Dogtown: The Documentary Film

The birth of skateboarding is something of a mystery. Popular mythology suggests that it was begot of several individuals, more or less simultaneously, using similar parts, and drawing from a single inspiration—surfing. Everyone who was there in the mid 1950s was the first to think of it, hacksawing a rollerskate and attaching the parts to a board. The inspiration was both individual and universal.

The birth of modern skateboarding was more of a public event, replete with witnesses and film and print documentation. It was born in Del Mar, California in the spring of 1975 during a slalom and freestyle contest at the Ocean Festival. It’s name was Zephyr.

Taking the forms of ten individuals (Tony Alva, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, Shogo Kubo, Nathan Pratt, Jim Muir, Bob Biniak, Wentzel Ruml, Peggy Oki, and Paul Constantineau), the Zephyr team was aggressive, passionate, and poetic. No one skated like that before, and no one looked at skateboarding in the same, limited way again. The Z-Boys (and Peggy) unleashed a whole new approach to any given terrain; shred the pavement, or shred yourself—an entirely new set of adjectives were introduced to the skate vernacular.

While they came out at the Ocean Festival, the Zephyr team’s real home was Dogtown, the now-mystical realm encompassing the streets and schoolyards around Santa Monica, California. That’s where the team developed and defined themselves in the early 70s. But you can’t drag a crowd of people behind a kid on a skateboard, following him along bumpy sidewalks, up and down asphalt embankments, and swerving down long winding roads. So the crowd came to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and watched them flow around the course like no other competitors were—low, fast, and smooth.

“Because of where we grew up, we had all this terrain that you didn’t really find in other places,” says Peralta. “We had all these banked playgrounds and we had the L.A. water drought, which created empty swimming pools. So this convergence happened at once, and it created this style. Along with that, there was the low-rider culture and the gangs we went to school with, and there were all these intersections meeting to create this hybrid.”

Last year SPIN magazine published a story about the Zephyr team and the legend it spawned (“Dogtown: In Search Of Skateboarding’s Founding Fathers”). It traced the scene’s origins and attracted a lot of interest in an era when the public appetite for skateboarding is—once again—voracious. Thus the story drew the interest of several Hollywood film houses, including Fox 2000.

F2K is the indie sibling to its big brother that summarily bought the rights to the SPIN story and several of the Zephyr personalities. The script, a drama based of the lives of the Zephyr team, is currently being developed by unnamed professional screenwriters. But as soon as word got out about Fox 2000’s Dogtown film, doubts began to circulate about the story’s accuracy. How could Hollywood screenwriters reproduce the sense and meaning of something they weren’t a part of?

This question began to gnaw on the conscience of Peralta, who continued making an impact on skateboarding long after he gave up skating professionally. The list of pros he worked with in his years at Powell-Peralta is a literal who’s who of the modern skateboard industry. After leaving Powell in 1991, Peralta pursued a career producing films and television programs in Hollywood. Maybe it was his familiarity with the process of commercial filmmaking that inspired his doubt, but Peralta doesn’t trust the major movie studios to treat a story like Dogtown with the delicacy and authenticity he believes it deserves. “Since I work in the business, just about every studio in town called me,” he says. “They said, ‘We want to buy the life rights to you, Alva, Jay Adams, Craig Stecyk, and Skip Engblom.’ I took a hike one day and I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, they’re gonna destroy this. They’re gonna get kids from Dawson’s Creek to play Tony and Jay, and there’s gonna be this dumb Dogtown movie, and it’s gonna be the typical good versus evil.'”

The story of Dogtown, according to Peralta, isn’t in a script; it’s in hundreds of feet of 8mm, Super-8, 16mm, and 35mm film, thousands of still images, several magazine and newspaper articles, the memories of those who were there, and the impressions of others who were inspired by them. “The story here is not the scripted movie,” says Peralta. “The story is the documentary. So I ran home, belted this treatment out, and sent it to Craig Stecyk. I said, ‘What do you think?’ Craig was like, ‘Aw, you know, another project to get lost on that’ll never get anywhere.’ But he stayed with it. He took the treatment and polished it. He sent it back to me and I polished it. And I sent it back to him, and he polished it. So together we both felt that this could work.”

