Bing Liu interview – Minding the Gap

A movie with skateboarding in it? Commence the eye rolling… ‘I think there’s just a deep cynicism that runs through the skateboarder’s blood that responds to anything… anything Hollywood.’ says Bing Liu. Bing has directed Minding the Gap, an award-winning documentary with yes, skateboarding in it. Although the documentary includes it, the focus of the film isn’t really skateboarding itself, but rather it chronicles the lives of three skaters in suburban Illinois growing up and dealing with death, racism, an unplanned pregnancy, domestic abuse and other things. I myself was sceptical of the film after just seeing the trailer. I wasn’t convinced, but after Nick from Palomino kept singing its praises I finally decided to watch it. Now I’m in Nick’s camp, telling all my friends how incredible this film is. And after speaking with Bing that’s what he would want: for skateboarders to hear about this film through word of mouth. So full disclosure here: we aren’t being paid by anyone to promote Minding the Gap. We don’t have to do this, but after seeing the film we feel compelled to spread the word. Nick had met Bing a few weeks ago when they skated Southbank together, so when he was in town again Nick and I jumped at the chance to sit down and interview him. –Will Harmon

Interview by Nick Sharratt and Will Harmon
Images courtesy of Bing liu

Nick: Right at the start we see you’re filming with your mates the same way as someone in every crew ends up doing. Was it filming skating that got you interested in making films in the broader sense or do you think you would have found that regardless of filming skateboarding?
Bing Liu: It’s probably like a sibling relationship you know? Wanting to make skate videos and wanting to make films outside of skateboarding are very different, but influence is probably what’s most interesting. You make skate videos for yourself, not enter some film festival or anything, and you spend years doing it right? You have to be like skate dad you know, to round up skaters enough to get them a full part, deal with all types of shit like getting kicked out of spots, de-knobbing spots, sweeping up spots, but it’s just normal. And what’s weird is I think there’s a lot of people who see the rejection that comes from the film industry side of things and it can be really debilitating or de-spiriting, but for someone that’s made skate videos since they were a teenager it’s normal. You know, ‘of course I got rejected from this grant now’, or ‘of course I can’t find these guys to catch up with them and where they’re at with their lives now ‘cause they’re out skating and one of them doesn’t have a phone.’ I think having filmed skating helps with that.

I saw this film called Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001) when I was 15, and that was the first film that made me go ‘oh, I wanna try other things’. So I started with little skits at first, but then at the same time when I saw First Love (Transworld’s 2005 video) that’s when I started interviewing skateboarders and putting them in my skate videos. I was just emulating the things that I saw.

Nick: And did any of these skits make it into your early skate videos, like how Spike Jonze did in Girl videos?
Totally, just all types of shit. Like this guy sitting on his couch with a cartoonishly giant remote flicking through the channels. And you zoom into the TV and it’s got news clips about skateboarding, and then it flips to skating I’ve filmed, just shit like that. Not all of it was funny, some of it I tried to be serious, like little art movies. This guy comes home, sets down his keys and he puts on a record, plugs his headphones in and then he just starts to listen, and considers it (laughs). And then it just cuts into a skate montage ha ha! Just shit like that. It was like playing to me. Like, how can I construct a scene that feels like a movie?

Nick: So you were filming before you saw First Love though right? What made you first pick up a video camera? Did you see a video that inspired you to start or did you just end up being the one with the camera?
Yeah I was. I met two other filmers. It’s the same thing as meeting a skateboarder and starting to skate. You see someone skating and you’re like ‘holy shit, how do you do that?’ You see someone filming and you get to know them, and then you see their videos a week later and it’s like, ‘I can’t believe you did that; I wanna do that too!’ It’s really similar to wanting to learn a kickflip!

Nick: There obviously came a point where you were still making skate videos but you realised that you had this wider ambition for what you wanted to do with a camera. So what was the route you took from there to making your own feature length film, and did you take a conventional route or…..?
I don’t think there is any conventional route really; I mean everyone has their own… But I would say there’s three main routes right? One, you go through film school and through connections you start to get work that way. Two your family is in the business and you get grandfathered in or whatever. And then three, you go the apprenticeship route and get a mentor who takes you under their wing, and that’s what happened to me. In the States there’s a camera operators union called Local 600, which allows you to work on the big Hollywood movies, and a guy that was a Local 600 cameraperson moved to my hometown of Rockford (Illinois) to start a family because it was cheaper to buy a house and a plot of land for his kids. He was getting burnt out from the movie world so he bought a load of lights and equipment and started directing local TV commercials and shit, and he was doing it for a couple of years on his own before he started to get burnt out from not having any help. He was looking for someone that could just generally be his assistant and I had his business card through some random series of events. So I was 19 then and I cold called him and he was like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ I go over and he’s like, ‘edit this car commercial in my room, here’s some Red Bull…’ and I spent all night editing this car commercial because he was trying to get his taxes done.
The next day he said, ‘let’s sit down and talk about what this is gonna be.’ He never went to college or got an education he just learned on his own and he was like, ‘when I was your age I just wanted someone to pay me to work, and I can do that, and you’re going to learn everything you need to know from me.’ So I stuck with him and also went to school for English at the same time, as my back-up plan was to be a high school English teacher. I just kept working for him, sometimes for free sometimes paid, and eventually quit everything else including my pizza-making job and went full-time freelance. But all this time I kept on making my own things, almost as a form of play. I didn’t have any real aspirations of like ‘this film’s gonna get me to Sundance’ or whatever.

