'Skate Kitchen': Crystal Moselle on Turning a Cast of Non-Actors into Sundance Stars
Sundance crowdpleaser 'Skate Kitchen' came from a short film that came from the real girls it portrays.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fictional narrative more true-to-life than Skate Kitchen. After all, other than supporting turns by Jaden Smith and Elizabeth Rodriguez, everyone in the film is a non-actor, playing a distilled version of themselves, and speaking lines devised by director Crystal Moselle after hanging out with them in the real world for eight months. This embedding process came naturally to Moselle, who rose to acclaim as a documentarian through her Sundance-winning doc The Wolfpack in 2015.
The (ahem) free-wheeling, character-driven teen drama follows 18-year-old skateboarder Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) from her lonely suburban life to her initiation into a female skate crew in New York’s Lower East Side, where she begins to come out of her shell emboldened by a street-savvy skateboarding sisterhood. The group is shaken up when Camille begins hanging with a boy from a rival crew (Jaden Smith) but their relationship is not the driving force of the film; rather, it’s the interplay between the girls, the city, and the sidewalks.
"I feel like anybody can act as long as you're open."
Skate Kitchen begs comparison to KIDS, but plays less on shock value and more on the uniquely authentic cool inherent in kids born and raised in New York City. More importantly, and what sets it apart from many youth subculture films, is that Skate Kitchen is all about the female gaze. As a teenager into skate punk culture myself, with a majority of male friends, I would have given anything for a movie like this, where girls are equally bad ass whether they are shredding at the park or talking about how to put in a tampon.
At the Sundance Q&A, an entire gaggle of teens from the movie joined Moselle on stage, and their bond with the director was as clear as the fact that the colorful characters they portrayed were not a far stretch from their actual selves. No Film School spoke with Moselle about how the film emerged from her first narrative short, what she did to prepare an entire cast of non-actors for the big screen, and more. See the original short That One Day, and read our interview about Skate Kitchen below.
NFS: What was the process like of turning your short of the same name into a feature?
Moselle: Well I, when I met [the girls in the film], I originally wanted to do a documentary, but then I got the opportunity to do the narrative short. So after the short I was still planning on doing a doc, but there was so much success with this short that I decided to turn it into a feature.
NFS: So how did that opportunity to do the short come about?
Moselle: Miu Miu does this series that's like "Women’s Tales" and they choose different directors who get the opportunity to make up their own short film. They really just let them do whatever they want. I remember I wrote the script and I sent it to them and they were like, "Yeah whatever you want to do,” and then after I finished the film I sent it to them and I was like, "Do you guys have any notes?" And they were like, "Our only note is: do you like it?" I was like, "I do" and they're like, "Then we're good."
NFS: That's amazing. So then what were the biggest differences in transitioning from doc to feature directing?
Moselle: The biggest difference is that you're on a schedule. And communicating with talent. With docs, there's a lot more observations. You're still like having to set up scenes and set things up so, I don't know, it just felt very natural to me. I didn't really feel like a challenge.
Sometimes you're working like 12-hour days and you're so tired and losing your mind. But it felt natural to me.
NFS: Was there anything in particular that you brought from doc filmmaking into narratives?
Moselle: Oh absolutely. For me, it was important for the film to feel super authentic. With the girls, there was such a good collaboration that would happen between us. It was really important for me to have their point of view. And I think that I can just spot authenticity easier because of all the observations that I've done with doc stuff.
NFS: I was intrigued by your research process because of your doc background. When did your research with the girls stop and the screenwriting began? Or was it all fluid?
Moselle: Once we started shooting, we had a script and it was very organized in everything that we needed to do. Before that, there was about a good eight months of rehearsals and writing and re-writes and kind of figuring out their characters, and I think that it was very collaborative at that point. And then, once we had a script, we just started rehearsing the screenplay from start to finish for like a two week period.
NFS: How much of the script came from a devised process of being there and just hanging out with them?
