Director Crystal Moselle, who traced a family of Lower East Side shut-ins with her documentary The Wolfpack, is back in the public spotlight. This time, she’s touting a feature film instead of a documentary and hanging out with a feisty group of teen girls tearing up the skate parks and streets of the Lower East Side. Her new film, Skate Kitchen, depicts a fictionalized version of the lives of real skateboarders who captivate their 70,000-plus followers on Instagram with viral videos of skating tricks and gnarly wipe outs.
The girls agreed to come on board to act in the film, though names have been changed. Rachelle Vinberg stars as the main character, Camille. A more familiar face, Jaden Smith, plays Camille’s friend (and love interest) Devon, a member of a rival male skateboarding gang that often clashes with the girl skaters (in real life, the girls and guys get on pretty well). But most of Skate Kitchen centers on the strong bonds between the female characters who headline and anchor the film.
Bedford + Bowery chatted with 38-year-old Moselle about her film, which she co-wrote with writers Aslihan Unaldi and Jennifer Silverman. Skate Kitchen premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is out in NYC theaters now. Moselle will also participate in audience Q&As following showings at IFC Center today through Sunday.
Basically, I met the girls on the G train in New York City. Nina was telling a story to Rachelle up train, and she has the kind of voice that silences the room—almost. I was very intrigued by that voice and them. They had skateboards and [were] traveling through the city, and I asked them if they would ever want to do a film project. And they seemed to be into it. We met up and talked, and I had gotten a request from Miu Miu to do a short film [on the girls]. And so I did a short film [That One Day] with them. That film went to the Venice Film Festival. From there, I got a lot of feedback. The main feedback [was] from this woman Kim Yutani from Sundance—she’s the head of programming. And she was, like, “Crystal, this is amazing. Are you going to turn this into a feature?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to do a feature,” but I was going to do a documentary at that point. But she kind of gave me the courage to do a feature out of it. She was like, “This is the film I’ve always wanted to see. It would be great if you could create a longer, scripted version of this film.” So, I did it. [Laughs] I mean, I got money. Everything happened really fast. I started coming up with the script ideas and I was collaborating with a writer. Got the money. I shot it the following summer. That started everything.
I asked them if they wanted to do some sort of project, and they said yes. I think it was exciting and fun for them. I didn’t have to persuade them too hard. They just like to do projects and stuff [laughs].
So how was it making a feature film versus a documentary?
With a documentary, I almost feel restricted, because I can’t really collaborate with my subjects so much. With this film, I could really collaborate and we could share points of view. It was great. It felt like I was in the place that I’m supposed to be.
There are so many sort of themes in the film—you know, growing up and becoming a woman, dealing with the messiness of that (first crushes, periods), being a female skater in a patriarchal society, chafing against parental restrictions. Were you sort of actively thinking about those themes and talking with the girls or did they naturally emerge in the script?
I think it naturally emerges in their lives. So a lot of themes would come up naturally, like them talking about periods or their vaginas or tampons or whatever. That’s just, like, regular talk. On the train when they’re telling stories about guys kind of being fresh, there were moments [that] made me inspired by stories I had from the past. I would feed them stories and they would reinterpret the stories in their own—but this movie was made before the “Me Too” movement, so there wasn’t like…I wanted there to be these issues in the film, but I wanted it to weave in very smoothly and for it to feel effortless.
So much of your filmwork is based on characters who live in New York and reflect these unique subcultures in New York. In this case, the Lower East Side skateboarding scene. Why do you think you gravitate towards or focus on these unique New York City subcultures?
The film is shot in this sort of gauzy, but beautiful, striking way. One particular scene that comes to mind is when Camille and [Devon] are on the rooftop and it shows the beauty of this moment between young friends on a New York City night. How did you come up with the shooting style of the film? Were you working with a DP or shooting solo?
Oh yeah, there was a full crew behind this film. There was, like, always 30 people behind the camera. Shabier [the film’s cinematographer] and I, we wanted everything to feel like a discovery. And we wanted to show these moments where they weren’t being creative beforehand. We were so ready to capture these moments—almost like a documentary. Also, the girls had so much movement in their lives. And I really wanted it to feel like there’s a lot of movement. I just wanted it to feel as natural as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.