ROLLER Dreams is the story of a group of Venice Beach roller skate dancers who helped spark a national craze in the late 1970s. The documentary remembers this vibrant period, but also delves into a history racism and commercialism that eventually tore away these roller dreams.
As Roller Dreams impresses audiences at festivals across the globe, Australian-born director Kate Hickey stops by on Close-up Culture to tell us more about her first feature film.
Q: What inspired and led you to tell the story of Roller Dreams?
A: I WAS obsessed with Olivia Newton John in the movie ‘Xanadu‘ when I was growing up. In fact I used to dress up like her and skate up and down the boardwalk in my own beach town in Australia.
I had always loved making short documentaries about sports and underdogs and when I moved to Venice Beach in 2007, I saw these guys down at the beach skating. I could not believe it and when I got talking to them they explained how they were the unsung heroes of the roller era and taught people like Linda Blair in ‘Roller Boogie‘ how to skate.
I knew this was a story worth documenting. The people who had unjustly fallen into the cracks of Venice history.
Q: The film focuses on the ‘OGs’ of the Venice Beach roller skating scene. Can you tell us about your experience tracking down these characters and the time you spent with them?
A: SO Terrell, Larry and Jimmy still skate down there most weekends but Sally Piano & Mad were M.I.A.
After interviewing the guys for a long time they kept mentioning their roller guru Mad who had moved to Utah. He turned me down a few times but eventually relented and I knew I had gold.
Others also spoke of Sally and we definitely wanted a strong female character represented in the film. Little did we know about her immense connection to Mad.
Q: Mad is the most prominently featured of these characters – and is almost built up to mythical status by some of the voices in the film. Do you have any stories from the time you spent with Mad?
A: YES. When I finally got to Utah I had to ride on the back of Mad’s motorbike at breakneck speed. This was a test of sorts before he would give me an interview.
He definitely pushes the limit whether he is on eight wheels or two and I wrote my will in my head a number of times. After that fear bonding experience he seemed more amped to talk about the past and when he touched on his youth in Watts I knew that was the heart of the story and he was the soul missing from the scene at Venice.
Q: What was the reaction of the ‘OGs’ to the final film?
A: THEY really loved it. The most rewarding part was that their mothers and families got to see what they were getting up to all those weekends as they were coming of age. It also meant a lot to Duval Stower’s/Superion’s family as he passed away – it is a moving legacy of what he stood for at Venice in his skating spirit and art.
Q: Did you spend much time around Venice Beach – and did you try roller skating in preparation for the film?
A: YES. I live a five minute bike ride from Venice Beach so I was down there most weekends. I got on skates a few times during filming but I am really more of a voyeur. I just loved how their personalities were reflected in their skating styles so I wanted to capture that.
Q: Roller Dreams looks at the funky fun Venice Beach roller skating scene but also touches on a history of racial tension and laments the loss of the scene to commercialism and other forces. I feel it leads to a rounded and unexpectedly moving experience. Would you agree?
A: I HOPE so. My intention was always to make a film that was multi-layered in its approach. My two producers Diana Ward and Cecilia Ritchie helped in digging deep into the racial history side of things and I also wanted to show how much Venice had changed over the years. A bit of a swan song to the way Venice used to be.
Q: I was surprised at the amount – and quality – of archival footage and photos you had at your disposal. Where did most of it come from and how did you get your hands on it?
A: MOST of it came from a great OG skater called Morgan Saunders. He had some high 8mm tapes that focused on the years 1982 and 1984. Then another skater Jeffrey Young had a lot of VHS from the 1990s. Diana Ward tracked down a lot of archival material from the late 1970s and news footage for the racial elements of the story.
Q: Roller Dreams is your directorial debut. How did you find the experience?
A: IT was a long and windy road and I feel like I grew up doing it. These guys became extended members of my family. I learnt a lot about thoroughly researching a story and how important a conflicted character and emotional core is to finishing a film. I definitely see a lot of potential documentaries everywhere I go now but they are huge passion projects, so it is important to have all the key ingredients before setting out to make that magical soup.
Q: What is next for you?
A: IT is a short documentary on a monk bee keeper who lives on a cliff-side monastery in Oceanside. He is dying of cancer and his scientific theories regarding bee colonies are fascinating. I would also like to do one – a documentary – with a strong female lead.
Upcoming dates for Roller Dreams:
Cinema Le Clap in Quebec City, Canada on May 21 – for more info
San Francisco at the Roxie Theatre for SF DocFest on June 8 and 13 – for more info
Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum June 8, 9 and 10 – for more info