Stecyk has his own reservations about Hollywood co-opting a story like Dogtown and filtering it into some form acceptable to movie goers. An original member of the Makaha skateboard team in the early 60s, later a partner in Zephyr, and the originator of much of the visual artwork of the Dogtown skate scene, he and Peralta continued working together at Powell-Peralta, most notably in their production of films like Future Primitive (1985), Public Domain (1988), and Propaganda (1990). Stecyk shares Peralta’s reservations about the Fox 2000 project. “They have every right to make a film,” he says. “I think they can make a very good film. The problem is that the film they make will not have any reference to anything that ever happened. And unfortunately, when they’re taking people like Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Bob Biniak, Jim Muir, or whomever it may be, and taking a real life and portraying it as a fictional life, people won’t realize that that’s not Tony Alva.”

The real Zephyr team, including Alva, will be telling their story in Peralta and Stecyk’s Dogtown: A Documentary Film About The Birth Of The Now. But even a documentary made by individuals so close to the subject, and utilizing so much existing footage, requires a budget. So last year the collaborators turned to Agi Orsi, a producer Peralta had met in the course of his film work. “The last eight months, she has just been dogged at making this happen,” says Peralta. Orsi championed the project, securing financial backing from Vans, and has been playing a vital role in assembling the various components for the film.

This film, says Peralta, will be a true documentary for general release in theaters, and will include original footage and retrospective interviews with participants and others who were inspired in different ways by the Dogtown scene. “To me, the story here is us telling the story,” he says. “It’s Tony telling it, Jay, myself, Biniak, and the people around it who were a part of it: David Hackett, Steve Olson, Caballero—all the different angles of vision. How did it influence them?”

Peralta admits he didn’t fully comprehend just how pivotal the Dogtown skateboard scene was—not just for the sport, but for the individuals it inspired. “Supposedly Henry Rollins wants to talk to us,” he says. “Ian MacKaye from Fugazi wants to talk to us. They were saying, ‘Hey look, this had an effect on us. We looked to these articles, we looked to these people.’ We talked to this French journalist yesterday. He said, ‘Dogtown wasn’t a place, it was a concept to us.’ So as we’re conducting these interviews, we’re learning what it was we were a part of.”

Simply hoping to produce a film that would accurately document their community of skateboarders a quarter century ago, the collaborators are surprised at the interest the as-yet unfinished project has attracted. “There seems to be a tremendous buzz, way more than I ever expected,” says Peralta. “I’m getting calls from film festivals, from people whom I’ve never met in my life saying, ‘We heard you’re doing this film. We want to premiere it.'”

The actual release will probably come in the summer, as the project continues to reveal
many more facets than the filmmakers anticipated. “It encompasses not just Dogtown, but the launching point of the sport,” says Peralta. “I’m not saying it was the launch, but this group of guys was one group of guys who were the first to start the next wave of paid professionals, careers, and starting companies out of this youth culture.”

Much of modern skateboarding was born out of Dogtown and the skateboarders it inspired the world over. Even Vans, the project’s primary sponsor, was made famous on the feet of the Zephyr team—the irony of which isn’t lost on Stecyk: “I think it’s really significant that those guys are involved from the aspect that in 1966 I saw Steve Van Doren in a parking lot at the Hermosa Pier skateboard contest with these shoes, and I can come here today to the Long Beach arena during ASR and Steve Van Doren is standing here with the same pair of shoes. That is really pretty interesting. There are very few people who are still standing in this virtual parking lot, who were standing there in 1966, are still doing the same thing, and have done it all the way through. And Steve Van Doren would be one of those people.”

Skateboarding’s history is full of colorful personalities and terrific athletes. Its present is the hybrid of many different influences over the decades, the Dogtown skate scene of the 70s being one of them. Peralta and Stecyk argue that it is perhaps the one most important influence on modern skateboarding, that the sport took a sudden and drastic turn along its evolutionary path that fateful day in Del Mar when the skateboarding world witnessed the Zephyr team for the first time.

It just so happened that such an influential group of people chose this sport at that time, and crafted it in their own likeness. And Stecyk points out that, while he and Peralta are busy piecing together its past, the Zephyr legacy isn’t exactly history just yet; Tony Alva is as active a skater as ever, and Jay Adams is still turning heads on the waves in Hawai’i. “You go on the North Shore of O’ahu, and people will come up to you and tell you what Jay is doing,” he says. “Guys like Kelly Slater will walk up to you and say, ‘God, you should have seen what Jay was doing twenty minutes ago.'”