The Sudden Rise and Violent Fall of a Skating Celeb; Helen Stickler on "Stoked"
by Adam Hart
Mark "Gator" Rogowski was one of the skateboarding world's first celebrities. Adopted by the skateboard/clothing company Vision while still a teenager, he became one of the most visible stars for a generation of skate punks, and brought the skateboard to a larger public in a big way. On the ramps he was explosive, and off he was wild and charismatic, a true rock star. In what's become almost a cliche for celebrity biographers, he grew very rich and very famous very fast, and when his star began to dim, he snapped. Gator was a troubled kid, with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and once his fame started to slip, he fell hard. A vertical skater comically undereqipped for shifts within the skating world, he was left behind. Desperate and angry, he found a new life in religion. However, his efforts at extreme personal reinvention served only to mask increasingly frantic, often self-destructive, behavior. When his longtime girlfriend left, he snapped. Now the stuff of urban legend, Gator brutally raped and killed one of her friends, dumping her body in the California desert. He's now in prison, serving 31 years to life.
"Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator," Helen Stickler's engaging new documentary, deals unflinchingly with its troubled subject. With balance and insight, the film sifts through the myths that surround his early days of tacky celebrity glory and his eventual violent loss of control. Stickler has managed to portray Gator with all his charisma and humor without letting it begin to excuse the darker side of his history. He does speak in the film, but only through a telephone: California does not allow filmed interviews with its inmates. Thoroughly researched and intimately familiar with the milieu it depicts, "Stoked" is a great skateboarding doc, full of amusing characters and fascinating details. More than that, it's a clever look at pop culture's fickle, frivolous nature. It's a study of a superficial, seductive figure who thrived in a superficial, seductive era, and then got left behind when his act was no longer cool. indieWIRE contributor Adam Hart spoke to Stickler about "Stoked," which opens today from Palm Pictures.
indieWIRE: How long have you been making this film?
Helen Stickler: I started researching in early '97. I'd known about the Gator story for a while. It was this urban legend in skateboarding. I don't skate myself, but I've always been friends with skateboarders and it's something they were always talking about. Gator had done this thing, and nobody understood why he did it, or even what had really happened. All these kind of spin-off stories had come out of the woodwork, like he chopped the girl up, or that he was on a coke bender for a week and she was a model, or it was his girlfriend's sister -- all these crazy stories. I'm really attracted to stories like that because it gives you a bit of a challenge, from a journalistic perspective, to find out what really happened. I wanted to know how somebody who had been so successful and had been such a role model to so many people, and so many of my friends when they were growing up, could get to this point of desperation where he could do this horrible thing. I started doing the research first, and that took a long time. I grew up in Kentucky and then went to school on the East Coast, but everybody [in the film] is in California, so I had to spend a lot of time in California and find everybody. In the meantime I was paying for it all myself and working for MTV, so I would work and then get a break and fly back to California. Eventually I quit my job and I've been working on it full time for the last three years.
iW: You paid for most of it yourself?
Stickler: I paid for all of it myself. I've been living off credit cards for more than a year.
iW: The film does a really good job depicting the '80s in all their garish glory without being too cheesy about it. Do you have much nostalgia for that decade?
Stickler: I think most people who came up in that era have a love-hate relationship with it. It's hard to be completely nostalgic about what was arguably one of the cheesiest times in American culture, and it was not only good times either. They call it "The Greed Decade." It was really the time when our whole fixation on celebrity at all costs was born. What has now led people to do anything to be on reality TV, all that started in the '80s. [There were] the outsized larger-than-life personas, Reaganomics, and junk bonds and aerobics and "Dynasty," and there's so much from that era that is just so wrong. It did produce a lot of incredible music and alternative cultures. I think it was the first time that youth culture was really commodified and marketed, in a way we hadn't seen before. I think the '60s were when people recognized youth culture as a political force, and as soon as those people from the '60s got a little older they're like "Hey, I remember how powerful our youth culture was, let's sell the youth culture of today." It's really when the Baby Boomers decided they were going to become entrepreneurs and sell. People like Gator were perfectly happy to do it.
iW: From your meetings with Gator, now that he's gotten some treatment and has found Christianity in a big way, could you recognize in him the Gator you were making the movie about from the mid-'80s?
