[Interview: Niklas Isenberg, Lukas Schepers | Portrait: Ryan Flynn | Photos: Greg Hunt, if not tagged otherwise]
Greg, with all the roadtrips you did and your interest in jazz music, has anyone ever compared you to Jack Kerouac or rather Sal Paradise?
No, never. I never read the book, but I heard about it.
Can you tell us about the time when Sheffey came to Michigan?
Sheffey actually lived there, because he got a girl pregnant on tour that lived in Michigan. My friend and I went to a contest and he talked to Sheffey. He told my friend that he wanted to drive across the country. He had never done it and wanted to go to San Francisco. My friend told Sheffey that we could go on my car even though he hadn’t ask me. I just turned 16 and had this little old Toyota car. I finished tenth or eleventh grade and it was in the summer. I was just skating at the time and did not have a sponsor yet. My friend, Sheffey and I drove out in my car and stayed in San Francisco at Jim Thiebauds (Deluxe Distribution; founded Real Skateboards with Tommy Guerrero) house. Natas (Kaupas, street skate pioneer, founded 101 Skateboards) was staying there also, which was crazy at the time for a kid to even see Natas and staying at the same apartment with him. That same day was really insane, because we got there at seven in the morning after driving 42 hours straight and Natas was the only one awake. So we went to skate the safeway-curb, which is a famous red double sided curb at eight in the morning. We just arrived there for the very first time and he’s doing nollie frontside boardslides like so long. This was 1990 and I never seen anyone pop an ollie from their nose before. We went back to the apartment and Julien Stranger (founded Antihero) came over and Natas gave Julien his first pro board for the first time. So that happened right and front of me and we all went skating.
It was still the first day where it was like Natas, Tommy Guerrero, Julien for a little bit, Jovontae Turner and I don’t even remember who else… That went on for days just skating San Francisco.
How long did you stay and what happened after?
Maybe two weeks, but it was a big turning point in my life, because I met all these people, I got sponsored by “Venture“ and I saw San Francisco from the best possible perspective. I went straight to the middle of the whole scene there, so I knew right when I got home that I’m moving to San Francisco as soon as I’m old enough.
Greg's 18th birthday: The evening before he moved to San Francisco.
Do you have a special memory from the roadtrip that sticks out?
I think one thing that really sticks out is how cool Sheffey was. On the drive out there he was like drawing, listening to music. He wasn’t this crazy guy at all. He’s really creative, listening to Bad Religion. At one point we were at a gas station and he’s skating in the parking lot in the middle of America and some guy is like: “Hey look, a nigger on a skateboard”, right? This is to Sean Sheffey. I could not believe that someone even said it, because where I’m from there is not as much racism. Sheffey got in the car and was like: “Hey man let’s just get out of here.” He was so mellow. Before we even got to SF he couldn’t get ahold of Jim, this is obviously a long time before cell phones, and he was like: “Man, if those guys aren’t cool with us staying there I will stay in the car with you guys.” He was really fucking cool. That’s probably the one thing that stands out the most, besides from meeting all these guys. At the time Sheffey was one of my favorite skaters. Not only meeting him, but him being such a normal person, made a big impression on me.
“I never wanted to do skate videos“
You probably could have had a career in skateboarding – why did you become a filmmaker?
I did get sponsored and I did turn pro on Stereo and had a Transworld interview in '98, but I think really the Stereo videos got me into it. Well it was a couple of things. I was really good friends with Gabe Morford, the photographer. We were roommates and he gave me a camera. So I got really into photography and around the same time Stereo started making their videos, which were really creative videos with super 8 and photography. That got me really into filmmaking, but I never really thought that I wanted to make a skate video. I just bought a super 8 camera and I would shoot the city and I would go home and edit it on my VCR just because I thought it was fun.
Then I slowly got more and more into shooting and filming stuff. I wanted to shoot 16. Right around the same time I was unhappy with Stereo, because they are having a lot of changes and I didn’t really want to be there anymore. Of course there were companies I wanted to skate for, but I wasn’t in the position where I could get on anything like that.
