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There Was A Culture Out Here

September 4th, 2009 · No Comments

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, poster Lords of Dogtown DVD

Lords of Dogtown (2005)
Written by Stacy Peralta and Catherine Hardwicke (uncredited)
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Produced by Linson Films/ Indelible Pictures
Running time: 107 minutes

So, What’s This About?

In Venice Beach, California of 1975, three local teens converge on the ruins of the Pacific Ocean Park. Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) — perhaps the greatest skateboarder anyone’s ever seen — lives under the strict watch of his father (Julio Oscar Mechoso). Stacy Peralta (John Robinson) wears a wristwatch, the only member of the clique holding down a day job. Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) is a hyperactive goofball whose single mother (Rebecca DeMornay) has an even tougher time holding it together than he does. “The P.O.P.” is so fiercely protected that not even the youngsters are allowed in the water until their elders issue their approval.

At the nearby Zephyr Surf Shop — run by surfer Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger) more like a members only club than a business — the introduction of the urethane wheel offers skateboards far more radical maneuverability. Skip assembles a skateboarding team featuring Tony, Jay and eventually Stacy, who’ve mastered revolutionary new skateboarding techniques by sneaking into backyards and practicing in dried out swimming pools. Team Zephyr propels skateboarding to a lifestyle nationwide and attracts big league sponsors to the various kids, but fame and money fracture the relationships between the lords of Dogtown.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch

Who Made It?

Stacy Peralta grew up in Ocean View, a middle class area of Mar Vista, California. After rising to fame alongside Tony Alva on the skateboarding circuit, he formed Powell Peralta Skateboards in 1978. Peralta lasted a semester at Santa Monica College. By 1984 he was making videos to help promote his company’s products and skateboarding team: the Bones Brigade, which featured Tony Hawk. Peralta branched off into TV in the 1990s and began writing screenplays, but it was a Spin Magazine cover story in March 1999 that put Peralta and his buds back in the spotlight, tracing the explosion of freestyle skating to their Venice Beach crew of the 1970s.

Producers John and Art Linson optioned the magazine story, but as they obtained the necessary life rights from the participants, Peralta was the lone holdout. Rather than hoping Hollywood got their story right, Peralta secured full financing from Vans and directed a critically acclaimed documentary on the phenomenon: Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). Its success compelled the Linsons to hire Peralta to pen a screenplay for their big budget version, and also convinced Sony Pictures to distribute it. After several potential directors came and went, Peralta suggested Catherine Hardwicke — the production designer and Venice resident who’d just made her directorial debut with the gritty teen drama Thirteen — to direct.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch

How’d They Do It?

Stacy Peralta pinned the birth of freestyle skating to the Venice Beach area where he grew up. “Back in the ’70s, it was the only place with an urban mix of surfing and skating. You’d go to San Diego and you’d have avocado groves. Here you had liquor stores and people getting high under the pier.” In the 1970s, Peralta helped propel skateboarding globally as an athlete, then a business owner. His interest in filmmaking began in 1984. When a crew he’d hired to shoot a skateboarding video for Powell Peralta Skateboards proved a bit too contemptuous of the product, Peralta started making videos with his childhood bud Craig Stecyk.

Peralta continued, “In 1990, my company became really successful — $30 million a year, 115 employees. But I was getting more and more opportunities in Hollywood. I felt it was turning into a hamster wheel, so I left skateboarding to work in TV.” He cranked out a half-dozen screenplays, but when a Spin Magazine cover story by Greg Beato titled “The Lords of Dogtown” hit newsstands in March 1999, Hollywood came looking for Peralta. Producer John Linson had grown up in Santa Monica and felt the article “really hit a nerve”. He was working for Fox, where his father Art Linson — producer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Untouchables and Fight Club — had a deal.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Heath Ledger

The Linsons optioned story rights from Greg Beato and secured life rights from Jay Adams, Skip Engblom, Craig Stecyk and Tony Alva. Stacy Peralta held out. “When Hollywood got to the story before any of us did — it really knocked me out. I decided to tell the real story before somebody else screwed it up, so in March 2000, I started making the documentary.” Co-written with Craig Stecyk, Peralta had a rough cut of Dogtown and Z-Boys ready to submit to the Sundance Film Festival by October. The documentary — featuring present day interviews with Team Zephyr, vintage 8mm film footage and narration by Sean Penn — was the hit of the festival when screened in January 2001.

