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Dragonslayer director Tristan Patterson

The biggest problem with the indie film scene–lazily speaking, at least–is its size. With zillions of films to wade through, every year tends to become kind of overwhelming. So last year, when buzz was building around “the skateboarding movie,” Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer, it was a bit easy not to hop on board. After all, what more was there to say about skateboarding after Dogtown And Z Boys or Thrashin’? It was a surprise, and a very welcome one, that Patterson’s film was much more than “the skateboard movie.”

An unblinking profile of California skate punk and self-identified “scumbag” Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, Patterson’s film lenses a group of kids living below the poverty line in Southern California who while away their days bumming smokes and shredding the bowls of emptied out swimming pools. And Patterson’s mannered, formalist approach paid off, netting him the Best International Feature awards at Toronto's Hot Docs 2011, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at SXSW 2011.

Now Dragonslayer is coming to Chicago for a screening at the Music Box Jan. 25. We talked to Patterson about the film, his relationship with Skreech, and how he ingratiated himself into California scumbag subculture.

The A.V. Club: How did you first come across Skreech and this kind of underground skateboard culture?

Tristan Patterson: It really came about in this moment when the American economy had collapsed, especially in California. It felt like we were living in an apocalypse. I went to this party to see a guitarist from this old punk band The Adolescents play. I heard he was playing a driveway in Chino, California, which is the landscape of where the movie is set. I loved the youth-in-revolt movies that I grew up discovering on VHS—these kind of punk pieces of cinema, like Suburbia, and Dennis Hopper made this really good youth-in-revolt movie called Out Of The Blue, with Linda Manz from Days Of Heaven. Anyway, it felt like I was walking into this new sort of youth-in-revolt movie. It was all these punk kids, but it was happening today. And the music from the original punk generation was blasting in the driveway, and the kids were going nuts. I thought that maybe there was a new kind of youth-in-revolt movie to be made.

And I looked around and saw this kid with a wide green mohawk and a matching Screamers T-shirt, and I couldn’t even believe he knew who The Screamers were, this old California punk band. I started talking to him, and he had this weird kind of California poetry in him. I loved that he was riding a skateboard through this broken landscape and had this brand new take on things. Literally I started filming him a week later.

AVC: Was there any hesitation there? It sounds like you’re almost a generation or half a generation removed from these kids.

TP: Yeah, I’m older than him. But I sat down with him, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to make, but I knew I wanted to make something that was authentic to me. I was very honest about that. I told Skreech that when he watched it, I wanted [the film] to feel like what that moment in his life felt like. He’s a really creative kid, and he has art in him. So I think this was an exciting idea. And immediately I wanted it to be a collaboration between me and him, so I gave him this flip-cam so he could start filming his own life. 

AVC: In a lot of films like this, it’s very obvious when kids are performing for the camera. Maybe it’s because a lot of the people in this film seem ambivalent about the whole process of being filmed, but it very much has this feel of authenticity.

TP: I think that was why it turned into a feature, or turned into what it did. As soon as I started filming [Skreech], I realized how natural he was in front of the camera. It confirmed an instinct I had. I remember the first day, seeing him on-camera and off-camera was so fluid. It is observational, but it contains these really natural moments. The cameras just happen to be there. He walks out of frame and nothing changes. I think that’s unique to him. Not totally, but there are people out there who just don’t care. There’s something about him, where, above all else, he’s going to be himself at all times. 

AVC: It almost seems crass to discuss a real person like this, but Skreech is very complex as a protagonist, and very frustrating, in a lot of ways. There’s this sense of listlessness and not caring that pervades the film. But do you think that attitude itself might invest the film with a degree of naturalism that might otherwise be harder to get?

TP: Yeah, but there’s a contradiction. I think he also cares a lot, but he cares about things that are on his wavelength. You just have to tap into that. He cares about skating pools, but it’s private. He’s just going to do what he’s going to do.

AVC: Was it a challenge to draw this passion more out into the open, or was this just part of the profile, that he plays his passions close to the vest?

