Filmmaker Crystal Moselle has a knack for finding her stories in strange ways. Moselle met her the stars of her Sundance-winning debut, “The Wolfpack,” on the streets of New York, when the distinctive movie-obsessed Angulo brothers caught her eye. That initial interest sparked a documentary that went on to garner big buzz at Sundance and win Moselle the doc-focused Cinema Eye Honors Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film.
She found the stars of her narrative feature “Skate Kitchen” in similar fashion: She overheard them chatting on the G train about, of all things, tampons. She was struck by their openness and authenticity. But the skateboards they were toting certainly didn’t hurt.
“I just knew right away when I met them,” Moselle said. “I like the idea of an ensemble cast. Everybody brings something, but there’s always the first one that kinda sticks out to me and they have a charisma that sticks out and that pulls me in to the group.” It was only later that she added Jaden Smith to the cast, blending a recognizable face with a cast of newcomers.
During that initial encounter, it was the gravely-voiced Nina Moran, who plays Kurt in the film, that first captured Moselle’s attention. “With Nina, when I saw her on the train and I instantly knew,” she said. “But then I met Rachelle and I was like, ‘There’s an interesting quietness and pain that I can see in her.’ Nina is like this charismatic loud voice that you wanna listen to and is funny and hilarious. But then, Rachelle has this emotion that you can feel her. She doesn’t have to do much.”
Originally, Moselle intended on using the Skate Kitchen girls for a long-planned short film project for Miu Miu (titled “That One Day,” the short is the twelfth project in the fashion brand’s “Women’s Tale” series). At the same time, Moselle was mulling a feature-length script about a tight-knit group of girls and wondered if “That One Day” could serve as a proof of concept for that idea.
“But then I realized that I had to make this film,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna make a documentary with you guys later, but let’s do this short film now. It’ll be fun. Let’s just be free and do what we feel.’ … But then after we made the film, I got some feedback.” She spoke to Sundance’s Kim Yutani, who recently became the festival’s director of programming. Yutani encouraged Moselle to make a feature out of the material.
The filmmaker knew she wanted to combine the freedom of the Skate Kitchen crew with her original idea, a hybrid of fact and fiction that played on their real-life personas. She trundled them off to improv classes to get a sense of their acting skills, and was pleasantly surprised by what she found. Her first ask: reenact their initial conversation on the G train, the one that caught Moselle’s attention.
“They did it perfectly,” she said. “I thought, I guess we can do this because they’re just completely open. When you have non-actors playing versions of themselves, it [provides] a nice little thing that they can grasp on to and they’re super open.”
But she remained open to the idea of introducing a real actor into the mix. “We’re like, we’ve got these non-actors, but then the actors they can bring a different level to this,” she said. Enter Jaden Smith.
A skateboarder himself, Smith had already expressed his interest in the girls and what they were doing — in cool teen parlance, he had hit up Rachelle on Instagram to say hey — and when the ladies started brainstorming about notable actors who could also skate, the choice was obvious. Moselle reached out and the young actor quickly signed up to play a love interest for Vinberg’s character Camille, but the filmmaker didn’t let him off easy.
“I was like, ‘If you wanna do this movie, you have to come hang out with all the boys in New York City and really come in to the scene,'” Moselle said. “And he did. He was in Queens at the skate park and cruising around with them on the streets. At a certain point at first, we were driving them around and making sure they’re all in the right spots, and then they just all became friends and they just started hanging out all the time without me or anybody. They’d just go skate around New York City together. I think he really found his place here with this community.”
Moselle, who remains close with the Angulo brothers from “The Wolfpack,” has also found her own place among the Skate Kitchen kids. “There’s this real caring, empathetic way that they all are,” Moselle said. “They’re really sweet and I trust all them. I was thinking the other day, ‘Wow, I have these seven teenagers that I hang out with all the time and I trust every single one of them.’ I would give them the key to my house and they could stay in my house for three months and I would trust them.”
Magnolia Pictures releases “Skate Kitchen” on Friday, August 10.