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Roller Dancing, Race Riots and the Gentrification of LA’s Venice Beach. We Talk to the Creative Team Behind ‘Roller Dreams’

For decades Venice Beach was the place in Los Angeles where black youths could go to express themselves through the extraordinary medium of roller dancing. This scene didn’t fade out, it was taken by force. That’s the focus of Roller Dreams one of the most exciting and vibrant films of the London Film Festival this year. After the festival we at Screen Mayhem had the good fortune to interview the director of Roller Dreams, Kate Hickey and the film’s music composer, Kathryn Bostic.

So, I guess, firstly, I just wanted to ask both of you, before getting involved in the project, did either of you have any sort of personal experience or relationship with Venice Beach, and the skating scene there?

Kate: Yes. Well, before I got involved with the project, I was obsessed with Olivia Newton John in Xanadu, growing up back in Australia. So that’s where it all began for me, with what she represented as this new Australian artist, and I knew it all took place in Venice, and it definitely captured my imagination. The location. So as soon as I moved to Los Angeles from Australia in 2007, I moved to Venice Beach and I’ve been there since. So it definitely has a special place in my heart, and it enables me to live over here, really, as a person that loves being by the beach. I can still have my career in Los Angeles and still feel at home, you know, by the beach. So that’s what started the whole project for me, is that I rode my bike down there and saw them all still skating on weekends, but realised they weren’t in the actual movies. That they weren’t in the actual movies of the ’80s, and I thought they deserved a documentary. And so, that’s where it all began for me.

Fabulous. So, that scene where you talk about people showing up, having seen films like Xanadu and Skatetown, USA and experiencing how different it was, that was first hand for you.

Kate: Definitely. I started talking to them all and they were like, “We taught them. We taught Linda Blair. We weren’t able to be in these, we didn’t have a SAG card” and I realised a bit of the exploitation that was happening when it came to the roller skating movement. In these movies it was just treated as a passing trend, but for these people it was a passion for a lifetime.

Sure, and they just never had the opportunity to really show off the real thing.

Kate: Or they often needed one roller skating move that would be used for two seconds and just be so fleeting, or they’d actually be used from the waist down and someone else’s body put from the top up and things like that. They definitely felt a sense of injustice, you know. “We brought all the crowds to Venice, put it on the map, and here we are. No one really wants to look at us anymore.”

Yeah. That really is extraordinary considering how one of the things that you actually capture is the screen presence that these guys had. How charismatic they all were and the personalities they had. It’s amazing that no one was willing to utilize that back in the day when it was so fresh.

Kate: I know. Definitely. That’s where it did start off as more of a short film showcasing their personalities and how that was reflected in their signature moves that they rehearsed over the years. That was a big part of their identity down there. But then it became so much more as it got deeper, the more years I spent doing it.

Kathryn, what was your background with the Venice Beach scene?

Kathryn: Well, I did not grow up on the West Coast but I was always aware of the history of the Venice Beach, the roller skating community, and just the overall way in which that helped to shape so much of the way that the social scene was back then. So when Kate approached me about working on this film, it was even more insightful and it really spoke to not just the musical element but, just as I said, the community element and the way in which this particular community became this heartbeat that was universal, that people from all over the world could appreciate.

Kate: Mad says in the documentary that boombox was the lifeline of Venice Beach, and that’s really what it was. It was all about the music. Without that, they’d have nothing.

The life of this movie really is the interviewees that you have, these extraordinary people with these big personalities and stories to tell. How easy was it to get them involved?

Kate: It did take a while for them to warm up for sure, but it was just me going down there every weekend on my bike and just sitting there. Obviously, the audio is not very good on Venice Beach so I’d just grab them and take them over to a palm tree and interview them. As I got deeper then Diana [Ward, producer] got involved and other people, and then I could re-shoot scenes, once I’d really narrowed down who the characters were, and who was in that original footage. It becomes about writing the story from their childhood, from their youth and their heyday, right through ’til now. So who were those key characters? It took a while to really refine that, and then Mad refused to talk to me as well. He really didn’t want to be involved. Then eventually he said, “She’s still doing a scene? Okay, she can come to Utah.” Then I had to ride on the back of his motorbike to basically get an interview from him, at great speeds going around corners, my knees nearly touching the ground. It was quite terrifying. I wrote my will in my head about five times. He eventually said, “Okay, let’s interview,” and then we went right through till four or five in the morning without any break. He doesn’t drink, take any drugs, he never has. He just kept talking. That was right when the story really took off for me because I was like, these guys are embittered over what went down, and he really believes in this. He’s the leader and so for me that was when the story really became something because he had this heartache, you know?

