“Bing Liu’s masterful, momentous debut documentary, ‘Minding the Gap’ is a diamond: shocking, sharp, slicing, gorgeous, glinting, cutting deep, deeper” was only the start of good things to say when I reviewed it in September. Liu, who moved to Rockford when he was eight, chronicles two of his skateboarding friends and himself across a dozen years to arrive at his ninety-four-minute gem, which then took the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking when it premiered at Sundance.
Can you contrast the Rockford premiere and the Chicago premiere?
The Chicago premiere was great, in that I’ve lived in Chicago for ten years and feel a connection to the community. Rockford was surreal because so many people who came out knew people in the film, were tangentially involved or knew me and my family. In Rockford, a couple of my former neighbors came and said they were surprised at what was going on behind closed doors next to them. It was one of many moments that premiere weekend that pierced through my filmmaker’s shield and reminded me the reality of what the film has unveiled.
What date would you mark as when you shot the first footage?
It was sometime in late 2012 that I began interviewing people with the thought in my head that I’d do a project about skateboarders’ relationships with their families, so I was twenty-three at the time.
“Is this where I pretend you’re not here or where we talk the whole time?” one of your friends jokes. Was there always that little bit of meta?
Naturally so. It was sometimes a way for Zack and Keire to dismantle any nervousness they had of me filming them so much off the board. These meta moments tend to happen in most documentary filmmaking, it just so happens that these ended up being useful in telling the story of “Minding the Gap.”
You asked the same questions of people several times over the extended course of shooting.
One thing that Gordon Quinn talks about is, in an interview, if someone isn’t keen about answering a certain question, you can always move on and return to that topic later in the interview. I took that to an extreme by asking Keire and Zack, year after year, about their parents. Sometimes it’d yield a repetitive answer, but more often there was something new to be learned for both of us. I’m not sure if Keire would’ve remembered as much of his dad’s advice, for example, had I not pressed him to keep talking about him. The process made me realize how difficult it can be to understand our past, especially when it’s buried beneath trauma.
How old were you with the goofy “Are you ready for some fucking action” moment where you mime clapsticks to start a take? Who was that grinning kid? Do you know him still?
That was [shot] with my first camera, yes. I was either fourteen or fifteen. In many ways I’m still that goofy, fun-seeking kid, but I keep him guarded and only let him come out when it feels safe—oftentimes that safe space is when I’m skateboarding with friends who are also unapologetically in touch with their little-kid selves.
I was completely in thrall to the movie only moments in, when the credits roll over the agile skate through near-deserted downtown Rockford. And the music makes the jazzy understated elegance of the skating pierce the heart.
I feel like skateboarding is meditation in motion, a chance to chase an enlightened state of mindless being. I also wanted to elevate that feeling on a cinematic level, to have skateboarding taken seriously, to make it more difficult to write off as an expression of adolescent angst. In reality, a skateboard is more like a saxophone than a punching bag—you can express a whole range of emotions depending on what kind of music you want to make on your four wheels. One of skateboarding’s secrets is that it allows young people who’ve been taught to repress their emotions to feel something.
What was your philosophy toward music, both score and songs?
Two documentaries spring to mind that deeply affected me for their music alone: “October Country” and “In a Dream.” Also the score to “The Assassination of Jesse James” [by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis].
For “Minding the Gap,” I used quite a few tracks from the film “Mustang” as temp music. I would also scour Bandcamp for atmospheric, melodic and subtly emotional instrumental tracks. When I started working with [editor] Josh Altman on a different project last spring, I was amazed at how long he’d look for the right temp track for certain scenes. By the time he came on to work on “Minding the Gap” with me, we had discovered we had similar taste in music, so it helped to be on the same page for scenes we were cutting and showing each other. Josh discovered that “Video Life” song one day on his Discover Weekly on Spotify—I remember him coming into the Airbnb where we were editing from and being excited about trying it out. After his first pass, it was clear he was right.
I tried quite a few different songs for the last credits montage over the years, with the idea that it’d be the sort of song I’d use for a more straightforward skate montage. “Tobacco Road” by Common Market was one. Neil Young’s “Old Man” was another. It was the end of last summer when I landed on the Mountain Goats’ “This Year,” a song that I listened to a lot when the album first came out. At first, I was worried it’d be too on-the-nose or too optimistic, but in hindsight I couldn’t be happier with it. The whole point of making skate videos when I was a kid was that it helped me redefine my reality, despite how difficult real life actually was, and it felt right to end on that same note.
What influences would we not expect to hear from you?
As a teenager, the intro to Transworld Skateboarding’s skate video “First Love.” Zak Arctander’s skate video, “Middlewestern.” Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” Harmony Korine’s “Gummo.” “Little Miss Sunshine.”
You use the phrase “artsy subculture” to describe where you came from.
The artsy subculture that I identified with growing up was about being different, being authentic, expressing difficult emotions. There was a lot of direct and indirect rebelling against masculine norms: we painted our nails, listened to Cat Power, hugged one another, let ourselves be emotional. By the time I came back to Rockford to do “Minding the Gap,” I realized that not all boys had grown up in this sort of subculture and in many ways I was lucky to have found the type of family I had.
In your mind, are there any discrete versions that exist, that seemed, “Oh, this is the film?” I can imagine this film was a terribly bratty child to raise and bring into society.
I’m glad you use that analogy—I very much saw the film as a child that grew from an embryonic stage into something that is speaking full sentences. I’d made dozens, if not hundreds of rough cuts over the years, and I always tell people that if we hadn’t gotten into Sundance, I would’ve kept shooting. This is one of those projects that can never be truly finished, just walked away from. And I’m happy with where I left off.
How many hours of footage will you own up to? How much was digitized and put into play?
