Interview: Adam Bhala Lough Finds His “Motivation”

One of youth culture's preeminent chroniclers turns his attention to skateboarding's biggest competition....Read More
Nyjah Houston in a scene from Adam Bhala Lough's film "The Motivation"

When I get a call from Adam Bhala Lough, he wastes no time in warning me he has a baby strapped to his chest. And while it’s hard to imagine the director behind such films as the Lil Wayne profile “The Carter” and the incendiary drama “Bomb the System” in any sort of traditional domestic setting, he seems happy to have put his wilder years behind him.

“I cringe when I watch [my earlier films] because my perspective was so limited,” says Bhala Lough, occasionally pausing to rock his child. “There’s a lot of passion and energy in them, which is great, but now I have such a more well-rounded perspective on life now that I’m pushing 35.”

This isn’t to say the filmmaker has lost his edge, yet he’s been spending more time at home of late, and as it happens was sitting on the couch when he stumbled onto the subject of his latest film “The Motivation” roughly two years ago. A big sports fan, Bhala Lough naturally channel-surfed his way towards ESPN, where he quickly became engrossed with coverage of the Street League Championship where the world’s 24 best skateboarders come to compete.

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before in skateboarding,” says Bhala Lough, a former skater himself. “My concept of skateboarding was so vastly different —the fact that [this championship] was in an indoor arena, that it was judged instantaneously almost like a gymnastics meet — it was really crazy, especially where skateboarding has come from, which was so rebellious and in the streets.”

In its way, “The Motivation” speaks to both a rebellious past and a more sophisticated present and future for the sport, shot with the confident splendor befitting of its eight subjects such as Ryan Sheckler, Paul Rodriguez and Nyjah Huston, who all have remarkable poise as the first generation of stars to have known since birth they could make a career out of straddling half-pipes. But as Bhala Lough opens the film with the unusual sight — at least on a film of this type — of the skaters not sticking the landings of their gravity-defying stunts, you know you’re in for something different.

Although “The Motivation” covers the well-trodden territory of a competition film that grows more intense as it wears on, it also spends an ample amount of time with the skaters away from the spotlight, often in the company of their friends and families as they deal with such issues as becoming commoditized by multiple sponsors while keeping their craft pure and the growing pains of transitioning from teenagers to young adults.

For Bhala Lough, the film also marks an unusually quick turnaround from its debut at Tribeca in April to its release to the general public, considering “The Carter” and his underseen 2007 narrative gem “Weapons” went through considerable legal wrangling before they saw the light of day, but as with everything regarding “The Motivation,” it has unfolded gracefully and on the eve of the film’s theatrical release this week followed by a debut on VOD on August 6th, the director talked about how he created some of the film’s amazing visuals, his continuing fascination with fame, and the last person he expected to see on the skating circuit.

Paul Rodriguez in a scene from Adam Bhala Lough's "The Motivation"If the Street League Championship was the best of 24 skaters, how did you decide which ones to follow?

Basically, we decided we wanted to follow the eight finalists and it was hard getting all eight of them onboard the film, but we managed to finally do it. It was pretty lucky that we got all eight of them because they really are the eight best street skaters in the world right now.

Was it difficult to get them all since they were different places?

That was a huge challenge. Just traveling was a big part of our budget, going around the world and having to film in France and Brazil and Kansas City and New York. Luckily, four of the guys were in California, so that made it pretty easy to get all those guys because I live out here.

I felt there was an interesting rhythm to the film – there’s a championship, so you know it’s going to end up there, but I didn’t feel like you structured this like many documentaries on competitions. Did you want to break out of that format?

The structure is a very rigorous process. We put all the scenes up on a board and my editor and I [went] through a very long process of boarding it up scene by scene, piecing together the film. Our first cut was very different than what you see now and we did a series of test screenings, which is something I had never done before, but I embraced it. It was one of the best decisions that I’ve made so far in my career and I will do it from here on out. We had these lengthy surveys [with questions such as] which storyline did you respond to the most? Which do you think was boring? That really gave us what ended up being our final structure for the film.

That’s actually amazing because from what I’ve heard about your experience on “Weapons.” I’d guess you might not be comfortable with that.

It’s funny because it was my idea to do the surveys and the screenings with “The Motivation” and this was a very different film than “Weapons.” Part of the problem with “Weapons” and that whole journey was that “Weapons” was a very personal film and a lot of the people that I was working with wanted to turn it into something different. “The Motivation” is very specifically made for the widest audience possible, so that’s part of the reason why I attacked it differently than “Weapons.”

It’s a really interesting way you introduce the film by showing the skaters not landing their tricks and there’s a great passage in the middle of the film about understanding failure, but why did you decide to start the film out that way?

My editor the whole movie, but I cut that opening scene myself. I just sat down and had all the RED footage. We were shooting the same camera package that Ridley Scott shot “Prometheus” on, [with a] lens that it took two men to lift and put it on a camera. So we had all this amazing footage and I wanted to do something with it, and I sat down one weekend while we were cutting and I put a couple different montages together —[one] of skaters landing their tricks and [another] of them bailing on their tricks. We very quickly realized that all you see is skaters and athletes landing their tricks. That’s all over the Internet. In skate videos, with the exception of maybe the outtakes at the end credits, they’re just landing trick after trick, doing amazing stuff.

