It’s easy to feel desensitised by the non-stop output of 3-minute skate video clips being force-fed to us via the internet these days. So it’s quite refreshing when something unique comes along like the Cuatro Sueños Pequeños film. We spoke with Thomas Campbell, the man behind the project and the star, Javier Mendizabal, about the difficulties and advantages of shooting on film, composing an original soundtrack and loosing the funding for the project at the eleventh hour.
- Will Harmon
Interview by Will Harmon.
When and how did you come up with the idea for the Cuatro Sueños Pequeños (Four Small Dreams)?
I was thinking about making this different skateboarding movie for a few years. First I was planning on making this other movie and I was actually planning on having Rick McCrank in it. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film was because Rick and I were talking about it, but he was hurt all the time. So it wasn’t working with him. Then Javier (Mendizabal) came in.
When Javi was 16, I shot his first photo that was in a skateboard magazine. I think it was a 180 nosegrind. When Javi was young he was on the junior team to be an Olympic ski jumper in Spain - which in Spain is kind of a joke; they weren’t really competitive. It was kind of a half-assed team. So anyways, he did that but at the same time he was fucking around and drinking and smoking weed with his friends and skating some. My friend Fernando Elvira who was living with me in a squat in the Basque country introduced me to him. I shot Javi ollieing down this monster-sized gap and up until this point I had never shot anyone doing such a huge gap even in America. He kind of half-heartedly skateboarded at that time and then these two pictures came out of him in Transworld and all of Spain took notice - after that he got sponsored and then I didn’t hear from him for about 15 years or so. But I still continued to follow his career. So one day he was in the states so I contacted him and told him to come by my house. We started talking and I told him I wasn’t going to do that one project with Rick anymore and then Javi said to me: ‘I know these guys at Quiksilver who are huge fans of your work and they would probably let us make a movie or something’. And I thought about it and yeah, ‘let’s start talking!’. So Javi and me were sitting at the table and honestly we came up with the idea in five minutes and just stuck to it. It just came to my brain; ‘I think it should be a dream’.
Can you explain the title?
I don’t want to talk about the number of dreams at all, but I spend a lot of time in Europe and I’m a fan of European cinema. This film is kind of homage to films of the sixties and seventies; like the feeling of a Truffaut or Bertolucci film. So I thought it would be really cool do something like you are not really sure what reality and dreaming is and shoot it on film. Shoot it on 16 millimetre and shoot it in a way that has that feeling of European cinema. It was shot primarily in Europe – Spain mostly, the Canary Islands, Mallorca, the Basque country primarily and a little bit of pick up stuff in California. And I think it feels very European you know?
What was difficult was having skaters wear all the same clothes all the times we were filming. They would have to come with multiple shirts all the same style. For Madars, the shoes started to become a problem because the styles weren’t available anymore so we’d have to get black spray paint – you know it’s like a film. It’s all about getting everything coordinated, but when you get down to editing it then it’s all there and it completely works. You have to have the right skaters to do something like that. Most skaters would be like: “Fuck off!"
So did you know Madars before? How was he chosen to co-star with Javier?
When Javier and I were sitting at my table that first time we decided that it should just be two people. When you are trying to do things like that it’s better to have a condensed crew. And so we were thinking it was going to be funded by Quiksilver so I asked Javi who else would be good who was on the team. Javi immediately said Madars. I didn’t know much about him at the time so Javi showed me some clips of him on the computer and I was like: “Whoa! He looks really good!" He has that tall guy that skates really good style – I’ve always really liked that. And I liked the fact that he was blonde so there would be a contrast between he and Javi. So we really figured it out quite quick - we asked him to do it and he was up for it. Then a few months later we went to the Canary Islands with Javi, Madars, French Fred, Sem Rubio and myself. That was our first trip and it was just awesome. It was a really good crew.
Was it always your intention to use French Fred to help with the cinematography?
It was something we thought about immediately. I think he’s incredible and I wanted to get someone else to help me shoot it. So I think we tried to get him initially, but he was like: “Ah, I don’t know I’m too busy." And then I think his girlfriend was like: “ What are you doing? You love Javi, you really respect Thomas, it sounds like a really awesome thing….You should do it!" Then Fred was like: “You’re right. I think I can. Okay." Then he came and as soon as we took that first trip he was on board.
Going back a bit, I know you used to be an active skateboard photographer in the nineties – can you tell us how you made the transition to making films?
