For being such a documentary hotshot, Stacy Peralta is one of the coolest directors I’ve ever met. His films, which include the classic skateboarding film “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” “Riding Giants” about surfing, and the definitive South LA gang film, “Crips and Bloods: Made in America,” are just as cool. Both Peralta and his films are unpretentious, straight-to-the-point and completely affecting.
Here at Toronto’s Hot Docs’ Doc Talks, Cinema Eye’s AJ Schnack sat down with Peralta, who is in town promoting his film “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography,” about the group of skateboarding legends he was a part of in the 1980’s, and “No Room for Rock Stars,” a film he produced about the Vans Warped Tour.
Peralta’s friends, it turns out, asked him six years ago to make “Bones Brigade,” about the skateboarding team that included Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero and Mike McGill. With archival footage of the team’s early competitions and interviews with the men today, “Bones Brigade” brought out a slew of skateboarders and film lovers to screenings at Sundance and this week at Hot Docs.
“They kept telling me our legacy was worthy of a film,” Peralta said. “But at first, I wasn’t comfortable being the director and a character of the film. It’s a worthy film, but I shouldn’t do it. There will be people who think I’m narcissitic for doing this. They asked me to reconsider.
“They pointed out that we were now as old as Tony Alva and everyone were when I made ‘Dogtown,’ and I thought this is the time, it can’t wait longer. If it works it works, if it doesn’t and I’ll go down burning. Because I’m so close to the material, I have to ask a lot of questions of the people i’m working with. Am I doing this right? I ask my editor: ‘This is too personal with me, can you handle this?'”
Schnack asked Peralta if he knew what the film would look like when he decided he would do it. Peralta said absolutely not, noting that it took him about three months from deciding to do it to starting to shoot it. “Everyone assumes I know the story because I’ve lived it. It’s not like my brain has a complete three-act structure of this part of my life.
“When I say yes to something, my brain starts to unravel. The first thing I do is do the soundtrack — it helps me discover the tone and the tenor of the film. I can feel the film; I can’t see it, though. I start living in an incredibly anxious state. It’s slow to manifest. I start writing down subject headings. What I’m doing is opening my brain up to the scenario [of making the film]. Over time, what it is it look like graphically? How do I want to shoot it?”
The strength of Peralta’s intuition and work style came through in another anecdote about casting for his “Bloods and Crips” film. “I’d go into neighborhoods, but first, find a contact. I’d meet that person, spend some time with that person. Explain to them: Here’s who I am, these are the films I’ve made, here’s the high school I went to, ere’s where I grew up.
“I got many [gang leaders] involved – they told me they had never had a filmmaker come in without a crew to make the film, so that automatically gave me clout. Some guys — journalists! — come to them and say ‘Can I follow you on a drive-by shooting?'””
However, there is a villain in Peralta’s career: Hollywood.
“It’s weird,” Peralta noted, “Skateboarding and surfing have, over time, become totally cool in LA. I’ll be out surfing and agents are cutting deals on the water. That’s not supposed to happen here!”
When he first started to shoot stuff for skate videos, he hired a Hollywood crew, “they were very condescending to me, and so I fired them. I started telling them what kinds of shots I wanted and they just laughed at me. I got an editing system and started cutting away.”
As new modes of distribution become more popular, Peralta said he’s ready to get away from conventional indie distributors. “I’ve never seen a profit from any of the films I’ve made. I conceived them, I write them, I direct them, I produce them and I never saw a penny on any of them.
“With ‘Bones Brigade’ now, I can go to the digital platforms myself and profit from it all. People are changing the way they’re viewing things, and I’m ready to adapt to that.”