October 14, 2001|Eloquent and passionate about his work, generous with his thoughts and fears, Stacy Peralta seems to be free of the burden of self-importance that stunts many who attain fame and fortune at an early age. Poised on the precipice of stardom again some twenty-six years after the Del Mar National Skateboard Championships put he and his seven Zephyr Skateboard Team teammates on the map and into underground subculture lore, the surprise success of Mr. Peralta's Dogtown & Z-Boys (the winner of the audience and director's prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival), chronicling the exploits of the Z(ephyr)-Boys, has led to scripting duties on a new David Fincher project (called "Dogtown") and another directing gig produced by Sean Penn based on the Hunter Thompson-esque memoirs of surfer/photojournalist/author Allan Weisbecker's In Search of Captain Zero.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: The central unifying theme for me in your film had to do with the idea of art as an outlet for urban protest, whether that art came in the form of graffiti or skateboarding. Tell me about the early Zephyr surfboard designs that incorporated the graffiti of Dogtown.
STACY PERALTA: Back then, all the surf shops were producing boards that were powder blue and really lame. Jeff Ho and Craig Stecyk wanted to come in with something different and recognized early on that graffiti was art. Where the cities were constantly trying to stamp it out, he's saying "No, these kids are trying to say something and they don't have a voice to say it in so they're going to say it on these walls."
Craig was very influenced by that style of art and he started including it in a kind of surf-subversive way as well. He spray-painted symbols down on the POP [Pacific Ocean Pier] pier and on the walls at Santa Monica Beach, stuff that was a cross between Mexican art and surfing art. Then he started airbrushing it onto the boards at Zephyr. It gave them an identity that was like no other surfboarding shop on the coast--when you would show up with a Zephyr board anywhere on the coast, everybody knew where you were from because they just didn't make boards like that anywhere else.
No one else was airbrushing boards?
There was airbrushing at the time but it was like rainbows, beautiful blonde-haired girls, and clowns and unicorns, all this psychedelic shit. The Zephyr boards were hardcore street stuff because that was what surrounded the beaches where we grew up--we didn't have the green rolling hills, this was a heavy urban area.
The grittiness of your surf persona and the dangerousness of your surf locales in and around the old sunken Venice Beach amusement park seem to be the perfect fit for the skateboard ethic: a pastime that needs blasted pavement and urban sprawl. What did you bring over to skateboarding from surfing, and what has the response of a wider audience been?
A lot of people have seen the film who don't know anything about skateboarding and are coming up to me saying, "Look, we had no idea where this came from and what this about and why"--and the drought would lead to the draining of pools. Skateboarding has become a part of American culture and it's being embraced by kids around the world, I'm so grateful that folks are finding the culture and its evolution interesting.
Larry Bertleman was one of the inciting influences for us. At the same time there was the urethane wheel, the drought that cleared up all those pools, and banked playgrounds at schools that you just didn't find anywhere else in the country--at least not in that concentration. All of these contributed to this rich, fertile creative breeding ground. The thing that was so nice about it was that this was the 70's before anything was sponsored. Nowadays it's not Woodstock, it's "Michelob's Woodstock." Back then we were allowed to develop in an estuary that was unencumbered by outside sponsors, they didn't want to touch us because we'd be bad for their products. Vans was the first company that took a shot with us. In 1974 they just started giving us shoes--they were the first company outside of the surfboard shop to even look at us.
We weren't the guys hitting home runs on the team and stuff like that, at the schools we went to you got beat up if you were a surfer or skater. There was a lot of violence and trouble--this was the mid-70's, OPEC crisis, Vietnam, Nixon--I think that the tension and aggression boiling at the time and out of our surroundings manifested itself through our skating. And we needed that place to put it.
You've said that you got the idea to kick this project into gear when Hollywood approached you about rights to your life's story. What were you afraid that "La La Land" would do to your film besides casting James Van Der Beek as you?
That's exactly it, man--the exact name, in fact.
I was worried about that of course, and I was worried...look, this is a really meaningful time in our lives--a touchstone of all of our lives and I just didn't want it trivialized. Another thing was happening at that same time: They bought Tony [Alva] and Jay's [Adams]life story rights and they kept coming back saying, "We can't do the movie without you, you're the balance--you're the straight guy." And I said, "Yeah, but you're gonna make me Mr. America, the guy everybody hates."
As it turns out, the guys who own those rights [Art Linson and David Fincher] saw Dogtown and came to me after their writer fell out. "We're going to give you a shot to write this, we believe in this." So it came back to me full circle. I just turned in the first draft and they're happy with it, we're going into the polishing stages. I'm in good hands with Linson and Fincher, they're really in favour of brining out the integrity of the story and the dynamics of the people.
"This was the mid-70's, OPEC crisis, Vietnam, Nixon--I think that the tension and aggression boiling at the time and out of our surroundings manifested itself through our skating. And we needed that place to put it."
Those dynamics amongst the Z-Boys are interesting--it seems to be a loose meritocracy with only a minimum of jealousy between team members. Was it actually like that in reality, or did you sort of turn away from some of the pettiness?
