Writer and director Tristan Patterson is flying pretty high right now. His first feature-length film “Dragonslayer” just won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and he’s in the middle of negotiations for distribution. The film follows Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a pool skateboarder from California, in his daily wanderings. Patterson took some time while promoting his film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston to sit down with us to talk about the odd form of his documentary, what type of viewer he’s interested in and what it was like to win a major award after only one film.
In “Dragonslayer,” Patterson makes quite a few unconventional decisions. One important choice is the form of the film, in which he uses a countdown to format the chapters of Skreech’s life. “You should think about [the film] like listening to an album. Each song you listen to, you feel more and more,” Patterson said. “The movie is in chapters, but also not. They’re more like layers of his life. Each layer is going to pull something away, so you arrive at something closer to him. And at the end of the movie, you’re staring at footage that he’s shot himself that is an essential truth.”
The ending is one of the most emotionally rattling parts of the film in which we get to see Skreech as a man taking responsibility by getting a job and caring for his son. Before, we only saw him as a drunken fool or skatepark bum. It’s this skateboarding lifestyle that is both repulsive and engrossing at the same time. Patterson compares these emotions to his own when first considering making a film about Skreech and his life.
“When the economy collapsed, I was scared to death about my own life. It felt for the first time like we were going to have to live in a world with no safety net,” Patterson explained. “I went to a party, and these kids were destroying everything; Skreech was there. I saw some collision of me living my life without a safety net and these kids definitely not having one. If you were looking at that scene, asking who is my De Niro, there is no question. It’s Skreech.”
Patterson expressed that though it was his love for ’80s teen rebellion movies that started the idea for the documentary, he eventually became obsessed with recreating the authentic experience of Skreech’s day-to-day life for the audience. “The reason you would feel sympathy or emotion is that you are experiencing someone’s life as they experience it,” he insisted. “Even though this is a documentary, what I felt pressure to accomplish was to capture authentically his performance.”
Though it’s clear that Patterson feels much affection for Skreech and his many eccentricities, one of the greatest successes of the film is that the audience is never quite sure how to feel about Skreech. Do we think he’s charming, or do we think he’s just a bum with no regard for others? The director makes it very clear that he’s not in the business of telling the viewer what to think.
“The viewer I want is one who says ‘I like this film because I know that the filmmaker captured [Skreech’s] experience authentically,'” Patterson said. “The viewer I don’t care about is the one who says, ‘Well, he didn’t tell me what to think.’ I just want to say, ‘Leave the theater!’ We made a decision not to have talking heads, to have someone explain a life to you.”
Patterson’s clear passion for this film translated to the screen, probably one of the major factors in it being awarded the Jury Prize at SXSW. When asked about the win, he expressed all the usual gratitude and happiness, then concluded: “It’s hard to work on a film like this where everyone is working for free. When you’re editing for a year, barely paying people, demanding that you have a correct version of the movie in your head, people are looking at you like you’re insane. To win is to validate your own insanity.”
The Independent Film Festival Of Boston continues through May 4th.