In Los Angeles, it’s become a constant source of fascination to drive down Fairfax in the middle of an afternoon on a weekday to see throngs of teenagers lined up to wait for a pair of shoes. Of course, they’re not waiting for any ordinary footwear, standing for hours on end to get the latest pair of special edition Nikes with Jeff Staple’s signature pigeon logo or some adidas with an imprimatur by no less than Kanye West. The demand for such limited runs have helped transform the sneaker business, but as “Sneakerheadz,” David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s brisk and boisterous chronicle of the rise of sneaker culture is really a celebration of the community that has sprung up around shoe collecting.
Stylish, colorful and well-constructed, “Sneakerheadz” takes on the form of the object of desire that is its subject, criss-crossing the United States as well as Japan to showcase both the collectors and designers of the hottest kicks. Much like the collectors it profiles, Friendly and Partridge appear willing to go anywhere to get to the bottom of the phenomenon, taking stock of Kansas City Royals’ pitcher Jeremy Guthrie’s 500-pair-plus collection of untouched Air Jordans tucked away in a vault in Salt Lake City, visiting a clinical psychiatrist from Columbia to explore the underpinnings of such obsessive behavior, and stopping by such unique stores as Frank the Butcher’s Bodega in Boston, which houses sneakers as if they were the finest cuts of meat.
The filmmakers don’t shy away from the dark side of collectors’ insatiable thirst for such baubles, showing the terrible and occasionally fatal toll that some have suffered as a result of the demand for the coveted kicks, but “Sneakerheadz” also show all the good the hobby has done, leading to such efforts as Nike’s Doernbecher Freestyle fundraiser for the Doernecher Children’s Hospital in Portland that allows its patients to gain strength from designing their own shoes. Shortly after the film’s premiere at SXSW, Friendly and Partridge spoke about where their initial interest in sneakers came from, capturing the wide spectrum of shoe collecting and their own favorite kicks.
How did this come about?
David T. Friendly: The movie really got its origins from when I was in New York in the mid-2000s and I stumbled into an Adidas Original store. I saw a pair of Adidas Superstars designed by Run DMC. They were chocolate brown and I thought they were 35 years old, but they were what we now know to be a retro, an old shoe brought back out [for public sale]. I didn’t have any idea that such a thing existed. I started hunting around on the Internet researching sneakers and found this whole subculture, ripe for documentary treatment. At that point, I started thinking about putting a doc together, started getting some financing together and then I met Mick and we decided to team up.
How did this collaboration work?
Mick Partridge: My background is in music video directing and [David’s] background is in journalism and feature film producing, so I thought it was a perfect collaboration. I helped a lot with the camera and the technical side of things with the cinematographer and David really helped build the story and helped on the journalistic aspect, so it was a really great team effort.
David T. Friendly: I was willing to do all the interviewing, which I loved. I found that I could very quickly get the subject comfortable because I’d done it professionally and it was great to have Mick also looking over my shoulder. He’d prompt me with a question, or help shape the shot. It’s really nice to have two people working together.
Is this a difficult world to get into and identify the major figures or is once you’re in, you’re in and you figure it out?
Mick Partridge: We were fortunate enough on our first trip to really come into contact with one of these big players that runs a sneaker convention tour around the world and he was really well respected in the game.
David T. Friendly: Sneaker Pimps.
Mick Partridge: Yeah, he had connections with these big guys that were must haves in the doc, so he was able to be the intermediary and introduce us, so we were very fortunate.
This seems like such a sprawling world. How did you decide what to focus on?
David T. Friendly: The first thing was strategically how do we make a movie that appeals to a novice who doesn’t know anything about sneakers as well as the expert that knows every designer and every model? We were always bridging those two worlds. Just to give an example, we were like, “We’ve got to get to Jeff Staple.” He did the Pigeon Dunk and you want to start with the Pigeon Dunk, but we also wanted to find a doctor who can explain hoarding and the psychological aspects of [excessive collecting]. We found Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, [a professor of Psychiatry] at Columbia, so it was a mix. You weren’t just going to go after one type. It’s a big, broad spectrum. We wanted some celebrities, so we got Mike Epps and Rob Dyrdek. It was a mix that could achieve those two things, making it for the novice and the expert.
One of my favorite things about the film is its structure – how you go deep into the sneakerhead community at first and then show the impact it’s having on the culture at large, for better and worse. Did that come about naturally or did you have to work at it?