Early on we were all proud of our association--but there was some competitiveness once we broke apart. Even though we still skated together there was some competition. Some of us did better in formalized contests than others, Tony and I were the best competitors in contests so he and I probably had the most--I'm not going to say "animosity"--but, we were going after the same thing and we were two diametrically different people so there was always a bit of an edge between us.
The racial and gender mix of the eight "Z-Boys" is pretty astonishing, too, with one girl, a couple of Asians, a black guy...
Yeah, you just didn't have that back then, it was unheard of. It was a really unusual collection of people--someone just told me that you couldn't make a fictional film believable like this. No one would believe it wasn't the Hollywood machine plugging in representatives of favourable demographics.
We see how fame and fortune overwhelmed Jay Adams, arguably the most physically gifted of your group.
With a guy like Jay, we all know people like that. He was the golden one, he was the chosen one, and he just couldn't contain the energy that came through him. He was a kid who ran so hot twenty-four hours a day. If he wasn't in the water or skateboarding he didn't know what to do with that energy, so it all turned in on him and became drugs. He was a funny kid, mischievous as hell--he was like the Devil's Huck Finn.
An amazing kid, we all wanted to be around him. He was younger than us and better than us. We had every reason to hate him, but we loved the guy.
How did you avoid falling into the same traps as Jay?
As trite as it sounds, I think it's just the way I was brought up by my parents. If you want anything in life you have to work hard to get it, and if you do get it, you've got to realize that you're pretty lucky that you did. I had this thing in me the whole time saying: "Y'know, you're really lucky to be here." I knew how ephemeral it was at a young age, how easily it could all dissipate, I mean one broken leg and it's over. I took it seriously, I never thought I would get anything like that in the first place, and once I had it I had to respect it and get as much as I could out of it.
I started a company at nineteen. I knew I couldn't skate forever and I didn't want to sell insurance or go back to college. I wanted to do something I thought I knew, so I struck out and did it. When I started my company, there was a terrible track record of people like me doing that--they'd all failed in the previous two years. Other skateboard pros had tried to turn businessman and it just didn't work out.
Why did it work out for you?
I just had a sense of how to make things work, I guess, and to be honest with you I'm not an overly confident person. I knew how difficult it was and I was very fearful that I couldn't do it. There was a constant governor on me saying, Look, you're gonna do this, you better really work hard. That fear gives the business the healthy dose of paranoia that you need. I saw the way a couple of my peers handled it and talked it up: "I'm gonna do this" and "I'm gonna do that," and I envied them. I wondered why I couldn't talk that way.
Do you ever regret leaving the professional skating world?
I left the pro scene completely in 1991 because I like getting things started and I like developing ideas, but I just didn't want to keep perpetuating things that had already started. I didn't want to do it, I wanted to challenge myself in some other way, just to take the different path.
You mention that your parents had a lot of influence on how you handled yourself in regards to your sudden stardom, and yet there's very little mention of parents in Dogtown & Z-Boys. Was this a conscious omission, or did parents just not figure too much into it?
I hate to say it, but they didn't figure into it and they didn't because there was no such thing as skateboarding when they were growing up. Since they saw no future in it, I think most of our parents looked at it as a little kid activity--just something you were going to grow out of. It's not like playing baseball, it didn't matter how good you were as a skateboarder, you weren't going anywhere so there was no way parents could get involved in it. At least with Little League you could go to the park and root for your kids, but they're not gonna climb into someone's backyard and holler "Carve it again!" So there really wasn't any involvement.
Dogtown... is blessed with a surplus of archival footage; why was it being shot? Were you watching yourselves later--did your photographer Glen Friedman predict your future success and wish to document it for posterity?
This is the deal--remember that this was the early '70s, mid-'70s, and there was a revolution in the handheld still cameras. It went from the little Kodak instamatics to Canon and Minolta making really nice professional cameras for the layperson for under $100. A lot of people were buying them and a guy like Glen--he wasn't a great skater, but he wanted to hang out with the guys so get a camera, and you're accepted. He became a good photographer as a consequence, but he just wanted to be a part of it. The camera, in a sense, worked like a drug in that Glen was the guy with the camera and all of a sudden all sorts of doors opened for him in our group.
We also had a lot of surf filmmakers then that lived right outside of LA in a place called Topanga Canyon--for some reason that was an epicentre for surfing cinematographers--and all these guys would come out with a movie every year. They started seeing skateboarding around and they started putting little bits of skateboarding in their films, so I knew that the footage was available, I just had to figure out how to get to these guys after all these years.
Was that a difficult process?
I had to hire a detective, but it was worth every penny. It's a shame we could never find Chris, but I think that he's probably a sadder case than Jay Adams. He might be in a jail down there, no one knows. There's been talk of serious drugs with Chris.
When you started bringing your film to the screen, you couldn't have known that there would be such a wide audience for it--what were your main concerns and did you have a wider audience in mind during production?
The thing is that it would have been easy to make this a big back-patting session, "Look what we did, aren't we cool?" I was afraid of that the whole time, I had to remind myself to keep it open and bring people in. I wanted to make sure that we didn't overstep ourselves.
