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In 'Minding The Gap,' Skateboarding Is The Least Of The Pain

Sep 2, 2018

In the new documentary film Minding the Gap, we see a message hand-painted on a smashed skateboard: "THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE."

There's a lot of heartache in this movie. And if skateboarding doesn't cure it, it offers an essential escape for the troubled young men we meet in the film.

Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson are skateboarding friends growing up in Rockford, Ill. The filmmaker, Bing Liu, is a fellow skateboarder from Rockford.

In Minding the Gap, we watch all three of them grappling with the lasting trauma of growing up with abusive fathers and stepfathers. Liu spoke to NPR about his film, which is out in theaters and streaming on Hulu.


Interview Highlights

On how Liu got Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan to open up on camera

With Keire, he just needed to talk about it and he didn't even realize he needed to. Our first conversation on camera together was me asking him about his father, and him just opening up about how he both was super angry and hurt by his father, but also respects and loves him and misses him, because he had recently passed away. And that hadn't ever been talked about, and that had never been processed. And then that relationship just sort of blossomed from there.

With Zack, it was like — skateboarding is so difficult ... there's a real high barrier to entry because of that. There's no real easy way to do it besides just failing over and over again and having a lot of bruises and broken bones. And for someone like Zack, who is really good at skateboarding, it took a lot of jumping off an emotional cliff to be able to do that, you know? I think in hindsight, it's like — it was more important for everybody in the film to have their lives validated than the vulnerability that they were showing to the camera.

On the scenes where he confronts his mother about being both of them being abused by his stepfather

Liu: You know, one of the coping mechanisms that many children have when they go through trauma or violence in the household is they just block it out. And that was something that I unwittingly learned as a child. And it does help you a lot as a kid — it helps you just be able to bear an existence when you go home and you feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time. So by the time I became a young adult, it was like: I couldn't even have conversations with my mom without forgetting what was even said after the conversation, because I was just in such a heightened, triggered level of anxiety, and just resisting remembering what was even being said in the present. And so in a weird way, having all those cameras there — well, I wanted to capture my own vulnerability to put myself in the film, but I also wanted to have this objective document that I couldn't forget.

Block: There's a part of the interview with your mom where she says: "I wish I could do it over. I cannot believe he is that bad." And the look on your face is one of just, I think, real disbelief. Like, you kind of can't come to terms with what's she's saying there.

Liu: I mean, I know on an intimate level both that it's not her fault, but on an emotional level, the child me is very much like, "Well, it's your fault. You let this happen to me, mom. You're supposed to protect me." And so that, a statement like that — just immense, intense regret from her – is like ... it's just incredibly painful to hear as a son.

On how much of the story is about Rockford, a working-class city near Chicago with high crime and unemployment

I want to be careful about not blaming some of these issues on Rockford, Illinois. That's partly why I took such care in depicting it. But Rockford very much is the fabric of this story — it's the backdrop to it. You know, one of the opening scenes, you see these skateboarders flying around the city, and it's like, where are all the cars at? ... But like downtown. And this is a city of 150,000 — it's not a small city. And so in feedback screenings earlier on, people would ask ... "Did you shut down the city?" "How did you get all the cars to stop driving?" Well, I was like: The '80s economy got all the cars to stop driving. It's just part of the fabric — so I had to find a way to show the Rust Belt aspect of the city.

On capturing the joy of his subjects while skateboarding

It was just as much of a release for me as it was for them, probably. That's the first thing that I started filming, was skateboarding. ... Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I was actually running on foot a lot of the times. I borrowed techniques from Steadicam operators ... it allowed me to go off curves, through gravel, jump down stairs with them. And it's at eye level, so it's not glorifying the tricks — it's more about, you know, how the world flies past you and you glide like water as a skateboarder.

Sophia Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the new documentary film "Minding the Gap," we see a message hand-painted on a smashed skateboard. It says, "This device cures heartache." There's a lot of heartache in this movie. And if skateboarding doesn't cure it, it offers an essential escape for the troubled young men we meet in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MINDING THE GAP")

ZACK MULLIGAN: To other people, it's funny - haha. You know, oh, these guys are crazy. But in reality, I think it's a control thing. You [expletive] have to control the most minute, small details to make you feel normal in a world that's not normal.

KEIRE JOHNSON: I could seriously be on the verge of having a [expletive] mental breakdown. But as long as I'm able to go skate, then I'm completely fine.

BLOCK: That's Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, who were skateboarding friends growing up in Rockford, Ill. The filmmaker is Bing Liu, a fellow skateboarder from Rockford. We watch all three of them grappling with the lasting trauma of growing up with abusive fathers and stepfathers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MINDING THE GAP")

BING LIU: You see any violence in your household when you were growing up?

MULLIGAN: I don't know, man. That's a tough question. It's hard. It's - depends on what you determine as violent.

BLOCK: And filmmaker Bing Liu joins me now from Chicago. Welcome to the program.

