In an increasingly capitalist, gentrified and homogenised world, The Skatepark on Treasure Island reminds us that homemade miracles are still possible. The whimsical title actually refers to a real artificial island, created in 1936 for the Golden Gate International Exposition, situated between San Francisco and Oakland that is currently in the process of a major redevelopment. Taking advantage of the in-between stage of the island, skater and DIY skatepark construction expert Josh Matlock uses the opportunity to create an unofficial skate venue, replete with ramps, half-pipes and stair sets. Working off the cuff and following Matlock’s intrepid band of punk DIY constructionists as they look to obtain proper permission for their park, DN Alum director Jeremy McNamara’s documentary is a wonderful depiction of human ingenuity. We talked to him about his background in the skate community, being informed by the skate film aesthetic, and the actual logistics involved in creating a skatepark from scratch.
Are you a skater yourself?
I am. I grew up skateboarding before I became a filmmaker. I started skateboarding at 11.
Have you always been watching skateboarding videos as well? They have such a clear aesthetic…
Yeah, that’s how I got into film. You skate with your buddies and you want to film the stuff that you’re doing. I guess a big part of skate culture is shooting photos and making videos. I don’t know how a camera got involved. Maybe my mum had something. Then a few years after I started skating, I was filming it and making videos about it. That’s kind of how you learn about skateboarding. There is a whole culture of its own.
To me, the fact that the island is getting gentrified seems part of a wider story about San Francisco, which has the most expensive rent in the USA as a result of the tech explosion. How much did you want to capture that conflict between old and new?
To be honest, I think I just tried to simplify the story and kind of make it about this skateboard community trying to achieve this thing and capture the essence of what that means and what the community stands for. I had to talk a little bit about the development of the island, but I wasn’t really making a statement about gentrification. It just happened to be a part of the story. Like the reason that the park can only go on so long is because of this development.
The DIY scene is its own counterculture within the larger culture of skating.
I never thought that it would last more than three months. All these years later, they’re still there and they’re still building. They had $30,000 donated to them from a raffle from a skate shop. And it’s been in a lot of big magazines and videos, so people know about it. It’s interesting because there have been DIY parks like this for the last 30 years. It all started in Portland with Burnside, which kind of sparked a movement. But pretty much of these parks get levelled. Probably 1% of them have any permanence. There are so many spots that have their moment then get destroyed, but still people find ways to build something new somewhere else.
Was the intention of the film to show people how to go through these bureaucratic channels? I was surprised how keen the officials at the Town Hall were at the end!
It was just a shock! I was filming that and I couldn’t believe it. But I don’t think we were trying to make a film like that. Maybe Josh and Bill, in their minds, wanted people to watch this. I just thought it was interesting. Like, “What do you mean someone just showed up here with some bags of cement in the dead of night and just started building this park without asking anyone?” With something like that there are just no guarantees. They don’t get paid to do this and they don’t ask for permission. I just think that is fascinating.
I had to do everything myself. I was recording the sound, shooting it, cutting it, mixing it, colouring it.
I’m quite interested in the logistics. How do they get a cement truck? Are they well off? Do they rent it off a friend or know a guy?
That was all from Kickstarter money. The DIY scene is its own counterculture within the larger culture of skating. So a lot of these guys are rough and rugged dudes who started out building and illegally pouring cement when they were kids. A lot of them ended up having ‘real’ construction jobs or starting companies, pouring driveways and building houses, stuff that has nothing to do with skateboarding. So they know all about how it works. They would just call a truck and get it delivered. It’s actually not as expensive as you think.
Skate films have their own language, whether it’s the fisheye lens or low-angle shots, often containing distortion in the frame. How did you want to think about the style that comes with skate films as well as creating a more objective documentary-like view?
In skate culture, there’s kind of this push away from making anything ‘produced’ at all. Everyone uses the HVX, a decade old-plus camera, with a screw-on fisheye. It’s only for people who understand this culture. If you don’t skate, you’re probably not going to watch any of the skate videos that come out on Thrasher. With this, I wanted to tell a story that anyone could understand that wasn’t just exclusive to skateboarding. Even using a widescreen aspect ratio, that’s not very common. I understand the skate culture but I’m obviously a big film guy, and I guess I tried to combine them a little bit; not do anything that would be a big no-no in the eyes of the core skaters but also create something that my mum could watch.
I see it was a zero budget film. What was creating that like? Was it just you?
I had to do everything myself. I was recording the sound, shooting it, cutting it, mixing it, colouring it. I did everything with the gear that I own — an α7S II with a little external recorder and a RED Scarlet-W for some stuff. For recording at the same time I had this little H6 audio recorder and I had a lanyard around my neck. I’d have a Lavalier mic plugged in and a shotgun mic plugged in and I’d be listening and holding from the lanyard on my neck. I’d be shooting whatever while checking the levels and making sure it worked out. Looking back, I think I would’ve been better with a camera with built-in XLR ports, but I don’t think it would have been possible to keep up with these guys.
I wanted to tell a story that anyone could understand that wasn’t just exclusive to skateboarding.
What are you working on next?
I have a few documentaries that I’m stewing on and some client stuff. Nothing that I should talk about because then I’ll have to finish it! But yeah, trying to do more docs and just seeing where that goes. I definitely want to do a feature.