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Ty Evans in a scene from Fully Flared, 2005Photography Andy Mueller

Spike Jonze skates against the grain

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Skate videos were Spike Jonze’s “gateway drug” to the world of movie-making. In this 2008 interview, the Being John Malkovich director and other skate-film legends discuss the enduring importance of the underground scene

Taken from the spring/summer 2008 edition of Dazed

This is Spike Jonze in the morning, down the phone from Los Angeles, stoked to be talking skate videos – “The rad thing about them is that they’ve always been made by skaters, for skaters. They just are what they are, and if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. They don’t need to be explained away.” Here we go explaining away then. Spike Jonze has directed some of the best skate videos ever made. He also co-created the skate video spin-off Jackass, and directed all those great music videos and movies that wound up being nominated for Oscars and everything.

Sure, he’s a Hollywood high-flier, but Spike is still a total nerd for the skate video, and he just co-directed one for the shoe company Lakai that has instantly taken a place among the greatest of all time. “My three favourite things in the whole world are skateboarding, cameras, and my friends,” says Jonze. Skateboarders first started filming each other in dreamy surf-style super-8mm movies, in the backyard pools and banked schoolyards of late 70s California. It was in the mid-80s, as the genre started to establish itself with some street skating classics, that Spike Jonze got addicted.

“Oh man, the first videos I saw were such a big influence on me,” he enthuses. “Future Primitive, Animal Chin, Ban This – all those videos Stacey Peralta made in the 80s, they all had such a good feeling for what skateboarding was right then.” Peralta is a legendary early pro-skater-turned-filmmaker, whose run of recent work includes the acclaimed skate documentary Lords of Dogtown. “Stacey is the founding father of skateboard videos,” proclaims Jonze. “We all owe him a whole lot.”

All through the golden age of the 90s and up to now, Jonze and his contemporaries have taken on Peralta’s videos’ formulas and ran with them to extremes. As skateboarding has grown into a multi-billion dollar global movement, its cult of video has swelled along with it. If skateboarding was a religion, then skate videos would be its sacred holy texts. If you don’t skate, you might not be aware of this, or care. If you do skate, then you’ll have almost certainly spent hundreds of hours of your life watching, rewinding and re-watching the same skate videos again and again until you’ve worn out the VHS tape in the best bits and they’re basically unwatchable. You’ll also have had a ton of obsessive chinwags with friends and strangers about certain videos’ finer points – tricks, skate styles, the skits, the music.

“It's kind of like porn – anything you put in that gets in the way of what the viewer wants to see is an unnecessary distraction” – Spike Jonze

It’s odd because skate culture is notoriously homophobic, but if you’re into skate videos, it’s likely you’ll have had a lot of conversations about skaters’ body shapes, stances, clothes, flair and haircuts. Skate videos are watched by skateboarders with the kind of zealous attention normally reserved for porn. Photos in magazines are great and everything, but for skaters it’s skate videos – all their raw-live-action-trick-footage – where the real money shots are. They’re used by skateboarders like a kind of amp-you-up narcotic – mainlined into the eyeballs just before a session to get everybody all hyped-up. 

The rub in all this is that unless you’re skate geek enough to be able to tell your nollie flips from your fakie ones, then 45 minutes or so of skate footage can all start to look the same and get pretty boring. “It’s almost like you have to earn the ability to enjoy them,” Dan Magee tells me in London’s Slam City Skates. Over the last decade, to promote leading British board company Blueprint, he’s made some of British skateboarding’s landmark videos. He says watching them is “like a skill that comes along with skateboarding – appreciating the flow of a skate video to the point where you know it inside out, or you know something amazing is coming, like (the late) Keenan Milton’s switch flip in (the Spike Jonze-directed) Mouse. You’ll be able to watch that trick when you’re 60 and it will still give you a shiver of excitement. Not many feature films could do that for you.”

