By Steven Prokopy
To begin her first non-documentary feature film (after 2015’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning doc THE WOLFPACK), director Crystal Moselle did was she has done in the past—she met her future subjects on the streets of New York City, or more specifically, on the subway. But after randomly connecting with two members of a crew of teenage skateboarders named The Skate Kitchen, Moselle knew she wanted to do something creative with these expressive and revolutionary young women.
Soon after, she made them the subject of the 2016 short film THAT ONE DAY, which she was commissioned to do, as something of a test run for the girls as actors. Eventually after spending months on end hanging out with them, she began to develop a fictional story based on their lives and relationships. The resulting film is SKATE KITCHEN, which also made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and is a fantastic showcase for a host of first-time actors, as well as some fantastic skateboarding. The story centers of Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a shy girl who gains a great deal of confidence through skateboarding with a new group of female friends, including standout Nina Moran as Kurt; she also meets one of the few male skaters (played by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada) at a local skate park, and the potential for a first romance seems both exciting and potentially problematic if her girlfriends find out.
SKATE KITCHEN is a raw, honest and compelling study of this group of lost girls who find support and courage in each other, and it’s impossible not to get pulled in by both the drama of their interactions and the freeing power their skateboarding brings them. We spoke to Moselle recently about the process of pulling the film together and the ways in which it changed her as well as its young stars. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, August 24.
Question: I remember when we spoke about THE WOLFPACK, you said you met those boys when you were walking down the street and you saw them. And I hear that you met The Skate Kitchen girls in a similar fashion. Tell me about how you met them, and what was it that drew you to them?
Crystal Moselle: Yeah, that’s actually how I get inspired. I’m always inspired by the people first. I was on the G train in New York City, and Nina and Rachelle were on the train, and Nina has the charisma and voice that completely fills a room. When she speaks and you’re in a restaurant, the entire restaurant goes silent and starts listening to what she’s saying. She just has that presence. Rachelle has a different thing going on, but Nina has the power of her voice. I was intrigued and asked them if they’d be into doing a film project at some point, because I saw they had skateboards and they were these really cool teenagers.
Then I got approached by Miu Miu [the Italian women’s clothing brand, owned by Miuccia Prada, whose nickname is also Miu Miu] to do a short film and I brought them into the mix and they were into the idea. After that, it all tumbled like a snowball, and it came together and within a year, we had a feature film.
How did you broach the subject of doing not a documentary, as you’d done before, but more of a character-driven narrative with them playing versions of themselves?
CM: I didn’t think too hard about it. I was just like “Hey, I have this idea to do a version of your life. Would you guys be into acting?” And they were all into it. “Okay, let’s do this.”
So how did you prep them to be actors?
CM: We did a lot of rehearsals and we had an acting coach come in. I hadn’t directed actors before, except in commercials, but nothing too big. So I definitely wanted the support to make sure we could bring these authentic moments and understand the themes. We workshopped each of the scenes several times. We did that maybe once a week, or once every two weeks, for five or six months. Before we started shooting the film, we did two weeks straight, five days in a row of intense rehearsal.
You said you based the film on their lives and personalities. So how much of it is them and how much did you come up with, because there are story elements to this.
CM: Yeah, the atmosphere is all true. Rachelle did move from Long Island to New York City, and she started hanging out at this skate park in New York and she’d skateboard. That was based on reality, but then we also sat down and talking about experiences, friends break-ups, which was inspired by their experiences and mine and what women go through. It made sense to have somebody who felt like they were doing something behind their backs but they didn’t realize what they were doing. It felt like the kind of misunderstandings that could lead to talking about social codes and how young people deal with that when that happens.
Was there something about Rachelle that you found particularly compelling and made you want her to be the character that we see this story through as she’s introduced to the group?
CM: She also has a vulnerable part to her that translates on screen a lot. There’s a sadness to her that you can feel.
Talk about your learning curve into this world and how you discovered what was important to them. How long did you spend just hanging out with them?
CM: I’ve been hanging out with them now for two years. We immersed into each other’s worlds. We’ve been hanging out all the time, and I’m a part of their world; they’re a part of mine. It just happened really quickly during and after the film. I remember one day where they all came over. There was a screening or talk or something, and I said “You should all come over.” And after the talk, I had to do some work, all of them started hanging out at my place. One of them started reading the books in my living room, laying on the couch, one is one the floor, one is on her phone. And I was like “Oh my god, you’re all young people and you don’t really have plans. The event is over, and you’re just hanging out.” I loved it; it was so adorable. I’m an adult so there is a comfort about being a somebody’s house. I’m not their parents, but it’s still a safe place.