Nick: So you‘ve now made your first feature, Minding The Gap, which has won an award at Sundance and been nominated for an Oscar at the start of the year. As a result all this insane stuff has happened to you in the last six months, and yet the first time we met we skated Southbank because you were in London to meet Academy members and promote the film after the nomination. You came straight off the plane, dropped your bags at the hotel and came straight out skating. I can imagine that with all this crazy stuff that’s happened you haven’t skated as much in the last couple of months, but does skating itself still remain as important to you now since your life has changed so much?
Yeah I think with the way my life has changed and not being able to skate so much at the moment I forget the importance of it, until I do it again and have a really fun session like I did yesterday. It’s so unlike any other aspect of adult life, and it’s so important because of that.

Will: It’s like holding on to your youth a bit.
Yeah and I think the value of it is how made up all of it is. That’s what we do as skateboarders; we make it up as we go along. So it’s just a nice thing to keep you grounded from all this other ‘stuff’. But I definitely bring my board with me when I travel; it keeps me sane. I don’t always get to skate or I don’t always have a good session even but you know…

Will: Have you travelled a lot for this film so far?
Yeah a ton! I actually get priority boarding on American Airlines now because of the insane amount of miles I’ve built up this past year.

Bing Liu

Nick: It feels that at the moment Minding The Gap hasn’t really been promoted to skateboarders directly and that not many people know about it. I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before they do, but to any skaters that might have heard of the film but don’t know what to expect from it how would you describe the film to them?
Haha, that’s hard!!! I mean no ones been able to…. there’s no satisfactory way to describe it you know?

Nick: Well maybe not describe, but encourage them to watch it when it’s not just a film about skateboarding. It clearly isn’t and yet it’s a documentary that still has skateboarding at its heart.
I mean I don’t know, I was thinking if someone was to tell me about this film… There’s nothing that someone could tell the skateboarder in me that would make me wanna watch this film!

(Everyone laughs)

I think there’s just a deep cynicism that runs through the skateboarder’s blood that responds to anything….

Will: Anything Hollywood?
Yeah anything Hollywood. And I think it hurts me more to even try to get skateboarders to watch it. I hope it’s just word of mouth, and I think it’s the same in the film world outside of skateboarding. People are like, ‘oh it’s a skate documentary. I don’t need to see that.’

Will: I had a similar feeling. When Nick, his girlfriend and my sister recommended the film, and even after I had seen the trailer, I still wasn’t really convinced. I was just like, ‘yeah it looks like it’s something’. But then when I watched it it’s a completely different story, and I think it’s maybe our job as the media to tell skaters, ‘hey you need to watch this film!’

Nick: Yeah because I think it is one of the best representations there has ever been of what skateboarding means to you as a skateboarder. Did you set out to do that, because it doesn’t feel like it’s a film about skateboarding…
Yeah I wanted to do the opposite. I feel like the great conundrum of skating is the more you talk about it, analyse it and try to get at what and why it is, the less it makes sense. So my main goal was just to tell a truthful coming of age story that deals with the themes I set out to deal with, which is how do we grow up and become healthy people and break the cycle. I spent much more of my mental time thinking about (and trying to problem solve) than about what is skateboarding and why is it important.

Nick: So do you think it’s almost coincidental that you’ve managed to capture what it is that skateboarding means to skateboarders?
Uh yes and no. It’s a Catch 22. Skateboarding is the easiest thing to talk about in this film; it’s the easiest thing to make. Everything else is things that I never had a good representation of when I was a kid growing up to be able to give me a guide map to make sense of life.

Will: It’s so heavy, the other stuff…
It’s heavy, but it’s like, everyone experiences it, it’s true. That’s the other weird thing, it’s one of the most common things as a kid, just experiencing some kind of problem and trying to make sense of it, and to process it.

