Film Courage: Bing, was there a day that filmmaking mattered to you more than skateboarding?
Bing Liu, filmmaker of MINDING THE GAP: There were some days that it did and some days that it didn’t. When I was 17 I watched the film SLACKER and I took the freaks and geeks of my community in Rockford [Illinois] and I sort of had them improv talking about their lives, bumping into each other, it was very Slackeresque.
On that day, filmmaking mattered more to me than skateboarding. Then I kept making skate videos and my next film that I did, I cared more about filmmaking.
Film Courage: Whenever you agree to a project whether it’s having a Youtube channel or doing a documentary, it takes over your life in so many ways. You basically have no free time, this is pretty much what you’re doing for a good chunk of time.
Was there a point where you said “I’m going to put skateboarding on the back burner and to me making this film is everything and I need to do it for me?”
Bing: I mean skateboarding…I feel like it was never that choice, there was never that fork in the road. I was 24 when I started doing this film. I really wanted to explore these themes of family and violence and childhood. I went around the country and interviewed skateboarders from all over the place. It confirmed my belief that there are a lot of patterns in the community. And then a year in I met Keire [one of the three stories in MINDING THE GAP] and I was like Oh, this person hasn’t processed it in the ways that other people have.
Later in the documentary Zack [one of the three stories in MINDING THE GAP] is like Yeah of course my father beat me. I feel like most people brushed it off like that. There is something that had hardened over the softness that Keire still held onto. And that’s why I saw myself in Keire. Keire is willing to do the work of processing it, to not just brush it off, to make it something that mattered to him and that he wanted to change.
Film Courage: Absolutely, he was incredibly open and I really appreciate that. Speaking of which (and Zack), I think there was one scene early on in the film where Zack kind of looked at you (he might have been smoking or doing something) and he said “Are you going to film this?” And then he says “You know what, you can pretty much film whatever you want.” How do you earn that level of trust with someone, even as friends because this thing [gestures to the camera] can shape someone in any way they want it to in the editing room? How do you earn that level of trust?
Bing: I think it was just a five year long conversation about representation. That was one of many moments both on and off camera where we talked about what was going to go in the film, how they felt about what we had captured so far. And sometimes they were light and funny like that smoking moment. But other times it was like Zack how do you feel about me having film you run off to Denver? How do you feel about you sort of abandoning your son? You know so they understood that I was checking in, that I cared. And I told them a couple of years before we finished the film that they were going to get a chance to see the film before it was picture locked and weigh in.
Film Courage: When did you actually start filming in general, whether it was skateboarding videos or whatever? When was the first time you picked up a camera?
Bing: 14 maybe?
Film Courage: So pre-DSLR I guess?
Bing: Pre-DSLR. I mean mini-DV tape was the height of technology at the time and then soon after recording to DVD came and then recording to hard drive cameras.
Film Courage: I believe initially you were not intending to put yourself in the film. And I can see why, I know a lot of people have their own take on that. It absolutely works that you’re in the film. I think you said that at some point your editor and you sat down and edited all three stories separately to see if they worked? Can you talk about how that worked?
“A little does a lot and I think ultimately that was how we were able to fit so many themes that are in the film – race, class, gender relations, masculinity.”
Bing: I met Josh [Altman] last year editing a different project and I convinced him to come on to consult at first because he didn’t have time to edit fully and he told me You should try editing every story on its own to get it working. I did that and on the first try with Keire and Zack’s stories it was like Okay, we have a film here for sure that can get into Sundance. And I was like What? Because that was the first time someone had told me that.
And then for my story it was like We’re not sure how this is going to work? We’ll figure it out later. So we wove Zack and Keire’s stories together. Ultimately it was sort of characterizing the camera as the character to ultimately lead up to the mom interview.
Film Courage: How was that to know that the film could go to Sundance and beyond? Most people hope for that and they don’t actually get it. But then you’re filming this incredibly personal story (for all parties involved) to know that “Oh my gosh, this is happening?”
Bing: Because I wasn’t doing it for Sundance. I mean there was a large part of me that wasn’t doing it just to make a film. It was so important to me that I would have just wanted to do it. The goal is to get it seen very widely so it can make a difference, Sundance was great for that purpose. But I’m very much a realist and I’m just like and I very much live in the moment. I’m still just sort of waiting to wake up and Oh? None of that happened. Of course, the last nine months was just a dream.
Film Courage: I think you had said in a Q&A that what is effective about MINDING THE GAP is also what is not being said. Is there anything you want to talk about in terms of some of the things you just show and some of the things you leave out and the audience can kind of fill in the gaps (and no pun intended) in terms of what is happening or some of the emptiness around some of the lives of the skateboarders?
Bing: I think that first year those interviews were really on the nose. And that first assembly cut was very much just people really directly talking about abuse and violence. It was just really hard to watch and for many reasons. Once it became more about a story of Zack and Keire growing up and these issues of abuse and trauma coming out organically as obstacles to their growing up, I think it became a lot more emotionally grappling. A little does a lot and I think ultimately that was how we were able to fit so many themes that are in the film, race, class, gender relations, masculinity. If you really just look at the mechanics of this story, there is really just a one-two-punch for some of these themes.