When we first started, my DP was telling me that this had to be my story but I couldn't rest this on me, that was too much. It was enough that I was doing it, I can't--I'd crash and burn if I did that. [Bob] Biniak mentions my name in the third person but he's talking to me--I asked the guys just to just think of me as a documentarian to try to give the piece some distance. We tried to do a couple of things: to make it a celebration of that subculture to show how much fun we had, and also to experiment with the documentary form a little. Documentaries can be so plodding and slow and it doesn't need to be that way; we wanted to be informative while we were entertaining.
The main thrust of the entertainment value of your film breaks down for me into two categories: the music you were able to assemble for the soundtrack, and your use of different film stock, technique, and editing. How did you manage to get that line-up with a minimal budget?
A former skateboarder from New Jersey named Mark Reiter works for a well-established music management firm in New York. He's a friend of a woman in Century City, Los Angeles named Debra MacColluch. She works in the music industry but she's not a music supervisor. It was one of those things where after Mark recommended that I give her a ring, something said to me that I should trust her to do this. I don't know what Debra did, I sincerely don't, but she opened doors that not even the top people could open--she got the trailer into Page's hand, into Allman's! Neil Young, David Bowie, Ted Nugent...all of these doors opened for us. I don't wanna sound too goofball here, but it seemed like every step along the way: Sean, the music--every step it seemed like there was a guiding hand behind this thing.
It'd be a different film without the music, different totally. You hear that music and it instantly gets you in that emotive state--you're feeling that already, it's the seventies again. It brings it back. It's like a tuning rod to that time, it rings and you start resonating. I know what it's like, I have produced three or four hundred original pieces of music in my time producing shows and you just can't produce music that good.
Did you have problems transferring the different types of technique and format to the 35mm format?
What was hard was when we converted the process to 35mm at the end, we had so many different formats that a lot of them did transfer differently. We had a lot of acid blurs and weird trails. My editor [Paul Crowder] had this ingenious idea where he treated the video and film and Super-8 differently and composited it together in this whole soup that finally did transfer well.
Did you have a main philosophy behind how you wanted your film edited and how involved were you with the post-production process?
One of the goals was to make it kinetic--to feel like skateboarding: immediate and happening right at that moment. My involvement in finally putting it together was pretty much back and forth. I was out in the field a lot shooting footage, but I have thirteen years experience as an editor so I knew what I was looking for. Paul was not only my first choice but my only choice, he's got the right temperament and a high level of creativity. I like running a smooth show, I don't like nightmares and Paul was just fantastic. He got it from day one--he's a former musician so he has a great sense of rhythm and it was vital to this piece that we get the pace down. He even produced four original songs for the film so he had a big hand in this, I couldn't think of a better partner.
Will you be working with Crowder again?
It's certainly in the plans. I would love to. He feels the same way, we're looking for the next project.
You mentioned Sean Penn earlier, there's a moment in the middle of the film where he coughs and clears his throat and you let it go, unedited. I've heard that decision criticized, but I thought that it made the kind of ethical sense to which you were aspiring. What was the decision-making process behind that roughness?
I'm so glad you liked that. A few did think it was too much, but skateboarding is something that you fall a lot doing, it's an imperfect thing. We wanted to show that this was real, that we made mistakes. That was part of the thinking; warts and all in everything that we did, even screwing with the speed of the music to remind people that Dogtown was about overcoming, not perfection.
How did Penn get involved with Dogtown & Z-Boys?
We cut a three-minute trailer for the film to use to show people like Jimmy Page and Greg Allman--to entice them to work for poverty wages, essentially. We wanted to show that trailer to Sean, too, he was our only choice to narrate. We got it to his assistant and she liked it so much that she made sure he sat down and watched it and called back two days later saying, "Sean loved it, but he wants to meet you guys." When we finally met, he said, "I'm in. I don't want any money for this, I'm really touched by this film. I was there." And he was, he skated the same schools, surfed the same beaches, and his son who's now eight is doing the same things.
I've read that you've gotten the rights to Allan Weisbecker's The Search for Captain Zero and that Sean Penn may star. Can you comment on that?
That was what the phone call was about right before we started--that's exactly what the call was about. The deal was closed about half and hour ago. It's with Ted Fields' company, and Agi Orsi (who produced Dogtown), along with Sean are set to produce it. Sean has the right to act in it or not, and they've asked me to direct it and work on developing the script.
Penn would be perfect to play Weisbecker.
Absolutely. Sean's got surfing in his blood. I think that deep down, and I don't want to speak for him, but just from what I can glimmer, surfing's a very spiritual thing for all of us and we all would like to see it captured on film correctly because so many films have not captured it correctly.
Any plans for another documentary feature?
I'm trying to set up something on a mystical surfer from the sixties named Mickey Dora.
And I gotta ask--there's a clip of you making a cameo on "Charlie's Angels"--did you meet her?
They were looking for a skateboarder, I had a talent agent in town, called me and said, "I have this job, you don't even have to tryout for it." And I went there and Farrah Fawcett was in that episode so, yeah, she was there on the set. She came out one day out of her trailer to watch me skate and I was really stoked. I did a bunch of 360's for her and it was fun, got a signed picture, it was pretty nice.