That man did not change at all, because you see him do that in your narrative to Sally when she first approaches him. It’s like she kind of has to prove herself before he’s willing to accept her and everyone went through that.

Kate: Yeah, I know. When he teaches people on the motorbike, as well, he’s the same way. He’d just speed by on the course and if you aren’t true to the line and you kind of take off, then he’ll be really hard on you. He’s a tough character but underneath it he’s a teddy bear. It was about the smile again. A lot of the time I think I had a secret crush on him.

I did. I immediately developed a crush on him the second he rolled onto screen. He’s an extraordinary figure. Now, as a former historian, I’m very interested in the oral history aspect of the film. I’m wondering, how did you guide their recollections, and also how much material did you end up with?

Kate: Material-wise, there was just so much more, so many other characters that didn’t get played because of not being in that original footage. Maybe we’re talking three, four hundred hours, something like that. Really, it became about the historical period, starting with Mad’s recollection and how that shaped his view of the world. That’s where it really all began, when he talked about that. Then, when we went further we realised, okay, there was this other key period obviously with Rodney King and then now what’s happening in Ferguson. Really it’s those three key events, and then also gentrification in the area and how Venice itself has changed. It was like this melting pot and it stood for something, this multicultural epicentre. Also, really the Olympics, the summer Olympics in ’84 brought huge crowds and that’s when everything reached a peak with our guys down there. These were all of the events and things conspiring to make the film really a bit of an ode to Venice as well, what it stands for, and this oasis for these people that had to catch the bus, would do anything to get out there on the weekend to shine and to really have that appreciation, and for it to be kind of unspoiled by Hollywood and all the other bullshit.

Was that process of gentrification something you became aware of before you started making the film, or was it something that came from the skaters when you were speaking with them?

Kate: It was definitely during. It was happening right as I was making it because I moved there 2007 and there were only one or two shops on Abbot Kinney [boulevard], which is now voted the coolest neighbourhood to live in the world. Rent for a shop there ranges from $20,000 to $50,000 a month. Literally they are the most lucrative boutiques and everything. Really, when I first started, there was nothing like that there. It probably kicked in around 2011, it was starting, and then it just became Silicon Beach, with all of these tech startups, that changed the complete face of it. Now it’s become about money, and the hipster era. The community has kind of suffered as a result with all these newbies coming in, you know.

Kathryn: I just wanted to add that that’s one of the things that appealed to me about this movie was that it wasn’t just the sugar coating of the weekend socialising where everybody came to participate. It really deals with this issue of gentrification and racism. Without being proselytising about it. It makes us take a really strong look at this pervasive dynamic that I think is global. It’s happening in all the big cities, and the core of it is this tendency, this way of marginalising the potential for a great, multiracial, multicultural community, that just gets thwarted through different agendas of greed and racism, to be very honest about it. What really appealed to me about working with Kate, is that she’s an activist. She’s a visionary.

Kate: Definitely. There were other things that didn’t make it in the movie, but it was like the skateboarding, they got prime real estate right down on the beach, and they were completely given the best spot. Crowds are surrounding them and then our guys have been effectively put in a hole with hills around them so they’re not really easy to see anymore. They used to be in this snake in Disco Alley and you’d hear the music, and it was just perfect. Now they’re just being taken a bit off the grid and as Mad says, it’s what they wanted Venice to become and they didn’t want that many black people crowded around this spot. They felt something was going to jump off and that’s not what they represented. They were misunderstood in that way.

Do you believe there’s hope for Venice Beach to become this incredible place that you portray, especially at the beginning of the film, to sort of once again go back to that?

Kate: Technology’s playing a role in that, and the advent of phones and video games and everything means that there’s not this emphasis put on outdoor activity, and “Oh wow, let’s go and just see this street fair,” happening at the same time. There’s a lot of things working against it, but I hope that the beach is always going to be a draw. I hope that all it takes is the grassroots movements and for our guys in the film to make them proud and other people to come in and keep it going, you know, the torch bearers.

