States of Independence
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How to make a documentary on a dime

Director Tristan Patterson on how he made his DIY skate doc Dragonslayer during a recession and why you should never ask for permission

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As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Shot using basic, sketchy camera techniques with a beautiful DIY aesthetic, Dragonslayer follows pro-skater “Skreech” Sandoval whilst he empties swimming pools to skate, eats chilli cheese fries and smokes from a grimy, homemade bong with his teenage girlfriend Lesley. What starts as a regular 80s throwback punk skate film soon turns into a poetic coming-of-age documentary that throws up some important questions about freedom, growing up and that weird period of your life when you’re forced to make decisions that have an actual impact.

Since its release, American director Tristan Patterson has won two awards for Dragonslayer (best documentary prize at SXSW and Best International Feature at Hot Docs) and is still making indie films set in California, which means he certainly knows a thing or two about conquering the world of independent cinema.

It’s been three years since Dragonslayer was first released. Has your outlook changed since making the film?

Tristan Patterson: I made the film during such a specific time of crisis. The economy had just collapsed and I can remember being in places like Palmdale, California and discovering entire suburban developments just wasting away in the desert, completely abandoned. We’d find children’s clothes left behind in garbage bags, a half-finished love letter in a sewer. There was such a feeling of anarchy in the air. That can either be really fucking scary or it can become its own kind of freedom if you find a way to embrace it, and maybe even celebrate it a little. Suddenly, everything becomes possible in a brand new way. I think that outlook on life is something I’m always trying to remind myself of. I always want to stay connected to that feeling.

Are you still in contact with Skreech and do you know how he’s spending his days?

Tristan Patterson: Skreech was living in Germany for a while, so he’s been a bit off the radar, or at least off my radar, but I get the sense he’s really taking skating seriously again and kind of re-dedicating himself to this thing he loves so much. He’s on instagram, so occasionally I’ll see a couple snapshots of his travels and adventures. His posts always have such an honest quality to them. It’s funny, I’ll still get lost in thought for a second and start thinking, I wonder what a movie about him could be like.

What did you learn from making Dragonslayer?

Tristan Patterson: Don’t ask for permission. 

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Tristan Patterson: No, the opposite. I feel like Dragonslayer is exactly what it’s supposed to be, which is basically whatever the fuck it is. I still love it. At the time, we were so desperate for advice, but no one really offered us any and, in retrospect, I don’t think we would have listened if they did. Which, now that I think about it, is probably why no one did.

“We were so desperate for advice, but no one really offered us any and, in retrospect, I don’t think we would have listened if they did” – Tristan Patterson

What did you set out to achieve with Dragonslayer and do you think you’ve achieved it?

Tristan Patterson: I wasn’t concerned at all about anything other than feeling like I’d captured this moment in Skreech’s life in a way that felt correct to me. That was really my only ambition. I wanted to make something that when I showed it to Skreech he’d say, “Yeah, that’s what it felt like.” I didn’t know when I started if it would be two hours or two minutes. But I had this idea that maybe there was a new kind of movie to be made combining footage I shot of Skreech with footage Skreech shot of his own life on a flip-camera.

I was watching a lot of reality television at the time and was kind of obsessed with how beautiful a show like Laguna Beach or The Hills looked, and I was wondering what an authentic vision of Southern California might look like if it was captured with an eye towards finding moments of real beauty. At the same time, I was also obsessed with these very rigorous European filmmakers like Bruno Dumont. I really like the idea of rules, or some sort of formal structure that contains chaos inside of it. I didn’t categorize what I was doing other than to say I was making something that was authentic to a present-tense moment unfolding before my eyes in the suburbs of Southern California. It sounds almost disingenuous to say, but it was literally months before I realised that what I was doing was something other people might rightly just call a documentary.

“I didn’t know when I started if it would be two hours or two minutes. It sounds almost disingenuous to say, but it was literally months before I realised that what I was doing was something other people might rightly just call a documentary” – Tristan Patterson

What is the future of independent cinema?

Tristan Patterson: Anything that’s made sincerely.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young filmmaker?

Tristan Patterson: Surround yourself with people you love and go out and make something together.

 

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