How the ‘United Skates’ Directors Made the Film Everyone Said Was Impossible
"There was a turning point when we just said, 'We’re going to stop listening to other people's advice.'"
Touching personal stories of struggling mom-and-pop businesses. Early roots of hip-hop including rare performance footage of a 19-year-old Queen Latifah. Action shots from the middle of a roller rink surveying the wide and wild range of skating styles from around the country. A study of the overt and subtle racism pervasive in Americans culture. Any of these could be the basis for its own compelling documentary. But all of them in one? That’s a tall order.
And yet, that’s precisely what co-directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown have done in their surprisingly touching documentary United Skates. On its face, the movie is a rollicking overview of the multi-generational African American rollerskating scene across the U.S., but it’s really so much more. It finds its emotional core in the stories of the longtime skaters and rink owners who are trying to keep the waning subculture alive, and it also manages to provide cultural gravitas to the mere act of rollerskating by placing it in historic context of the civil rights movement and hip-hop history. (As memorialized in Straight Outta Compton, roller rinks were home to some of the early live hip-hop concerts when mainstream venues wouldn’t host them—and the archival footage shown in United Skates is one of the movie’s gems).
We spoke with the directors after the film’s world premiere at Tribeca 2018, where their protagonists from across the nation came to see it for the first time (“They were our compass the whole way through,” says Winkler), along with Executive Producer John Legend. We discussed how they wove an effective doc out of these various threads, shooting on skates in the middle of a full-speed-ahead roller rink, and more.
NFS: You mentioned that you finished your DCP right before Tribeca started, meaning the film wasn’t completed when you submitted. What stage were you at when you submitted to Tribeca and how did you know the film was “ready enough”?
Tina Brown: Because the deadline was set to submit…
Dyana Winkler: …And we really didn't want to wait another year. We knew that our film wasn't finished, and this is something that I think is really important to learn. We were advised take the time to do a version of your film that's polished as if it's a final cut, but know that it's not your final cut. You're literally doing this for festivals so that they can get a sense of what a polished film will be like. Then go back and break it open and keep cutting it the way you want to. So it was a waste of about two weeks of our time. And if you're looking at a big picture, we lost those two weeks polishing sound, polishing transitions, polishing things that you normally wouldn't do until you were sure that the scenes were in the right order.
Brown: Just so it's less jarring.
Winkler: Yeah, so we just stopped cutting, and we cleaned up a version to make it polished enough for a submission. We let them know that we're still cutting. Still shooting actually at that time, and then we just broke it back open.
"We were told early on that we were telling way too much. And that we couldn't make the film we wanted to make."
NFS: That's great advice. And how much did change since then?
Brown: A lot. The order of the scenes was constantly in flux. Because it's such a layered film. It's a vérité film. It also delves into the history. There's also these breakaway scenes like with the different skate styles and then stories of our characters. So trying to make that flow all together it was a long process.
Winkler: One of the things that also we encourage other filmmakers to know is that we were told early on that we were telling way too much. And that we couldn't make the film we wanted to make. And so one woman who's actually a really brilliant writer and was trying to help us she said, "Find me another film that has a similar structure that we can copy, and then we could at least study that and try and put some of that structure into our own editing process.”
But we couldn't find one because there is not a film that does this type of structure. And so that was kind of when people started saying you've got to let something go.
Brown: You've got to pick one.
Winkler: Pick a vérité film about your characters and go deep and care about them. Or do survey study about a community, but don't do both. And because there's not enough time to do both you're either going to have a bit of both. You won't care enough about the community, and you won't learn enough. But we didn't want to do a survey film.
Brown: We thought it was really important. You need to have that perspective of the world to understand why these characters are so invested in it. Really for us it went hand in hand.
Winkler: We needed both. So, ultimately there was a turning point when we just said, “We’re going to stop listening to other people's advice. We know what this film is in our heads, and we just haven't figured out how to get there yet, but we will.”
One tool we used was SuperNotecard. I highly recommend it. (https://www.supernotecard.com/) It's a website that is free or $25 a year for more features. You know how you lay index cards out on a wall of all of the scenes when you writing a script? It’s similar with documentary. You're scripting it in post. But it's very similar to writing it in a screenplay. So SuperNotecard is that online. And then you can change the colors. You can drag them. You can move them.
Brown: And your team can look at it at the same time.