Peralta had withheld signing away his life rights to the Linsons for the opportunity to be involved in the writing of their script. The success of Dogtown and Z-Boys gave him that chance. Peralta admitted, “I’ve been a professional athlete, I’ve directed films, I’ve run a company with 150 employees, and nothing compares to writing a screenplay. Just the second I think I know what I’m doing, the rug gets pulled out and I have no idea what I’m doing. Because there are so many problems to solve, and especially in a thing like this where there is an ensemble. Every character has to balance off each other, and every time you solve one problem, you knock that squirrel head down, and six more pop up.”

Lords of Dogtown, 2005

With David Fincher, the Linsons and their Indelible Pictures producing and Senator International financing, it was announced that rock/rap buffoon Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit would be making his directorial debut with Lords of Dogtown. Despite being a protégé of Fincher’s, as the budget rose, Durst’s paper thin directing resume forced him out. In January 2003, it was announced that David Fincher was stepping in as director, with Sony Pictures distributing. Peralta recalled, “I don’t want to sound lofty, but the documentary was an immense help to the studio because they could see visually what the movie was going to look like, what the characters looked like, what the music looked like.”

While screenwriter Roger Avary huddled with Fincher rewriting the script, the director of Seven and Fight Club made plans to reconstruct a full-scale version of Pacific Ocean Park in Mexico. A budget of at least $70 million started looking too rich for Senator’s taste, and by August 2003, Fincher dropped out as director. Doug Liman and Jonas Akerlund were mentioned as replacements. Peralta admitted, “My fear of the whole movie from Day 1 was it would be juvenile. Or it would be a macho Jerry Bruckheimer film, and wouldn’t be the character film I thought it should be. In the wrong hands, it could’ve been sap.” He suggested a production designer who’d just made her directorial debut with an ode to teenage angst titled Thirteen.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005

Texas native Catherine Hardwicke had graduated the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in architecture, but took the advice of her professors and looked to more creative fields for her career. “I went to UCLA Film School in the late ’80s and started making my own movies, which I loved. I made little short films but, since I had an undergraduate degree in architecture, people said to me, ‘Hey why don’t you production design my film?’ So that’s how I made my living. In between jobs, I would write screenplays and do budgets and storyboards and try to get my movies made but none of them happened until Thirteen.” In October 2003, it was announced that Hardwicke’s sophomore feature film would be Lords of Dogtown.

Hardwicke recalled, “David was imagining doing it as a much bigger budget movie because he mostly does really big budget movies. Thirteen was a very low budget movie, so I said, ‘Oh no, I think I can do it for a really low budget.’ They were more amenable to that because I think the studio knew what was found to be true, that there wasn’t going to be a giant audience for this.” Hardwicke went back to the original draft by Stacy Peralta, adding her own touches to his script. These included inserting more girls into the Dogtown scene and fleshing out the domestic lives of the characters. She also wrote Tony Alva’s sister Kathy — who’d been romantically involved with both Stacy and Jay — into the story.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Nikki Reed, Emile Hirsch

Hardwicke drew inspiration from three films in particular. “I watched A Woman Under the Influence, Mean Streets and Five Easy Pieces. I confess, I haven’t even seen Kids since it came out. It’s funny, because I’m the exact opposite of many of my favorite filmmakers. Richard Linklater, for example — he’ll watch a film over and over again, seeing it 10 times and talking about it, and then referencing it in one of his movies. He’ll reference other films and bits of pop culture extensively — and that makes for incredible movies. But I tend to see things about once, and then, though it’s sunk in somewhere in my consciousness, don’t think about it very carefully when I’m actually in production. I just try to think about the best way to tell the story.”

