Surf and Turf with Stacy Peralta
Director Stacy Peralta, T. Rodgers, Founder of Black P. Stones. Photo by Tanya Sakolsky.
The skater-turned-filmmaker—whose new documentary, Crips and Bloods: Made in America, comes out Friday—discusses the fashion tips he got from LA gang-bangers, getting “burned” by a controversial Burger King ad, and why he wants his next documentary to be about marriage.
DARRELL HARTMAN: Your previous documentaries are also about L.A. subjects—skaters in Dogtown, surfers in Riding Giants—but this one seems like a big departure for you. Why did you focus on south-central gangs?
STACY PERALTA: I don’t get paid a lot to do documentaries—nobody does, maybe Michael Moore does-so I do films about issues I want to learn about. And L.A. is so segregated that it enables those living outside not to be aware of the rage going on inside this community, even though we’re 15 minutes away.
DH: Did that segregation stop people from talking to you?
SP: With every gang member, I said, “Look, I’m here to ask questions and listen.” And once they realized I wasn’t sensationalizing, they opened up. Made in America is a departure in one way because it’s more serious than anything I’ve done. It’s about L.A. and about a sub-culture with males-that’s the similarity. The dissimilarity is it’s a real hot-button issue with kids that are dying. It’s political. There was a much deeper sense of history that I had to convey.
T. Rodgers, Caleb Mose (Sound Mixer), Ben McMillan (Gaffer), Ralph Payne (Assistant Camera), Tony Hardmon (Cinematographer), and Stacy Peralta. Photo by Tanya Sakolsky.
DH: More than I expected, actually. You spend a lot of time on the 1965 Watts riots.
SP: You were surprised by it; so was I. But as we got into the story, we felt that 1965 was such a crucial period-it could have changed at that point, and it didn’t. As usual, when civil unrest happens, the government comes in and writes a report. The Rodney King incident started the whole thing over again, because it hadn’t changed.
DH: The film doesn’t address the role of gangsta rap.
SP: You could make a whole film on that. We discussed that from day one, and we did at one point have a two-minute piece on it. But it was too big of an idea to go in and out of quickly, so we didn’t.
DH: Is there an unspoken 90-minute rule for documentaries?
SP: The most important thing I consider is making a film entertaining, because it has to compete with The Dark Knight for space on a screen. At one point the film was 95 minutes, and everyone’s saying bring it to 90. We eventually brought it down. There can’t be anything theater owners can pick at.
DH: Style has always been one of your major themes. How does that apply here?
SP: I find style very seductive. Each subculture invents its own style, and all these subcultures are about identity—deciding to be in a group, and then defining your style so that you emerge. I was interviewing this heavyweight gang member, and I’m in a pair of tennis shoes and Levis. And he says, ‘Man, look at you.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong? I look fine.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t. I go to the closet and I look, man. I get my getup on and I want to look good.’ It blew my mind. Even with a white t-shirt, in a gang, you don’t want a single wrinkle on it, a scuff mark, anything.
DH: There’s something counter-intuitive about that.
SP: I asked these guys, why they were so into it. They said, basically, that you live in a ghetto, you can’t afford a home or a car, but the one thing you can do [something about] is the clothes on your body. So these kids want the most expensive pair of shoes. We look at this from the outside and say: That’s foolish, you should put you money in education. I don’t think it’s something we can understand unless we live there among them.
DH: Respect becomes part of a competition.
SP: Some of these guys have been ground down so low that you step on their shoe and that’s worthy of shooting you. Respect is the largest commodity in their community. And certainly that quality exists in surfing and skateboarding, but not at the level I saw there, where people are willing to die for it. At least in surfing you’re fighting for a resource: waves. These guys aren’t fighting for anything, except respect.
DH: Are you working on your next film now?
SP: Not at the moment, but I’d like to do one on marriage.
DH: Why marriage?
SP: It’s one of the most important institutions in our world, and we aren’t taught anything about it. My father could have told me, but he told me nothing. We’re just supposed to observe and learn. Having had many relationships in my life, and having a son, it’s an incredibly trying thing—and it’s so much of the journey. And if you look at the number of divorces, it’s really not a healthy institution.
DH: I have to ask: those Burger King ads you did recently—the ones where you go around the world with a crew, conducting Whopper taste tests in remote villages—have caused a bit of an uproar. Did that surprise you?
SP: I was upset myself, because I didn’t want to be in the piece, and I tried to get them to take me out. It looks as though it’s my film, but I had nothing to do with the construction of it. I was hired to document a taste test, which I did, and everybody had to sign waivers to say if they’re caught on camera, they could be used in this Net piece. What happened is they used these conversations I had [on camera] and it made it look like I was the Johnny Appleseed of fast food. I got really burned on that. I learned a lesson, never to sign things like that.
DH: Any regrets about the whole project?
SP: I didn’t think people across the world were going to like this food, and if they do, they’re not going to be able to tell the difference. And it was shocking, unbelievable, that they can actually tell the difference—these are people who have never had this kind of food. Saturday Night Live did a parody of it, and I heard it’s very funny. That much attention on a campaign—I’m sure the agency couldn’t be happier. I thought it was going to fail.