TP: I just wanted him to be him. If there was any rule, it was guarding against filming him doing anything that would be happening just because there were cameras there. I was just making sure that what we’d be doing was something he’d be doing anyways. You don’t want him coming up with things. It’s more, “If you feel like getting breakfast, we’ll film you getting breakfast.” You have to stay really clear-eyed about what you’re seeing, and not let your own agenda cloud this larger project of authenticity. I think that also allows for trust to be built between me as a director and him as a subject.

AVC: You mentioned the youth in revolt films from the ’80s, but were there any particular influences for Dragonslayer? It seems to recall something of the youth panic movies from the ’90s, like Larry Clark’s films, though maybe the kids in your film aren’t quite as detestable.

TP: I didn’t think about it like I was making a documentary. I thought about it like a film, or a piece of cinema that has rules, and one of the rules was that everything that would happen in front of the camera would be authentic, which is a round-about away of realizing you’re making a documentary. I think, yeah, the same way as when I walked into that party and it reminded me of Over The Edge, there’s a whole tradition of films like this that includes Larry Clark and a lot of other things.

But I tend to like movies where there’s a clear point of view from the filmmaker, and often that comes from a very conceptual approach. I was thinking a lot about this French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, who also made a great youth-in-revolt movie called The Life Of Jesus. But he also made this film called Humanité, where he went to this town and if a character was a postman, he’d put an ad in the paper looking for a postal worker, and people would show up and he’d find his lead. Then he uses those people to tell the story he wants to tell. Steven Soderbergh did the same thing with Bubble, where it’s factory workers in the Midwest, but he uses real factory workers. Taking it one step further, with a documentary, I started thinking about reality television, and kids goofing on YouTube, and started thinking, “Well, is there a way to take this formalist art film approach and apply it to kids in California rather than, I don’t know, factory workers in France or whatever?”

AVC: This is a bit of a digression, but have you ever seen any of the films of Denis Côté?

TP: Oh yeah, certainly.

AVC: It seems like a similar approach. He’ll use actors in non-fictional scenarios, and it creates this line between fiction and documentary but then questions whether or not this line really exists.

TP: It starts blurring, yeah. I think also in the day and age we’re living in, it’s not enough to say, “Oh this happened in front of a camera, so it’s real.” We’re bombarded by all this reality television that has this whole other agenda and these ulterior motives. You have to give an audience a very real point of view to make it seem real. We’re constantly exposing process, even in terms of letting shots find their frames in front of your eyes. You have to let the audience in on the process of making the film in order for them to trust what they’re seeing.

AVC: A corollary, though, to the rise of reality TV creating this suspicion of what we’re seeing not being real in any meaningful way is that these various constructions and interventions into reality that we’re used to seeing in reality TV actually make it easier to accept when someone like you takes a very formalist approach to documentary. We’re used to seeing reality tampered with, which kind of gives you this freedom to take, as you say, an “art film” approach without people looking at it and going, “This isn’t real because it’s a bit stylized.”

TP: Exactly. I think that gets back to the idea of thinking about it like you’re making a film. Because you’re exposing your point of view as a filmmaker, you’re giving the audience something to have faith in, hopefully.

AVC: In the film, Skreech refers to his whole scene as a “scumbag” culture, not as a derogatory at all. How did you ingratiate yourself amongst this scene? It’s seems like they’ be pretty wary of some older guy walking around with a camera. 

TP: The way I approached it was that I was making a film about Skreech. To the degree that he’s ingratiated into the culture, if I’m cool with him, I’ll be cool with the culture. I tried to approach everyone I encountered openly, and explain what I was doing, and hope everybody was cool with that. 

AVC: To some extent at least, Dragonslayer is a movie about skateboarders and skateboarding culture. But there’s not a lot of skating in it, at all. Did you try to focus on this minimally in order to make the film more of a character study, and less like, say, Lords Of Dogtown or something?

TP: Well I always wanted to make a movie about Skreech, and one of the things he does is ride a skateboard through backyard swimming pools. To me, that’s as much about the current culture and what the world he inhabits looks like than it is about skateboarding, in all caps. Again, that decision about how much or how little skateboarding to include is easily solved, because it’s as much or as little as he does while I film this moment in his life.