Interview with Director Marten Persiel
Portrait and words by Curtis O’Dell
How did you find the story for ‘This Ain’t California’ to begin with? What led you to it?
I was going to invent the story, I actually came up with the idea out of thin air – to dress people in stone washed jeans and pretend there was a skateboarding scene in socialist Germany. I thought it was funny – it could be a comedy. A scene that existed and stopped existing and nobody ever heard about it. I started looking for a producer and maybe people who lived there and could tell me stuff about it. The guy I found said, ‘Actually I was a skater in the East and I wanna make this movie’. And he turned out to be the producer for the movie. He was the person who really pushed me to research properly and look into it and not just look at it with typical Western arrogance and say ‘it’s a great easy life if you have stonewashed jeans and skateboards’, which was my approach. Through the research I really realised that it’s true, there is so much to the story, there’s so many side effects to being a skater in a world where the whole idea of skateboarding is against the status quo of the state. I guess, in the final film you have a bit of both. There’s a little bit of comedy – actually yesterday the audience really got it, sometimes they don’t laugh. But that’s the first half of the film, the second half gets a little bit more deep and sad which is basically how the research went as well, between those two poles. It’s hard to say what it is, it’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not a documentary, it’s not a fiction film, it’s just kind of ‘something’. I’m happy with it being ‘something’. It fits skateboarding, is it a sport? Is it a dance? Skateboarding is just something.
The film combines archival and home video style footage with animation. Did you know what the film was going to roughly look like when you began? Or was it only once you had all of the footage that you could think about it visually? Did the structure build itself?
In a way. There was a shooting script and there was a lot of planning because we had to obviously create a whole bunch of scenes. The person who made it happen is the editor really. There were three editors and the head editor was a girl who was 22 or 23 years old at the time. Super young, super talented, and fearless at the sight of 900 hours of footage that we had from all the archives. She even went through the East German TV archives. So basically there was a mountain of stuff that she had to go through. The structure was laid out in the script but the tonal curve (the way it feels) happened in the edit when we realised, ‘ok all this fun stuff has to go somewhere, it cant be interlaced with the sad stuff’ because it’s not going to work. So we put in these ‘bookends’, the funeral at the beginning and the end. And then it kind of goes in and out of another curve, but that happened in the edit. It was not intended from the beginning.
How did you get hold of all of the home footage? Was it all real? Or was some recreated?
I think less critical people don’t notice it and they just love that it’s so well covered. But then of course if you look at it critically you say ‘hmm its basically impossible to have all these perfect shots for the perfect moments’ and yes, a lot of it is not real. It’s kind of a mix: it’s 50-50. The really, really crazy stuff is real. Like the blonde guy who’s always naked and gets all the girls, that’s real. That’s real stuff, that’s a real person. And some of the other stuff where you say it cant be true, that’s normally true. All the fillers of them actually skating and running around, and the party, that’s filmed by us. It’s all based on stuff that people told us and always based on a load of photos or some film material that we got. I made myself a rule both in the writing of the film and also in the making of it, which is, I wanted it to be as documentarian and not inventing anything freely. Because it’s not my story, I’m from the West so I didn’t want to get it wrong. So I said, anything that happens in the film, had to have happened in reality. And any image we were going to shoot has to be exactly like another image that we’d found. And that’s how it went and it was a good decision I think because then we knew how to dress people. We knew where to shoot. A load of the time the locations didn’t exist any more, but a lot of them still did. Especially in some of the skate locations, because they tend to be on big buildings and they tend to not change.
The steps in Berlin, that still looks exactly the same we just had to clear away some graffiti and put some signs up to be able to shoot at least 180 degrees in any direction. It was a freestyle kind of shooting. It was not shot by shot obviously, it was… ‘Now, we are going to skate and we are going to film what ever we get.’ So the way we prepared the scene was always to arrange a certain degree of possible vision and just shoot inside of that. Then behind us there would be traffic and stuff, which you can’t show.
As skaters, we can really identify with the central characters and their passion and obsession. Do you think through making this film more people will be able to understand why we do what we do? – Was this an aim when making the film?
In my experience it does work, because I’ve shown it to… I don’t know how many people, and I’ve been present at at least 50 screenings in at least 12 countries and on all the continents of the world. Like I’ve really been around with this film. And each audience is different. The audiences in Eastern Europe are much more emotional because its closer to them, its closer to their story. The audiences in the West get the jokes better. The audiences in the South, like Spain and other countries, they sort of just look at it and they don’t know what to think of it. (Laughs) It’s really different. But definitely I’ve found that… I’ve heard a lot of times ‘I’m not into skateboarding, I’m not a skateboarder, I don’t actually even like skateboarders, but I really like the film and I think I understand you better now. So I think the answer is yes. Because of the historical things, because of the partying, because it’s much more focused on how does a young person feel, then what does a skater feel. I think that’s what I tried to do. And then of course they’re skaters, they’re skateboarding all of the time but it’s really much more about what a young person has in their head. Kissing girls, destroying shit, doing stuff for the first time, trying to see how strong you really are, trying to see how far you can go. You don’t have to be a skater for that. That’s any young person in the world. So that’s what I was trying to focus on.
Was that the overall message that you want people to take from this film?
