Words by Kevin Duffel, photography by Johnny Oliver
Making his mark as one of the original Z-Boys and then moving on to start Powell-Peralta in ’78, Stacy Peralta is a walking encyclopedia of skateboard history. Now a Hollywood filmmaker, he’s applying that same knowledge to full-length documentaries. Starting his career with 2001’s Dogtown And Z-Boys, and getting ready to release the story behind the Bones Brigade for the silver screen, Stacy’s proving to be one of skateboarding’s most gifted storytellers. The film, titled The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, premieres in Santa Barbara tonight, so check back in for the post-premiere wrap up post. But for now, enjoy the extended interview with Stacy that ran in our 30th Anniversary Issue.
You’ve had a few major documentaries out. When did you start shifting your focus from skateboarding to filmmaking?
It happened kind of at the time I was making skateboard videos. After I made Future Primitive I started getting opportunities in Hollywood to work as what’s called a second unit director. Second unit directors are typically cast to direct the action of a regular motion picture. And so at the time I worked on about four movies while I was still in skateboarding, and it just kinda led me to believe that there were opportunities in this field to go into. That was the start of it right there.
I think it’s primarily because that’s what I’m interested in. I read books all the time, but what I primarily read is nonfiction. I don’t read much fiction, and although I like fiction movies, it’s making documentaries that really gets me. Typically the films I make are things that are either bothering me, or they’re subjects I wanna understand more about, or they’re subjects I just feel are worthy of a story. And so it allows me to apply what I began with making skateboard videos, and just apply that to a bigger canvas.
From Spike Jonze to Jason Lee, a few skaters have branched out into the film industry. Are there any similarities between skateboarding and filmmaking? Why do you think you guys gravitate towards film?
You know, your question right now is onto a subject that has intrigued me for many, many years. And first of all, before I even answer your question, I have to kinda go down this road with you. It’s really interesting to look at how many influential people have come out of skateboarding, whether in the arts or in filmmaking. I don’t see it in any other sport. Why skateboarding, I can only assume is because it’s such a liberal-minded thing. If you’re going to skateboard, you have to keep a very open mind, because everything you’re doing is eventually going to be closed down on you. We’re taught to adapt, because our terrain is constantly changing and getting taken out from under us. You’re also doing this thing that’s semi-illegal everywhere you do it. I don’t know if that’s the reason why, but I’ve really thought about this. I don’t want to speak for you, but I can say I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for skateboarding. Just about everything good in my life has come out of this sport.
“I don’t want to speak for you, but I can say I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for skateboarding.”
You got a lot of attention for Dogtown And Z-Boys, winning audience and best director awards at Sundance in 2001, and basically brought about a whole new generation of kids interested in old school skating. Why do you think that film resonated so much with the audience?
If in fact it resonated with the audience, I think part of it has to do with the fact that we may have reached the pinnacle of the age of extreme. How much higher can we go? How much faster can we go? How many more flips can we do? And I think a lot of people were thinking, “You know, this just isn’t fun anymore.” And maybe they were looking back, thinking they wanted to do what was fun. And if you strip all the accomplishments off of skateboarding, and all the technicalities off of skateboarding, the fact remains that ultimately it’s just fun to roll down a hill. I mean, that’s what grabbed everyone in the beginning, and a lot of people have taken it further than that of course, and it’s great that they did, but when it comes down to it, it’s that feeling you get in your gut when you just roll down a hill. And of course Dogtown showed that, because back then that was really all we could do. We didn’t have the equipment to do anything further. And there’s a freedom to it. There’s a real simplicity to it that I think a lot of people find appealing. But did that really happen?
Yeah, I really think so. A lot of people I’ve talked to—who don’t necessarily skate seriously—grabbed skateboards after watching that film.
Oh man, that’s amazing. Well, after that film came out, I went to one of my local skateboard shops, and they told me that film was resulting in a lot of middle aged guys breaking their wrists. All these middle aged guys saw the film and decided they had to get back into skateboarding. Which they did, but they were also breaking themselves up as well, which I found that kinda funny.
You’re releasing a documentary about the Bones Brigade right now. Why focus on them, and why now?
Well, to be honest, I never felt it was right for me to make the film. And I kept thinking that someone else would come along and make it. But nobody did. It’s something the guys asked me to do about eight years ago, and I was reluctant at the time to do it. But over the years we kept talking about it, and finally a year and a half ago, Lance Mountain called me and said, “Look, we really want to do this. We’re now older than you and Tony Alva were when you made Dogtown.” When he said that, I realized, “Okay now we have to do this, because it should be done now and it shouldn’t be done when they’re a lot older.” So that’s how it all happened and came to be. I was able to scrounge up the money and everyone was really eager to do it. It was an incredible experience to sit everyone down and walk through that decade again.
“Lance Mountain called me and said, ‘Look, we really want to do this. We’re now older than you and Tony Alva were when you made Dogtown.’”
Do you feel that it’s just as impactful as the Z-Boy era?
What’s interesting is that it’s much different. The Dogtown film was much more about a group. This film is much more about the interior of each of the guys on the team, and what they were going through, and the struggles they were going through. If you look at the two teams—one could be construed as being a team made up of a community, you know, neighboring kids. Whereas the Bones Brigade was made up of a team of skateboarders that lived all over the country—they didn’t come from the same community. And they also weren’t what you would call the cool kids. In fact, some of them borderlined on being kind of nerdy. So it was a really unusual collection of skateboarders. And they were put together at a very young age, like 13 years of age when they weren’t anybody—none of them had names when they got on the team. So it’s a different dynamic and the film unfolds in a much different way. Which I’m really glad about, because had it felt like Dogtown, I would’ve failed immeasurably.
