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Interview: Tristan Patterson, Director of Dragonslayer

Dragonslayer comes out today in New York City. The film's director, Tristan Patterson, who spent the better part of a year following around a skate rat named Skreech, is here to present it, just as he has been in many places all around the world after the film won the film portion of this year's SXSW festival. The film is an intimate portrait of Skreech and his girlfriend doing things and doing nothing, which is often the same thing, glinting in the sun and crinkling their brows at the perplexities, some fun, some not, of a gnarly life in California. Patterson, who has a slightly less gnarly life, has a similar buoyant energy to his subject, though tempered with a bit more years of experience in life. He spoke about his feelings on the film, its reception and the pitfalls and benefits of adulthood.

As the film is being released by a record label and has a punk soundtrack, do you feel like you are getting more of an audience that identifies with Skreech? There’s the whole gambit of experience of you know, old talking head documentary film makers that are writing me emails being like, This is a French new wave documentary and it’s the first thing I’ve seen that’s new, and that’s cool, and then you know, I was in Vancouver and the movie played on Canadian Thanksgiving but I was like dude, no one is going to come, right? And I did the Q&A and there was this 19 year old, and I had been talking about Over the Edge constantly in interviews, and he had read online that I had been talking about Over the Edge, watched it on YouTube, and then he came up to me afterwards and said, “I was recently hospitalized for manic depression, and I got permission from my hospital to come see this movie, and I feel like drumming for me is what skateboarding is like for the kid in your movie. So you go from like, what the fuck am I doing in Vancouver? to walking down the street being like, that’s the raddest experience. That’s the kid it’s made for.

As you show the movie internationally and speak, do you often get a reaction of, Here is this weird California guy who made this weird California film about this weird California kid? I was just trying to make the kind of film I would want to see. So I had a pretty simple take on it which is that this is a film that comes out of a tradition of youth in revolt movies, and it comes out of punk cinema, but also I was doing more formalist things that excited me cinematically. It was just like if I went to a theater and this came on screen I would get excited by it, so I hope other people do. I didn’t think about it as a documentary at all, I just thought about it like, I’m going to be authentic to a reality I’m witnessing. Every place you go you get different kinds of crowds that aren’t necessarily emblematic of the city you’re in. Sometimes it’s the festival that draws super documentary people. I think typically and, especially now, documentary has such a narrow frame work in terms of what people expect from it and I always felt like this movie was better programmed with narrative films but you get these questions sort of like, “Why is the subject of your movie someone that’s worthy of a documentary?” My sort of emotional response to that is always like, Why is Robert De Niro worthy of a movie like Mean Streets? He’s blowing up trash cans on street corners. But it’s something I want to watch, and I obviously have a lot love for the kids in that movie, but I never saw them as controversial subject matters, I just saw them as kids that were in a world in a unique moment in time that would be cinematic on screen.

Did it make you feel warped when people ask you those questions? Is it something you just literally never considered? I mean I thought of it as, Oh I’m making this real statement film that kind of has a little bit of a middle finger in the air, like either you like it or you don’t. Fuck off if you don’t. But then you make something like that and someone takes offense to it and then you’re like, Why are you taking offense to my lovely film? You’re always shocked. I realize that the film doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it which is one of the things I really love about it and so it requires a certain creativity from the audience to decide how they feel and there’s a real kind of litmus test where you’ll have some people saying, Oh this is a movie about a kid that’s a rock star, and other people say, This a movie about a kid that’s going nowhere, a loser. It’s like, well he’s neither of those things. He’s a creative kid with a strange poetry in him that rides backyard swimming pools, and this is the moment in his life when he fell in love and decided to pack all his belongings in a car and head out into nowhere, you know?

How did you find a middle ground between being able to hang with kids like that, like Skreech, and being a more grown up filmmaker? Part of it is having a little distance cause it allows you to not get caught up. I wasn’t particularly worried about whether anyone thought I was cool or not, you know, I was like, They can think I’m a total crazy person and that’s fine, and some of that comes from being a little bit of a grown up. It’s not peer-to-peer, and I think it lets you stay a little calmer. You’re speaking basically the same language. Me and Screech like basically a lot of the same music, Leslie too so you’re not “that old guy.”

Were you like Skreech when you were his age? Probably emotionally in some ways, but probably not. It’s interesting like hearing people talk about how hard he’s partying, and I’m like, I dunno, he drinks beer and smokes pot in the movie, like, it’s not that radical. There are people that are describing him as like a drug addict, and it’s like, I dunno, he smoked pot three times in the movie and we filmed for over seven months? I mean, yeah, a lot of 23-year-olds are going hard, and a lot of 23-year-olds are trying to figure out how to land as adults, or what they want at that age you know what you don’t want and you’re trying to figure out what you do want and how to find a way to pull that off.

Do you think he'll figure it out? I think I’m still trying to figure it out. I think it’s a life long journey for people to try to figure that out. I would say that because it’s a movie I think it has this feeling of being this definitive statement but it really is just capturing this one moment in his life, and he’s gonna have so many other moments, and some of them are gonna be high, and some of them are gonna be low. You know, I’ve had some highs and lows today.

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Interview: Tristan Patterson, Director of Dragonslayer