David T. Friendly: Structuring the movie was really hard and it became very difficult. We had roughly 72 hours of footage that we reduced to 74 minutes, so basically it’s an hour of footage for every one minute in the film. Because it was hard to find a real throughline, we ended up doing it in chapters which worked out really well and within the chapters, we would hear from all of our subjects. You would see them in the section on addiction, then you might also see them in a section on community and that pulled you through, but that took a while to figure that out.
Did this take you guys in directions either literally or figuratively that you hadn’t possibly expected when you started out?
Mick Partridge: Every time we would interview someone new, he or she would say something or we would be introduced to someone new from that person and it just would lead us down a different path. This culture is just so endless, we only really scratched the surface of it.
David T. Friendly: I’ll give you an example of what you’re talking about. We were in Boston doing an interview with Frank The Butcher, one of our favorite subjects. We just loved it. Somebody said, “Hey, there’s this economist. He’s in New Hampshire and New Hampshire butts right up against Massachusetts. You should go see this guy.” And we’re like, “Really? An economist?” Why not? We jumped in the car; we go to this hotel that looks like something out of a novel…
Mick Partridge: It looks like the hotel from “The Shining.”
David T. Friendly: …Going to go talk to this guy who is like 65 years old, wearing a V-neck sweater and a buttoned-down shirt from Brooks Brothers and he is fantastic. He knows all the economics and all about the [shoe] releases. We used him regularly throughout the film, but we only heard about him because we went to Boston to interview Frank The Butcher. That’s the way it would work consistently, one would lead to another.
You more than make up for it with other interviews, but there didn’t seem to be representatives from Nike and some of the other shoes companies to speak on camera. Did you make attempts to reach out?
David T. Friendly: We certainly approached everybody. Adidas opened their doors to us. [Their Global Director] Jon Wexler, the point man for Kanye [West] who left Nike to go to Adidas, is in the film. Rick Frausto, [the artist] who works under him is in the film. At Nike, it was very complex because they said, “Come up. You’re welcome to come on our campus. You’re welcome to go in the Jordan building. You’re welcome to talk to some of our people, but not on camera.” So they semi-cooperated, but they wouldn’t put anybody on camera. To this day we don’t fully understand why, but we did what we could. We were also with the chief designer for ASICS. In Japan, ASICS is the brand. That’s a big get, so it varied company to company.
You mentioned Kanye West and that blew my mind in the film, after growing up with athletes primarily being the ones scoring endorsement deals, that it reaches into so many different arenas. Was that difficult for you to wrap your head around going into the project?
Mick Partridge: Kanye West is by far the single most influential figure in the sneaker business. He has created more hype, more desire and drives the culture to a place that’s unprecedented. If there were two guys that we wanted to get in this film that were just unattainable, it would be Michael Jordan, who really set the stage for the game, and Kanye West, who has expanded on it.
David T. Friendly: That’s a sea change because our generation grew up on sneakers that were sold by athletes. That’s the Nike philosophy – put the athlete first and the company second; just push the athletes out there. Kanye West is much more of a phenomena. Kids want to wear the shirt he’s wearing, the pants he’s wearing, the shoes he’s wearing. That’s a sea change.
On the other end of the spectrum, you actually find some kids who might not even be in their teens yet who are out selling sneakers in Miami. How did you meet them?
David T. Friendly: One thing we knew going in is a number of places like ESPN had done something on kids who are making money on weekends buying and selling sneakers, so we wanted a little bit of that in there, but it wasn’t the focus of our film. These two kids were just really articulate and they knew the stuff.
Mick Partridge: It was just important to show the range of the sneakerheadz. You have guys like David Friendly, who are in the fifties doing it and guys in their sixties and seventies, and then you also have these kids who are 10 to 15 out there getting after it. There’s no age prerequisite to be part of it, which is pretty unique and cool.
Would you have to mobilize fairly quickly to get interviews? You seem to travel the world for anything worth pursuing.
David T. Friendly: With something like this, you have to plan. If you are going to go to Japan, which is where we spent the most money on the movie, you better know who you are going to see and it has to be lined up,, but there were times where somebody would say, “There’s a show in Houston a week from today” and I’d say, “Mick, I can’t go. Can you go?” He went to Houston and there’s Daisy Williams, one of the most powerful people in the movie, that came up almost accidentally.
Mick Partridge: She’s the one whose son was killed [while waiting in line for shoes].
