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3rd September 2018
In conversation: Alma and Crystal
As part of Los Angeles' Neuehouse series of "New Pioneers" lectures, director and founder of Free The Bid Alma Har'el interviews director Crystal Moselle about her just-released feature film Skate Kitchen and how she found her own filmic language when she decided to not to stick to the rules.

Alma: Before we get into all the details of Crystal’s docs and the film, we wanted to show you a music video that she did a long time ago, that was like, $1000 budget, right? And it’s one of the most beautiful music videos ever. It has dance in it, and it’s in New York, in the streets. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it before we show it?

Crystal: I was doing a Kmart commercial in South Africa, and there was this young girl, Cassie Elle. She was 12 years old, and we all fell in love with her. She was super fun, and she would follow us around on set and do back flips, and kind of just be whispering in our ear all day, talking shit. She was awesome.

She came to New York and was on a Julliard School course. I met up with her and her two friends, in Union Square, they were 14 years old. I was just observing them, and asked them to show me some of their dance moves and they started doing these insane ballerina dance moves through the park, not caring about anybody in their space. So I thought that might be a good video to do. A friend had a song that they wanted to do a music video for, so I took them after school at 4:00 p.m., and had them until 10:00, and I made this video.

Alma: I feel there’s something that, if you look at it and you look at your work afterwards, you can already see some of the things that define (your work), which is how you fall in love with people and then you go with them on a journey.

Crystal: Yeah, they usually take me on the journey. A lot of those moments, we’d come up with together. They’re like, ‘Oh, let’s get that security guard, just have him look over there and we’re going to dance around him.’ And I’d say, ‘Perfect, okay. I’ll put the camera right here, and then I’ll move it over there.’ I collaborate a lot with my subjects who I fall in love with, I guess, working together to build this.

Alma: What year was this?

Crystal: 2013 maybe.

Alma: I think so. And then, I saw you at Tribeca, right? Before Wolfpack came out.

Crystal: Yeah.

Alma: You were editing Wolfpack, or finishing it, or showing it, and it just blew the fuck up, and won the prize during Sundance, the best documentary, and everything opened in many ways for you, right? And in the commercial world too, everywhere.

Crystal: It was a big shift for me, because I was making a lot of beauty commercials, and I was in France a lot, doing lots of closeups of beautiful women closing their eyes and opening them up, and smiling. And then I met the Wolfpack, and they’re just these six boys that were … they all had long hair, and they had this crazy backstory that I figured out over five years.

Alma: You worked on that film for five years?

Crystal: Yes, and then a year of travelling with it. So it was a big, long thing. But all those beauty commercials actually paid for the film to happen, which I was very lucky to have.

Alma: And you shot most of it too?

Crystal: Yeah.

Alma: That was a huge labour of love and friendship.

Crystal: I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I first started that film. I really just had a camera, and I was putting it in their hands a lot too, because I was trying to teach them filmmaking, and then I realised that they had been kept in the house their entire lives, so there was a crazy film there.

Alma: That’s one of the most fascinating films, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s really worth checking out.

Crystal: It’s on Netflix.

Alma: How many brothers are there, seven?

Crystal: There’s six brothers and a sister.

Alma: They were all basically locked up in a house their whole lives, and developed this obsession with film and would recreate these films. So it’s really –

Crystal: They made costumes out of cardboard and tape, they’re fascinating. I feel like most … have you guys seen the movie? Everybody’s seen it.

Alma: I think it’s really encouraging to see how you can make something for $1000 with people you meet on the street, and then meet another group of kids on the street, and make a feature with them, and shoot it yourself. And then as a result of that, things really changed, also in commercials, right?

Crystal: I started to actually see different types of projects. There was a lot of documentary-based projects, but it definitely was more fulfilling to be able to do things that I felt like I was building towards what I wanted to do, which is to make narrative feature films.