Absolutely. Kathryn, the composer has a huge power to sort of set the tone and the mood of the film. In Roller Dreams you capture this really excellent melancholia and longing in the soundtrack. How easy was it to discern that mood?

Kathryn: Well, I mean, first of all, I had really great direction from Kate. She’s an incredible storyteller. That really helped. Also, the empathy, it’s there, it’s so present in terms of the way these people were affected by the constant displacement of their passion. It really enabled me to get at the core of that emotion, which is their frustration, their feelings of racist abuse. Also, being an African-American in this country…. Fortunately my parents never raised me with deep conversations about race, because I grew up in a very multiracial and multicultural neighbourhood, so I really didn’t understand all this need to quarantine people. But as I’ve gotten more aware, it’s a very visceral awareness that I have. So, the movie, when it talked about the way the neighbourhood was after the Rodney King riots, the way the neighbourhood was ransacked and the way the people had just continuously been put in these situations that were less than humane in terms of living conditions and just accessibility to standards of lifestyle that we should all have, that made it very easy for me to write these different perspectives from that emotional arc. It was something that I could relate to and I think that it made my ability to work on this film more nuanced and more emotionally engaging, which I really appreciated. It wasn’t a shallow approach to “let’s talk about black people roller skating over the weekend”. It’s a film that deals with so many different levels of humanity and the ways in which we’re all just trying to make it here, you know. We’re all just trying to find our way and have a sense of unity.

Kate: Yeah. I would like to add to this as well. When we picked Kathryn we really thought she was so perfect because of being a female and African-American voice, because, as you know, we only have one female in the film, Sally, and she’s the poetic voice to me. I wish we had more African-American women, but not many are still skating. They went off and raised families and so forth.  We really wanted Kathryn to kind of aid that and be a unifying voice as well. There was that element, and then I couldn’t believe how well she could do cool as well. She did some great funk, cool like Mad.

Kathryn: I like my old-school grooves, you know.

Kate: That was amazing because a part of this, as well, is making it cool again. There was this underground subculture. This sexy, cool… My favourite movie is Paris is Burning, and I’ve wanted that sense of cool, and she was able to get that, as well as the nostalgia and the feeling of longing.

This is where I give away just how little I understand about how film productions work, because the film has a fantastic score, but it does also have these superb original songs from the period. They really bring the scenes to life. Tiffany Anders is credited as music supervisor. What was the interplay between Tiffany’s role and yours, Kathryn?

Kathryn: The desire to have sort of a seamlessness between the music that was able to be licensed, and the music that had to sustain the flavour of that world – the score. Which was right up my alley. Like I said, I love the old-school funk and the groove, so it was definitely in my wheelhouse to do. That’s why it feels so seamless. But a lot of that music is score and like I said, it was something that I gravitate towards easily and naturally. It was sort of a dream come true in that regard. I really love that music. I love the characterisation of it, the flavour of it, the funk, the backbeat. It was very easy for me to take some of the songs and then create the same sort of sonic approach.

Absolutely. I was actually going to somewhat apologetically say that sometimes I did really struggle to figure out which was the original score and which was the music from the period, but I guess that would be kind of a compliment, because it really is seamless.

Kate: Yeah, it’s like she’s riffing off some of those existing … I mean, we would have had maybe five original tracks in there. There is a  seamlessness.

There’s a sense in the film that some of the skaters resent the way that the music changed, and how it changed the scene, specifically the way black music moved away from empowering disco and funk to divisive gangster rap. Sally, Mad and Duval are very upset about it in the film and Jimmy even suggests that the music fuelled the fire. How important for you was this sort of part of the narrative?

Kate: Again, I would say that it’s about the soul. What is the soul of Venice, and the soul of the funk era and what Mad represented in that heyday? That kind of got bastardized in the ’90s, at the same time as the Rodney King riots, because of the advent of drugs and crack and all that stuff, and the face of Venice changed as well in that way because the lyrics changed. It’s about swearing and people didn’t want their kids around listening to it.

Kathryn: But I also wanted to just interject that it speaks of the anger, the rage that black people and African-American people in particular were feeling after that Rodney King incident, and just in general. It was like that incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A lot of that music is just a reflection of the emotional context.

Kate: Yeah, and you’ll even see Tyrell swear at the camera during that period, and there was just a different energy down there. Skating is a lot about energy, those figure eights and infinity, what it represents and I think their mood started to take that on. That’s why music and shifting through those time periods is really important as well.

