It's a long way from the gang-infested alleys of Venice, California's notorious Dogtown to the awards platform at the Sundance Film Festival. But indie filmmaker and DGA member director Stacy Peralta made the journey with as much style and grace as befits one of the original Z-Boys, a pack of outcast teen skateboarders who changed American culture in the 1970's. Peralta's rapid-fire documentary, Dogtown & Z-Boys, was a true indie labor of love: it received the Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary Competition. DGA Magazine caught up with Peralta a few days after his Park City triumph to talk about how a bunch of street-wise skaters could capture the hearts and minds of the industry's most jaded filmgoers in the competitive environment of Park City.
What sort of expectations did you have for your first trip to Sundance?
I had mixed feelings. I was nervous that our film was too outside the box and nobody would get it. When I saw who I was up against in the Documentary section, I was even more worried. Albert Maysles, Ken Carlson - these are top-notch filmmakers who have made documentaries their lives.
What do you think it was about Dogtown & Z-Boys that earned it two awards, a fairly rare occurrence at Sundance?
I'm not sure exactly. But, I can tell you that people were coming up to us after our screenings and saying that they knew nothing about skateboarding, but that the film still touched them. Almost everyone told us it was an extremely honest film.
You mentioned being nervous about the style. Explain what you mean by that.
The look and style was intentionally under-produced. Everything today is so overly lit and carefully controlled that it doesn't feel real. The fun and energy is drained out of so many films, particularly those produced by Hollywood. We wanted to make a movie that looked and felt like skateboarding, with all the spontaneity the sport involves. When Sean Penn (the film's narrator) clears his throat in the middle of a take, I was thrilled to keep it in. Directorial decisions like that told the audience that this was a film with humanity about people who were not perfect, but who were passionate and truthful.
Some people noted after you won the Best Directing award that Dogtown & Z-Boys was all about editing - archival footage and old photographs, with very little present-day B-roll or Fly-on-the-wall scenes.
Well, I used to be an editor, and if you looked at my old skateboarding videos, you'd see how the style has carried through. Clearly, Paul Crowder, my editor, was a tremendous part of this film. But the style of the cuts, the choice of music, the graphic look of the titles, were all part of my vision. I don't think it's fair to only call complex camera moves or great acting a director's vision. Everything in a film, including the editing, is ultimately a director's choice. Particularly with a documentary, which is usually found in the cutting room.
A lot of people associate strong directing with narrative films and don't think documentaries are directed because they're about real life as it is unfolding.
I think they're harder than features. In a narrative film, you are starting with the luxury of a written script - a take-off point to tell your story. With a documentary, you must be very creative, and craft-oriented to dig out the pace and rhythm and heart of your story. You can't rely on actors and dialogue. You have to use voice-over, music, visual cues, interviews, anything your craft has taught you to convey that story. I have no idea why people downplay the director's art in documentaries. It takes a whole lot of skill just to finish one.
One of the great things about Sundance is that the filmmakers remain on stage for a Q & A with the audience. How valuable was this part of the Park City experience?
It was like group therapy! It was so great my editor said that we need to start doing this after work each day. A perfect example of how important the Q & A's were is one night - and I think this goes to your earlier question about why we won two awards and perhaps came to represent the indie spirit part of Sundance - a kid stood up and said, "There are so many things in your film that would normally be cut out of most films." That was the most insightful comment anyone made because that was our whole point. Dogotwn & Z-Boys, like movie-making, is about discovering yourself. And screwing up, in life or in a skateboard trick, is a part of the journey like anything else. Maybe more.