David T. Friendly: It was a combination of both being ready to go, but if you’re going somewhere that’s got a lot of people to see, like New York, it had to be very planned out, although I am going to contradict myself here. One day we went downtown to see somebody who didn’t end up in the film and we were really disappointed. We had our whole crew. It was right in the middle of the Polar Vortex [last winter].
Mick Partridge: It was three degrees. We sent our cinematographer out to get some B-roll, the first shots in the movie of the basketball court at Rucker Park and he couldn’t be outside for more than two minutes because his fingers couldn’t touch the buttons on the camera anymore.
David T. Friendly: We got down there and we get this crushing defeat and somebody says, “You know, three blocks from here is this guy Dave Ortiz who used to have this shop, Dave’s Quality Meats, which was like a butcher shop, but for sneakers.” So we get the number from general assistance. We call the guy. He goes, “Well, when do you want to come over?” I go, “How about now?” He turned out to be a great interview. He’s the guy who says a sneaker-head is someone with OCD – “Obsessive Consumption Disorder.” It was great.
Intriguingly, the film is sponsored by AT&T, who wouldn’t seem to have an obvious link to the sneaker business. How did they get involved?
Mick Partridge: It all came through David, who made the deal on the eleventh hole on a golf course. This movie wouldn’t be what it is without this deal being made.
David T. Friendly: Fifteenth. [laughs] I was basically introduced to this guy Aaron Slater, who is the chief content guy at AT&T. He’s a member of my club and we were playing golf and I started telling him about the movie. We’d never met and by the fifteenth hole he was like, “We want to be part of this.” Before we hit our tee shots, I said, “Let’s shake hands on it” and we closed the deal on the fifteenth tee box. He was good to his word and they have been incredible partners. Incredible. They threw a big party for us here and they did not restrict us in any way. It’s like a new model. You have a sponsor and that puts up a chunk of your budget and then you raise some money from private investors, so you don’t need a studio or to go to mom and dad. Just go do it.
One final question – it can either be in the film or outside of it, but was there a particular favorite show you came across in your travels?
Mick Partridge: One of my favorites in the movie is actually the Air Max that Goadome actually helped collaborate on, which I’m actually wearing right now.
David T. Friendly: This was made for Japan only, which gives it extra flavor.
Mick Partridge: I think my holy grail is what they call the Jordan 3 Retro 88.
David Friendly: Why is that?
Mick Partridge: It just looks great. It’s really hard to come by and it’s really white. Rather than just the normal White Cement 3, it says Nike Air on the back instead of the Jumpman logo, which was the original 3 that came out before the Jumpman logo was created. It’s an homage to the original Jordan.
David T. Friendly: The other thing about that shoe is that it was the first one designed by Tinker Hatfield, who became the Jordan designer. He’s the guy we wish we had in the movie. He really created the look for the Jordan line. For me, the most iconic shoe that I can think of is the Adidas Superstar. It’s what got me excited about sneakers as a kid. That’s always been my favorite model. I also love the Stan Smith, which is a shoe I actually played tennis in when I was in high school. It just had its 50th anniversary and they’ve done so much with it. I like iconic, classic kicks, things we’ll still be wearing 25 years from now.
I was so excited to see the pair of Air Jordans that were black and white [which I later learned were the Air Jordan 12]. It took me right back to the playground.
David T. Friendly: This is an interesting story about the way your brain works. We were working for months and months, [thinking] “We haven’t really told that story right about how the NBA banned the Jordan 1.” As I’m saying it, I turned to Megan, our editor and said, “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think Jordan told the story on the Letterman Show.” Steve [Presterman, our main editor] is like sitting in the chair listening to me, and types into YouTube, “Letterman, Jordan” and he pulls up the clip. It winds up being this great moment that sends the movie off and it’s just a clip we licensed. I hadn’t thought about that at all and it just came up. It was buried back there somewhere with a lot of other useless information.
How was the premiere?
David T. Friendly: Incredibly gratifying. It was very nervewracking because you’ve never seen it in front of a big audience on a big screen with all the music and the mix and the color and they were laughing at all the right spots. You know within the first 10 minutes if they’re with it or not. The first time there’s supposed to be something funny, you either get a laugh or it’s crickets. There’s a moment where Jeff Staple says [about the mad rush for the sales of one of his shoes], “Guys brought in guns and knives and one guy had a fucking machete…” We got a big laugh and I said, “We’re good. We’re going to be fine.”
“Sneakerheadz” will be released on August 7th.