Moselle: Most of it. Yeah. A lot of their experiences with each other, a lot of those things happened in real life—stuff that I'd see all the time and the stuff with the boys, like yeah they've gotten in fights before. But we wanted to create some sort of a story-arc and throw something in there for that Jaden [Smith] character. That never actually happened. They didn't ever fight over a boy to the point where it broke up their friendship.
"We would rehearse specific scenes and we would try ideas out for scenes and they'd do improv, and that was really successful."
NFS: How did you just decide to make that the conflict?
Moselle: I think that Rachelle [Vinberg] and I were talking about it. Originally, the story had too many layers and levels and we just simplified it way down. I think at first it was like gonna be another character's girlfriend's ex-boyfriend or something. We just needed to streamline it and make it something that would super shake up their friendship. Like, what shakes up a friendship? Lying and deceiving, not understanding and not being clear, and then it blowing up into something that you really didn't think it was going to be and then you end losing your friends.
NFS: How did you coach a cast full of non-actors to act?
Moselle: We did rehearsals and improv class for like a good six months. So we had this woman Zoey Martinson come in and she and I would work with them and just kind of open them up. They learned about objective and the tools that you need as an actor, and they assimilated to it really well.
NFS: Can you speak any more specifically about the kind of exercises that you did with the kids to transition them from being "them", to being "on-screen them"?
Moselle: I think a lot of it was like just opening yourself up. Because I feel like anybody can act as long as you're open. If you're playing a version of yourself, it's just really putting yourself in a situation where the circumstances change. We'd do a lot of like opening up exercises. We would rehearse specific scenes and we would try ideas out for scenes and they'd do improv, and that was really successful. They're really great at improv and it would get intense. And that's when I first realized, "Oh this is really going to work," because I started doing these improv classes before I really was writing the script.
I got a coach and I would do it with them. And in those classes, I really was able to see with each of them their strengths or how they would relate to each other and relate as an actor. And I was super impressed. I was like “Wow, they're really good. This is crazy.” With the short they were good too, but they had like zero experience before that.
NFS: New York City played such an important role in the film. Were any of those recognizable locations shot on the fly or did you officially work with the city to get permission?
Moselle: We got permits for everything. It's not hard. It's pretty easy to shoot in New York. It doesn't really cost money, it's not like LA. You just have to call the parks department and just do it. New York is really very film friendly.
NFS: The soundtrack is so fantastic. What the process of putting that together and what was your budget like?
Moselle: It wasn't that expensive. For an indie film, you just write a letter to the artist and you kind of go, "Hey we want you to be a part of this." But it was curated by the girls. They were basically the supervisors of the film and they introduced me to a lot of that music.
"You just have to make really really hard choices over and over again."
NFS: Were they suggesting stuff all along or did they like see a cut and suggest music?
Moselle: No, it was just from knowing the music they like and from me hanging out with them every day and listening to the music with them.
There was actually a few songs by a friend of theirs—the kid who raps when they're all sitting in the foyers—he has three tracks in there as well. The "I Want it Now" song when Camille is skating and they put her board together, that's his song. His name is Kai Monroe, aka Mr. Water. So funny.
NFS: You mentioned at the Q&A that your rough cut was 4:45, which made me want to jump out a window. How did you ultimately cut it down?
Moselle: You just have to make really really hard choices over and over again.
NFS: Did you have advisors or was there any device to help you make those decisions?
Moselle: Yeah, the editor Nico Leunen. He’s amazing. I wanted to work with an editor who had a lot of experience with narrative film and I also wanted to work with somebody from Europe.
NFS: Why was that?
Moselle: Because I think there's a different sensibility. I didn't want it to feel formulaic and I see a film as where you see a transformation of character. I don't really believe in this thing where you need to like have payoffs and you need to set this up and pay it off and all that kind of stuff. It just feels formulaic. So he is just very intuitive the way he does things and he's a very talented man.
NFS: Finally, do you have any advice for makers that are transitioning between genre either doc to narrative or narrative to doc?
Moselle: I think just make short films all the time. It's such a great way to practice and understand your style and what you're doing.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.