Since you’ve been with skateboarding since the very beginning, what year or era do you feel like is the greatest?
You know, that’s hard to say, and I don’t want to say what’s the best, because right now could be the best. Well, it’s weird, because I skateboarded through both of those decades. One of them I was a skateboarder and it was all about me and my experience. The other one was all about their experiences and making their experiences as good as it could be, with the Bones Brigade. I got a taste of both worlds, and I couldn’t live without both of them. I can’t say which one is better because they’re so different. The ’70s decade with the Zephyr team was where my identity as a human being formed; I’ll take that for the rest of my life. With the Bones Brigade, that was my opportunity to take what I had as a professional skateboarder, and then take that dream and create something else. So they both are incredible touchstones for my life. The only thing I will say about the ’80s is that for me, they lasted longer. You know, our time in the ’70s was three years. I was a professional skateboarder for three years and it was over after that. For the ’80s it lasted a solid 10 years, so it gave everyone the opportunity to really live the life. Then when I left, it continued into the ’90s, and of course it continues on through today. The one thing I will say that was a surprise, is that when I started to unravel the Bones Brigade story, I didn’t realize how many obstacles there were in skateboarding history in the ’80s. It looked like the sport was going to die. I think eventually there were two skateparks left in the United States. And it finally got down to one. It really looked like things were not going to turn around, so many of us who remained in the business wondered if we were just fooling ourselves. But that led to the whole backyard ramp series and contests, so it was a real vibrant decade of going back to the roots and reinventing the sport.
And that’s when street skating came about as well. So there was a very lot going on in that period.
Yup. And the great thing about street skating is we as a manufacturer saw the possibility and potential for it, and we started pushing it because we thought that if we pushed this, it may give the opportunity for more people to skate, because so few people could actually make ramps. So we took a gamble, thinking that if we held [street] contests, maybe it would turn into something. And so we did, but a lot of professional skateboarders at the time thought what we were doing was wrong. Like Lance Mountain said, “This is the stuff that we do on the way to the skatepark. We’re not supposed to be having contests doing this stuff.” But in fact, street style was a form that wanted to be brought to life. It just needed a midwife to get it there. As it started to pick up, I had suggested to Rodney [Mullen] that he start street skating. And at the time, he said no, and I can’t tell you how bad I felt even mentioning that to him. I felt like I was asking Picasso to go from being a painter to start working with lead pencils. I just felt so bad about it, but felt so gratified to know that later on he eventually did that.
“I felt like I was asking Picasso to go from being a painter to start working with lead pencils.”
When you formed the Bones Brigade back in the ’80s did you have any idea those guys would become the legends they now are?
I had no idea that their career spans would ever last anything near this long. Because I was still living in the past in my own decade, thinking careers only lasted three years. When those guys made it to five years, and then to seven years, and the 10 years, it was a complete surprise to me. But never did I think they’d be skating in their forties and making a living from it, ever. So what’s interesting about this whole thing is my life has been lived through the history of skateboarding. And every year that skateboarding grows, it morphs into something that none of us ever thought it could become. I mean, if a kid plays football today, he has 100 years behind him to understand this game. We have about 30, so we’re still in its infancy.
That said, did you ever think that skateboarding itself would become what it has?
Never. I didn’t. Clearly I believed in it because I staked my life on it. It’s what I did for 20 or 30 years, but I never thought it would get to be this mainstream. I just didn’t have the capacity to understand what it was capable of being outside of what we were doing. But I will say the thing that is most gratifying to me about skateboarding is what it’s doing to the inner-city kids. It gives them an alternative to gang life. Because they’re so surrounded by—they’re so deep in concrete—they can really do something with their athletic ability, and all they need is a skateboard. They don’t need a basketball court or a football field. They just need a board with some wheels under their feet.
Looking back, your first full-length documentary was about the Z-Boys, and now you’re releasing one about the Bones Brigade. Do you think you’re going to continue to document the state of skateboarding for years to come? Maybe one on EMB in 10 more years?
You know, I never even thought I’d do this. It’s a good question. I don’t have any plans on doing it, but I didn’t have any plans on doing this. The road keeps changing in front of me, so I guess I’m gonna just keep following it.
Well the future generations will always need the real documented history laid out for them, so it’ll always be around for you.
Well, I’ll tell you what is interesting about it, is when I made Dogtown, Tony Hawk said one of the most interesting comments to me. He said, “I had no idea of my own history, and this film put together so many of the dots for me.” I think the Bones Brigade film is going to do the same thing for a lot of skateboarders all over the world. And I think being the fact that we are still living in a young sport’s life, it’s important that we understand our history and we understand where things come from, and what people were doing and feeling and thinking at the time they were doing it. So it’s a rewarding thing to do this for me, to be a part of it, because it’s just another contribution to the mix.
What would you tell all other aspiring filmmakers out there? Just go for it?
Always make films that are interesting to you, that either you’re searching for an answer, or that you just want to see yourself. The only films I make are films I want to see myself. They’re films that I haven’t seen that I want to see. And that’s what I tell other filmmakers. Don’t chase the money, chase the interest.