Q + A with Tristan Patterson by Discosalt
Tristan Patterson’s first film, Dragonslayer is this year’s SXSW Best Documentary Feature & Best Cinematography winner and the Grand Jury Award for Best International Feature at HotDocs. Using 10 album tracks jarringly spliced together to structure the film, we are brought into the restless and compelling world of Fullerton-based skaterboarder Josh “Screech” Sandoval, as he skates local abandoned pools and battles with the balance between new fatherhood and teen freedom. It’s a portrait of a specific moment in time that captures a new generation of kids confronting the future.
DISCOSALT:You’ve talked about how you made this film right after the American economy collapsed. With more houses foreclosed in California, there were obviously more abandoned pools available to skate in the film. How does the “decline of western civilization” play into the greater punk ethos of the film?
TRISTAN PATTERSON: What’s interesting to me about the cultural moment we’re living in right now is that there seems to be a lot of fear out there, like people are just putting on blinders and desperately trying to cling to a status-quo that feels increasingly obsolete. There’s also a huge pressure, I think, to fall in line with the status quo. You know, lets not shake things up any more then they already are or we’re all going to be asking for trouble. And my feeling is pretty much, fuck that.
I’m so desperate for anything that’s not pre-packaged or market-tested or whatever else the powers-that-be keep coming up with in these vain attempts to try to save their sinking ships. Making Dragonslayer really came out of this feeling.
When I met Josh, he reminded me so much of all those awesome punk kids in movies like “Over The Edge” and “River’s Edge” and “Suburbia.” He had all the same affectations: this crazy green Mohawk, a ripped Screamers T-shirt, he reveres Johnny Thunders and GG Allin, even the fact that he skateboards seems almost retro in its way. But what really grabbed me was the fact that for him these aren’t bullshit hipster-poses based on false nostalgia. This is the culture that raised him, and in a strange way, I think it prepared him for the moment we all now find ourselves living in. There’s an amazing line from this Adolescents song “Kids of the Black Hole” that was recorded in 1981 that goes, “It was once a green mansion, now it’s a wasteland, our days of reckless fun are through.
Thirty years later, I think that’s no longer something some weirdo punks from Fullerton, California feel. I think it’s something we all feel. And so the movie, on one hand, is this very personal portrait of a kid who just so happens to be a weirdo punk from Fullerton, but it’s also, hopefully, a kind of punk statement in and of itself that says, let’s fucking open our eyes to what these times really feel like for all of us.
D: Skating comes across as this zen-like escapist activity in the film. Josh seems to find joy through creating something beautiful in his dark and uncertain times. Do you have a personal connection to the art of skating or was this something you took away by being an observer of the culture? Is there anything in your life, besides film-making, that you could relate to “the joy of skating” in the film?
T: I feel a personal connection to anyone who is trying to do anything in life that’s coming from a pure place. Josh is doing that, and doing it really well. No one skates like him, and he doesn’t skate like anyone else. I like to compare him to Pablo Picasso because they’re both short. In terms of me, besides making movies, or trying to make movies, I so fucking wish… I drink too much red wine and go to sleep dreaming of motivating to take a Yoga class. Shit like that.
D: Would you say that the culture in Dragonslayer is the new California skate/punk scene? Are today’s skaters redefining anything like they did in the 70’s or do they stand for something unique for today?
T: I don’t think there’s such a unified thing anymore. It’s not like in the ’70s when you had this singular group of teenagers redefining skate culture on their own terms, or even like in the ’80s with street skating. I’m also not really convinced that skaters ever stood for anything. I mean, if the police put up a sign that says, “no skateboarding,” then I guess skaters stand for skateboarding, but that’s about it. They’re just like any other kids who want to be allowed to express themselves by doing something they love.
If there’s a culture on display in Dragonslayer, I think it’s the culture of new suburbia, and I don’t think it’s unique to California. Maybe the sunshine is, but I think there’s an entire generation of kids out there who’ve been raised in these really bankrupt realities. It’s the American cliché that it doesn’t matter where you are because it all looks the same, but it’s more than that too. Everything feels deeply broken in these places. But what’s amazing about this generation, or at least what’s amazing about the kids in Dragonslayer, is how supportive they are of each other, and how resourceful they all are. It’s like, if you don’t like the way people are living in the world around you, invent a new way to live. If you don’t like your family, go out into the world and create a new family, and that’s really what they’ve done, or at least what they are trying to do.
D: Conceptually, this is a film that really captures a specific moment in time. Not only because of the subject matter but because of the technology used. Did you really film parts of this movie on flip-cameras?