Winkler: And you can share it. So it's like a Google doc. We had like 40 versions. And there were things that we knew, like we knew how it was going to open. We knew our lowest point in the film. We had these pillars that haven't changed since we've been cutting the film.
For example, we have this one scene that's the saddest scene in the film which I won't give away. But depending on what came before it—without changing how you edited that scene—it totally changed how that scene felt. And so you wouldn't even feel that sad actually if the scenes leading up to it weren't building properly. And so one of our EPs asked us last night, they said, "Wow! That scene has changed so much. It got so impactful." And I said actually it didn't change at all.
NFS: That's fascinating. So how did you gauge how to change it to give the impact that you wanted? Did you have to do test screenings?
Brown: You know we did a few test screenings, but it was later in the mix, and it really just came down to watching the scenes.
Winkler: It was just watching it over and over and over and knowing when you watch it, that's not working. Okay, what do we need to do? Let's try this. Cut it. Watch it. That's not working. Okay, let's figure this out. It's not an easy, cookie cutter film.
There are films for example, a competition doc. Where it's a team. They're underdogs or something. They go to competition, and they win.
Brown: Exactly. You know what points you're going to hit when.
Winkler: This was not that film. So there was a lot of trial and error.
NFS: I did not expect to cry watching your film. When you first thought, "Oh we want to make a film about this rollerskating scene", did you think that it's going to be a hard-hitting emotional film, or did that evolve?
Winkler: We didn't.
Brown: It definitely evolved because we weren't setting out to make this film the way it ended up to be. I don't think we sat there and were like, okay it's going to make people cry. I thought it would make people upset and angry and like ... what's going on? Some of the very sad scenes we didn’t anticipate because they happened in real-time.
Winkler: We wanted to make people feel. We wanted to touch people's hearts. We knew that there was more to this community than skating. And we were drawn to it because it was deep. Because there was a lot of challenges within the community. Because of the racial profiling that we were watching. Because of a lot of things that we were taking in as we were filming, and so we're not the type of filmmakers to just make a film because it's shiny and pretty. We wanted to make a film that made people question and feel and go deep. Whether we specifically knew if we wanted them to cry? No.
"We were looking at the camera and making sure it was in focus and our eyes were full of tears."
Brown: But I think there was a turning point definitely when we emotionally were invested and things started happening. When we did a sad interview…
Winkler: We were crying. We were upset and crying.
Brown: And I think that when it was like—if we can translate that emotion to the final film, yes, but not in the initial stages. I think it really came at the point when we had those emotions and reactions ourselves.
Winkler: When one of our characters is crying in the interview, we were a hot mess. We were crying with him behind the camera because we filmed most of the film ourselves. We were looking at the camera and making sure it was in focus and our eyes were full of tears. We really rode the highs and the lows wave with them.
Brown: Because when [a sad part of the story was revealed], we didn't actually know in advance that that was officially going to happen. We just happened to be there. And so there were these moments that happened that ... the reaction of the audience is our reaction, too. This is how we responded to it.
Winkler: The camera's really telling our feelings of what we were watching because we were behind the camera, too. We really were a two-women team making every part of this film. Our fingers are all over it, but we had a lot of support as well.
Brown: We had a lot of people help us out.
NFS: How did you get those rollerskating motion shots and shots where you feel like you're right in the rink and the camera's about to roll over you?
Winkler: Shout out to Travis Johnson.
Brown: Travis Johnson is a skater, and he also films on skates. Actually, the first skate party that we went to and walked into the rink at midnight he was filming and skating that night. And we actually handed him our camera and he filmed for us. He was like, "Yeah, I'll get some shots for you." And then he's just been shooting for years and gave us a bank of his footage that he went through and made selects for us. He worked really closely with our team.
We had some other skaters that we would hand the camera to and show them how to focus, too.
Winkler: There were a lot of challenges. So one of the things that we did was we learned that...you have to one be able to shoot in low light because rinks are dark. And two, you have to be able to shoot African American skin tones in a dark space. So that's a challenge for any camera when you don't have lights. So we ended shooting a lot on our Canon DSLR Mark III because that's better for the light. There are better cameras now, but that was what we started with. And we shot with the Mark II as well a lot. But it was also smaller and lighter so we could take it onto the floor. And we got fast lenses to be able to shoot in low light.