Nick: Like when Keire finally finds his Dad’s grave after looking for so long, and the emotional response that experience triggers. We are so lucky as skaters to have this outlet to help us deal with, and let go of these emotions. Whether it’s landing something or taking a slam, both of those things offer a release…

Will: I‘ve thought about this before and my theory is that skating takes so much concentration, and it’s so hard that you just have to try to do that. You don’t have the room in your head for all this other crap that’s going on in your life…
And the more you let that other crap come into your mind then the more likely you are to fall or get hurt. You sort of have to learn that as you get older as a skateboarder, if you’re really committed to it, that’s number one. Just being present and be in the moment. Which is meditation…

Nick: Enforced meditation.

Will: You have to really concentrate so hard because it’s so difficult.
That’s what I love about the barrier of entry to skating too; it’s so hard. Despite what has happened in the world of skateboarding in the past, or is happening now or may happen in the future, it’s so hard, there’s no shortcut.

Will: You can’t complete it!
Exactly, you can’t complete it. That’s why there’s always gonna be a respect from skateboarder to skateboarder, ‘cause it’s just about how hard you try and how committed you are to it! That’s why when someone’s dropping in for the first time everyone around them is so… they just want it to happen!

Will: One of the great things about Minding the Gap in my opinion is that it shows skateboarders as very unique individuals. I think often skateboarders are painted with a broad brush, for instance ‘they all smoke weed, use profanity, are disobedient, are high school dropouts, losers’, whatever. But what your film achieves is breaking that stereotype. Keire, Zack, yourself, you are all very different types of people, but yet are all skateboarders. Was this something conscious about skateboarders you were trying to get across?
Yeah, I mean we spent a lot of time talking about it, especially Zack. It didn’t make it in to the film but he talked about how frustrating it is that the outside world just puts skateboarders in a box. But we’re just people, you know. I feel like this is a generalisation but skateboarders are progressive liberal minded people because you understand that, despite your background or personal demographic, you understand what it means to be stereotyped. It’s ridiculous so you don’t want to do that to others. And that was part of the ‘casting’ process or whatever, because before calling Zack and Keire I spent a year going around the country following skateboarders from all over the place of different demographics: a mom who skates and has two kids, Anthony Shetler, a hometown hero skater from Arizona, etc.

Will: And why was that? Were you already making something but you didn’t know that it was going to be this (Minding The Gap)? You didn’t know you were going to come back to your hometown?
Exactly, that’s when I was 23. I wasn’t great friends with Zack and Keire growing up, that’s something that people took away from the film who don’t understand that a skate montage doesn’t necessarily mean the skaters are best friends. Keire is eight years younger than me, and he emerged as someone… I’ve never seen someone who’s been so openly down to process things for the first time that are really difficult. For Zack it was like, ‘oh he’s gonna become a dad it’s a trackable story’. I’d interviewed dads and followed dads but never someone who was going to become a dad so I was like, ‘I wonder what this is going to look like?’ So my second shoot was going to the hospital with Zack and Nina (Zack’s girlfriend) when she got induced for pregnancy.

Will: Wow! And a just little follow up question to that, have you had any feedback from anyone else, from more mainstream media that have been “oh, skateboarders are all different!”
Not hitting that note quite as hard as I would have wanted. It’s been mostly like, ‘oh, skateboarding is therapeutic, cathartic’ or whatever. I feel that generalisation is pretty strong.

Will: But the film helps with that…
It does, the big thing I think is that it’s humanising. A lot of people are saying, ‘I’ll never see skateboarders the same again.’

Will: Well even people saying that, I think that’s huge. You can pat yourself on the back if people have said that.

Behind the scenes

Nick: You’ve touched upon this a little already, but it feels that in last 12 months especially the desire to intellectualise and apply academic thought to skateboarding has become much more prevalent. Do you think it’s rad that your film has come out at a time when all of these discussions of race, gender, etc. are happening around skateboarding?
Iain Borden is insane, when I started reading some of his articles that came out I was just like, ‘what the fuck!’ I like it when the intellectual and skateboarder sides of me can light up at the same time… It’s not like it was a pre-planned thing to have the film come out when it did. While I was making it a lot of things happened, like Brian Anderson came out, and the girl’s/woman’s skateboarding scene came to the attention of many more people. But how much of that had to do with how I was handling, on a more granular level, an abusive relationship happening in real time, I don’t know man. I think I was more influenced by taking sociology courses. I did a 40-hour domestic violence course while I was making the film, I saw a therapist while I was making the film, but everything affects everything right? And I think skateboarding can be a reflection of the larger world.