This gets at the sleight-of-hand of the film. Archival-wise, I only had maybe five or ten minutes of Zack. We only knew each other for a couple years before I moved to Chicago. And then for Keire, I only had one clip of him getting into a fight. He’s seven years younger than me and I went to the filmer of his generation, Dylan, to get the other pieces of archival to work with. I’ve never calculated the bulk of filming from 2012-2017, but what I had amounted to roughly under eight terabytes of footage.
What did you learn through the successive edits?
This is nearly impossible to answer, but I’ll cite a few things. At one of my first Kartemquin roughcut screenings, in 2015, I heard from David Simpson that I was cutting for both theme and story and that for this project there’s a strong reason to cut more for story. When sitting with Gordon Quinn in the edit suite, watching cuts, which I did several times throughout the years, he brought up the importance of characterizing Rockford as a unique setting for this story. Steve James told me to cut out a father-son storyline that I finally relented to when I started working with Josh Altman, who challenged me to get each character’s story working on its own before weaving them together. At a screening at Davis Guggenheim’s studio, we had everyone’s story ending on their own and he said “it’d be great if you could have all these planes landing at once,” which eventually prompted us to try that intercut climactic montage. At our last Kartemquin rough-cut screening late in 2017, Ingrid Roettgen, who does print traffic at Kartemquin, said that Nina’s story doesn’t get the same resolution as Keire or Zack’s. That’s what prompted me to go back and interview her one last time, where she says those great lines about not ever having lived for herself. Finally, at just about every screening I ever had over the years, someone has suggested taking race out of the film because it takes away from the other themes. In late November 2017, the last shoot I did before our Sundance premiere, I went back and got Keire talking not about race as a stilted subject but as something his father taught him, which finally made that theme feel earned and pertinent to his story. Finally, I wouldn’t have met [producer] Diane Quon if not for a rough-cut screening at Kartemquin that she attended. She has seen the film probably more times than she’s wanted to and has always added invaluable insights on everything from new storylines to the loss of a few frames.
How much did the approach change once Diane and KTQ came on board? Were there really only thirty feedback screenings?
I count screenings I did with a couple friends in my living room and sending private links to people as feedback screenings as well, not just formal screening-room screenings with survey sheets filled out afterwards, which I didn’t start doing until working with Kartemquin. But yes, there were definitely over thirty times when I got feedback on cuts. Certainly the decision to follow fewer characters for longer in a vérité-style fashion came out of working with Kartemquin. Shortly after Diane came on board, we got our first major funding source from POV and then a few months later what would become our main source of funding from ITVS. Without having Diane on the team to help manage the cash flow and expenditure and legal, I wouldn’t have been able to make the film. Not to mention that her background is in marketing and she was thinking way ahead about things like key art and poster design.
Is perfection the enemy of the good?
Yes. One of the most exciting aspects of crafting this film was embracing the imperfect, the parts of the film that people would typically edit out or sound mixers clean up.
Did you say to yourself, “Oh, okay, this is it? This is this film,” and then, “Maybe just this one more thing…”
After we found out we got into Sundance and had a month left to finish color correction, music score, sound mix and motion graphics, it became a process of acceptance that this is how the film is going to enter the world. But Steve James told me he usually changes things after Sundance, so it made me feel better. We did end up cutting five minutes out, post-Sundance and I kept tweaking things. Every time we had to redeliver a DCP, I saw it as another opportunity to fix this one thing here or that one thing there.
Gordon Quinn always emphasizes that elemental vérité will inescapably reflect social issues without obvious, terrible heavy lifting.
Well put. That’s just it. He didn’t have to explain much. I’d never seen Kartemquin’s films before I did the Diverse Voices in Doc fellowship with them in 2014. There are two films that really spoke to me: “Stevie” and “Now We Live on Clifton.” These are prime examples of the power of vérité. On practical terms, Gordon talked about letting the sound roll and just hanging out with a camera and waiting for something interesting to happen. When I started trying this out, it slowly dawned on me that this is a lot like what I was doing when I first picked up a camera, hanging out with skateboarders and waiting for them to do something interesting.
What did you learn from working jobs on the Chicago productions on your resume? Were there sharp, small lessons you took from other members of the crew or the producers or directors?
Learning how to light and how to shoot for good lighting even when you’re not using artificial sources was invaluable. Picking up tips from Steadicam operators helped me develop the skateboarding cinematography in the film. Working on those Dick Wolf shows especially, which are mostly handheld, taught me that handheld shooting has its own discipline and intent. I remember doing a lot of handheld zooms on the lens probably because I worked so much on “Chicago P.D.”! [laughs] Being able to pull focus intuitively. It’s difficult to parse every little detail, but a lot of the work on those Chicago productions just comes down to how can you make something work without the facade of glitz and glamour that capital-H Hollywood connotes. It’s amazing the ingenuity that goes into those shows behind the scenes, as well as the long hours and efficiency of it all. I could probably talk for days about the indirect lessons gleaned from working on the crew side.
Part of your film’s beauty is how it faces male emotions, weaknesses, things we hide and the legacy of rage and abuse.
It comes down to respecting experiences and emotions. One of my favorite films this year is “Eighth Grade,” because it validates and respects an eighth grade girl’s emotions, which is something we don’t even realize we’re dismissing as much as we are until we’ve seen a story like this. It’s one thing to step into a trauma survivor’s heart or a violence perpetrator’s heart or a mother’s heart or a son’s heart, but what if you stepped into all of them all at once? That’s a more truthful and experiential look at the cycle of trauma that takes into consideration emotions first and foremost. In order to move forward on complex issues, we have to consider emotions.
Ray Pride is Newcity film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming. Previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/RayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)