We wanted to do something different and when we put it together, people really responded to it because in a way, it’s an ode to how hard it is to land a trick because the fact is you don’t often see these dudes bail. And the truth is they bail most of the time. It’s not the reverse. I used to see on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” “The Thrill of Victory and The Agony of Defeat” [where] skiers are bailing and race cars are crashing, and it reminded me of that in a funny way, so that was my inspiration for that opening sequence.

Visually, there’s such a rich history of skate videos to draw on – did you go back and look at them to figure out how to shoot this or was it mostly instinctual?

We actually tried not to watch skate videos because we didn’t want to fall into their modes. Skate videos are what they are. They have their own very definitive language and we didn’t want to use that language. We wanted to use the language more of a traditional documentary, so we watched a lot of sports. But then we used some skate video techniques like we had a cameraman on a skateboard the whole time. Cinematographers who come to our screenings ask us if it’s a dolly and we’re like, no, that’s actually a dude on a skateboard for those moving shots and they’re really blown away.

Since these skaters are filmed all the time, did that make a difference in working with them as subjects?

The thing about skaters is they grow up on camera, so from the first trick that they land when they’re seven years old, it is being filmed. They’re always on camera, so they’re very camera friendly and that worked to our advantage. If this was a movie about eight linebackers in the NFL, it might’ve been a little different because they aren’t used to being on camera all the time. It might be awkward and they might not be as personable, but these guys were so personable, we got lucky.

I may be making a connection where there isn’t one, but between this and “The Carter,” it’s been interested to see how you’ve depicted young people who have had so much success at such an early age and seem to be at a crossroads of staying true to who they were versus what they could become. Is that actually something you’re particularly interested in?

To a certain degree, authenticity is really of interest to me and obviously, fame and celebrity really interest me in a way that it doesn’t interest other documentarians. I was always drawn to a lot of the work the Maysles did in terms of shooting the Rolling Stones or filming Marlon Brando. I love those films because I think fame does really interesting things to people, not necessarily good or bad. I’m not going to judge it. But you can certainly see that in “The Motivation” with certain guys like with Ryan Sheckler and Paul Rodriguez. Ryan’s this teen idol and then Paul has these ridiculous endorsement deals with Target, so how does it feel to be a teen and have to sustain those? It puts a certain amount of pressure on you. It’s not easy being these guys and I’ve always been fascinated by that.

Lil Wayne has a nice moment at the end of the film, so I assume you guys are good now after he initially wanted to block the release for “The Carter.” Was it important for you to put something like that in?

Absolutely. It’s really weird because if you had told me four years ago that me and Wayne would both be involved in skateboarding in a major way, I probably would’ve laughed at you. It seems so random and it is totally coincidental. When I was shooting “The Carter,” he wasn’t interested in skateboarding at all — he wanted to be an ESPN analyst. That was his dream at the time and suddenly he was skateboarding and suddenly I was making this skateboarding movie. So it all came full circle. It was also definitely deliberate putting him in the movie, but it also feels organic because a lot of kids love him and he was there at the event, so it makes sense. It’s not like we shoved him in there as a talking head. And we’re totally cool. He really wants to see the movie. I’ve been trying to get a screening for him.

As a fan of your first couple films, which were dramas, are you interested in getting back to narrative filmmaking after your recent run of documentaries?

Yeah, I’ve never left it. I’ve been developing narrative features since the very beginning and in a lot of ways, it’s like opportunities come up and I’m the type to always take them, so I don’t even feel like it’s deliberate. It’s just sort of happened that I’ve become this documentary filmmaker, but I have been developing narrative features. I’m attached to a really big project that Jason Blum and Ed Pressman are producing together and there are just a lot of moving pieces. Those movies take so long and they’re so fragile, but what remains true is I love working with actors, so I’ll always want to be involved in the narrative process.

One thing that was crazy was when I first got offered “The Carter” a long time ago before Wayne was mainstream, my management told me not to take the job. They thought it was just going to be a crappy direct-to-video hip-hop film. After it premiered at Sundance, it became critically acclaimed and loved by audiences and then the whole controversy [happened] and suddenly, I really wanted to make another documentary. I really enjoy making them. There’s a certain creativity, a certain DIY approach that you can take with documentary that I can’t fit into my narratives because I’m not a mumblecore guy. Like I’m a big budgeted-minded guy, so I don’t know how to make a mumblecore movie. I do think about it, but I think in a weird way the documentary gods want me to come to their side.

“The Motivation” is currently touring the country theatrically and will be available on iTunes, Amazon on Demand, Google Play, Vudu and VOD on August 6th.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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  • Interview: Adam Bhala Lough on Listening in on “Hot Sugar’s Cold World”
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    […] from a different angle. A departure from his previous nonfiction efforts “The Carter” and “The Motivation,” which both tirelessly followed Lil Wayne and a selection of skateboard prodigies such as Nyjah […]

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