Alma: As some people here know, I’m a big advocate for women who, especially those who can’t afford film school like I couldn’t, to take advantage of making commercials or branded content as a way to sustain themselves until they get to direct a feature. But also to learn how to work on a set, and under pressure, and develop your ideas and your language, which guys get to do a lot more. I think that Crystal has a perfect example in this film, Skate Kitchen, your first narrative feature which actually started as a short film you did for Miu Miu as branded content.

Crystal: That was the best opportunity I got out of Wolfpack. Miu Miu does a women tales series, where they have two women a year make films, and then they get to go to the Venice Film Festival, and there’s a lot of good eyes on your project. I had met this group of skateboard girls on the G train in New York City, and I thought I was going to do a documentary with them, but Miu Miu hit me up, so I made a short film with them that was inspired by this idea that’s there’s this one day in your life where everything shifts, and you get to see yourself in a different way. So we were talking about all of these little moments that happen, and I used the girls that skateboard as the protagonists. Should we watch it?

Alma: I wanted to say that when you worked on it, you told me that you agreed with them that you’d keep the IP, the intellectual property, and that you could make a film out of it later on.

Crystal: Yeah.

Alma: The feature doesn’t, if anybody’s wondering, have clothes by Miu Miu in it or anything like that, it’s just a feature which you had full independence to do whatever you did. But it happened to start with this short, which does feature Miu Miu clothes.

Crystal: It’s so funny to watch that right now.

Alma: After making the movie? Tell us why.

Crystal: Just to see how far they’ve gone as actors.

Alma: And you as a filmmaker.

Crystal: Yes, and how I would have cut it differently and made different music choices.

Alma: It’s always like that. But it’s beautiful, and I still always cry at the same point, which is crazy how predictable that is.

Crystal: The scene where they’re in the room talking… that’s the scene that gave everybody a lot of confidence, including myself, that we could make a feature film together. They just let themselves go, and they trusted me completely. It was really cool.

Alma: What was the process? Because this was a scripted feature film, even though it had a lot of work-shopping of stories and it’s kind of incredible that they’re so beautiful and photogenic, and they really do skate together all the time. And then Jaden Smith joined as an actor, right? So what was the process of really making this film?

Crystal: Well, I met Nina and Rachelle, and I just started talking to Rachelle, and she –

Alma: Nina is the girl with the blonde hair, who was kind of the funniest stoner ever. And such a cool chick.

Crystal: My problem child. I love her so much.

Alma: And Rachelle is the girl with the glasses.

Crystal: Rachelle and I started hanging out a lot when we first met. Nina would invite me to the skate park, and I’d sit and watch her skate, but Rachelle would come over to my house, and just kind of … we had a real connection and she would tell me about her life. I was inspired by her ideas, and we really got along. The short film came from her telling me ‘there was this one day where everything kind of changed in my life’. And that’s what the short film was. I then went away for two months and was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I thought I was going to make a documentary, and follow them for a few years and see what happens, but I showed the short film to Kim Yutani at Sundance. I also saw this other film called All These Sleepless Nights, which if you haven’t seen it, it’s incredible. That film really gave me this confidence that I didn’t have to play by rules.

Crystal: After Wolfpack, I needed something to shake me out of that feeling of ‘you have to make documentaries a certain way’. After I saw that movie, All These Sleepless Nights, I was like, ‘Fuck everything. I’m going to do exactly what I want to do.’ And then Kim Yutani said, ‘I want to see this movie, but I don’t want to see it as a documentary. I want to see a feature version of what you just did, because this is the film that I’ve always wanted to see.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to make this film that Kim’s always wanted to see. But they’re growing up, I’m fucked. So I have to make it next summer.’

Alma: I’m so ignorant, whose Kim?

Crystal: Kim Yutani. She’s the head of programming at Sundance, she’s been the biggest advocate for this film and everything that I’ve done. I was like, ‘I’m going to make this film exactly how I feel like making this film.’ I got back from my two months of thinking about everything, and I asked the girls, ‘Do you guys want to make a movie?’ And they’re like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ I knew I had to make it the next summer, so I went into this crazy frenzy of writing, and hanging out with them, and collecting ideas, and creating the script, and getting money.