Like for race (for example) there are really three moments that deal with race in the film, but it says everything you need to know about how this affects Keire.
Film Courage: Can you talk about the types of filming where you want the subjects to pretend that the camera was not there and then filming where you do want the subjects to look straight at the camera? How did you balance that or was this not even conscious? It was just you were filming?
Bing: I wasn’t really conscious, I mean I certainly adhered to vérité (the school of vérité) which is that you just hang out and something happens and you start filming.
For me I feel like I watched a lot of vérité films that showed how the camera effected the story and the presence of the camera and there is something actually more truthful to that. I think that’s why we left in moments like Zack asking me like Do you want me to pretend like the camera is not there or what? Because it just sort of nods to the fact that yeah we’re both constructing it and we’re filming things and the camera might effect how they’re acting but you can’t always do that (it would be exhausting), so there’s more truth to that.
Film Courage: We asked some of our viewers questions ahead of time. We just let them know that it was a documentary but we didn’t tell them too much more. The first viewer asked (his name is ZombieDude64)…
Bing: I love this, this is awesome.
Film Courage: And I’m assuming it’s a he, I haven’t looked at his account “So what are your tips on finding screenings for the film?”
Bing: Finding screenings? Like feedback screenings?
Film Courage: Yeah, how did you arrange screenings or was it all festival submissions and that’s how?
Bing: Oh, I see. Well I mean getting into Sundance positions you really well for festivals to come to you. A friend of mine Stephen Elliott he’s a filmmaker who did this journalistic piece about film fest fees – you should Google it. I mean it’s a really telling sort of the behind-the-curtains look of how some of the films get accepted into festivals and the whole micro-economy behind that. And there is unfairness there, but I think it speaks to being a filmmaker who is independent making their first film and having to learn how to play the game while also learning the rules of the game at the same time and it can be really frustrating.
But I think these things always change. I don’t know I mean maybe the next film I make will be distributed in a different way. I’ll have to apply more but for the most part we got into Sundance, won an award and basically every fest we got into has asked for our film. And it’s not like automatic either, a lot of festivals still reject us. It’s just that they want to come to us and ask us for a screener.
Film Courage: At what point did the film become a movie about fathers? I think you said you set out to just film people about family?
Bing: It was set out to be like that. I asked every skateboarder about that. It was sort of built in thematically at the beginning. All the themes are built in thematically, it’s just the way that the themes were told shifted over time.
Film Courage: I don’t know if I’ll keep this part in. I know the interviewer is not supposed to reveal too much but having grown up without a father (I had like one phone conversation with him, that was it), I noticed looking back on my life that every friend I had, they had a missing parent and then I had this connection with them and I didn’t even realize that consciously [until later]. Is that something you saw with the film, that a lot of the people who bonded were able to bond in a way that was…there was stuff that was not said but maybe because they’d had a missing link so to speak?
Bing: Yeah, I think heartache really finds affinity with heartache, I certainly felt that way. I was friends with people who knew some deep level of pain and I enjoyed being around them because it made me feel less alone in my situation. Otherwise when I think I was hanging around people who were more white bread or vanilla with their situations at home, it did make me feel a little less than and made me feel bad about myself even though it wasn’t my own fault. You know, when you’re a kid you can’t help that.
So hanging out with people that shared my pain ultimately it was like an ad-hoc family all of its own.
Film Courage: I used to dread going to certain friends houses that would have the big family dinners because I wasn’t used to that and it was so foreign to me and to know like “Okay, well you have to wait for so and so to speak first.” These unwritten rules.
Bing: It’s super weird and what it does though it sort of enlightens you to the constructedness of these things and ultimately to everything and maybe this is a system of this because I went to school for English and it was more like theory and criticism. But my big takeaway is like everything is constructed and we can deconstruct everything. I feel like I was primed for that in the situations growing up where I just felt like I was coat switching, I felt like an outsider in that I was performing to fit in.
Film Courage: How many years were you making the film? When did you begin and when was the final edit?
Bing: I was about 24 when I began filming. I was editing all along the way in my bedroom. We got funding late 2016 and then we started our search for an editor. By that point I had a pretty decent rough cut. I was like if we’re going to be paying someone $2,500.00 a week, they’d better be good. But the problem is (in documentary at least) the really good editors are booked a year or two in advance. I was really lucky I met Josh working on another project. He looked at the rough cut and he agreed to come on to consult and then he had a few months free to jump in with me.
So that was sort of the big picture process of crafting the film…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).
Three young men bond across racial lines to escape volatile families in their Rust Belt hometown. Ten years later, while facing adult responsibilities, unsettling revelations force them to reckon with their fathers, their mothers, and each other.
ABOUT MINDING THE GAP: