There’s a scene in the film Skate Kitchen in which the all-girl skate crew is swerving through the streets of their hometown New York City when a random man asks the stoner tomboy of the group, Kurt (played by Nina Moran), “Hey, can you do an ollie?”
“No, bro,” she savagely deadpans. “I’m a poseur.”
That type of no-fucks response defines Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, a cinéma vérité that stars the real-life skate crew of the same name. For her first feature-length film since her breakout 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, Moselle wrote her script based on the experiences of the skaters: Nina Moran, Jules and Brenn Lorenzo, Ardelia Lovelace, Kabrina Adams, Jani Lucid, and Rachelle Vinberg.
Vinberg stars as Camille, an 18-year-old skater from Long Island whose single mother (played by Orange Is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez) bans her from skating after she gets “credit-carded” on her board (yes, that means her board hit the inside of her vag, cringe along with me.) When she sees that NYC’s Skate Kitchen is welcoming new members, Camille makes her way into the city and quickly wows everyone with her skills. But then she falls for a boy on a sexist rival skate crew (Jaden Smith) and her perfect girl gang begins to fall apart.
Moselle’s film may not be a documentary but has the charming feel of one. Watching the movie, you feel like you’re hanging with these self-assured girls as they debate the toxicity of tampons and why the Monopoly man doesn’t have a monocle anymore (whoaaaa dude?!). In this condensed and edited conversation, Moselle and I talk about how she found the crew, writing the script for the movie, and why shooting a bunch of real skateboarding is nerve-wracking as hell.
JEZEBEL: How did you first come across the Skate Kitchen crew?
CRYSTAL MOSELLE: I was on the train in New York City and I saw them. I thought Nina [Moran] had a really interesting voice. And I approached them! [Laughs] It’s kind of what I do. I think another thing was just the fact that they had skateboards in their hands. I don’t think I would have approached them if they didn’t. I asked them if they wanted to do a project, maybe a film project one time, and they were open to it. We met for coffee and the rest is history.
When did you realize you wanted to do something scripted with them?
I got an opportunity to do this short film called That One Day with Miu Miu, and I knew that we didn’t have enough time to actually create something that was a documentary because [we had] about a month. [For the movie], I basically thought I’d recreate scenes from their lives and that was what I was going off of. There were interviews and a lot of observation. Just hanging out and just understanding their lives. But there became more of a narrative than I even expected. Rachelle [Vinberg] and I were bonding over this idea that there’s this one day when your entire life changes when you’re young. I wanted Skate Kitchen to reflect that.
Was much of the movie was improvised?
Not a lot of it! There were scenes I would put together and we’d do these improv moments. We’d do these workshops together where we’d workshop the scene and then I’d rewrite the scene. It became this process. Like, the moment in the room where they’re talking about tampons [and if they can kill you], that scene we recreated together but I witnessed it in real life. It was really about them playing versions of themselves in scenes that happened before in their lives.
Did doing something more scripted, even if it was based on the lives of your subjects, feel like new territory for you as someone who’s a documentarian?
You know, it didn’t. ’Cause to me, it felt like we were recreating stuff I had already seen. I’m a commercial director, so I do a lot of shoots that are within a more scripted space. I don’t know, it actually felt more natural to me, because I like to collaborate and work with people. The subjects that I work with become my collaborators. There’s a charisma, there’s an instinct that I feel, and it all comes together.
What is it about casting real people as opposed to actors that attracts you as a director?
I like people and I like characters, and I like them when they already exist. Even the scripted projects that I do in the future—there’s a project that I’m doing right now, it’s based on a true story. So I’m really trying to observe these real people and their lives and recreating that with actors.
What was the process like getting all of the skaters ready to act on camera?
We’d do the rehearsals but then the bigger scenes, we didn’t rehearse them. We’d do them with a few people, but then once we were in the park we’d just add people in. That kind of thing just happens in the park so people would jump on in anyways.
Was there anything that surprised you about the Skate Kitchen crew when you started shooting them?
When I started doing the rehearsals, I was incredibly surprised at how open they were and how talented they were, improving and creating a scene and going off the script but sticking to the beats of the story. That’s when I knew it was going to work.
I know you were shooting your last big feature film The Wolfpack for four years. How did it feel to finally close the book on the project and move on to Skate Kitchen?
I think everything kind of has its course. Things run its course. And with Wolfpack, we did a huge, huuuge press tour for that film. We were all over the world, did a million Q&As. It was very exhausting. It wasn’t like, oh it’s over, it’s done. Everything kind of fizzled out and it was time to move on to the next thing and then something else presents itself to you that you feel with just as much passion. It was funny making The Wolfpack [because] I thought, how am I ever going to find a story this good? But I think that I was open to it. In my head I was like, how am I going to find someone so weird or as out of the box. Now I’m doing something that’s completely a different perspective. I’ve found this story about female empowerment and I think it’s perfect timing for this.
Obviously the movie speaks to a universal sexism that happens in circles dominate by boys. Do the messages of the film resonate in your own life?
Like as a director?
I think it’s different because when you walk into a skateboard park, there are all these boys and they’re eye-balling you and you’re trying to perform. But when I walk on set, I’m in charge. To me, it’s not important what people think of me on set? [Laughs] Like, if someone is going to judge me for being a woman on set... don’t be on my set. And everyone knows I’m super kind to everybody and I think that I’ve earned a good reputation that way. I really try to connect with everyone on my set, but if someone’s going to be rude or mean, I’m not going to tolerate that.
Generally, in a more metaphorical way, stepping into scripted world and the land of opportunities... at this point women are getting a lot more opportunities, but I think films that are really female-centric where there are these conversations about periods and stuff like that, it’s a little bit more difficult for the world of distribution and acquisitions to take in. Men in their late 40s don’t exactly want to see women talk about their periods; it’s not interesting to them. But I think for a lot of other people, like women, they do like to see these films! [Laughs].
Watching the film there’s obviously so much skateboarding, it’s not done by stunt doubles. How nerve-wracking was that?
Yeah. I mean at first... I was so stressed. [Laughs] I think the first week Rachelle rolled her ankle. The first week! And we were like, oh, shit. And three or two weeks before that one of the girls’ friends broke his ankle, just hanging out at the park one day skating. Straight up. It was super traumatic and it was this huge thing and we just had to go with it and trust it and hope that nothing would happen. And not one person broke anything on set. I guess we got lucky or maybe this film was meant to be.
What are you working on now? I know you mentioned a new project.
I’m not really talking about it publicly yet. It’s scripted, but it comes from a real-life situation. But I won’t be using real people, I mean non-actors. [Laughs] They’re all real people!