Nick: I don’t think I was necessarily trying to imply that you’d been influenced by these things and the discussions that surround them, I just think it’s great how your film has come out at a time when it can immediately sit within this discussion and contribute so well to it.
It’s wonderful yeah! I think had it come out at a time when there was less of a language to talk about these things, I don’t think the impact would have been so big, that’s for sure. The film can be used as a tool more effectively now because of other things that are happening.

Will: And you spoke briefly about the domestic abuse in the film, I was wondering if you could talk a little about how the film has been cathartic to you in dealing with your own abusive upbringing…
I mean…. Mostly the therapy has helped with that ha ha! The film itself is like me being a therapist…

Will: I don’t know if confront is the right word but you talked to a lot of people about this stuff. Had you ever spoken to your Mom about this before making the film?
Not to that length, but the camera gave us an excuse to talk. It was a small part of the conversation we ended up having, I mean it was a two-hour interview that we only used a fraction of. I went into those interviews because I didn’t want to do a voiceover to tell my own story, and the reason that I put myself in the film is that after Nina told me that things had gotten physically abusive at home I needed to show the audience my filmmaker decisions and my filmmaker motivations in order to feel like I was being less exploitative. And so because I didn’t want to do voiceover I went and interviewed my family members and the skate shop owner, but then some of those conversations did turn into a confrontation and I didn’t expect that. But even while editing I just sort of focused on the exposition. My first few cuts of the interview with my Mom were like, ‘hey Mom when did I start skateboarding again?’ and ‘What do you think about me filming?’ You know? It was just kind of boring; there wasn’t any tension. But the finishing editor brought out all that stuff from the scene with my brother and the interview with my Mom.

Will: Early in the film Keire talks about being abused by his father and you talk about being abused by your stepfather. But then. Later in the film, we hear Nina talk about how Zack is abusing her, and obviously you couldn’t have planned for that before you started making this film. How did this make you feel when you found out, and did you have to change how the film was? I mean it’s a big development…
I had to rethink everything I was doing. My first thought was, ‘people who don’t have any experience of domestic violence probably aren’t going to believe Nina. I have to follow Nina’. So that’s why Nina became such a big part of the film and why I had to build up her story to give credence to her. That was the big change, and that led me to enter the film myself. I knew I was going to show them the film before it came out, so I felt like I had to put skin in the game.

Will: Well you did a good job; you really get close to the characters in the film you know…

Nick: It’s interesting you mention the interview with the skate shop owner, because in that interview he talks about how when you were young you opened up to him about what was happening at home. And I think that’s just yet another thing that paints skateboarding in such a positive light, that there’s always the guy in the skateboard shop. People outside the culture don’t know how much that means to young skaters, the person and the place itself. You chose that community and that person to talk to about all this heavy stuff that’s going on in your life and to be honest with.
I mean, totally… I knew him better than I knew my Mom growing up. I definitely talked to him more than I talked to my Mom, and certainly more than my stepfather. It shows that as an older skater at a park or whatever you kind of like have a responsibility to, or not a responsibility, but it matters how you respond to younger kids because you could be the model adult for them, ‘cause they might not have any other adult around that they look up to more than you and you might not even realise it.

Will: I’m curious about how yours, Zack’s and Keire’s lives have changed since the film was released?
It’s only been since August since the big release in the US. Zack got an acting gig in a scripted feature length film as the lead and is having a second child with Sam who he’s now engaged with and they just bought a house. Keire moved to Arizona. I mean he’s so loveable that everyone has been reaching out to him trying to help him out. Tony Hawk is trying to get him on the Birdhouse program. I mean Keire’s still so young; he’s only 22. And for me I’m just working on a couple of new films, but time will tell you know.

Zack and Kiere

Nick: Were you prepared for the success the film has had?
Bing: No, I’m pretty much just a realist skateboarder, just no expectations, whatever happens happens.

Will: But you went to the Oscars right?
Yeah it’s cool but it’s weird. It’s just like, ‘OK!?’

Will: I don’t think too many skaters have been to the Oscars. Speaking of which, did you get to meet Jonah Hill or Spike Jonze?
I didn’t get to meet Jonah or Spike but I have got to meet a lot of amazing people this last year. Jerry Hsu, Tony Hawk, Craig Scott who I love. Questions is just like, holy shit… he’s so amazing, I just wanna be his friend!

Will: So I guess one last quick question is do you have any aspirations to make another film that includes skateboarding?
Yeah! Something I’m writing at the moment, a fictional script includes a little skating but it’s not about skating. It’s just such a big part of my life it’s just part of the world. It’s like Kids. Kids isn’t about skating it’s just a part of that world.

Minding the Gap is now playing in select theatres and on Google PlayYouTube Movies.