Mainline master AG Rojas talks to director Ryan Reichenfeld about his latest short film for the TRIBUTE series – and the understated draw of his burger-flipping muse
In the latest installment of Mainline's renowned Tribute series, director Ryan Reichenfeld returns to his hometown of Lake Havasu City to tell the story of Arizona teenager Sean. A small-town skate enthusiast with dreams of making it big, he wakes up every morning at 3:30 AM to flip burgers at Jack In The Box restaurant, earning just $60 a day. In this special short film, Reichenfeld shows us the alienating and ugly – as well as beautiful and touching – parts of the world surrounding Sean. It is a raw and compassionate portrait of the difficulties of growing up, and captures a way of life that is rarely seen on this side of the lens. Mainline's AG Rojas caught up with Reichenfeld to discuss exactly what inspired him about Sean and his unassuming way of life.
Do you remember a specific moment when you decided that this film had to be about Sean?
Ryan Reichenfeld: Yes definitely. I went out to my old hometown of Lake Havasu in search of someone interesting. I was hanging out under the London Bridge because they had torn down the skatepark, and I saw a group of kids who reminded me of my friends at that age. So me and my DoP Ryan Carmody just walked up to them and asked them if we could skate with them. What caught my eye immediately was this kid with three fingers on each hand. He was wearing a cut-off sleeve band shirt and just seemed like he was full of character.
We skated with them to the back of an Albertsons, and I quickly found out that the three-fingered dude was super content with his life and just dug “smoking weed and chilling”, so I was bummed that I had hit a dead end. But right then all the kids started complaining about how they had to fill out college applications and how their parents were forcing them to go, then this skinny kid who didn’t really stand out spoke up; “Wow, you guys get to go to college, damn you’re lucky.”
He just had so much conviction, it was just the way he spoke. I asked him a bunch of follow-up questions to see what his deal was and things just kept getting more interesting. There is a lot of stuff we talked about that isn’t in the film, some pretty heavy stuff that would make you empathise with him even more, and also some other stuff that is just ultra funny and weird and off topic. But yeah, behind the Albertsons is when I knew it had to be about him.
These kids hate their town, but it’s all they know. They’re at that moment where they could probably pack up and leave, but they have a responsibility to their family or to something else that forces them to stay. Is that what Sean was going through at all?
Ryan Reichenfeld: Yes. Definitely. I think that’s why I have such a strong reaction to all the films – it is my own story as well. I grew up in that same town after my parents were divorced and essentially ran away from home at 15 to try to make it at skateboarding. That town is a desert island – instead of an ocean of water surrounding it, you’re surrounded by an ocean of desert. Sean’s story has much higher stakes, it’s stuff I didn’t want to include in the film because I didn’t want people to focus on how much of a potential sob story it could be. Stuff like how he actually helps support his mom and his sister with his salary from Jack In The Box, and stuff about feeling a responsibility to kind of save his girlfriend form her home life as well. His decisions have high stakes. I have incredible respect for his sense of responsibility and how he’s kind of stepped up as a man at such a young age.
The film has three pretty distinct acts, the most jarring of which is the lake scene. Were you led to that moment by Sean or did you go in searching for what would happen by mixing these two very different kinds of people?
Ryan Reichenfeld: That’s a good question, and a good observation. For the lake scene, there were a lot of factors. It happened to be July 4th when we went out there, it was a party weekend, although not nearly as big of a party weekend as Labor day or Memorial day. I wanted to capture some of that for the film because most people don’t understand the debauchery that goes on there, but it was actually very calm. Normally on those weekend people are flashing boobs for beads and even filming live porn. Sean had mentioned all these run-ins with “bros”. I think there were three stories of him getting beaten up by them, one time it was a group of dudes in their late twenties or thirties. I didn’t want people to get confused that Sean was a part of this culture. I wanted to show him as a stark contrast from it – bros/t-dogs/chodes are the worst.
Since you and Sean had certain similarities in how you grew up, did you feel any sort of responsibility in how you presented him to viewers?
Ryan Reichenfeld: In the shot in the film where Sean is standing there and the dude on the scooter rolls by, I asked him to just do a kick flip. He bent down to do it, then this chode came up to him and harshed him right on camera. I was proud of Sean for not losing his temper, I saw his face get red, I’m glad he didn’t pull a 'Kids'.
I completely felt a responsibility for Sean. One of my favorite films is Billy The Kid: it’s about a boy with a mental handicap who is the most hilarious and sweet kid ever caught on film. The filmmaker did an incredible job of show how funny and naïve and sweet this kid Billy was without exploiting him. The point of view is always with him and for him, even when he is doing or saying ridiculous things. That’s what I wanted to do with my film – not exploit, but celebrate. Throughout the short course of making the film I also felt a sense of him being inspired and looking at me as a kind of role model – that’s why I went back a year after we shot to shoot some photos of him and what he’s been able to do in the time since. He’s really coming into his own, has his own apartment with his girlfriend, got a promotion at his work, and even bought a used pick up truck. That was one of his biggest goals when I spoke to him while we were shooting.