I get a sense that having a safe place means a lot of these girls, because many of them don’t have that.
CM: That’s very true.
You mentioned before about the way women are treated in this culture, and all the documentaries I’ve seen about skate culture have been all very male-centric. And you make it clear that these girls are harassed to a degree and not easily accepted the way they should be. The message of the film is “Here we are. Deal with it.”
CM: Yeah. A big part of it for them is going after things and not being afraid. Getting over fear is a huge part of skateboarding, especially for girls. The intimidating aspect of it is such a big thing, but once they go through that initiation process, it lifts and there’s a new confidence. One thing they tell girls is, if you go to a park and you’re the only girl, what do you do? I asked Rachelle, “If somebody asks you that, what do you say?” And she said “There are all these boys at the park, and one of them will be a friend. So try to make friends with somebody.” I know it’s a different universe for girls, where all eyes are on them. So for her, it came down to being confident in yourself and not being scared.
Speaking of the boy that her character becomes friends with, did Jaden have much of a history with skate culture before this?
CM: He is a skateboarder, but he hasn’t had any experience in New York City skateboarding culture. I told him “If you want to do this film, you have to come to New York and hang out with these kids and immerse yourself in their world.” And he did and he was super into it. It was a really incredible thing. He came to New York twice—he was out in Queens with the boys skateboarding and going to parks and cruising around the city with all of them, and the girls really pushed him as well. It became his second home in a way.
There are a couple quick shots that you scatter throughout the film—reaction shots of little girls—seeing the girls skate by, and I love those moments because they feel 100 percent real. That’s the beginning of a revolution in those reactions. Tell me about the significance of those shots.
CM: Yeah, exactly. The one with the really little girl—she’s my goddaughter—that was her mom and brother in that shot. Basically, I was out doing some filming with Rachelle and a bunch of boys one day, and all of these boys skated by, and Rachelle was at the end, and this little girl was watching and when she saw Rachelle, she did this double take and just stopped in her tracks. I saw that moment and I thought “This is beautiful. This is like passing the torch.” It had to shoot it; it was so important.
I’m curious about your approach to shooting the skating scenes themselves, especially at the park. You’re not shooting a lot of it from a distance; you’re right there amongst them, floating through them.
CM: It was all shot on a skateboard, so that the operator would skate with them. I wanted it to be kind of like a dance film, to have this floaty movement to it. I also wanted it to feel like every thing was a discovery, instead of it being set up. I wanted every moment to feel like you are capturing it for the first time.
The soundtrack is not the usual punk rock soundtrack that I’m used to hearing in film about this culture. I’ll admit, when you drop in that Junior Senior song [“Move Your Feet”], I almost stood up and started dancing.
CM: The girls basically made the soundtrack from what they were listening to. She was just randomly listening to that song that day. And Nina gave me a lot of songs that she listened to, and the songs from the party were just songs that were played at some party. That’s this generation; they don’t listen to punk rock. They listen to electronic and hip-hop and Rihanna.
You mentioned that when you first met these girls that Nina was the one you were first drawn to, and watching the film, your eyes and ears go right to her. I saw this TED Talk she did a couple years ago that was riveting. Most directors would have probably made her the central character, but you use her to bring Rachelle out of her shell. Talk about their relationship.
CM: When we talked about the script with Nina, I said “I want you to be you. I want to give you the opportunity to completely be yourself and shine and be your special, charismatic self.” I think the character was perfect for that, and it’s really her. Her and Rachelle have been friends for many, many years, which helped the relationship—they’re just so close.
I heard that the original cut of this film was five hours. How do you even begin to pare that down and get it somewhere manageable?
CM: Yeah [laughs]. We edited the film in about four months. My last documentary took almost a year. For each beat, there were too many beats, so I learned a lot about storytelling making this film. It was like “We don’t need 10 scenes of them getting to know each other; we can do it in two.” And then you just pick the best ones.
Crystal, congratulations and best of luck.
CM: Thank you so much.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”