INTERVIEW: Before the X-Games, there was "Dogtown"; Stacy Peralta Tells it Like it Was
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE/ 04.24.02) — Stacy Peralta is the only person in the world whose professional accomplishments include both a Sundance Film Festival directing award as well as a world skateboarding title. Both talents are on display in “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” Peralta’s documentary about the first and only Zephyr Skate Team, who in the mid-1970s almost single-handedly created a new counterculture outlet for disaffected youth all over the world. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film this Friday.
“Dogtown” charts the rise of modern “vert” skateboarding, from its origins in a decrepit SoCal beach community to the 1975 Del Mar Championships, where the Z-Boys made their historic debut. Peralta focuses on the three best skaters from the team — himself, Tony Alva and Jay Adams — and the vastly different ways in which athletes tackled the challenge of turning a way of life into a professional career.
Using a combination of talking-head interviews, archival footage, still photographs, and a first rate soundtrack, Peralta eschews all standard historical documentary techniques in order to bring his audience as close as possible to experiencing the world from the perspective of the kids involved in the Dogtown scene. Watching “Dogtown and Z-Boys” is kind of like looking at the world through eyes of a hyperactive 14-year-old. Along with the grand jury and audience prizes at Sundance 2001, the film took home the best documentary prize at the 2002 Independent Spirit Awards. indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross spoke with Peralta about skating, filmmaking, and digging up the past.
indieWIRE: First of all, how did you meet the Z Boys?
Stacy Peralta: When we were in junior high, the hottest surfers from our area all surfed in at this beach in Santa Monica called Bay Street. We all wanted to be accepted by those guys. The only way to do it was to be good at surfing. Almost all of the Z-boys went to Venice or Santa Monica High School.
iW: Before the Zephyr skate team began to get all the attention, were you aware that you guys were doing would have a big impact, or did you have no idea?
Peralta: We didn’t have a clue that what we were doing when we got together to skate would turn into something big. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Years prior to us getting together, skateboarding’s popularity had spiked, but when we started it was just dead. Everywhere we went back then we were kicked out of and told to leave. That doesn’t give you an idea that what you’re doing was special. But we knew it was special for ourselves. It wasn’t like we felt the world would eventually understand what we were doing at suddenly give us all this attention.
iW: With MTV, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Subcultures get noticed and appropriated so quickly.
Peralta: The area we grew up in was a lower-income area. If you were from our area, not only did companies not want to sponsor you, they didn’t want anything to you with you. The idea of getting paid to skateboard was crazy — none of us would have believed you if you said we’d all become stars because we could skate.
iW: How did your experiences as a member of the Z-Boys inform the filmmaking?
Peralta: One advantage I had was that I knew what footage was out there, and which photographers and filmmakers had made the material I was interested in using. The trouble was tracking them down. I had to hire a private detective.
I’m sure that if another filmmaker made this film, they wouldn’t have done anything about the Pacific Ocean Park, the beach where everything started. Only if you were an insider could you know how much of an influence that pier had on us.
iW: The pace of the movie is so relentless and aggressive. How did you come up with the style?
Peralta: We really wanted to this film in a different way, especially in terms of the still photographs. We didn’t want it to feel methodical, which is often what you see in these kind of documentaries. We didn’t want to take a wide shot and then slowly zoom in something. We wanted to see edges, we wanted to see burn marks. We all wanted to shoot the photos from as many angles as possible so as to give editor Paul Crowder as many ways as possible to cut in to a new shot. It was really important for the photos to have a life of their own. In the editing room, Paul and I tried to think of ourselves almost like jazz players. I’d play a riff, he’d play riff, and we’d keep working off each other.
iW: The jazz analogy makes a lot of sense. The film feels like a well-designed stream of consciousness piece.
Peralta: Thanks for the compliment, because that was definitely something we were after. It was also a very practical decision. We cut the film out of sequence. We were editing the archival material at the same time I was trying to track everyone down for interviews. When a new interview would come in, the segments would change. When everything was put together, we began experimenting with how to place the segments. Eventually, the film began to dictate to us what it was.
iW: Did changing a sequence after an interview ever become frustrating?
Peralta: I have to give Paul a tremendous amount of credit. A lot of editors don’t like to re-cut, but he a tremendous sport. He was always open to incorporating new material. There was absolutely no friction between us, although there might have been. Often, the new interviews would often open up an existing segment. Or good stock footage would come in just before an interview, and I would alter my questions because I wanted to address that new material. The approach was constantly changing, but all the interviews were off the same set of original questions.
iW: Why did you choose to include interviews with the musicians Henry Rollins, Jeff Ament, and Ian MacKaye, all of whom were kids when the Z-Boys were skating professionally?
Peralta:I made the choice because I wanted to show that this wasn’t some insular little culture, that this did have tentacles that reached other people who didn’t live in area and who went to do other things besides skate. They’re the layman’s window into the film; they help give the film credibility.
iW: I know a variety of original formats were used. How was that dealt with technically?
Peralta: For editing, we transferred everything to Beta SP, then we output the entire film to DigiBeta. That was bumped to 24p High-Def. That tape was sent to Sony Imageworks for the film transfer. The best way would have probably been to edit off of Digibeta, not Beta, but we didn’t have a ton of money. We shot the main interviews on film and the secondary interviews on DV. All the still photographs were shot on Beta. Our original archival material came in on just about everything: super 8mm, regular 8mm, even VHS. All of that was transferred to Beta SP and then edited. We cut on the Avid at 30 frames. Because we shot on both film and video, we ended up making two outputs on 24p, both of which were used for the film transfer.
iW: How much of an emotional experience was this for you? I could imagine the digging up the past may have been a bit difficult at times.
Peralta: It wasn’t really emotional for me until we premiered it at Sundance, where almost everyone saw it for the first time. Tony Alva was there, along with a lot of other skaters who appeared on the film. I was beyond nervous. I knew that if these guys didn’t like it, I knew I’d feel like a complete failure. Afterwards, Tony Alva came up to me, and his chin was quivering. His eyes were watering and he couldn’t even talk. Then I started breaking down. But leading up to that moment, there was too much anxiety about making the actual movie. It was so consuming, and I didn’t really have time to get too emotional. It was terrific seeing these guys. It was as if the time clock went off in all of us at the same time. We all needed to tell this story.