So I worked for Transworld from 1987 to 1997 taking photos and writing. In 1997 and 1998 I was the photo editor of Skateboarder when it first came back and it was the large size. I was the photo editor and Tony Hawk was the editor. Then on the second year Tony’s career started taking off again so I became both the photo editor and the editor with him because he wasn’t around. So I think in 1996 I was living in New York, in Manhattan. And I was shooting for Transworld mainly then and I was shooting a lot of stuff with mainly the guys on the Supreme team at the time. Like Ryan Hickey, Peter Bici, Mike Hernandez and all those guys and then I was like: ‘ wanna make a film.’ Living in New York just as the soundtrack of the existence I really listened to a lot of Jazz. So I just had this idea and I proposed it to the guys at Supreme and I had never even used a film camera before. So the first day I made this short film called A love Supreme with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme song they gave me a really small budget. The first day I started filming it was the first day I ever touched a 16mm camera.
How did you get the camera?
I borrowed it from Cheryl Dunn. Which was not really a reflex so you had to look through the viewfinder on the side and set it. I think from shooting fisheye photos I was used to gauging distance. I didn’t shoot the entire thing with that camera but the whole short is a 17 minute black and white film. So that was the beginning of when I started using film and making movies. Well wait, that’s not actually true. That was the first time I made a film totally. In 1992 I helped my friend Steve Keenan whom was TM of SMA make this video Debunker. But A Love Supreme was the first thing I shot on 16mm and got me really interested in making films.
Is this your first film featuring skateboarding since A Love Supreme?
Yes, well I think I filmed some little bits and pieces here and there and I made my first surf film after I stopped working for skateboarder. There was a little skating in the film; I filmed Rowley skating the Staples Centre – when he first 50-50 grinded the Staples Centre.
From the beginning, what made you decide to shoot the film on 16mm?
I’m glad you asked that question, because I just think that in this life there are so many dimensions and nuances and moods when you are anywhere when you are with people skating like the feeling of what’s happening. And I think that video really captures action, but it just lacks warmth and depth. You don’t really feel what it’s like to be in the place you know. I just think in general I’ve always hated video as it doesn’t really capture or represent life very well. I understand it’s purpose in documenting skating and people do a really good job of it, but I’ve really felt like if I’m going to spend the time to document things I want to express it on a deeper level and I think film still is way better for that than video - as far as expressing mood and tone. Who knows how long film is going to be around so I just think that while it is I’m going to continue to try and make things on film.
How was CSP funded?
Quiksilver paid for it in total and about three quarters of the way through making it they said – well because they got a new president or something and the president said because Quiksilver owns DC that all skateboarding stuff goes to DC and all surfing stuff goes to Quiksilver. So they said no more skateboarding with Quiksilver. And I was like: ‘Oh shit!’ because it was already a year working on it. So I said to the main guys I was working with: ‘Ok guys I know you want me to finish this so let’s just get all the invoices through and get it all dialled in.‘ And they were super-cool and supportive and in the end I signed up for one thing to make it for them and they were going to promote it and take care of all the publicity and that was going to be free and then I said: ‘well then you should give it to me’. So I’m taking care of all that stuff myself now. Quiksilver doesn’t own it anymore. In all honesty they were really cool and I appreciate them for being cool; I understand their position – it wasn’t their fault.
How will you release the film?
I’m going to release it digitally and at the same time in an 84 page hard-covered book that the DVD sits inside.
The music really felt like it fit the mood of the film, was it specifically composed for CSP?
Yes it was completely composed for the movie. They are friends of Javi’s from when he was a kid. They’re called The Chiwoks. Basically I brought them some rough edits and then they just played to it. I would let them just jam out forever and then sometimes I would tell or suggest different things that they would play. We recorded in the South of France – Quiksilver has a studio there – and we recorded 12 hours of music. The film will also have a separate soundtrack that will come out on iTunes.
How did you select the locations for the film and how did you find them?
Javi was really instrumental in picking the locations for the film and really doing the research. We worked together, I asked him to get me different images and show me videos of different places and some I didn’t like, but some I thought were awesome and perfect for the film. Even like there is that part in the film where he is skating that really old quarter-pipe, it’s not the hardest trick, but you look at the wall and there is so much age and history there – it almost looks like a painting.
Interview by Sem Rubio.