I think that’s the image I wanted to create. I wanted to draw what its like to be young. And in that drawing show that to be young is to try and find your limits and try to explore, and then clash that against a totalitarian state. That’s what it was. That’s why this friction is part of the film. The friction between: the idea of order and totalitarianism, and the essence of being young. That’ll never work well. There will always be a clash and that what I was harnessing for this film. But in terms of the message, it’s DIY. And that hasn’t changed either up until now. That’s why we love it, that’s why it’s dearer to us than other things because it’s really ours. We don’t buy it in stores… we make it. And for them its even stronger in that story because they really couldn’t go to a store, there wasn’t a store. That’s what makes it clearer. But I think the message is still relevant now and I think that really what skateboarding is. It’s just doing something that nobody told you to do.
Did the character ‘Panik’ exist? Or was he created to symbolise this idea?
In a way you’ve got the answer already, he’s not made up at all. He’s 100%. Everything he does, everything he says, the way he looks, everything has existed. But he’s actually three people. I combined him out of three different characters. His childhood as a sports kid that was groomed for the Olympic games is one of the skaters that I interviewed who also actually talks in the film about himself but instead of saying ‘I’ he says ‘him’. I asked him to talk about ‘Panik’ when he talks about himself. The time when he’s young and he dyed his hair blonde and he goes crazy and becomes a really good skater is another guy. And the time when he gets lost and then turns into a soldier is the third guy. Everything is real, nothing is invented, but it’s constructed.
How do you think the character ‘Panik’ could go from being so wild and anti-establishment, to becoming a soldier?
Basically, a lot of young men, (young people, I guess they were mainly boys), who wanted to be rebels, in the East it was pretty good to aspire towards the West and to be, for example, skateboarding. That was perfect, perfect rebellion. The west being predominantly capitalist, then you’re in an extreme Left Socialist society. Perfect clash. As soon as that was gone, because the wall was gone and the German reunification was not a merger at all, it was the west taking over the eastern part because they were so weak. They had nothing to show for the Socialism, which is a shame, if they had had a few good results they could have said ‘hang on, lets merge our systems, lets keep some of the good stuff about socialism’ but no. They didn’t have the power for that because they were basically just on the floor.
So as the West came in so strong, the popular, or the mainstream, turned very capitalistic and from their point of view it didn’t turn like that, it was already like that, it was like in Britain, like in anywhere in western Europe. It’s capitalistic and based around market economy. So the rebels on our side of things, in Britain, in West Germany, they were extreme left wing punks. They would actually be pro socialism maybe and they would be punks. Like I was. So but of course that doesn’t make any sense to someone from the East, to be a socialism aspiring punk, because that’s what you’re coming from. So, it was really a mindfuck for them and that’s how a lot of people got pushed into being far-right. Because they wanted to piss people off, but how do you piss people off politically…?
So the ‘pissing people off’ was one of the reasons why this happened. Another reason was that the labour market was really complicated. They didn’t have the skills to really survive in the modern world because they had learnt other things. And so they basically had a bad hand. A young guy from the east, 21 years old, wall just came down, had a bad hand to play in the modern world. So, a lot of anger… a lot of unemployment. And third reason was they weren’t used to foreigners because they didn’t have any foreigners at the time. Suddenly there are Africans and Asians around etc… So put the three together and you get the race of, not a lot of people but enough, sort of radical guys who put all this energy into being right-wing.
I made such a big curve of explaining it not because I am into in or anything but because I understand it now after the project. I still dislike this crowd but I understand it better. That’s what happened to Panik, or the guy who Panik is based on, in his adult life. So this guy got into that. This was kind of like a hooligan Skinhead type scene who were also controlling the doors of the clubs in the nineties in Berlin which meant controlling Ecstasy which meant money going around, gangsters, cars, everything you want, because ecstasy was happening in the nineties. He was in that scene, and basically fell out with the wrong people and he needed to get away from there, and his getaway was the army. That’s how it happened. That’s the answer to the question that I ask in the film. I don’t answer it in the film because the question is really relevant and even just by asking it you already imply that it’s not a normal career, which is enough for me. And I think if I had put the answer in the film it would discredit the hero, which is what I don’t want.
…Remember the time when there were these sorts of ‘Nazi skaters’, like Skin Skaters…
Remember Natas Kaupus, he’s not a right wing guy but he aspired to that thing. These kind of ‘Ska music guys who were aspiring to Skinhead aesthetic’. And they were actually normally quite… I don’t know if left is the right word… but they were, for example, Vegans and they were trying to make the world a better, cleaner place. But this idea of cleanliness is exactly what the Nazi’s do. This is the idea. So it’s part of the time really. Skateboarding used to be much more politicised than it is now, or it was much more merged with the punk scene. So its not such a far shot for a skater to turn into a hooligan in the early nineties, even though it’s a shame.
In regards to the skateboarding shown in the film…
The problem with a lot of skate movies is that they are being done by skaters, for skaters, that’s a huge problem. I really didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to do it so that my mum can enjoy the movie kind of thing… and being very true to how I feel about skateboarding and what it means. But I mean there’s not a single note worthy trick in the film. Ok there are a few big ollies, a few big things, but if you wanna watch it for the skating aspect you’re in the wrong movie.
This Ain’t California will be showing in select UK theatres on December 6th.
Portrait and Words by Curtis O’Dell