T: I didn’t film parts of the movie on a flip-camera, Josh did. I gave him one on the first day of shooting with no direction whatsoever other than to try to remember to press record, and his footage is incredible. I was really obsessed with YouTube being an almost anti-cinematic experience, completely voyeuristic and totally pointless. But I also think the aesthetic can be kind of beautiful in its own way, and strangely revealing. I felt like, instead of having talking heads telling you what to think, I’m going to put a flip-camera in Josh’s hands and you’re going to experience how his life actually feels in real time. Pretty early on, he filmed this party and you can hear him off camera saying, “I’m just drunk and filming my eyes.” If it’s a choice between some talking head telling me what to think about him or footage like that, I know what I want to watch. It’s visceral, it captures something truly immediate and it’s all his own. It’s also kind of the whole point of making movies: to feel drunk and film your eyes.
D: How important is honesty in the film and the authenticity of the experience? The film was split between the more cinematic footage and reel shot by the character’s themselves. Do you think this way of filming, brought more reality to the film, or a more self-conscious , voyeuristic element to the process?
T: I like that the film has that dichotomy because it reveals its methods. It’s not trying to hide how it was made. It makes the collaboration explicit. I was hyper-conscience about not filming anything that was only happening because I was filming. More to the point, there’s nothing I shot that’s any more revealing or personal than footage Josh shot of his life when I wasn’t around. If anything, his footage is even more personal and revealing.
The point is that you can’t watch this movie and think what you’re seeing is only happening because I was there filming, and I think that’s of paramount importance. The film may have a point of view that’s all its own—it’s certainly not a diary—but part of its point of view has to do with trying to uncover a new way of authentically capturing reality. It’s not enough anymore to just say, this happened and we caught it on film so it’s authentic. We live in an era of reality television. The motives have to be authentic as well.
D: The soundtrack for Dragonslayer stands out as a driving force for the film, mostly because of the jarring way it is integrated into the film structure to define chapters. It was unlike any other film I’ve seen. How did the 10 song album structure for the film come about ? And how did you decide when to end a track?
T: When I was filming, I kept asking myself what this movie should feel like. And I kind of had this idea where I started wanting it to feel like some lost punk tape you discover in the trash, like it was the fucked-up demo from a band that went on to achieve greatness, but no one had heard them in their original form when they were just practicing in their garage. So tracks get interrupted, shit gets fucked up, but every now and then a moment crystallizes into something amazing.
Maybe it was a way of being flippant about this thing I spent years of my life making, but I also thought it was essential. It was the only idea I had that felt honest to what the experience of making the movie was actually like. And I felt like, with each track you listen to, even if one of the tracks is just static feedback, you get closer to something essential. Hopefully, by the end of the movie, you arrive at a truth.
D: Were you channelling any other documentary films while filming and editing Dragonslayer?
T; I never really thought of the movie like I was making a documentary. I just thought about it like a film that had certain rules I couldn’t break, like everything that happens must be authentic, and when I’m editing, I’m not going to try to manipulate the footage into something other than what it is. All the films I love are things that feel correct to me on their own terms. If I was trying to channel anything, it was that.
D: Do you Still keep in touch with Josh? It seems he loves being int he spotlight but I am curious about his reaction to the film when it was completed.
T: Yes I still keep in touch with Josh. I will for the rest of my life. In two days we’re about to get on a plane to go to a film festival in Milwaukee, and then in a couple more weeks, I’ll go with him and Leslie to London for the BFI London Film Festival where I’m hoping I get to watch them walk a red carpet. I’m not sure I agree Josh loves being in the spotlight. I think he was just open to putting his life on film. When he finally saw it, I was so nervous. It’s hard to imagine how surreal it must feel to watch yourself like that. But he started laughing pretty early in the screening, like he was remembering all these crazy things he’d forgotten. And mostly, he just seemed concerned that Leslie felt okay. He kept telling her how beautiful she looked, which she does. I think she looks like Jean Seberg, only better.
D: Will we see your next project “Electric Slide” in theaters anytime soon? And are the rumors true that Ewan McGregor will take the lead role?
T: I want to make “Electric Slide” so badly. It’s based on the true story of a guy named Eddie Dodson who was an art deco furniture dealer in LA in the early 80’s. I have all his Polaroids and they’re beyond incredible. He had a store on Melrose Avenue before it was Melrose that was just this non-stop party. Then he fell in love with a girl and robbed 64 banks in Hollywood and Beverly Hills in nine months. He drove to the banks in a ’65 Lincoln Continental blasting The Clash. He wore designer suits. He had immaculate taste. The story is like this beautiful neon dream about a guy trying to turn his life into a movie. Ewan McGregor wants to do it, and I can’t think of a better actor. He keeps playing these buttoned-up types who always wear sweaters, exceedingly well I think, but I want to set him loose. I think I finally have the money raised, but I’ll believe it when it happens.
D: How do you find a balance between making a living and creatively doing what you love?
T: It’s very hard and unfortunately seems like one of those things that will take an entire life to figure out. Which totally sucks. But maybe there’s something to be said for working extremely hard all the time…?
You can watch the film at DocuWest and Underground Film Festivals in Sydney and Arizona.
The record label Drag City is releasing the film theatrically in the states. It opens in New York at Cinemal Village on November 4, 2011 and will be travelling all over the country after that. People can visit the facebook page for all the details.