Kathryn, you’ve worked a great deal in scoring documentaries. Do you find that there are challenges that are unique to documentary film scoring?

Kathryn: Well, I mean, there’s definitely different approaches, but fundamentally it’s the same, it’s storytelling. It’s how the music is going to serve the intent of that scene or of the story. It’s very similar in terms of that aspect. I think with documentaries, the dialogue is different. The way in which the people are speaking at times, the cadence is different. It may not be as interactive or going back and forth. They’re sort of stating their own narrative. The music has to make sure not to get in the way of that aspect. In that sense documentary film scoring’s quite different. But in terms of the overall musical sensibility, like I said,  it’s another form of storytelling. You just have to be able to craft around what’s needed. Each film is different. Some of the documentaries I’ve done, the score is very matter of fact and kind of almost formulaic, just being an underscore. Whereas, in this particular instance, the music was such a part of that culture and of that time that it had to punch out. It had to have its moment. It was like another character actually. That made it elevated in a way that I really appreciated scoring.

You mentioned earlier being able to get the music that you could license. Were there any real disappointments in terms of not being able to license a piece of music?

Kate: There was a real disappointment in that I’d always seen Lovely Day for the end credits. That was always the one that I wanted. That was just too high [priced] in the end. It looked like we were going to get it. It was all fine. And then last minute we got a shock. And so we actually repeated a song from up in the beginning, Once in a Lifetime. Which also means something, obviously. It’s a great choice and so it was just a reprisal of that. So, that was a bit sad, and then obviously it was a great thing to get Prince. We had to do fair use for that one, and we mention Prince in our dialogue and then we were able to use it in that way. That helped us out.

Actually, I remember remarking to myself at the end of the film that that track, Once in a Lifetime, was actually perfect for the spirit of the film.

Kate: Yeah. Even Sally said in the end, “I’m so glad that I got to be there at that moment in time in Venice when that was happening.” When they say, “Let’s bring it back. Can we all have this reunion?” that’s what that represents. They try to do it again. Of course it can’t be as good, but the sprit of trying is what matters in the film.

One of the greatest assets the film has, is this extraordinary footage of the skaters back in that period. Sally in the film actually laments that there’s very little record of the roller dancers on Venice Beach because very few people cared to actually go down and capture it. How many sources did you actually have for the footage, because a lot of it did look like sort of video, which I imagine would have come in later?

Kate: A main source was a great skater called Morgan Saunders, and he had three or four key Hi8 tapes. Those were a real source, converting those to a nice enough copy to edit with, and then we had some archival that was sourced by Diana, the producer, back in the day, of Venice. So, a little bit of that mixed in. Then as we get to the ’90s it’s another roller skater that’s still down there today, Jeffrey, and he’s VHS. So really it was a mix of Hi8, VHS, and then probably a little film in there as well, because the archival got sourced.

It’s gorgeous footage. I really love how you characterized the skaters early in the film by their style. Terrell is the entertainer, Larry’s the smooth footwork guy, Sally’s the gracious one. For you, what’s the significance in drawing out the styles of these different guys?

Kate: I’ve always loved the whole idea of like an A-team and everyone has their thing, I don’t know, this magic moment. That was always the beginning of the film for me, making a short film about their styles. That was always going to be there, and then it was about the OG, these original gangsters. Yeah, really they just have a style that reflects their personality. Jimmy is organized confusion, Terrell was like the young blood, Mad’s the Adonis. They all bring this style to the rollerskating, and really that comes from within, the soul, the movement. That can only really happen, I think, if you find it in yourself and in that key youth period. That’s why it was so important to get them from the beginning in that ’80s footage and follow those characters through. That’s when they discovered their identity at the beach, rollerskating.

Absolutely. Kathryn, you mentioned trying to latch on to the unifying aspect between these guys, the shared feeling in order to affect the soundtrack. Did you also get influenced by the different styles that these guys had?

Kathryn: Oh yeah, absolutely. Just watching them, the footage of them skating, and the way in which it just transformed. I mean, they just all had such a sense of joy and confidence and command. The music, the groove already in all of this is what can enhance that. For me, that just made my job easier. Initially we were a little delicate about the funk aspect of the score. Remember Kate, our initial approach was to sort of sneak it in, starting off with a more ambient kind of flavour and kind of build into it.