At that time I was really into shooting film, so I just went fully into cinematography and wanted to be a cinematographer. I was really serious about photography, started working as an assistant on films and did whatever I could to learn. After a while somehow I saw a Transworld video “The sixth sense” that had a lot of really cool 16mm footage in it and I was like: “Man that’s really awesome, the 16mm looks so cool and I could shoot 16 for Transworld and wouldn’t have to pay for it and I could be with my friends.” So I called Ty Evans and he sent me a bunch of film and I started shooting more and more until eventually when he left I started working for him. That’s how it happened.
The original Stereo Team in ’93 shot by Gabe Morford.
And than it evolved into shooting complete skate videos.
Yea but I never wanted to do skate videos. When I was skating for Stereo I remember Jason Lee once was saying that he wanted me to help film, because everyone filmed each other. I was young and stupid and my ego… For whatever reason I was like: “I can’t believe he’s asking me to film”. I remember being bummed, I didn’t want to film. I remember him saying: “We are all filming each other man, come on!” I just did not want to film skating. Even all the way into working for Transworld I had never really filmed skating, only 16mm. So for the first Transworld video I had to learn how to shoot video, film lines, shoot fisheye, edit. All that stuff. I never really had the aspiration to be a skate filmmaker it just ended up that way.
“Once I started doing film-work I realized what I did wrong as a skater“
Are you happy that it turned out that way?
Do you think a skateboarding career would have satisfied you as much as one in cinematography?
No, I don’t think so. It’s two totally different things. I was never the most gifted skater. I remember I would get really frustrated because there was all that stuff I wanted to do that I could never do. I would try and couldn’t do it. I remember thinking: “Man if I just could do something where if I had an idea I could actually do it and not be physically limited.” I think that’s why I feel a lot more comfortable doing film-work. But it’s impossible to look back and compare them. They both have their rewards and are totally different. Skateboarding is really fucking hard on your body. I’m 41 now, there is no way I could still be a top pro skater now, I wasn’t even a top pro skater back than. I made a lot of mistakes skating.
What do you mean?
I was just young and I wasn’t really smart about my time and being resourceful with my skating. I wasn’t like: “Hey man, I’m sponsored. I want to fucking kill it. I want to film. I want to shoot photos. I wanna learn. I wanna really push myself.” I never really had that. I did to an degree, but I didn’t take advantage of a lot of my opportunities as a skateboarder. Being pro for Deluxe and being around those incredible people, I was into doing other stuff and wanted to skate for fun. But once I started doing film-work I realized what I did wrong as a skater. It taught me to be a lot more careful with my time and to be confident in myself and if I want to do something I will try to make it happen.
What role do music videos play for you?
That’s just an creative outlet. I have to do other things. I can’t do just skateboarding every day, because there is this other side of me that likes to create things and put it out there. It’s hard working on a skate video going out everyday filming. Some days you don’t even take your camera out, you get kicked out, you end up filming some other random person that’s not even part of the project you are working on. That’s fine when you’re young, but as you get older your time gets a lot more valuable and also I’ve been learning and you progress. Doing bigger skate videos for me now is more something I like to do just because I love skateboarding. It’s not a career thing, it’s not technical challenging. It’s all about helping these guys filming great parts and bringing that to the world, helping these guys film the best parts they can and delivering it in a way that gets a good response. So it’s hopefully something that these guys can talk to people about for the rest of their life. That’s really all it’s about. I need to do other things besides that because it’s such a big sacrifice.
To be happy or to make money?
To be happy. You don’t make any money making music videos. I don’t think I ever made a dollar making a music video. Maybe a little bit.
Do you think music videos give you the possibility to be more creative?
Sometimes. I think really what I like about it is that music is a lot like skateboarding. I always make the parallel to skateboarding being more like music than a sport. The way people respond to a certain type of skater it is a lot more alike to a certain type of musician than an athlete, because people are like: “I love LeBron James. I love the way he plays and how many points he scores.” Skateboarding is more like: “I love Jimmy Hendrix, just because I love the way he sounds.” It’s kind of like: “I love Andrew Reynolds, because I love the way he skates.”