Stickler: Yeah, he's very different, and that was really a kind of emotional thing. When I first started doing the story, it was very emotional for me to confront all his pain, and I felt a little guilty that I was digging up this painful story in everybody's past. One of the things that was difficult was that I had done all this research on Mark, and then I met him and he's so different from that person that I researched. As I spent a little more time with him, he became more relaxed and was a bit more candid, and wasn't so concerned about putting on the contrite front -- not to say that it's a front, he is very contrite and very remorseful. I could see some of the elements from the past. He does have a temper and he can be really difficult, so that stuff is still there in him now. He's definitely done a tremendous amount of work on himself, and prison has done it's job. It gives people an incredible amount of time to think about what they've done and do personal work on themselves. So he's very different. Just being taken out of that environment -- so much of what he was back then was a sponge, feeding off the attention. Now that he's definitely not getting attention, he has to be humbled.
iW: Gator seems pretty eager to tell his side of the story. Was he enthusiastic about this film, or at least agreeable?
Stickler: In the beginning, he wanted to do it but was very cautious. He goes back and forth on almost a daily basis sometimes. For the most part he did support the project. A couple of people wanted to talk about it, but not unless Gator said it was okay, so he'd write letters. And some people were just the opposite, they were like "I will do this as long as he has no say in it, as long as it's not a mouthpiece for him." That was the main thing, I had to let him know that it wasn't going to be a propaganda piece. It wasn't going to be something that glossed over what happened in order to help him get parole or anything like that. So he really had to find in himself the motivation to do it.
I think that ultimately what happened is that he realized the story is a little bit bigger than him, and it was something that people could learn from down the road. If it could help one or two people, it was worth the discomfort that it caused him to go over the story again.
He is deeply ashamed of what he did and it's difficult to live with that reality, especially for somebody so image conscious, who's got this idea of who he is. I think it's very difficult for him to understand that he's a murderer now, and has been for twelve years.
iW: The whole born-again religious thing comes as a real surprise in the movie, especially since you already know what's going to happen at the end.
Stickler: I think that what Gator saw in [religion] was another youth culture where he could step in and be a celebrity again. Because skateboarding was done with him and there were new guys coming up that were stepping up and were more exciting than him and he met a guy who convinced him of that. He was running a little, fledgling church group and he said [to himself], "Look, you're Gator. You can come in here and be a force for good and use your name to get more kids to the word of Christ." I think for somebody with Gator's personality, needing that much attention, the idea of standing up in front of people and having them raise their hands in the air, just appealed to him in a way that maybe he didn't fully understand himself, which is the whole idea of needing that hero worship. When he became a Christian, that kind of set up the combustion that eventually led to the crime, this push-pull between being the decadent hard-partying skater and then this too-idealistic role model trying to mirror himself in the image of Christ. Those two things together were not ever going to meet in the middle, because he was so extreme about both of them.
iW: Did you worry at all about being perceived as covering the same ground as "Dogtown and Z-Boys"?
Stickler: Well, I started my movie five years before they did. It was a concern of mine when it came out, but they had millions of dollars. Vans is like a $380 million a year company, and once they started up production they just crushed me. There was no way I was going to beat them to it. So they totally got the spotlight and all the festivals and whatnot, and it did create a problem for me. I pretty much had to sit back and wait, even though my film was ready to go right after theirs. The festivals were like "Oh we had our skateboard movie already." So, it just gave me more time to kind of tweak the movie and just finish up some of the stuff I had to do. Really it's just me doing this movie, with like 10 people who worked on it when they could. I didn't have a big budget and a full staff like they did, so it's hard to compare the two on that level. Sony poured so much money into marketing ["Dogtown"], and so did Vans. Mine is a much more grassroots type of thing, people have known about it for up to six years -- as soon as I made my first phone call it showed up in Thrasher magazine. Because of the subject matter, it's more appropriate that it be a word-of-mouth type of thing. And it's not really covering the same ground. Their movie stops at like 1980, and then mine picks up right after that. They actually work well together, as far as building a set of history books for skating. But from the level of festivals and distributors and all that it was kind of unfortunate. But I like their movie, it's good.