Purple smoke can be seen streaking through the air in the opening moments of “Street Flame,” where the lingering exhaust takes on a bleak beauty rivaled only by the skateboarders carrying the canisters from which it emanates as they glide around a local skate park. As it turns out, it’s a makeshift eulogy for Jinx, one of their own who has fallen, as a prematurely world-weary voice intones, “When Jinx died, it was like her name finally caught up with her,” bringing a gravity to their actions in writer/director Katherine Propper’s arresting short where a crew of teenagers who surely thought they’d live forever grapple with a newfound sense of mortality.
While it may sound hackneyed by now to say Propper gets inside the world of the Austin-based skaters, the filmmaker does it in such a way that becomes fresh and extraordinary, casually inserting herself into the lives of the outsiders as they hang out by train tracks and tag the inside of tunnels, channeling their energy with graceful, untethered camera movements that capture their free spirit. Using the edges of the frame to give the teens who in some cases may not have a home to go back to at night a place to call their own, “Street Flame” offers a warm, soul-stirring portrait of a family that isn’t connected by blood, but by circumstance and in taking a snapshot of a rare moment of stillness, you can feel their restlessness.
Just before the film made its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Propper, who is still currently attending film school at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the making of “Street Flame,” which has taken the festival circuit by storm in recent months at the Aspen Shortsfest and Indie Grits, and how she cultivated the relationships necessary make something that felt so real as well as her path into filmmaking.
How did this come about?
Yeah, the film is my second-year project at UT where I’m an MFA film student and UT’s program is pretty cool because it it has a lot of documentary faculty, so when I started out the project, I approached it like a documentary to a certain degree. I love [narrative] films that use documentary practices like “The Rider” by Chloe Zhao and Sean Baker is a good example, and when I thought I might want to do a film about a street artist, I ended up finding a few teenage street artists to follow and filming during their adventures tagging tunnels and ditches and the different places that they go. In the process, I spent time with their friends and I realized that it really coincided with the skate community in Austin, and I became really interested in the group dynamic, how close everyone was as friends and how they repurposed spaces in Austin and have an alternative home life. Some of them are delinquents or high school dropouts and they live itinerant lives and I thought it would be really cool to make a film that featured the whole crew, so I wrote the script after spending time with them and and used their oral histories as a backbone for the film, which is what inspired the voiceover in the film.
Since you have a mix of actors and no professionals, how did you assemble a cast?
Yeah, all of the teenagers in the movie are nonprofessional or first-time actors and a lot of them were the teens that I had originally spent time with, especially the ensemble. Suave, the lead actor who plays One Way, the one with the really cool multi-colored hair, I actually met in my first year of film school off of Craigslist. He was still a sophomore in high school and had braces and I [cast] him for a cinematography project, but I knew that he was a compelling character from the first time I met him. He was an aspiring rapper and I knew he skateboarded, so I reached out to him and he was really excited about being in a film. His cousin Curtis, who also has really cool hair — he kind of looks like Lil Pump, is also in the film and I spent a lot of time with him as well because he’s a mumble-style rapper who is getting a lot of underground rap gigs in Austin, which could honestly be its own film. And then, weirdly enough, one of the other guys was making prank videos when I first met him – and skate videos too – but then his videos got featured on Worldstar and now he has like a million subscribers on YouTube. When I met him he was only 17 and he didn’t go to college and now he makes a lot of money off of YouTube, so I’m really proud of him, just making it on his own.
Since you’re following these kids actually tagging or giving tattoos for real, which I suspect you wouldn’t ask them to do for a film, did you know in advance they might be doing these things to film them?
To be honest, some of that they go the extra mile and were so down for the cause and they’re creative people themselves, so they know what they think would be cool on film to see. They know and love [Larry Clark’s film] “Kids,” so they were like, “Oh, it’d be cool if we did this,” so they definitely gave me ideas.The tattoo was something that I had been thinking about because a lot of them have stick-and-poke tattoos that they had self-administered, so I knew I wanted to show an element of that, and I didn’t want them to actually do it, but like I said they were so down for the cause that during shooting, they always wanted to do everything in the most exciting, real way.
Did anything come as a surprise during shooting that you really like about it now?
So much. All of the stuff that’s in the ditch where they’re hanging out was improvised where they were just acting as a group and being wild. It felt like shooting a documentary in some ways where they brought so much and it was really just about capturing what they were just doing on their own naturally. I actually cut a lot of scenes that didn’t make the film, but one of the scenes that’s in the credits [where the guys are watching cheerleaders at a high school], all of that was improvised like the call-and-response with the cheerleader girls. The bonfire was all improvised and like I said, they take everything to another level, so if I bring out fireworks, like they were actually having a bonfire. So it’s cool to film that stuff like a documentary.
And you create the film around this elusive character of Jinx, who is said to have passed away, adding a tinge of sadness to it. What was it like to create that character’s presence?
Yeah, all of them have had personal experiences that were somewhat similar, so they all knew knew the circumstances really well because it was personal to them and it’s almost sad how many of them know friends who died at such young ages, but it was definitely an inspiration for the film. I told them the story and they they understood like the circumstances of each scene and the narrative that we were telling, so they were able to draw on their own personal experiences for a lot of that. And in terms of the actual character of Jinx, it was they definitely all spent time with Katelyn [Mitchell] the actor who plays Jinx. So I feel like some of it was maybe even being able to sort of imagine her because she also became really tight with all the cast. She wasn’t there filming every day, but maybe they were able to think about Katelyn.
How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?
I studied art history in college and I minored in film because I went to Georgetown, [which] didn’t really have a strong film program. It was mostly film studies, but it was a Jesuit university, so I felt like I was always in classes where we were like taught to think about our inner voice in our calling and vocation, and [that led me to] think about career in a very spiritual way. It was while I was there that during the summers, I would start interning at production companies in L.A. and started meeting different people in various roles in the industry. I started getting a sense I might work in the industry, but I realized that I was mostly interested in the creative components of filmmaking, and that so many people who work at agencies and production companies are actually writers and directors and actors, who are just working in those jobs [to get to where they’re going], so I was thinking, I’m 18. Why should I already settle for a more business-oriented job? I should do the thing that I really like feel called to do.
“Street Flame” is currently traveling the festival circuit.