LIU: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Both Zack and Keire are so open and raw in talking to you. They're describing really, really painful memories of being abused by their fathers growing up. How did you gain their trust? How did you get them to open up that way?

LIU: With Keire, he just needed to talk about it. And he didn't even realize he needed to. Our first conversation on camera together was me asking him about his father and him just opening up about how he both was super angry and hurt by his father but also respects and loves him and misses him because he had recently passed away. And then that relationship just sort of blossomed from there.

For Zack, it was like - skateboarding is so difficult. It's just - there's a very high barrier to entry because of that. There's no real easy way to do it besides just failing over and over again and having a lot of bruises and broken bones. And so he sort of took that idea, I think, and put it into this project. He, you know, early on was like, you know, whatever you capture, you capture.

BLOCK: There's a part in the film where Keire is talking about the pain of skateboarding, and, really, it becomes a metaphor for him of his relationship with his father. Let's listen to part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MINDING THE GAP")

JOHNSON: I get mad skateboarding, like, a lot. But at the end of the day, I love it so much that I can't stay mad at it.

LIU: It hurts you.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So did my dad, but I love him to death.

BLOCK: Do you remember what you were thinking when you heard Keire tell you that?

LIU: I was blown away. I mean, it was one of the most poetic things that I've ever heard. And it was so accidental. It was just what struck him to say at the moment. But it was very much just what most of the film is about.

BLOCK: I suppose part of what made it easier for them to open up is that this is your story, too. Your own vulnerability is a really important part of the movie. You didn't know your dad, but you describe your stepfather beating you and your brother up and your mom. And there are just wrenching scenes where you sit down with your mom to talk to her about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MINDING THE GAP")

LIU: Did you know that the first time I was ever alone with him, that's when he...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You...

LIU: ...Grabbed me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He did - wait, what?

LIU: The first time I was ever alone with him was the first time he...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He beat you?

LIU: ...Grabbed me and beat me, yeah.

BLOCK: What was it you were hoping to hear from her in those conversations?

LIU: You know, one of the coping mechanisms that many children have when they go through trauma or violence in the household is they just block it out. And that was something that I unwittingly learned as a child. And it does help you a lot as a kid. It helps you just be able to bear an existence where you go home, and you feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time. So, you know, by the time I became a young adult, it was like I couldn't even have conversations with my mom without forgetting what was even said after the conversation because I was just on such a heightened, you know, triggered level of anxiety, and just, you know, resisting remembering what was even being said in the present. And so, in a weird way, having all those cameras there - well, I wanted to capture my own vulnerability to put myself in the film. But I also wanted to have this objective document that I couldn't forget.

BLOCK: There's a part of the interview with your mom where she says, I wish I could do it over. I cannot believe he is that bad. And the look on your face is one of just, I think, real disbelief. Like, you kind of can't come to terms with what she's saying there.

LIU: I mean, I know on an intimate level both that it's not her fault - but on an emotional level, like the child me is very much like, well, it's your fault. Like, you let this happen to me, Mom. You're supposed to protect me. And so that - a statement like that, you know, just immense, intense regret from her is like - it's just incredibly painful to hear as a son.

BLOCK: How much of this story do you think is a story about Rockford, Ill? It's a working-class city near Chicago - high crime, high unemployment, people moving away. Does that filter into the overall violence, do you think, of you and your friends?

LIU: I want to be careful about not blaming some of these issues on Rockford, Ill. And that's partly why I took such care in depicting it. But Rockford very much is the fabric of this story. It's the backdrop to it. You know, one of the opening scenes, you see these skateboarders flying around the city. And it's like, where are all the cars at...

BLOCK: Yeah.

LIU: ...You know? People used to...

BLOCK: They're skateboarding right down the middle of the street, yeah. And there are no cars...

LIU: Yeah, but like...

BLOCK: ...To block their path.

LIU: ...Downtown. And this is a city of 150,000. It's not a small city. And so in feedback screenings earlier on, people would ask like, where - did you, like, shut down the city? Like, how did you get all the cars to stop driving? Well, I was like, well, the '80s economy got all those cars to stop driving. So I had to, you know, find a way to show the Rust Belt aspect of the city.

BLOCK: You know, we're talking about all of this really, really heavy, painful stuff. But we should say that parts of the movie are just purely joyful. The scenes where we see Zack and Keire skateboarding - pure freedom and liberation. It must have been really, really fun to shoot.

LIU: It was. I mean, it was just as much of a release for me as it was for them, probably. That's the first thing that I started filming - was skateboarding. And yeah, it was a lot of fun. I was actually running on foot a lot of the times. And it's at eye level. So it's not glorifying the tricks. It's more about, you know, how the world flies past you, and you glide like water as a skateboarder.

BLOCK: Bing Liu's documentary "Minding The Gap" is in select theaters and streaming now on Hulu. Bing, thanks so much.

LIU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.