Filmmaker Crystal Moselle trusts her instincts for Skate Kitchen

by Andrew Parker

For her first narrative feature, Skate Kitchen (opening this weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and on August 24 in Vancouver and Montreal) award winning filmmaker Crystal Moselle followed her gut, and ended up creating one of the most intriguing and unique female driven films of the year.

It all started with a fateful train ride when Moselle, whose previous documentary The Wolfpack made huge waves several years ago, noticed a group of girls with skateboards. Immediately intrigued, she approached them to chat and see if they would be interested in collaborating on a project.

“I kind of knew that I was going to do something with them the moment I first met them. I have this instinct, and over the years I’ve learned how to follow it,” she says on the line from New York City last week about her immediate reaction to seeing the girls and their boards.

The girls she spoke with were members of Skate Kitchen, an all female NYC based skateboarding collective. The main character in Moselle’s fictionalized take on their lives, the shy Camille, is played by Rachelle Vinberg, one of the founders of Skate Kitchen. Outside of the film that now bears the group’s name, Skate Kitchen was already well known in the skating community, with massive social media presences on Instagram and YouTube. Their collaborating with Moselle began with a short film – That One Day (which screened at the Venice Film Festival) – before blossoming into a more longform relationship.

Moselle’s interactions with the Skate Kitchen girls changed the trajectory of her creative process at the time. Following the short, Moselle was intending to start work on a new documentary. When it was suggested that she turn the short film into something longer, her instincts told her that sticking with the Skate Kitchen crew was the right choice.

“I always start with characters and people and grow the story around that, and it worked really nicely with this project because the girls knew what I was going for and I had a good sense of who they were as people,” the director says about her process of creating a fictional feature around her younger collaborators. “I like creative people, and I think there’s this really magical period around the ages of seventeen and eighteen where a lot of change happens in peoples’ lives. There’s lots of discovery and sometimes there’s a loss of innocence. I think I gravitate towards that a lot in some of the work I’ve done.”

Director Crystal Moselle (left) on the set of Skate Kitchen with Rachelle Vinberg

A big part of creating the film’s fictional narrative – which finds Camille abandoning her newly made female friends to spend time with a male skateboarder (Jaden Smith, one of the film’s few professional actors) from a rival crew – was staying true to the personalities of the individual Skate Kitchen members. Dede Lovelace’s kind and welcoming Janay functions as a group leader. Brash and impish Kurt, played by Nina Moran, is the group protector. Kabrina Adams plays the group’s flamboyant videographer. All of the characters for Skate Kitchen were figured out across months of discussions and workshops with the group and co-writers Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Silverman. While much of the skating and personality traits were true to the experience, forming a fictional story around these girls proved to be the most time consuming and considered part of the process for Moselle.

“They brought their personalities into the movie, and I just gave them various circumstances to portray them how they likely would and the space to let it all play out,” she says about Skate Kitchen’s unique approach to drama. “And if they ever said that they wouldn’t say something a certain way or that they wouldn’t do something that wasn’t true to who they were, I would always ask them what they would say or do. We would re-write it on the spot. And it wasn’t always smooth because these girls aren’t always getting into fights, or making out with other people, or being drugged out and falling asleep like one sees in the film. It was always about bringing the emotions and personalities of each of the girls into these situations. We would ask what would happen IF they were in these scenarios within the story. There were lots of different things that the characters did that they weren’t personally used to, and we always worked together to figure out what felt authentic.”

“We worked together and collaborated a lot over that time,” Moselle continues. “We didn’t just say ‘Hey, do you guys want to make a movie?’ There were a lot of rehearsals, exercises, and improv stuff that let us discover the film we wanted to make. We had a script, and we shot the movie. When we were shooting we shot enough to have probably made a six part series. Our first cut of the film was almost five hours long, but we ended up killing all our darlings. It was such an organic process and it all happened so quickly from beginning to end that I didn’t really think much at the time about all of it. It was something that just happened naturally from our working together. It wasn’t really until we had finished that I realized how close we had become.”

Not only is Skate Kitchen a resoundingly realistic and truthful coming of age story about young women trying to have fun and get recognized for their accomplishments in a male dominated sport, but it’s also part of a wave of passionately constructed cinema that’s coming out of New York City, but a majority of those films have been resoundingly male. It’s also, like most films set in large cities should be (but often aren’t), remarkably equitable and representational, prominently featuring women of colour and queer characters front and centre. One might cynically think that a filmmaker would have planned such casting as a talking point, but for Moselle the realization of her films somewhat revolutionary ideals didn’t settle in until much later.

“When I make a project, it’s always so specific to what I’m doing, and it wasn’t until later on that I realized we were making this strong female story,” Moselle says with a self-aware chuckle. “It just came about so organically, and I was focused on the characters and personalities of these young women that it never crossed my mind how strong it was until a lot later on in production. But personally, I think right now is the perfect time to be telling these kinds of stories. If we’re trying to change things in the world for women, a film where girls are talking about things you don’t normally see depicted in movies is probably going to be pretty important for a lot of people.”

For Moselle, much like her previous film The Wolfpack (which followed a close knit group of sheltered, cinema loving brothers), Skate Kitchen was a project where a filmmaker was working with subjects who were essentially creating their own movies and shaping their own narratives. Moselle credits the filmmaking savvy and social media knowhow of her collaborators with making the experience artistically fulfilling for all parties involved.

“I was just so in their world and in the film that whatever they were doing felt normal to me,” Moselle says when asked if it was surreal to have the girls documenting their every moment on the set of their fictional film. “It’s very much a part of who they are and their generation, but at the same time people from my generation do the same thing. I think it’s cool! It’s creative to pick up a camera and document your own life. Great things can come of it if you do it like how the girls do it.”

“A few of them want to be filmmakers. Kabrina is already a filmmaker, but they were all very observant. All of them would show up on set, even if it wasn’t their day to film. Even when we started editing, they would come over to my house, and the editor would show them scenes from the movie, and they were involved and invested in it every step of the way. They’re all curious about filmmaking, and they made the most of us all spending time with each other.”

Skate Kitchen opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, August 17, 2018. It expands to Montreal and Vancouver on August 24 and to additional Canadian cities throughout the summer and fall.

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