So Javi, how does a project like this start?
Well, this whole movie project started through a re-encounter with Thomas like three years ago. I met Thomas in Algorta, circa 1993. He was shooting photos for Transworld then and was visiting Spain for an article. I was a young skate junkie and I just met Fernando Elvira a few months ago at the skatepark De Las Arenas - who was the editor of Tres60 mag back then. So it was though Fernando that I met Thomas, we all went skating and shot some photos for two or three days only… but there was already a good connection despite my really bad English and Thomas’s really bad Spanish. It’s funny, because those photos came out in Transworld, and that’s how I got my first sponsor, a distributor from Madrid. Anyways, after that 16 or 17 years passed by with barely any correspondence in between, until three years ago. So, years later we met again in his house in California to shape out the idea… then the idea of the dream came about. Focusing the movie towards a dream we started to write, share links of movies, come up with possible ideas of different angles and also figuring out the people whom we wanted to work with.
So what’s “Cuatro Sueños Pequeños" (4 small dreams)?
That’s Thomas’s title - he wanted something in Spanish. The movie starts when I go to sleep with my (supposed) girlfriend. That’s where I start my dream alone and later on meet with Madars (Apse). Then a trip between dream and reality starts, where we skate in woods, volcanos and there are even scenes underwater too. And at the same time we skate more conventional skate spots too, but always looking for visually powerful places.
Seems like a lot of work but you guys always kept with a small crew. Did you just focus on the acting or did you do some other stuff too?
Yeah, I’ve actually done a bit of everything: I helped Thomas to shape the original idea, gather the working team with Madars, Fred Mortagne, yourself (Sem Rubio), Antton Miettinen and Brian Gaberman (who I didn’t know before the movie), convince Quicksilver to finance the production, gather ‘Chiwoks’ to record the soundtrack, organise all the trips, find the different locations. I also helped with the creativity.
Did you act before? Or did you feel like acting at all?
I did some acting in theatre when I was 13 or 14, but really little. Anyways, I didn’t have to get in the role of a character; besides the first images when I go to sleep, the rest was just skating!
In any case, did you find it hard?
It was a bit weird because that’s something I’ve never done before, going to bed with a friend of mine in front of all those cameras and lights. But the working team was really small and we are all good friends, so we had good laughs. Skating, is skating… that’s what I’ve done for many years and what I like to do, the only complication is to land your tricks without slamming too much… nothing new!
What major obstacles do a project like this go through?
Well, economically it is at the beginning when you have to work hard, find someone who understands you, appreciate you and want to finance the project. Thomas is known and respected in the world of art, surf, skate and music, he’s been doing it for many years, with endless works to support his reputation. So when I took the project to Quiksilver, despite the times of budget problems all the brands were involved in, they didn’t think twice about it. Then, technically and at a production level, we went through endless difficulties that you try to overcome as best as you can. Maybe the biggest difference between this project and a skate video project is the fact that we were filming in 16mm, and that changes a lot. On every trip you take an extra XXL bag full of film that you can’t check in and you can’t take through X-Rays; so you have to deal with the next cop in front of you and make him understand what it is, that it’s not going to explode or hurt anyone, that you have the right of a manual revision. Then every roll is expensive, you can’t try a trick for hours, you have to go for it; you can’t see it to check if it’s good or not. Also the music, the fact of recording the soundtrack with a band in a studio was something new, at least for me. I called my old friends whom I had grown up skating with and I knew how they started playing music so I told them about the project and they went for it straight away. We went to France, where Quiksilver has a recording studio and there they improvised seeing the film for ten days, seeing images and playing on top of them. The result was hours and hours of improvised music that Thomas had to cut and fit later on. But actually this was probably the most incredible ten days, pure improvisation.
How did you find the right places?
I had some places in mind I was sure I wanted to go, places I had already been before and knew they would work very well with what we had written. So, based on these places, I chose the destination and then I explained to the locals what we were doing and they told us about other spots that could fit. Then you have the improvisation factor; using what you find on the way, you have a bit of that too!
For those who have not seen the movie, what do you think it has that will catch their eyes?
It’s a movie about skateboarding quite unprecedented: the 16mm format, “Chiwoks" creating the music based on the images, the unusualness of the locations, at least most of them, the dynamism Thomas and Fred have given to the storyline, the freshness of Madars on a board… I think overall it’s a powerful visual experience.