So then Greg, can you give us a little insight into your background in skateboarding please? You come from Ann Arbor in Michigan, which in the late 80’s/early 90’s at least must have seemed a million miles away from the SF epicentre of skateboarding that you eventually found yourself living within – is it really true that your initial experience of SF came about through you as a 16 year old driving your car across the States accompanied by a then-unknown Sean Sheffey?
Well Sheffey wasn’t unknown; he was pro for Santa Monica Airlines. But yeah I did drive out to SF with him and my buddy Goose when I was 16. Sean was about to have a kid with a girl he’d met in Michigan, so that was the connection. And he was only 17 so I’m sure he wanted to get the hell out of there. On that trip we skated with all the SF guys and I got sponsored by Venture too. Thiebaud and Natas gave me some boards also. So that was the spark, I knew I was coming back.
So after that first trip, you eventually end up living in SF, studying and skating at the Justin Herman plaza a few years before it became this internationally known icon of street skateboarding’s progression with, (I presume) a bunch of skaters who went on to indelibly change the act of skateboarding and its surrounding culture – was it obvious back then that this process was going to happen? I mean, presumably long before the likes of Schlossbach, Meza, Jake Rosenberg etc were filming ground-breaking shit at what later became known erroneously as ‘EMB’ by outsiders, progressive tricks and moments of invention were regular occurrences, right?
Those guys at EMB were already on another level when I arrived in ’91. I don’t know if it’s always obvious how significant things might be when you’re seeing them being created in front of you. It was all just new. Also, skateboarding had been rapidly evolving for a long time before EMB. Five years before, people were just starting to ollie. So there had been lots of progression before that point. EMB was just the perfect environment for the next big leap.
How did you avoid the T-Dog label and vibing that was famously associated with that spot/scene; did Kelch give you a hall pass or something?
It was totally Kelch. He had my back. Rick Ibaseta also. And Thiebaud. They all really helped me. Plus I kept my mouth shut.
Were you present at any of EMB’s seminal moments? Say the Gino back heel, or Danny Sargent’s switch bs 180, or Tim and Henry’s era Sanchez etc? From an outsider’s perspective it seemed like paradigm-shifts were a daily occurrence at that spot and brown Marble, Black rock, etc – how did it seem from the inside looking out?
I saw a lot of the Henry stuff go down. Gonz kickfliping the Gonz gap was epic. Jovantae Turner, always a highlight. Yeah it was all very memorable. You’d see tricks being invented daily. It’s just how it was, everyone was always progressing. Nobody did the same tricks a lot, you were always moving forward.
You started getting flowed boards by Real back when you first moved to SF, before eventually ending up on the original Stereo team – how did that come about?
Yeah I was on Real and filming for the Real video until Deluxe began to put together a company with myself, Jordan Richter, and Eric Pupecki called Family. It lasted about three months and to be honest I don’t remember much about it. There was no direction really, other than three riders who were all completely different in the first place. Then all of the sudden Jordan split town. I don’t know what happened, he was just gone. So Jeff Klindt called me a few days after that and asked if I wanted to get back on Real or ride for Stereo. Jason Lee had recently stayed at my place and we’d hung out and skated together a little. I really liked Jason and was already friends with Lavar, Mike York, and Matt Rodriguez so it was an easy choice.
Did you have much input into Visual Sound/Tincan Folklore? I was kind of wondering if that was where your interest in film making first came from…
Yeah, A Visual Sound was my first experience with filmmaking. I was definitely more of an observer on that project, but Jason and Chris were so passionate about that video that the whole process just stuck with me. It had a huge impact on how I approached anything creatively from then on. I was a lot more involved in Tincan Folklore, I shot all the super-8 in my part and sat in on the edit.
As we’re a British mag I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Carl: do you have any good Shipman tales from back in those days?
Carl was the raddest. Looking back, I must have seemed like a total square to him back then. But he was always super cool to me. Carl was by far one of the best skaters on Stereo but I don’t think he cared that much. Not that he was lazy; he just skated when he felt like it. I remember one day Carl’s brother Lee came to visit and the next morning Carl showed up with his hand wrapped in bandages. I guess they’d both gone out and gotten into some huge brawl. They probably kicked the shit out of everyone. Those two were gnarly, on a whole other level.
Was the DC video the first video that you were solely responsible for, in terms of editing, logistics and the majority of the filming? If so, that must’ve been a pretty heavy undertaking given the breadth of skaters, locations and the sheer unprecedented epic scale involved – was it enjoyable or did the stress overtake the aesthetic side of it for you?
Yeah that was my first solo project. It was a bit terrifying to be honest. The editing was eight weeks of sheer panic. I just wanted to actually finish the thing and make it as good as possible. It was a massive undertaking.
That was the first video to showcase Danny Way’s pioneering mega-ramp concept – and presumably the first skate video where helicopters and crane shots were an aspect of the everyday filming scenario – how do you go about learning how to shoot something like a mega-ramp – surely all normal filming parameters are straight out of the window in that scenario?
There’s only one way to learn and that’s to just jump in: That’s all I did.
You were the person who dreamt up most of the skits for that video I believe, so do you feel partly responsible for say the prescient glimpse into what would ultimately happen to Wenning? Or for Rob Dyrdek’s ascent into TV stardom – you did go out and find Big Black right?
Oh wow the Wenning intro. Yeah I don’t know, I wanted to do an E! True Hollywood story type of thing with someone and Wenning just seemed like the best candidate. I don’t know how he felt about it, but he trusted me. I’m sure he must hate it now, sorry Brian. We always got along. I liked Wenning. The intro had nothing to do with what I thought would happen to him, it was just more of a random idea. As for Dyrdek, I think all of us knew that he would go onto big things. He’s got such incredible energy and always a ton of ideas. It was pure luck that we found Big Black through a security company that worked on a commercial we’d done. He was perfect and skit was such a good concept. Rob’s idea too: it was easy to create, I just wish I would have recorded better sound.
So since making the DC video you’ve worked on Mind Field and presumably a ton of non skate related film work, as well as curating several photography exhibitions – does any one thing take precedence or are they all aspects of what constitutes your livelihood these days?
Well the big videos take precedence because that’s my job. But I need to do other things to keep sane. If I did only skate movies 24/7 I’d be totally burnt. Photography has always been the one thing that’s totally my own: Never any pressure.
Was creating Mind Field and working within such established aesthetic parameters as those of Alien Workshop something of a relief after working on the DC video?
The DC video was really rewarding but there wasn’t much of me in there creatively. I’d always wanted to do a video for the Workshop, and once it started Mike Hill didn’t really give me any specific guidelines. He just trusted me to do what I wanted. Him and Chad Bowers played a huge part in that video as well, they created all the titles and a lot of the visuals during the final weeks while I was editing. So it all kind of came together in the end
It was definitely noticeable that Mind Field seemed to be the first major US video release in a good while that didn’t rely too heavily on either Spanish or Chinese footage, being filmed primarily in the States. Was that an aesthetic decision or does it have more to do with the wider economic climate?
It was both. We had a limited budget but also nobody was really that interested in going overseas. The inner USA just looks so good on film, gritty spots you’ve never seen. Plus it’s so much easier to travel. Super 8 motels, Starbucks, and Waffle House are everywhere. So that’s what we did, spent a lot of time in the same green van.
You said in your recent ChromeBall interview that you never watch the videos you make after they’re done. Is that really true? How does it work then? You go to the premiere and get a feel for the immediate response and then that’s it?
Yeah that’s basically true. The premieres are important because you can feel the reaction, but otherwise it’s sheer torture to sit through them. I mean I’ve already seen it, a million times! Lived through it too. I can actually watch bits of Mind Field and enjoy it though. And the Dylan video. But that’s about it.
So moving onto matters pertinent to your recent trip to the UK – you’re currently working on the Vans video – a project that has been talked about forever – are we to believe that it is 100% ‘in progress’ now?
F*ck I hope so I’ve been working on it for over a year.
You were only in the UK for a short amount of time but obviously managed to get a few really good bits and pieces whilst you were here – how hard is it proving to be gathering footage with dudes like Geoff and Anthony who obviously have a ton of responsibilities outside this particular project? Is it going to be a case of you going on Vans-specific filming trips to gather footage or do you have a bunch of other filmers out shooting with various skaters the whole time?
No Geoff and Anthony are 100% Vans. There are a couple guys working on other projects, but Vans is everybody’s main focus. You can’t make a good video if the team is scattered. Gotta get everyone in the van for a couple years to make it work. No pun intended.
How easy do you find it giving each new video its own identity? Finding new ways to make your videos stand alone in their own right for the company you are working for must be difficult, seeing as most videos follow the same format in essence. I guess videos like Mind Field make the situation somewhat easier by having their own visual history to draw upon. Will this help with the Vans video having such a wealth of history too?
Giving a video a look and feel of its own is definitely challenging, but that’s what I like about it. Mind Field was actually really tough because I wanted it to feel like a Workshop video but also have its own identity. Hill and Chad Bowers really helped with that. Vans does have a rich history, so I think that will play a big part in the feel of that video for sure.
How are you even going to begin with format given the amount of dudes who ride for Vans?
I don’t think it’ll be that tough. A lot of videos have had just as many people if not more. I don’t think the Vans video will take the cookie cutter approach anyhow.
As the wealth and readiness of Internet clips is only increasing do you find the skate-jaded video part consumer to be in itself jading, or are the increasingly impossible expectations of long term projects motivational? Or, to put it another way – is the purist contention that physical skate DVD’s are culturally superior to throw away Internet noise part of the reason that you’re prepared to undertake a project as potentially massive as this one?
I think it’s a lot like music. Do bands still make full albums? Why even bother if nobody really buys them and only pecks at the pieces in iTunes? Because you want to create an experience for the people who care and hopefully spark the minds of the people who don’t.
Mind Field appeared to be filmed predominantly in DV whereas the Vans project is entirely HD I believe – do you actually like the look of HD or are you thinking the change to HD is mainly a case of technological led inevitability? Do you feel HD enhances the skating or does it take the aesthetic of a skate video away as some people think?
People holding onto the VX aesthetic are out of their fucking minds. Don’t get me wrong, I love the VX look too, but that’s the thing… it’s only one look! HD is not just slow mo dolly shots. It can look and feel completely different depending on how it’s shot. I was hoping that Debacle and the Dylan vid might have won some people over, but I guess not. I don’t care anymore. Really I think what it all comes down to is that you love what you grew up watching. And for 90% of today’s skaters that’s videos shot on a VX1000. So I totally understand why HD looks weird to them. I grew up on Sick Boys and Public Domain, so I prefer the look of film. It all makes sense. But I’d much rather shoot on HD than some 15 year old camera that eats tapes. That’s just my choice. DV doesn’t look nearly as good on laptop and flat screens anyhow but it looked great on old TV sets.
Aside from the weight of the cameras involved, you mentioned that as long as you don’t try to film in the same way that you would with a VX1 that HD isn’t that difficult or different from the cheaper and more traditional DV camera set ups. Is that still the case or is the backache starting to tell you otherwise?
I don’t remember what I said exactly, but they are a bit different. It takes a little while to figure out HD. But those cameras are getting smaller and cheaper so the backache horizon is looking better. I do a lot of pushups anyways.
Do you ever go spot hunting and have shots worked out in your head before even taking a skater there? Or do you tend to just go with spots that the people you are filming have found?
I wish I had the time to go spot hunting. Sometimes I’ll find something, but not often. Cody Green is helping me film the Vans video, he’s got all the spots.
I read that you were doing 20-hour days finishing Mind Field, with this much passion going into a DVD release, how do you feel about people posting the film to the web for spurious Internet props 2 hours after its release?
It really bums me out and pisses me off. People these days feel entitled to get everything for free. And then even if you give them something for free they’ll find something to criticize. It’s annoying.
Does it get you stoked that people want to see a video you worked on so badly that they will post it online and search the web for a download? Or do you feel cheated?
No it’s totally beat. People have no patience. That’s why the Vans video is coming out on Laser Disc.
What is the greatest trick/moment you wished you got on film that you witnessed sans camera?
Probably Natas skating the Safeway curb at 8am in 1990: Ten foot long nollie front boards, among other things. I didn’t even understand what I was seeing. And he was just breaking in his shoes.
Did you get that Hard Drive back that you left in Liverpool?
I did! Thanks Mackey!
What about skate videos in general – which are your favourites in terms of nostalgia or in terms of recent releases?
My all time favorite is Sick Boys, hands down. Best soundtrack ever. I’d love to remake that video someday. Recently I’ve been into all the Palace videos. It’s the best shit out. And I love anything Fred does as well as all the Manwolf videos.
I know you’re a big fan of Lev’s PWBC news and Palace in general so what are your views on their deliberate retrogressive use of VHS?
I’m into it. Those guys totally nail it. And they add something even more to it, which I really like. VHS is a lot like super-8.
Finally, have you skated through any restaurants recently?
Burger King, but that was a long time ago.