Stacy Peralta: skater turned film-maker

Everyone dreams of making a career out of their passion. But, sometimes, you've got to take on projects you don't love to get to where you want to be, says the ex professional skateboarder.
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Even if you don't know his name, you've probably seen one of his films. Stacy Peralta was a professional skateboarder for Californian skate pioneers, the Z-Boys, in the seventies. But, these days, he's more commonly known for being the creator and director of a 2001 award-winning cult documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. He also directed surf doc Riding Giants and wrote the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown.

But his film-making career began as a fortunate accident in 1983. Stacy's neighbor agreed to shoot a skate film with the Bones Brigade, a team of skaters (including Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen) that Stacy managed in the eighties, but he had to bail at the last minute – so Stacy stepped in. Directing a crew using VCRs on a shoestring budget, he shot the film over the next six months, putting together a compilation of skate clips (edited in his kitchen) that went on to sell ‘30,000 to 40,000’ copies. ‘That day was the first time I'd ever directed in my life,’ he says. ‘From that day forward, I thought I could figure it out.’

Now 64, Stacy has just released his latest film, The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez, based on the life and learnings of the renowned surfer. We caught up with him ahead of the film's release to ask about the beginnings of his film career and what lessons he has to share with aspiring film-makers.

How did you switch from skateboarding to Hollywood?

A. ‘I still had my [skateboard company Powell-Peralta], still [made] my videos. I got a number of calls from producers in Hollywood to do second-unit direction work on motion pictures. Let's say there's a piece of action in it – the director of that picture isn't comfortable directing that action, they bring me in and I direct that action. I did four motion pictures based on that scenario. I'd come in as a specialist. Then I started getting opportunities in television to do documentary and comedy work – it started to morph. I wasn't thrilled doing the work, but I was learning a lot. It's not what I wanted to do, but I was learning a lot doing it. I went through a seven-year bootcamp to learn. 

‘I wanted to make my own films – I was actually trying to make features! That's what I was going for. In that seven-year period, I'd take three months and direct a TV show, then I'd take a month and a half off to write a screenplay. Then I get back on a TV show. I'd do that for five years. I wrote five screenplays – they all went nowhere. But I learned how to write and do all this stuff. So, finally, at the seven-year mark, I conceived of doing the Dogtown [and the Z-Boys] documentary – that was the first time I got to do my own project.’

Was is it to get financial support? What advice do you have for aspiring film-makers?

A. ‘Commercial work is how I make a living. They're much shorter jobs – I never know when they're going to happen, they come and go. Typically, I make a movie in a year but, because of Covid, this was stretched out to two years. I had to go into commercial film-making to support myself. I had to take other people's ideas and figure out how to make them my own, then give them back to them. That was really hard! It took a lot of years to learn how to do that, [to] work with agencies and somehow feel I could take this idea and walk with it. I was much better with my own ideas. I've grown as a film-maker doing that kind of work so much more, because there are budgets, I don't have to steal locations, I don't have to run from the police. It's a lot easier. 

‘So, I make my living doing commercial film-making. I don't make my living doing these films. I wish I could, but there's not enough money in them. Getting financing is such a mystery. Technology is shrinking so much now that you can have a camera and an editing system in your house. You have to have an example of what you can do to show someone what you can do and what you want. You're getting them to put money into your dream, so you have to show them it!’

How was it putting together The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez?

A. ‘When I go into a film like this, I don't know if I'm going to pull it off. It's really nerve-racking. I spend a lot of months in a total state of insecurity, wondering if I'm doing the right thing and making the right choices, going the right direction and telling the story properly. I do that the whole time. I learned that's just the way it is. If I want certainty, I have to be putting doors on a car. It doesn't come with this. 

‘As I started making the Gerry Lopez film, I saw a guy who does a handful of things in his life and he's masterful at those things. He doesn't spread his attention wide – he keeps focused on the things he's doing because he wants to be good at what he's doing. I found that really impressive, and I try to live my life the same way. I got to see behind the curtain – he makes it look easy before he knows [how to do] it but, before that, it's not easy.’

What would you say to young, up-and-coming film-makers?

A. ‘I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time – that the canvas was so blank. Here's what I want to share with you: I believe that our talents don't belong to us. My responsibility that I have, with developing the talents that I have in me, is to share them with the world. This is what it's about, to share them. Everything I've developed is for you and you. And what you've developed is for me. So, if I had an impact, I'm grateful for it, but it doesn't belong to me. It's just that that was the role I was given and I hope I didn't screw it up too much. I'm completely blown away that skateboarding is where it is. 

‘A lot of people spend their day looking at their phones. Young people have to realize we all have a dream inside of us – everyone has a dream. Our dreams are very quiet and the only way they come to life is if we put our attention on them. If we don't, they're never going to manifest. If we're wasting it looking at our phones, it's not going to give anything back. Nothing is going to come from this. But you have to live with the unknowing of [your dream] for a long time. Dreams don't come to us fully formed – they come in fragments and pieces. They slowly assemble, but it takes a tremendous amount of attention to do it. 

‘Something I have to share with you – I've really learned that life's like a wave. We get picked up on this thing, and you live it and learn it simultaneously. You're learning what you're doing, what to do and how to ride it, and you're living the journey all at the same time. I'm riding that wave still, continuing to go.’

Article written by Hannah Bailey.

The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez, directed by Stacy Peralta, will be available and free to watch online from November 2022.

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