Dragonslayer: Skating the Margins

Director Tristan Patterson talks to us about his award-winning and groundbreaking documentary Dragonslayer, screening tonight at the PHI Centre.

Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer isn’t just one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the last few years; it’s one of the best films, period. The portrait of a misfit California skater who goes by the name of Screech, using footage captured by Patterson’s crew as well as hand-held material shot by Screech himself, is a profound and poetic look at not just an individual, but his subculture and the era he lives in, all executed with a shooting and editing style that mark it as the work of a truly original talent.

And it’s not just me; the film won prizes at SXSW and at Toronto’s Hot Docs, where I saw it in the spring of 2011. Patterson and I exchanged emails, but never managed to arrange an interview until Dragonslayer played at FNC last fall. To the great detriment of Montreal film programmers, it never got a theatrical release here, but the PHI Centre is screening it tonight as part of their Skate or Die series of skateboarding docs.

I met Patterson in the lobby of his hotel, and made a snap decision that it would be best to take him out of this staid environment and around the corner to the Midway, one of Montreal’s weirdest, sketchiest bars and one of the few remnants of the old lower St-Laurent spirit. There, we had a couple of beers and a rambling discussion about the film’s genesis, themes and unique visual style.

A native of LA, Patterson worked for years as a screenwriter while trying to develop projects that, in typical Hollywood style, never got off the ground. “I had this hunger to make something, but I also wanted to do something that I didn’t have to ask permission to do,” he recalls. “I’ve always had this idea of the kind of movies I’d like to see. It kind of felt like I should just go out and make a movie like that, rather than just talking about it. Like, put up or shut up.”

Asked about how Dragonslayer developed, Patterson tells a long, elaborate story full of colourful characters that concludes with him attending a punk-rock party. As Patterson recounts it, he had grown up obsessed with what he calls “youth in revolt” movies: apocalyptic and violent ’80s stories of teen rebellion such as Over the Edge, The River’s Edge and Suburbia. “When I walked into that party, it was just like one of those movies,” he recalls. “That [era] was supposed to be the decline of Western civilization, and we’re really at that tipping point. Now this probably actually is the decline.”

It was at this party that he met Screech. “If you were going to cast your hero”
in one of these films, “you’d cast him,” he says excitedly. “I literally started filming him a week later, and just kept going… I thought I’d film him for a summer, and I ended up filming him for eight months.”

Without a net: Screech


The film’s aesthetic is totally unique, setting it apart from any other film of any era. Asked about this style, Patterson first humbly defers to his equipment. “It’s partly that technology is at a point where you can take a camera this big,” he says, his hands indicating a tiny box, “and put film lenses on it, and using all natural light get something that’s totally cinematic. I probably couldn’t have made the movie five years ago. It was realizing ‘Oh, we’re at that moment where you can do something like that.’”

But it’s not just the look; the film also has an abstract, poetic rhythm to it while at the same time feeling very true to life. Patterson attributes this to a true vérité spirit: “If we were doing reality TV, to capture scenes, we’d have to cheat. So you have to have a faith that you’re not looking for scenes, you’re looking for moments that hopefully reveal something or have impact. So that was a very conscious choice from the beginning… if you consistently act that way [as a director], the people in the movie are gonna trust you ’cause you’re not telling them to do anything.”

And of course, in Screech he had the fortune of finding an eccentric but sympathetic character, who we see drifting along, skating and trying to find his way in the economic wasteland of contemporary California. “The thing I love about Screech is that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he really is trying to be a good person, and he’s trying to live in an original way,” Patterson says. “Everybody else is going ‘holy shit, there’s no safety net.’ But he’s never had a safety net, and he’s doing just fine in his own way.”

Needless to say I highly recommend the film, which is worth seeing on a big screen—and, although I suspect it will stand the test of time, worth seeing now, because it’s really a film of our era. Referring back to when Screech inspired him to make the film, Patterson says, “It’s a moment in time in his life, but it’s also a moment in time in California and America. So let’s just create something that’s totally authentic to that moment.” ■


Dragonslayer screens Aug. 30 at the PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre), 7:30 p.m., $10

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