SXSW 2011: The inside-out world of doc winner 'Dragonslayer'
With a mix of footage from Flip cams and a Canon 5D still camera -- moving between home-movie immediacy and more artfully considered portraiture -- the documentary "Dragonslayer" creates a full sense of the interior world of Josh "Screech" Sandoval, a twentysomething skateboarder in Fullerton. In many ways, the film takes its stylistic cues from the wild unpredictability and inexplicable wiggling grace of Sandoval's manic skating style.
"Dragonslayer" was directed by Tristan Patterson and executive-produced by Christine Vachon, who got involved during post-production. It features a soundtrack of alternately roaring and dreamy contemporary rock music mostly from the hip indie labels Mexican Summer and Kemado Records. The film nevertheless came into the South by Southwest film festival for its world premiere with neither a sales agent nor outside publicist, an increasing rarity even at this DIY-oriented event. Playing as part of the documentary competition, "Dragonslayer" won the top prize of Best Documentary Feature as well as Best Cinematography. (Full disclosure: This journalist was a member of the three-person jury that decided those awards.)
The film is the first feature directed by Patterson, a 35-year-old screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles and had its origins on a Friday night in spring 2009 when Patterson went with a friend to a house party in Chino to see a band play. There he met Sandoval and was immediately taken by his reckless energy and relentlessly upbeat disposition. About a week later, Patterson met Sandoval again and began filming just a few days after that.
"I'm a writer, so I wasn't looking for a subject," said Patterson in an interview over Bloody Marys on an Austin, Texas, patio Wednesday afternoon. "And I definitely wasn't looking to make a documentary at all. I was really hungry to film. I'd spent years writing screenplays, all different kinds, and nothing was getting made. This, I thought I was going to make a 15-minute experimental art film that I would show in a gallery if I was really lucky.
"A lot of the things I've liked creatively have always been in the past. So I was so charged up when I thought I'd found something that was happening in the present."
Very early in the production process, Patterson thought to give Sandoval a miniature hand-held Flip cam to shoot footage of himself and his life when the crew wasn't around. Over the course of shooting -- the bulk of which was finished by January 2010 with an epilogue shot later that summer -- a line item was added to the film's budget for lost cameras. And the footage that did come back was always unmarked, so Patterson never knew quite what he was getting.
"I mean, I know him," Patterson added, "so I knew what was going to be on his camera was going to be interesting."
In talking about influences on the film, Patterson mentions such punk-inflected '80s teens-in-trouble movies as "Over the Edge," "River's Edge" and "Suburbia," and in practically the same breath references MTV's reality show "The Hills" and the stern art films of French filmmaker Bruno Dumont.
"Well, I live in Southern California," said Patterson of the initial impulses behind his film's unusual mix of styles and tones. "Independent film is obsessed with regional filmmaking. I wanted to make a regional film about Southern California that I respond to. It's going to be reality and Euro-art and Flip cams and kids on skateboards. And once we were inside that frame, I think quickly we had it."
Capturing a relatively brief span of time in Sandoval's life, "Dragonslayer" shifts back and forth between Sandoval's point of view and Patterson's own footage. The film finds Screech at a crossroads of remaining a free spirit and perennial screw-up or perhaps growing into something more, as he learns to be a father to his infant son by an ex-girlfriend and falls in love with someone else. A look at a person, a place and a specific point in time, there is a palpable emotional immediacy to Patterson's portrait style of filmmaking.
"Editing was about trying to find the right amount of time you could spend with either footage," Patterson noted, mentioning the input of editors Jennifer Tiexiera and Lizzy Calhoun. "Because our footage is so observational and abstracted, it's verite but it's at a distance. And his footage was right in your face.
"One of the things we realized quickly was the idea of creating a new kind of movie. I think it's exciting to see footage that is beautiful but that I responded to viscerally, like this looks like the California of my dreams."
-- Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas
Photo: Josh "Screech" Sandoval from "Dragonslayer." Credit: Animals of Combat