Tristan Patterson (director of Dragonslayer): Interview
“Well, what if we repurposed this idea to actually shoot stuff that matters rather than bullshit conversations between bullshit people?”
Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer was one of the most invigorating cinematic experiences of 2k11. Focusing on a burnt-out skate-punk in Southern California, Patterson’s debut documentary piqued our interest and flirted with larger issues while remaining completely grounded in the reality of the lives it depicted. Borrowing some of its distinctive tonality from several key, genre-defining youth-in-revolt films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the film doesn’t feel specifically modern, even though its underlying subject matter — the economic collapse of recent memory and its effect on young adults — most decidedly is so. We liked it so much we included it among our favorite films of last year.
You first met Skreech, the titular character, at a house show in Chino. I was wondering if you can still recall some of your immediate thoughts about him.
The main thing was that he was wearing this [obscure-yet-legendary, mostly unrecorded, late-1970s L.A. synth-punk band] Screamers T-shirt, and I was really shocked that he would even know who The Screamers are. We talked for a little bit and I don’t completely remember the conversation but I do remember that he told me he was on five tabs of acid — which he now disputes. Maybe he was just fucking with me when he was talking to me, but that definitely stuck out in my mind, and when he talked he had what I picked up as this total strange Southern California poetry. I tracked him down about a week later to do something. I thought it would be fun to film for like a couple weekends.
Had you already decided you wanted to make a film before you met Skreech? Was that something you were really wanting to do and you were just waiting for something to make a movie about?
I definitely was hungry to make something, but I’d been pretty entrenched in the studio system as a screenwriter for probably around 7 years [when I met Skreech].
Anything we would be familiar with?
No. That’s the thing about being a screenwriter in Hollywood. You can do pretty well, and in a way you feel really lucky to be getting work, but nothing gets made. To me it started feeling like this crazy make-believe reality where even though you’re making this good living and it’s really hard work, you kinda feel like you’re this unpublished author with nothing to show for it. So I was kind of hitting a wall where I didn’t really want to be a screenwriter. I wanted to be a filmmaker.
I had no idea at the time, but it really bore itself out because from the age of 11 or 12 [Skreech] was at the Fullerton skate park every night, all night long with that original punk generation from Fullerton. Those guys are still there and they raise the next generation, and now Skreech is at the skate park raising the generation coming up under him.
So had you met some people through the studio system that you had decided to work with?
I had worked with (producer) Christine Vachon before, and she’s producing a script I wrote that I’m attached to direct, which was coming together and falling apart with all weird different kinds of financing and super-cool actors, and just kept crumbling at the last minute.
I’d been thinking about making things for so long and I came to this point where it’s just like: “I don’t care if this is seven minutes long and I put it on YouTube. I just want to make something that I can watch by myself in my living room and think, ‘Yeah, that speaks to something that excites me and exists.’ ” That was really my only ambition.
How into skate culture were you when you met Skreech? Or was this something that you weren’t very familiar with at all?
I grew up in Southern California and it was always a part of my childhood and teenage experience. But I never thought: Oh, I’m gonna make this skate film. It was much more sort of — like when I met him the economy had just collapsed, and I was really struck by it. I’d gone out to see Rick Agnew play, you know, the guitarist from the Adolescents who’s in his fifties. And he’s playing this driveway at a houseparty. It felt sort of like the original 1980s punk generation were the parents of this new generation of kids. And I love these youth-in-revolt movies from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I talk a lot about them, but Over The Edge, River’s Edge, and Suburbia
Like Repo Man
Repo Man, totally. And when I met Skreech he seemed like a kid who could really casually walk into a frame in one of those movies. What was interesting to me is that I would never write a [youth-in-revolt movie] because I feel that they’ve already been made, and they’ve been done really well and that time is kinda passed. But I thought, with him, like maybe there’s this new kind of youth-in-revolt movie to be made for today. And so instead of being based on a script it would be influenced by reality-television shows like Laguna Beach and weird things I was seeing on YouTube. And I’m really curious about this new generation of Californians that came of age right as, suddenly, there was no money left anywhere. And so all of the punk rants against the system became relevant again.
So it’s almost like that Eternal Return thing, it’s like the circle’s just repeating itself
Yeah. And I had no idea at the time, but it really bore itself out because from the age of 11 or 12 [Skreech] was at the Fullerton skate park every night, all night long with that original punk generation from Fullerton. Those guys are still there and they raise the next generation, and now Skreech is at the skate park raising the generation coming up under him.
