of legendary producer Robert Evans and Jonah Hill tapped him to be a co-producer on Mid90s, doing whatever Hill needed to get done. “I just grew up loving film, and when I saw Kids, I was already in ninth grade. I didn’t like it. I remember watching it and thinking this is not how skaters are, in my life at least,” says Alfred. “What they didn’t get right is that every single skateboarder is multi-talented. I’ve never met a skateboarder who can only skate. They’re all really smart, they’re all really intellectual, they’re all really self-reflective. Skating is something you do alone, so you have a lot of time to think and figure out who you are. I haven’t met that many insecure skateboarders, they’re pretty confident, because they spend so much time in their own head. And that’s something that Kids didn’t capture at all.”
By the turn of the century, the skaters from the revolution of the 1970s and ’80s were in positions to make their own movies about the culture. The TV show Jackass came directly out of the skate videos made by Big Brother magazine under Jeff Tremaine and the CKY series from prodigious pro skater Bam Margera. What differentiated these videos was their obsession with the often hilarious ways that young skaters were willing to inflict damage on themselves, even when they weren’t on their boards. To amuse themselves and their friends, they would launch themselves from shopping carts into hedges or light their faces on fire and do backflips.
Almost everyone in the core Jackass crew could skate, aside from big man Preston Lacy and the show’s charismatic host, Johnny Knoxville—a struggling actor who had a similar disregard for his own physical well-being. Knoxville made his name among the Big Brother crew after testing self-defense weapons on himself, including strapping on a cheap bulletproof vest and shooting himself in the chest. After two seasons on MTV, the network wanted Jackass to tone down the show after a string of copycat incidents reportedly went bad. Its makers, which included Spike Jonze, ultimately decided to end the TV run and partner with Paramount to turn the series into a film, protected by its R rating. The first Jackass turned a massive profit, as did the two subsequent sequels and the Bad Grandpa spinoff.