We went to Sundance, which was about four months after I decided I was going to make the film, and I had ideas and stuff, but I didn’t really have a script. But we positioned it like ‘we’re making this film this summer. If you want to jump on, you can jump on. If not, you’re going to miss the boat, and this is happening no matter what’.

We just kept moving forward like we’re making the film, which is a really great way to think, because in my head it was happening no matter what. And then we got some money from two financiers who came together.

Alma: And that’s it.

Crystal: I put them in a rehearsal for six months.

Alma: Off to the races.

Crystal: I like rehearsals, which nobody does. Usually you can rehearse your actors for one day, and I was like, ‘We are going to get this right’. There was this one scene in the movie where they talk about tampons, I think I had them do it 30 times.

Alma: It’s a real conversation that they had that you heard before, right?

Crystal: A lot of the conversations in the film happened in real life, and then I’d write a script, and then the girls would learn the beats of the scene. They would then ad lib and do their own thing, go off the page, and we’d do it over and over again. We’d go on set, and I’d shoot it probably seven times, because I’m crazy.

Alma: Is that a lot, seven times? Or is it-

Crystal: No.

Alma: I only did one film, so I don’t know.

Crystal: I wanted to shoot it like a discovery. I wanted the camera to feel almost like a documentary, but not a documentary. Where every shot where we are discovering these moments naturally, and that was my main goal, to make it feel like realism…

Alma: It really does feel very real. The film opens, it’s okay to say, right? Not how it ends. It’s not that I’m ruining it. But it opens with a scene of her getting credit carded, what’s it called? When your vajayjay gets hit by the skateboard…

Crystal: You know what that is? It means the skateboard, you fall on it, and slices your vagina, and you get … it just happened to her a second time too.

Alma: And she was four months, or three months with stitches.

Crystal: It’s traumatic.

Alma: So it happens, and everything feels really real. That included, but everything after too. So a lot of the stuff was based on things that happened to them.

Crystal: We threw in a narrative that she comes to New York and meets this group of friends, and then she kind of fucks the friendship up from not really understanding the codes of friendship. But I think it’s a dance movie a little bit, or a hangout movie. I don’t think plot’s completely my thing. But it has more plot than than you think. All These Sleepless Nights has way less plot than this film. I like no plot.

Alma: And how was transitioning from doing something that obviously had a lot of slow motion shots, and lipsticks, and glitter in the right places, and beautiful jackets, and all that, to something that really felt super realistic? Even Jaden Smith felt more real than I’ve ever seen him in anything.

Crystal: I made him come to New York and hang out with the kids. I was like, ‘If you want to be in this movie, we got to hang out and really understand this world.’

Alma: And it was perfect. He was perfect in it.

Crystal: It was great, because it felt more natural, and but now that I know them so well I can’t get them to do anything.

Alma: It’s amazing how when you start doing documentaries, sometimes the best stuff you get … there’s a certain quality to the stuff that you get in the beginning, when people don’t know you, and they kind of feel uncomfortable saying no to you. And then there’s a certain quality to the intimacy that things have later on, when people say no a lot, but at the same time open up in a certain way that maybe they haven’t before.

Alma: So let’s watch the trailer, and then maybe also open up for some questions.

Crystal: Cool.

Alma: There is a whole thing that happens when he [Jaden Smith] comes in, and how it breaks the balance of the female friendships when he’s introduced, and all the tension that it creates, and the secrets, and the jealousy … right?

Crystal: Yeah.