You used some pretty modestly priced equipment to make the film. Do you feel that the frugality you used to make this movie helped you capture that sort of DIY aesthetic of what was going on in front of the camera?
It wasn’t that cheap. Everyone’s crazy for these Canon 5D cameras, but we were using pretty expensive film lenses to get the kind of images we were capturing. It was great that I could give Skreech a Flip camera that he could just turn on point and shoot [in] high definition, and I love the kind of video aesthetic of that. I felt like I wasn’t seeing stuff on a big screen that had the same feel. I didn’t feel like I’d seen the cinematic embodiment of the stuff I was seeing on YouTube. Or you look at a show like Laguna Beach or The Hills, and it’s a totally ridiculous show, but it’s kind of beautiful in its own way. And I felt like, “Well, what if we repurposed this idea to actually shoot stuff that matters rather than bullshit conversations between bullshit people?”
To me it started feeling like this crazy make-believe reality where even though you’re making this good living and it’s really hard work, you kinda feel like you’re this unpublished author with nothing to show for it. So I was kind of hitting a wall where I didn’t really want to be a screenwriter. I wanted to be a filmmaker.
The film seemed to strike this remarkable balance between embodying this kind of free-form energy of the characters and the story, but then it also has this very intentional organic narrative structure to it. How hard was it to make that happen during editing?
We edited for 13 months, so it was really hard. One of the reasons it turned into a feature was the fact that after the first day of shooting I was able to look at the footage we were getting, which was kind of abstracted and really observational, and then I could see what Skreech shot on his Flip camera of the same stuff that was first-person and really kinetic. You feel like you’re in his head and he’s talking behind the camera. So right away the collision of those two kinds of footage was really exciting to me, and I felt like that’s the movie I wanted to see. In terms of narrative, the rule was we were going to be absolutely authentic to Skreech’s experience, and we’re never going to be able shoot *that*, so we had to figure out a structure that would somehow work with the kinds of footage we had. Which was where this idea was born [to break the film into chapters]. And it wasn’t going to be this polished greatest-hits album from a legendary band, it was going to be like their first recording. And then we started grouping [the footage] by moments, and on a certain level each moment pulls back a layer and we get closer and closer to something that’s hopefully essential.
I’m sure you’ve probably seen a couple of these, but I was just checking the trailer again on YouTube and there were all these comments from people who were just like: “This is what’s wrong with America!” “This guy is a burden to the economy!” I’m wondering if you’ve seen these and if you have any opinion as to what it is about seeing someone who’s so totally free and kind of irresponsible that pisses so many people off?
Skreech is definitely way more provocative to people than he was to me. I knew I was making a film that was going to be radically different than whatever someone considers a normal film or a normal documentary. And it’s kind of this weird thing where you make something like [Dragonslayer], and you think in a way that this is going to be its own thing and it’s totally unique and totally different. And then when people react to that, like they don’t know what they’re seeing and they’re pissed off, you’re like, “Wait, why don’t you love this thing that you’ve never seen before?” I just think it’s the nature of trying to make something that’s different, or trying to live in a way that’s different. And I think that, for whatever reason, there are a lot of people that are miserable in their 9-5 jobs and hate everybody else who didn’t take shitty work like they did. But [Skreech] isn’t leeching, he’s just figuring out his own way to be young, and that’s where I always go back to the fact that this movie isn’t “The Life and Times of Skreech”; it’s a nine-month period in his life.
You’re releasing Dragonslayer through Snagfilms digitally. Do you think this is sort of where independent-film releases are headed?
When we finished this film and got through South By Southwest and realized, okay, this film exists; now we need to figure out how to have it land in the world, I asked myself, “If I hadn’t made this film what would I do to make sure I was aware of it? How would I find out about it?” So to me, that really is all about Drag City, this record label that I worshipped. I was thinking, if Drag City put out this movie I would’ve heard about it. And so you hope there are other people out there that know what Drag City is and will think that this isn’t just some skate video, that there’s something different about this that they can protect and kind of push. And I do think all of these new technologies are going to be the future — watching movies however you want to watch them. But, I mean, it’s a very different to see Dragonslayer in a movie theater than it is to see it on a 6-inch window on iTunes.