That said, skate videos have provided countless budding young film-makers with a dynamic and rule-free framework in which to experiment with ideas, and in 2008 the visual language of skate video culture has infiltrated pop culture in more ways than you can shake a deck at. We don’t bat an eyelid at television adverts featuring kickflipping cars, high-rolling celebrity pro skaters with their own reality TV shows, or the huge success of Jackass and its harrowing imitators. This year, in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park we saw – for the first time since Larry Clark’s Kids – the spellbinding use of real raw skate footage in a feature film. Skate video’s raw energy, its dumb slapstick, danger of injury and use of fisheye lenses, has filtered down through music video and MTV into the very heart of the mainstream – in 2003, even the BBC ran a little slow-mo skate video ident that was actually really good. Like almost every other bit of skateboarding ever caught on film, you can watch it on YouTube if you want.

For years, Spike Jonze has been making videos to promote the products of certain skate companies (weirdly, this makes skate videos one of the few forms of advertising that kids go to the shop and pay for), directing the hugely influential Video Days for Blind skateboards in 1991 and then going on to make a series of legendary videos with his friends at the Girl/Chocolate/Lakai family of skate companies in California. His work for them has evolved from grainy VHS footage to special effects-laden big-budget numbers featuring invisible skateboards, Matrix-style “bullet time” sequences, and even a bluntsliding cameo from Hollywood pal Owen Wilson. He concedes that skate videos were his “gateway drug” into doing real movies, like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and 2009’s impending adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

The latest skate project Jonze has been involved with is Lakai footwear’s Fully Flared – co-directed with Ty Evans and Cory Weincheque, and by miles the most eagerly anticipated skate video to have come around for years. Its opening sequence is one of skate video’s most ambitious and most dangerous yet – hypnotic, ultra slow-mo footage of the Lakai team skating obstacles rigged with napalm explosives and blasting through flames and concrete walls. The video is an instant classic, a preordained benchmark in skate culture and, handily, a big commercial hit with kids all over the world.

“Man, I still love making skate videos more than anything,” says Spike. “Even with something like Fully Flared, that same spirit that we had when we were kids, just fooling around with someone’s mom’s video camera, is still there. It’s just having fun, making funny shit with your friends. Only now we’ve got explosions and we’ve gotten a lot better at it.” For Jonze, its appeal isn’t really rocket science – “Combine skateboarding with slow motion and big explosions, and even if you don’t skate, it becomes kind of hard to look away.” Lakai sell a lot of shoes to a lot of skaters and skater-alikes everywhere. They can fork out for filming trips all over the world and for effects budgets big enough to make bits of their video look like Die Hard with a Skateboarding Vengeance. “Yeah it’s doing okay,” understates Ty Evans. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know Fully Flared is doing better than we thought it would.”

Elsewhere in the industry, the mood is a touch less upbeat. “Oh, the skate video industry is going to be fucked,” grumbles Blueprint’s Magee. “If you look at the sale figures since kids started sharing videos on the internet, they sharply fall off. I think the switch from VHS to DVD was the start of it – it’s a lot easier to rip a DVD than capture VHS in real-time. In the UK it’s even worse because the number of people filming is limited and the budgets are virtually non-existent. Plus we only get about four months of good skateboarding weather a year here, compared with about 300 days of sunshine in California.”

Josh Stewart makes American skate videos independently. Since 2000 he’s been responsible for Static – a blinding trilogy of raw street skating DVDs that have got rave reviews from skaters all over the shop. The bummer is that in spite of their reputation, they’ve not really sold very well, and without the backing of a large skate company, Josh is feeling the burn of the piracy-ravaged interpipe. “Big videos like Lakai’s sell in the area of a hundred thousand copies... while Static III has only sold five thousand,” he explains. “I’m living off my fourth bank loan and considering selling vital organs to dig myself out of debt.” He’s not too chipper, obviously, about the changing state of the skate video game.