Does that mean shooting music is similar to shooting skateboarding?
No, but working with musicians is a lot like working with skateboarders. It’s cool, because in a weird way it’s a lot like doing a video part, because it’s their music and you work with them. They come up with an idea and you shoot it, but a lot of times it’s pretty loose. You edit it and they see it and maybe come up with some more ideas they want to change. It’s a lot like doing someones video part, because technically I’m directing someones part. I don’t even like to say that I direct, even though it’s my title, but really it’s theirs and that’s the same with music videos. You’re creating it and people that might really pay attention would be like: “Oh, so and so directed it”, but most people that are seeing it are just looking at the music and they are looking at it as a representation of the art of the musician. Same with the skate video. Most people are going to watch this video and not know who I am or care who I am, they are just going to look at the skating.
How was shooting with Cat Power, because that video looked really natural and fun?
I met her, because I helped with a music video for her six month before and it was really crazy. It was a crazy experience, but somehow through that her and I became friends and than when that video came up and she contacted me and was like: “Hey, I want to do this music video and I love the song. New York. Two days. We can shoot it.” She had some ideas and it was real easy. With that video she first wanted to be driving around in the back of a truck and that didn’t work out because of safety so it turned into this bus thing with her just driving around. She was just like: “I just want to cruise around. I want to go to this record store”, but when we got their I would have ideas or she would have one. It was very easy. We really just cruised around. “Let’s take in a taxicab, let’s go to Max Fish”. It was like a day and a half to shoot the whole thing and I edited for like three days. That’s what’s nice about that kind of thing. It’s so different and a nice balance for the skate stuff. But also that was just five days of my life and it’s a video that a lot of people saw from which I think that it is a really cool piece. It’s nice.
“There is something about filmmaking that photography doesn’t have“
What are the reasons why you choose cinematography over photography?
To be honest I don’t even know. I don’t really consider myself a photographer that could ever make money of it. I can’t use flashes. I don’t shoot commercial work. I pretty much just document my friends. It’s like documentary photography. On the other hand cinematography is actually something I can do as work, but I enjoy both. For me I like photography because it’s my own thing and I can shoot whatever I want. No one else has to touch it, no one has to see it. It can be whatever it wants. That’s like the one thing I have creatively that’s my own little thing. Cinematography is definitely more like work, but I also really enjoy filmmaking, you know, music, editing, putting the shots together and tell a story. There is something about it that photography doesn’t have – not that that’s a bad thing, but I like the bigger picture.
I guess with Propeller the goal was to tell the story of Vans. What was the hardest thing in the process of making that video?
Just finishing it [laughs]. Editing it. There were a couple of things I couldn’t realize, because there were so many parts. It was really hard to bring everything together the right way. I don’t think people understand how much work it is to edit a video part. It’s like a huge puzzle. Every single video part is a puzzle.
And how does putting that puzzle together work?
It starts with the footage. You get all the footage down to what you just want in there and you try to find the right music. If you are making a video where you don’t have to get permission for the music it’s so much easier otherwise it’s really fucking hard. First you have to find a song that you both really like that has never been used, that works and has the right length and than you have to hope that you can get it. Sometimes you have to wait one month, maybe two months, sometimes more to even get the song. In that time you maybe do a rough edit of the part, which takes a week to ten days to get everything in the right place. You watch it and there is something about this line, it could be way better it’s not in the right spot, then you move that somewhere else and that makes you move everything else around. It’s constant reorganizing. And you still don’t know if you can get the song, so you maybe need to send an edit for a review first, and sometimes you still don’t get the song last second and you have to start over while you are trying to do 14 other parts all at the same time. It’s really challenging.
“At one point I realized that I really have to fuck Propeller up for people to hate it“
How do you figure out how to put everything together?
