While Bing Liu was shooting his Oscar-nominated “Minding the Gap” in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, he was simultaneously trying to advance his professional career working 90 minutes away in Chicago. “I was doing this all on the side,” said Liu when he appeared on the IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I was working crew in Chicago and whenever I got a free moment I would drive up to Rockford.”
Liu spent much of his early 20s driving around the country meeting and talking to other young adults who, like him, had “fractured” childhoods. It was in his hometown, Rockford, where he found two incredibly dynamic documentary subjects, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, who, also like Liu, had found refuge and family in skateboarding. While both young men are open and forthright on camera, neither was particularly communicative with Liu when it came to meeting up to shoot.
“For actual verite scenes, which are supposed to play out like scenes, I didn’t really have much control,” said Liu. “My thing was just coming to Rockford and finding these guys. Zack didn’t have a phone for many years while we were making this. Keire was a teenager who was just really bad at getting back to me… sometimes I couldn’t even find them. I would just go back to Chicago empty-handed having shot nothing.”
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The even harder part was when his subjects’ lives were unfolding in ways that would inevitably be major story points of “Minding the Gap,” Liu had little time to prepare while working grueling hours on set.
“Like when Keire moved out [of Rockford] to Denver, he texted me while I was on set, I was working on ‘Sense 8,’ and was like, ‘I’m going to move out tomorrow,’” said Liu. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, so I was almost trying to find Adderall from someone on the crew because we [were] going to wrap at two in the morning and I have to drive out to Rockford and wait outside his house… And that’s what I did. I was able to capture that scene.”
Ultimately, “Minding the Gap” is much more than a skateboard movie, as all three subjects – Keire, Zack, and Liu himself – grew up in homes with domestic abuse. The film takes a dramatic turn when it would appear that Zack is repeating the cycle of violence with his young family. It’s something Liu discovers when Nina, Zack’s girlfriend and the mother of their new-born, moved out after a particularly heated argument that appeared to have gotten violent. Yet, not long after, the couple started to get back together.
“At the time it was like, Zack and Nina are going to get back together,” said Liu. “I have a very short window to capture their emotional states now as they’re sort of split up and this big moving out thing had happened between the two of them.”
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Liu is in the backseat of the car with Nina and Zack, who jumps out to run an errand. The filmmaker took advantage of the brief moment alone with Nina to ask her about Zack hitting her and her fears getting back together with him. When Zack returns, Nina’s posture and face instantly change — she is afraid to upset the delicate balance of their not-always stable relationship.
“I didn’t do it to try to create this tension of, ‘Oh, Zack’s out of the car,’” said Liu. “It was just like, well, if Nina gets back together with him, then next time I see her I’m going to miss this window. I have to ask her now how she feels about this.”
“Minding the Gap” is one of five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It is available to stream on Hulu and will air on POV on Monday, February 18.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.