This Brave New File Sharing World does, however, have its plus points. Nowadays there’s an abundance of almost-lost old skate footage that’s been resurrected from its VHS cadaver and made supremely accessible via YouTube. Almost all the classic skate videos are on there, section by reverently posted section. In the late 80s and early 90s, Jacob Rosenberg shot some of skate history’s most radically pioneering footage – of the likes of Rodney Mullen and Danny Way – for the once-legendary Plan B skate company. He’s got an archive of skateboard footage that gives skate geeks excitement nosebleeds, and he’s more than happy to put it all over the interpipe. “I think YouTube has been great for getting material out to the world quickly and equally,” he says. “My library of old unseen skate footage has thrived on there because that’s the one place I can share it with a ton of people who want to see it. YouTube has a niche, but I don’t think it’s replaced the value of actual videos and DVDs.”

In Hollywood, rushing from our interview to make his morning movie meetings, Spike Jonze isn’t losing sleep worrying over the future of skate videos. He seems to have the golden touch as far as making them goes. Over the years, stoked on their success, he and the Girl/Lakai camp have consistently stepped up their budgets and made bigger and better and more bonkers skate films, shot on more and more sophisticated HD equipment. When we talk about the future though, the recent videos Spike goes on about most are the crappiest-filmed, low budget and lower-fi mini masterpieces from companies like Krooked and Anti Hero.

“We only get four months of good skateboarding weather in the UK, compared with 300 days of sunshine in California!” – Dan Magee

Both of these board companies have been putting out uncompromising and unsophisticated skate footage for years, always defying skate video’s formulaic conventions and featuring “Greatest Skaters Ever” like John Cardiel and The Gonz. Krooked – the brainchild of mad genius skate-legend Mark “The Gonz” Gonzales – just made a DVD called Naughty that was shot entirely on hand-held digital cameras and sketchy camera-phones. And it’s amazing. Jonze shares with The Gonz a gusto for doing it like the kids do – having fun, skating with friends and filming each other with whatever’s available.

“Whatever happens in the future, I don’t think skate videos are going to go away,” he explains. “Skateboarders will always make videos. There’s no set style for making them and there never really has been. It’s just about whatever gets over that feeling of what skating is. You could shoot with the camera in your pocket, or with the video setting on your phone or whatever, if that feeling is there then it’s gonna be sick.” For Spike, for millions of skateboarders all over the world, and for not very many other people at all, this stuff all comes down to skate video’s first and most important function – “Whatever gets you psyched to go out and skate, that’s the most important thing. That’s always been what skate videos are for.”

CAN NON-SKATERS EVER REALLY GET IT?

Jacob Rosenberg: “From my experience, normal/everyday skate videos have an exclusive audience, but the great skate videos transcend a typical skateboarding audience. The great videos have music, emotion and rhythm in their assembly which anyone who watches them can connect with. My parents and non-skating friends could always watch the Plan B videos because there was something more there than just the skating.”

Ty Evans: “When we make skate films, they’re for the skaters first and foremost. That’s what we grew up with, and that’s what we’re trying to continue. There’s different aspects you can show to someone who doesn’t skate, to give them a feeling for what it’s about, but in the end it’s just by skaters, for skaters and it always will be.”

‘French’ Fred Montagne (Photographer and skate-filming legend): “When I make videos, I have in mind that they will be watched by skateboarders’ girlfriends! Because a lot of them are forced to watch them, you know – if their guy loves the video. I’m always stoked when I have good feedback about my videos from girls! All the good things in skateboarding are made by skateboarders, for skateboarders.”

Josh Stewart: “Real skateboarding will always remain beyond the grasp of those who don’t understand what it’s really about. There are probably millions right now who think skateboarding is a sport, who think contests actually matter and who will be stoked to see it in the Olympics. As sad as that is, it keeps a lot of us bitter, disenfranchised and underground. That’s what the movement has thrived off of for decades.”

Spike Jonze: “The purpose of these videos is to document the tricks, and the way that a guy’s been skating during the couple years that he’s been putting together his part. Some of the guys in Fully Flared put four years of their lives into that movie. So, clearly documenting who did what trick is really important. They might all look the same to non-skaters, but in a lot of ways it’s kind of like porn – anything that you put in that gets in the way of the stuff the viewer wants to see is just an unnecessary distraction. But our goal is to show skateboarding – and not always just the tricks but everything that surrounds it, all the things we love about it – the creativity, the skating with your friends and having fun.”