Dogtown Fever

Once upon a time, I was a poser, a wannabe. I wanted boys to like me, so naturally, I boned up on their extracurriculars. Skateboarding was huge.

A classmate's father owned a surf/skate clothing shop in town and hosted an open-air exhibition of two hot skaters named Steve Caballero and Tony Hawk. I didn't go, but I heard about it. The following Monday, guys from class were trading stories, showing off their signed copies of Thrasher magazine and attempting Ollies and McTwists at recess -- moves they witnessed at the exhibition. Those were some of the dog days I remember from the 1980s -- crushing on these junior Tony Hawks, reciting the Rosary every day after lunch and surviving Sister "The Stare" Francis.

Skater Stacy Peralta has rekindled that folkloric kind of magic from the original dog days of the 1970s, with the new documentary he co-wrote and directed, "Dogtown and Z-Boys," which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. Narrated by Sean Penn, "Dogtown" tells the story of boys and a girl (tomboy Peggy Oki) from the rundown neighborhoods of Venice, Ocean Park and Santa Monica, looking for the street equivalent of their collective pastime, surfing. Skateboarding was it.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the early days of skateboarding is portrayed here -- from the first time the Dogtown crowd showed up the clean-cut kids still doing handstands on skateboards, to the historic moment when Tony Alva officially caught air on the lip of a a drought-barren swimming pool.

I caught up with Peralta -- who famously teamed with George Powell to make the popular Powell Peralta skateboards -- recently to talk about making the film, upcoming projects and what it was like living in a skater's paradise.

First off, could you explain the title of the film?

Dogtown is a nickname for south Santa Monica, Ocean Park, and Venice areas of west Los Angeles. I believe [photojournalist, artist and "Dogtown" co-writer] C.R. Stecyk came up with the name in response to the number of Chicano gangs that lived in the area. The gangs were notorious for naming their barrios various names like Frogtown, Ghostown, Midtown etc. Z-Boys is derived from the word Zephyr. We were all surfer/skaters and we were sponsored by the Jeff Ho and Zephyr surf shop.

How was it, growing up with such a diverse mix of people and skating in that neighborhood?

As opposed to growing up in Newport Beach in the '70s, growing up in Dogtown was an early wake-up call as to what the real world is composed of. There was a certain charged friction because of all of the differing cultures living in such close proximity. I wouldn't change where I grew up for anything.

Any bumps in the road making this film?

Yes. I was given the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival 2001. I should have been given the best diplomat award because of the constant diplomacy needed to keep all of the original members of the team on board this film. Everyone who was associated with the DT experience, who is in the film, wanted to be in the film, but all of them had different agendas which I had to filter and accommodate. It was like being wedged between two impossible points. I'm so glad it's over as I am weary and exhausted.

What was the price tag on the film?


Were you involved in the financing? Also Vans reportedly pitched in some money -- how did that happen and was it a large contribution?

Agi Orsi, my producer, is the person who went to Vans shoes (Jay Wilson) and presented the project to them. Jay loved it from the get-go and got 100 percent behind it. He was the greatest, most skilled executive producer I've ever worked for. He and Vans never once asked to see a daily, rough cut or anything. They simply said, "Make the film you want to make and finish it in six months."

Where did you collect all the vintage footage and how tough was it obtaining it and then editing it?

Because I'm the director as well as one of the featured players in the film, I remembered what footage had been shot back then so it was a matter of trying to locate all of the many photographers, cinematographers, and kids who had cameras back then -- there were 40 sources who we obtained footage from. A detective I hired became very handy for me as he located quite a few people.

Can you tell me more about the day Tony Alva caught air in that pool? What were you thinking?

I'm in the shallow end of that pool shot. We were all blown away by the way Tony pulled air; his style and his aggression and his committment to the act. He was rather flawless in his approach.

How did you come to assemble your skateboarding company, signing on Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero? How did you find those guys?

I used to attend all of the amateur events all up and down the California coast. I was always on the lookout for hot new young skaters as my original intention of starting a company was to build a "great" skateboard team, the best ever. That was my primary goal.

What accounted for the popularity of skateboarding?

It's fun. And it is an activity that a person can attune to his or her own sensibility. It becomes very personal and your skating style is a reflection of your personality.

Why should we care about your documentary and skateboarding in general?

Because it's an American phenomenon, a sub-culture with no European roots, it's pure American and it is now being shipped all over the world as kids in all countries are welcoming the skateboard virus into their lives. It's also a West Coast thing. Growing up in the '70s in California was to grow up in the shadow of the East Coast where everyone there said California was a cultural wasteland with nothing but beaches, deserts, and air-headed people. Well, they were wrong. California had a very strong petri-dish of culture but no one at the time could see it. Our film documents one important leg of the California dream.

What's your next project?

Agi Orsi, Sean Penn, and myself have a deal with Radar Pictures to do the film "In Search of Capt. Zero." Agi and Sean will produce. Sean will act if he chooses and I'll direct. The screenplay is currently being written by Allan Weisbecker. I'd also like to continue working in the documentary field as I feel it's an untapped field -- specifically about subjects relating to California. Agi and I have been working for over a year now to get a documentary off the ground about the notorious '60s surfer, Miki Dora.

Where is skateboarding headed?

Don't know. I'm not involved with the industry anymore. I will say this though; when we were growing up, skateboarders for the most part were blond, blue-eyed surfers. Today skateboarding has completely left its surfing roots and become a very urban sport. When you go to the inner cities now you see black, Mexican, Vietnamese, and many other ethnic kids doing "Ollies." That to me is the most promising thing about skateboarding's future.

Genevieve Roja is an associate editor at

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