For Propeller, there were so many people in it that I knew if I waited and try to finish everything at the same time I’d go crazy. I kind of did pieces, where guys like Pfanner who is in Germany and already filming for Volcom. He’s done. So let’s find a song for Pfanner and get his part done by a certain date. And than Van Engelen and Gilbert, some guys who were done early, I tried to edit their parts completely done to a point where I couldn’t change anything. I color corrected their whole part and they’d be done. After that I was able to focus on everything else and have enough of it behind me to focus on other parts.
At one point I knew who is going to be first, second, last and second to last. For everything in between, a lot of stuff happens last minute. A lot of songs you get last minute and there is no other way to do it than to put it together sort of at the end. There are parts in between the parts I wanted to do, that I couldn’t do, because I didn’t have the time, but I think it’s okay. At one point I realized that I really have to fuck this thing up for people to hate it, because the skating is so good and the music is good and I put it together in a very simple way on purpose to where it’s just a skate video. There’s no acting, nothing fancy. People seem to like it, but it’s pretty much part, part, part, part… But there’s enough at the beginning and end of everyones part that it doesn’t feel so choppy. It flows.
Do you feel like Propeller is more back to the roots when it comes to marketing and presentation?
I don’t know about the marketing. There’s really not that much marketing, but it’s definitely not a progressive, ultra high definition video. It’s HD, but there’s a lot of 16mm film. I don’t think if anyone is going to see it they are going to think: “Wow, how did they do that?” We are not using helicopters and shit. It’s a straight forward skate video as skaters are used to seeing. Fisheye, long lens, 16mm. It’s the same formula I always used for videos. Just because of Vans's aesthetic and the team I didn’t think a super glossy high production video would really fit. …
The DVD was supposed to come out two days before it’s on iTunes, but that ended up not being able to happen, because of some crazy warehouse, shipping things. Now, that the DVD will not come out till a couple of weeks after it’s on iTunes, do you want to really sell it? Because than you are giving the skate shops something that’s already been out. So the idea was, for a period of time, if you buy 50 dollars worth of Vans stuff you get the DVD for free. Really that’s a thing that Vans did for the shops, because instead of giving them a product that’s old, there’s gonna be a 90 page book with a disc in it. So it’s not some cheap disc in a paper sleeve, it’s actually a really nice product, but the idea is, that kids will go to the shops, buy something and get the free DVD.
You said in an interview I did with you three years ago that DVD’s will be history in quite some time – any change of thoughts?
No, they will be. I’m surprised they already stuck around this long.
It’s inevitable. In 15 years it’s probably gonna be hard to even make a DVD. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of DVD’s in the future, that’s just the direction things are going.
Everything is going to digital downloads. It seems kind of unlikely do make a DVD in 15 years time. In 2004 when I did the DC video I was surprised that they were still around because that’s why I did the booklet for the DC video. If you just look at a normal DVD in a plastic case, the only thing of value is what’s on the disc, but if there comes a time where you don’t even watch the disc, the whole thing is kind of worthless. That’s the idea of making a book, to where 15 years from now people will still want to save the book, because it’s something you can look through and you can have on your shelf. Even if you lost the DVD or it doesn’t work anymore or you don’t have a DVD player you will always have the book.
“What I’m proud of is, that all my videos are totally different“
You just became a father and I bet you are very happy that you have time now, because I read that Ty Evans was on a trip when his son first started talking – how do you feel now?
Yea and that’s real. I’m really happy and what he said was true man, when you have a kid it changes everything. I heard my kid laugh for the first time on a trip, on my phone, on the van. I hooked up my phone and watched a video of him laughing. Skate videos take a lot of dedication and it’s funny when people criticize a video, for whatever reason, I don’t think people know how much dedication and time goes into it. From shooting to editing it, it’s pretty unreal.
Which project are you most proud of?
That’s an impossible question. What I’m proud of is, that they are all totally different. I’m proud of Sight Unseen, because we made that in like six month and obviously the DC video I’m proud of for a lot of reasons, what Danny Way did. Mindfield I’m proud of creatively and this Video it’s just because it’s Vans's first video. They are all different. I always make a point and never do the same project twice.
If you were a camera, which one would you be?
Bolex Rex 5 Super 16.
Thanks a lot, Greg.