On a budget of $25 million, shooting commenced April 2004 in Imperial Beach, California, where production designer Chris Gorak recreated the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park. Filming shifted to Venice Beach, where during a rehearsal, Hardwicke would suffer a serious fall into an empty pool, one of three incidents in which ambulances were called to the set. According to Hardwicke, that paled to her experience on the 1986 skateboard flick Thrashin’. “We had 11 kids leave in ambulances! So skateboarding can be dangerous. There’s a scene where they’re trying pools for the first time, and they hit their heads. Everybody laughs, but I know how much it hurts. All the skaters, they had no sympathy for me. Even the nice ones. ‘So you know what it feels like.’ I earned my stripes.”

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Michael Angarano

Hitting theaters June 2005 in the United States, Lords of Dogtown received mixed reviews. Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “Hardwicke’s film doesn’t have a lot of plot to go around, but Lords of Dogtown works best when it seems like it’s not working at all.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com: “There are times when even a director’s worst impulses aren’t enough to sink a movie, and somehow Lords of Dogtown stays afloat, largely because many of its actors transcend Hardwicke’s heavy-handed storytelling.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Although Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Lords of Dogtown, has a good sense for the period and does what she can with her actors, we’ve seen the originals, and these aren’t the originals.”

Lords of Dogtown underwhelmed at the box office with $11.2 million in the United States and $2.1 million overseas, but Stacy Peralta and others involved in the film had few complaints. “When all of us were growing up during the Dogtown days, surfing Bay Street and skateboarding Bicknell Hill and the local school playgrounds, we were always being told by outsiders, especially East Coasters, that there was no culture in Los Angeles. It was felt that L.A. was a cultural wasteland. Lords of Dogtown is a testament to how wrong they all were. There was a culture out here. The problem was that it was unrecognizable at the time because it was a new form of urban culture. It was something people hadn’t yet seen.”

Lords of Dogtown, 2005, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch

Should I Care?

If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing the Dogtown scene — or any skateboarding scene — lavishly restaged as a major motion picture, it’s hard to imagine a much better recreation than the one Stacy Peralta and Catherine Hardwicke labored over for Lords of Dogtown. Cinematographer Elliot Davis evokes Star Wars in the action scenes, with freestyle skaters swooping through a concrete gully like X-Wing fighters zooming through the Death Star. The problem is that even the most radical carves get pretty boring after two minutes, and in attempting to not make a cheesy movie, the filmmakers plumb forgot to make a movie.

Lords of Dogtown
plays like two hours of outtakes that were deemed too tedious to make the cut of an actual film. Character, dialogue and atmosphere are so inert that when the credits ran, I didn’t even recall seeing certain actors in the movie. The exception is Heath Ledger, swaggering his way through scenes with all the sobriety of Jim Morrison. The rest of the cast turns in passable impressions of American youth we’re led to believe desperately yearn to escape, but if the intention was to accurately document the Dogtown scene for future generations, Peralta accomplished that and more with Dogtown and Z-Boys. The limp Hollywood version can’t help but be anything but the limp Hollywood version.

Lords of Dogtown, 2005

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Surf, Skate Culture in Sony Sights” By Marc Graser/ Jonathan Bing. Variety, 23 January 2003

“Beyond Dogtown”
By Dennis Romero. Los Angeles City Beat, 17 June 2004

“The Z-Boys Are Back In Town”
By Rachel Abramowitz. The Los Angeles Times, 20 March 2005

“Recounting Skateboarding’s Upstart Days”
By Sharon Waxman. The New York Times, 23 May 2005

“The Original Lords of Dogtown
By Fred Topel. Movieweb, 31 May 2005

“Wheels, Reinvented”
By Matthew Hays. The Montreal Mirror, 2 June 2005

Behind the Scenes: Lords of Dogtown. Compiled by Catherine Hardwicke. Concrete Wave Editions (2005)

“Even Sweeter The Second Time Around” By Nancy Hendrickson. Moviemaker, 3 February 2007

“Catherine Hardwicke Interview”
By Daniel Robert Epstein. UGO.com

Tags: Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship

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