Brown: And it also didn't look any different from any other consumer cameras that were out there so people weren't as self-conscious or posing for the camera as much. It really felt more organic.
Winkler: But one of the things we figured out is that, because you have to constantly pull focus, and especially in low light, it's really hard to keep things in focus. Let alone when you're on a skate floor with five hundred people whizzing past you and you're trying to keep things in focus and not get taken out. So one of the tricks that we figured out is we would set the camera ourselves because a lot of these skaters never filmed before.
So we'd give them a quick lesson. Like, “Okay, don't stay on just the feet and don't stay on just the head. Do like five seconds on the head, count, pan down five seconds on the feet, count five seconds on the head, count” and we were teaching them and then we would give them the camera and say, "It will be in focus when you're exactly this many feet apart. Look into the camera and just see when you’re at four feet from the person you're following, they're in focus. If they go five feet or three feet they're going to be out focus. So just follow them and try and stay that same distance."
And they would do it! Because they're super skilled. That was a lot of how we got stuff. And we've also been taken out on skates many times because also we filmed a lot it ...
NFS: On skates.
Winkler: Yes. On skates.
"We’d have skaters push us really fast while we would just concentrate on filming and focusing and they would just steer us."
Brown: And we’d have skaters push us really fast while we would just concentrate on filming and focusing and they would just steer us.
NFS: Were there any crashes?
Brown: Oh yeah. We had broken camera gear. Broken fingers. Yeah we've been taken out.
NFS: Aside from the skater who gave you a bunch of material, there was also tons of archival. How did you find that, and what was the process of dealing with it?
Brown: That was a beast. Like it's been a couple-of-year process with that. And we did find some gold. Some of it costs us a little money.
Winkler: A lot of money.
Brown: We spoke to Cornell Hip-Hop collection. We spoke to hip-hop photographers back in the day like Charlie Ahearn as well who's the filmmaker of Wild Style. People who had been around in the scene, we asked everybody.
Winkler: And the same went for the section on the civil rights. We had been told that one of the first sit-ins ever was in a roller rink in Chicago. We were trying desperately to get footage of that for years, talking to people. "Oh, that person passed away." Dead ends that we'd hit over and over. But we knew something has to exist. We have to be able to find this protest because it was such turning point, and it really shows that this is a space that has been politically charged for a long time.
Brown: I can go deep in research. I go deep. I found this one gentleman, and he had been at one of the protests at White City Rink. But he's 97 years old and he's really sick. And eventually, that led to someone else who led to someone else who led to Reverend Charles Koen in Cairo, Illinois. That was the man who said he'd been hit in the head by the klansmen, and he had photos. Well, he connected me to someone who had photos. So it was really just a long process.
NFS: Early in the interview, you mentioned that you were told you couldn't do this because you had all these different threads that you wanted to pull together. How would you advise other filmmakers that might be in a similar position?
Winkler: I think that actually, when you start a film, you should follow every thread, because you don't know what film you're ultimately gonna end up making. If you do know at the beginning what you would make at the end, it's probably not gonna be as good as it could be because I think you always wanna have one eye pointed—or one ear listening—for where the story's gonna take you.
Brown: We also filmed many different stories. We cut a whole different film.
Winkler: We developed many characters.
Brown: Exactly. I think, you really have to push yourself, and push, "What are we trying to say with this film, ultimately?"
Winkler: If someone points you down a direction, explore it. To make the best movie that you can, no stone should be unturned.
In terms of the second part, which is in the edit room, which is when you're taking that arsenal of footage—500 hours—and all these different story lines, and then make it into one. I can say for myself, that I would watch something that we were doing, and I could feel that that wasn't “it” yet, but I knew in my head what it would be. I just knew there was this gap between where it was, and what it will be, and that the only way that we're gonna get there is to just keep chipping away.
Radhi Taylor, at Sundance, she said that editing is like chipping away at a safe, and you just keep chipping, and you feel like you're getting nowhere forever, but then, all of a sudden it cracks open, and you’re like, "We did it." Actually, all that time you were doing something, but you couldn't see it yet.
I would just say, hold that vision that you feel in your gut, that you know it can be, and take the time that it takes to get there. For us, it was two years in the edit room, but we never thought we were there, until we knew we were there. We just kept chipping.
Brown: Chipping away at that safe.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.