Alma: There’s such a boyish energy in a skate park. I have a lot of friends who are skaters, and it’s incredible how they have this certain brotherhood around it, and it has a very specific tone. It was interesting to see it as somebody who saw Kids years ago in New York, and films like that. Just see a totally different dynamic you’ve never seen of girls hanging out together in New York in a certain way. Was that something that you were talking to them about a lot? Or did it happen naturally? Just showing that kind of difference between the …

Crystal: One of the first things that we talked about was the intimidation that they felt going into those skate parks when they first started skating. It’s funny though, because there’s been such a shift in the New York City skate boarding scene since they formed the Skate Kitchen, and so many girls are starting to skate again.

Alma: How many years have they been?

Crystal: They formed Skate Kitchen after the Miu Miu short.

Alma: But they were already skating together?

Crystal: Nina and Rochelle were skating together, but Nina kind of helped me gather all the other girls for the short, and they all-

Alma: They knew each other, right?

Crystal: Yes kind of.

Alma: I always thought that they hung out.

Crystal: Nina knew everybody, but Rachelle had just come into the city. I was watching the movie play out in front of me as I was writing it. Rachelle had just moved to the city, and she was starting to meet these girls and assimilate to being a New York City girl as opposed to this lonely Long Island girl who credit cards herself, and mom tells her not to skate.

Alma: Who wants to ask Crystal questions?

Audience: What was the pre-production process like for capturing the realism and authenticity? Do you story board at all? Or do you discuss with your DP? How are you able to prepare but also make it feel real?

Crystal: We didn’t really story board specific shots, as we knew what the scene was going to be, and what the different angles and shots that we needed. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, her shoulder needs to be here, and the lighting needs to be like this.’ We just let it have its freedom within the world, and I shot it like a documentary that way. All the girls knew what they had to do, and then the camera moved around them.

Audience: Can you talk a little bit about the transition from the short to the feature? How long did it take you to go from the short?

Crystal: Do you mean to get money and actually make it happen? Or do you mean to creatively move from one film to the next?

Audience: Everything.

Crystal: I screened the short at Venice at the end of August 2016, and immediately realised I needed to make the feature film. I came back to New York, and I started hanging out with the girls, and got them into doing the feature. And then I got my producer from Wolfpack involved, and we started looking for writers. I started working with a writer at the end of November. We had almost a synopsis, and pretty good treatment.

Alma: And you had up to 12 minutes that they could show, which is why it’s so great to have a short.

Crystal: Exactly, the short was great. So our plan was to go to Sundance with some sort of scriptment, which didn’t happen, but we did go with a treatment and the short. And we got a lot of people interested in coming on board to finance the film. That was 2017.

Alma: Boom.

Crystal: I had first draft of the script, and then a lot of internal stuff happened between…

Alma: A lot of credit carding.

Crystal: Yeah. Just a lot of girls to work with, and kind of figuring out what the story was, and I realised I had to simplify things for it to work. I had this other girl who was consulting with me with the writing, and I actually ended up just hiring her. She and I worked day and night for about two and half months to finish the script. At that point I had the money on board, people said they were going to give me money, but things weren’t signed. And then we gave a first draft of the script, I think it was a month before we were shooting, and we got the money at that point, and we shot it that summer, a year ago.

Alma: Anymore questions? Last chance. We got one minute, go.

Audience: How is Rachelle’s mom now?

Crystal: She’s cool. The other day we premiered at the IFC in New York, and her mom brought 20 Colombians to the premiere. And Dede’s dad is, we call him our biggest fan, because he comes to every single screening. They’re so proud of their kids.

Audience: So Rachelle’s allowed to skate?

Crystal: Rachelle’s allowed to skateboard.

Alma: Now she’s kind of thinking about being a script writer or a director.

Crystal: Yeah, Rachelle, she wants to be an actress, but she also is in film school, and wants to make things. We actually collaborated on a video that comes out with the movie for this artist Claro.

Alma: That’s a beautiful story right there. All right, thank you so much for coming, and go see Skate Kitchen.

Alma: And please spread the word, because movies like this really do get around when people talk about them. They’re not like the Hollywood movies.

Crystal: There’re no billboards or anything. It’s the power of the people.


Skate Kitchen

Free the Bid