Kate: Yes. Also, what Venice represents, as we said before, the oasis. It had to have that ethereal kind of quality as well, dividing us from the South Central and the inner-city areas, to the beach. The palm tress and all of that stuff. And also the deep funk, the soul. They were the two elements that we were working between.

Kathryn: Yeah. As she was saying, it was just about how do you craft those two elements in terms of the storytelling. Which is the important flavour here? And which is the important flavour there? It’s a very important and specific kind of a flow. It’s very organic, because the movie always for me informs what it ultimately needs. As I watched the footage, it was evident that it just needed this grand groove, and just the backbeat, that funk. I loved it. I loved working up the score. I mean, initially I thought I was going to be doing more of the ethereal, but as we got more involved, the score became a lot more in the other element.

How was it managing the tonal shift? Because we do have these joyous experiences on Venice Beach and these incredibly dark moments where we see the actual footage of the Rodney King beating. 

Kathryn: Well, I mean, I think this is what life is. It’s events bumping themselves right up against each other. One minute you’re in some sort of reverie and the next minute something completely tragic and traumatic can happen. The music, it’s not going to try to fake that. You just have to score what’s there. You have to score the emotional intention of that scene. The shifting wasn’t something that I felt was not genuine, you know. I think that’s one of the most important things about scoring is that the authenticity is key and that you have to really understand when to pull back sometimes. There’s movies I’ve seen where I think the music is way over the top or way distracting. Sometimes that’s the direction you’re given, but I think that again, the nuancing is self-evident a lot of times if you pay attention.

Absolutely. Kate, how difficult was it for you to sort of balance these elements, sort of cutting between vitality of the scene and the sort of darkness that was behind it?

Kate: Yeah. Really it was about unfolding the story naturally, like having the kind of heyday and the dream and showing the dream, and then showing in the second part of the film how the dream was taken away. That was always going to be a big “Pow!” The Rodney King riots, and the shift. So, we wanted the music to do that as well, and we score that. And the third act was really –  where are they now? How has this affected their lives? To get a little bit closer to our characters. That was always the plan – that overarching three-act view. It’s always challenging to not show everything about your characters, straight up. Too hold off. That was really the challenge, as well as weaving the story, and keeping in mind the three periods and the three acts. That’s how we worked it out and just kept weaving the tapestry until it felt right enough.

The film is dedicated to the memory of Duval Stowers, who tragically died in 2015. He’s this wonderful, insightful person in the film with an excellent passion for superheroes. Can you tell me a little about working with him?

Kate: He was just immensely talented as you can see… going to his house and seeing his comics and stuff. He really should have been famous and you wonder why he wasn’t. He also had this spirit! He invented that alter ego and was really so dedicated to it. He’d go down there every weekend. He had two daughters who are amazing, and one of them’s going to be an architect, and one of them’s a zoologist. So, he’s raised two very artistic, beautiful daughters. He ended up marrying a French lady who was a fan down there, and that’s something we don’t really go into in the film. These guys captured the hearts of these European women and had all these fans and this whole element of Peter Pan syndrome. That they never have to grow up in Venice. That one thing they are, they were celebrated for. That’s Duval. He was Superion and people appreciated him for that. That was where he could be really free in that space. So it’s definitely dedicated to him and his spirit and his smile, because he gave everyone energy whenever he smiled and did his moves, and that’s what it’s about as well, energy.

Are you able to talk about it a little about the release of the film, where people might be able to find it?

Kate: Yeah. We are working on definitely getting a release next year. It takes a while. I really hope for it to be on Netflix, so we’re doing the festival circuit now and we’re just working that all out. We have some interesting bites from other people. We’re really just trying to work that out, because we want it seen by as many people as possible. We’re on Facebook with Roller Dreams, and that’s where all of the updates happen. We’ll do our damnedest to get it out in the biggest way possible, of course. Usually it takes about a year after the whole festival circuit, generally.

I really hope in addition to being on Netflix and being made available to so many people, I really hope it does get a good cinematic release. Because it really worked for me seeing it in a cinema, especially with the music.

Kathryn: Amen to that.

Kate: There is just something about appreciating those moves and that archival [footage], and whenever anyone says “can I see a link?” I just go “Sorry. Can’t. Until there’s another screening.”