BAMcinemaFest 2011: Talking to Dragonslayer Director Tristan Patterson

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06/13/2011 3:36 PM |

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The 2011 version of BAMcinemaFest, NYC’s showcase for the best of American independent film, kicks off on Thursday night. We’ll be speaking to several of this year’s filmmakers, beginning with Tristan Patterson, the director of Dragonslayer. The film, which won SXSW’s documentary competition, is structured a little like a mixtape, with varied, colorful, musical vignettes following Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, and his cohorts in Southern California’s skating community. It’s Patterson’s first film.

Are you a skater?
Terrible. Couldn’t possibly begin to express how bad I am. If a curb is approaching, I need to get off my board and pick it up. If there’s a crack on the sidewalk, I will fall.

I’ve read that you initially set out to do a portrait of the SoCal skating community—how did Skcreech Sandoval come to be your protagonist?
I love the whole genre of youth-in-revolt movies like Over The Edge and River’s Edge, or Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue is another one, maybe my favorite. I love Linda Manz in that movie. I drove out to see Rikk Agnew from the Adolescents play this weirdo house party in Chino, California, right after the economy collapsed. It felt like a scene out of one of those movies. Skreech was there, and I thought maybe he was a similar type of character to Linda Manz in Out of the Blue—only, obviously, this was real life. It was happening right now and it wasn’t a nostalgia trip. I wanted to make a new kind of movie about this kind of world. To my eyes, Skreech was its hero.

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With Dragonslayer, you’re not just trying to embed with a unique community—you’re also filming people who have long filmed themselves, and addressing a well-established aesthetic tradition with pretty rigorous standards of authenticity. So: did you watch many skate videos? Did you feel obligated to take cues from them?
I didn’t feel obligated to take cues from anything other than Skreech. I felt that if I stayed true to his life and his experiences, the movie would be authentic. Because how could it not be? Also, Dragonslayer is very much a collision of footage I shot, which is observational and at a remove, and then this really immediate and personal footage Skreech shot of his own life on a flip-cam. It’s not by accident that the movie ends with Skreech’s footage and not mine. He gets the final say.

As far as the skating goes, I wasn’t interested in making a skate video. There are so many people out there who can do that better than I ever could. Our title sequence was shot by Peacock. He’s from Fresno, California and makes these incredible D.I.Y. skate videos. His last one was called “Cancer Dust” and Skreech kills it in that. So rather than try to approximate Peacock’s footage, my feeling was just tap the source and give Peacock the stage. It’s important the audience experience that kind of thing directly, because I think they’d know if it was a copy.

Perhaps along similar lines, do you think the soundtrack—Best Coast, Dungen, etc.—represents your taste, your subjects’ taste, or some fusion?
When you see Skreech driving in his car at the end of the movie, he’s listening to the Germs. So that’s his music and that’s definitely one layer of the soundtrack. But I also wanted the movie to have music that was entirely its own. When I first started editing, I was using music that I thought was maybe an overlap between my taste and Skreech’s—stuff like the Vaselines or the Screamers. But something about that felt stale. Dungen was really the cue that unlocked a whole new idea about how to use music in the movie. It felt really big to me, almost over-the-top, and I loved that, plus there was something that felt so ridiculous about making this movie about America and hearing people singing in Swedish—as if Sweden is some ideal utopia we’re all trying to make it to! It also led me to Kemado/Mexican Summer, and that was that. If this is a movie happening right now, then it should have music being played right now. It’s such a great label. I think they’re really out there on the frontier.

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Both of those last two questions are maybe, in the broader sense, about how you negotiate the boundary between your own sensibility and your obligation to your subjects, such as it is. So how do you? Are there any documentary filmmakers whose response to this challenge you particularly admire?
It’s a tricky question. Maybe an analogy would be to discovering some lost record that blows your mind but only you can hear it. If you want friends to be able to hear it, you have to build a special turntable or something. The sensibility of the record is always going to be what it is, but it’s up to you to figure out a way other people can hear it too. There’s a really rich tradition of documentary filmmakers whose response to this challenge I admire. Robert Frank and Frederick Wiseman are two who immediately come to mind.

Parenting—or mentoring—is a recurrent theme, from Skcreech’s improvisational approach to fatherhood to the way older and more established skaters seem to look out for younger ones, by encouraging them, or letting them sleep in tents in their backyards, or whatever. There’s such a fascinating tension, in this self-contained world, of responsibility and immaturity and I wonder, having spent considerable time with these people, whether you start, I guess, “rooting for them,” emotionally, and how that affects you during the editing process.
I’m rooting for all of them, always. But I’m rooting for them because they are all exactly who they are—they’re not pretending to be anything other than that. The pressure I felt editing was to preserve their experience authentically. To try to manipulate it, I think, would be to undercut the very reasons I’m rooting for them in the first place.