"GNARLEANS" / RAUL BUITRAGO / INTERVIEW

It's all about networkin'! The right kind of, that is: in this case, Calvin Millar (whose works we've presented you a few times before) is the one who got us in touch with Raul Buitrago, a N.Y.C.- and Austin-based filmmaker who had just completed his work on "GNARLEANS", a full-length documentary movie on New Orleans skateboarding through the prism of three locals, themselves recommended to Raul by Humidity Skateshop: Jamie "Jazz" Hardy, Jarred Dearmas and Troy Lacabe. Although a N.Y.C. premiere is still coming up (see below for the flyer), the New Orleans is over so the full film is now available to watch on the Interwebs - like on the bottom of this very page, for one arguably random instance. For the occasion, LIVE caught up with Raul who was nice enough to answer a few questions from us, for you.

LIVE Skateboard Media: Hey Raul, may you please introduce yourself? What is your background in filmmaking, skateboarding and how did the original idea to make "GNARLEANS" come about? Your previous film, "GOUCH" was a documentary too (on a Brooklyn graffiti artist); where would you reckon this urge to document street culture comes from?

Raul Buitrago: My name is Raul Buitrago, I'm a filmmaker based in N.Y.C. and Austin. Skateboarding and graffiti came into my life when I was about twelve or thirteen. In New York, those two things go hand in hand. Through skateboarding, I discovered photography and it stuck with me to this day. The transition over to film happened about five years ago. I started doing music videos for underground hip-hop artists in New York. After just a few of those, I got very curious about trying to make a short film about a graffiti writer. "GOUCH" was an absolute pleasure to make. Not only do I love graffiti, but Gouch was one of the guys whose style I emulated growing up. And he was super open about exploring different themes.
 
 
The idea for "GNARLEANS" first came from my collaborator, photographer Henry Hung. He had approached me about wanting to do a photo project somewhere in the south. He had mentioned that New Orleans was a city that flies under the radar in the skate community. You always hear about N.Y.C., L.A., Barcelona, S.F., but New Orleans....not so much. Our conversation quickly turned into pursuing the idea of filming a local skater in New Orleans.
 

"I wanted to challenge myself by editing together 'moments', not a 'story'"

 
I think that my urge to document street culture comes from a very natural place. I'm drawn to cultures that have a strong element of subversion. You have to disregard any rules that are established by society in order to partake in either skating or graffiti fully. There aren't many people that give all of themselves to those lifestyles because they demand so much. The ones that do... are special. They're usually looked down on, or written off, by most people. Documenting them allows me to turn the anti-hero into a hero and, of course, preserve their story.
 

Ph.: Henry Hung
 
LSM: Some scenes in "GNARLEANS" are especially cinematic to the point of leaving the viewer ponder the part of reality and fiction sometimes (i.e.. that first scene with the security guard). Was your approach 100% the one of a documentarist the whole time, or were a few elements of the script rehearsed or staged, for presentation’s sake if anything?
 
Raul: I would say a good 95% of the film is purely observational footage. In other words, almost all of it was authentic. I actively chose not to have a strong narrative backbone, no on-camera interviews, and no text to help you along the way. For this project, I really wanted to challenge myself by editing together "moments" and not a "story". I drew a lot of inspiration from filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and Agnès Varda. I wanted to let the footage speak for itself and invite the viewer to immerse themselves in the moments presented. As an editor, it was fun to draw thematic parallels without having to rely too much on interviews. During some of the voiceover sequences, we had some moments that were staged to help drive the voiceover along. The sequence with the security guard you're referring to was 100% authentic.
 

Dominic & Deandra. Ph.: Henry Hung
 
LSM: Can you speak about the protagonists in the film, introduce us to who they are and recount your experience of working with them? How did you meet them and choose to involve them in your film; how organic was that process? Then how spontaneous was the whole time you guys spent filming together? How long would you reckon the filming process took?
 
Raul: After Henry and I agreed that we should move forward with this project, I reached out to my friend Calvin Millar in Austin who then put us in touch with Phil Santosuosso at Humidity. The only thing I said to Phil was that we were looking for someone from eighteen to thirty-ish. I also mentioned to him that we're going to use only local New Orleans music for the film. After I said that, he put me in touch with Jamie "Jazz" Hardy, who's a skater, artist, and musician.
 
 
On the first trip down, we met Jarred Dearmas and Troy Lacabe through Jazz. We spent a lot of time filming them together and that was some of my favorite stuff that we had shot of them. After reviewing the footage, I knew we had to include them in the project as well. It all happened very organically. Filming them was almost too easy. They accepted the presence of the camera almost instantly. They are all passionate, rambunctious skaters. Jazz and Jarred are artistically inclined, doing photo, video, graphic and music projects. Two of Jazz's tracks appear in the film and both of them designed the covers for the "GNARLEANS MIXTAPE".
 
 
We didn't have any grandiose film plan or schedule. All I knew was that we needed a bunch of them skating with each other in the streets, hanging with friends and spending time with some family. We just chased them the whole time with cameras in hand and rolled with whatever went on. We spent about two weeks and a half filming. And one year and a half editing...
 

"There wasn't really a script, so most of the edit was figured out by feel"

 
LSM: Did you ever find yourself in any sketchy situations, running into shady people or having to justify scouting around New Orleans’ back alleys at night with camera equipment, lights and a crew of skateboarders?
 
Raul: Luckily, we didn't encounter any shady situations. We were all in good company the whole time and just went for it. We heard stories about a gun being pulled on a skater for skitching a car, but we didn't bear witness to anything like that.
 

Zigs. Ph.: Henry Hung
 
LSM: From the effervescence captured in the film, the city looks like it never sleeps. Yet the crazy downtown footage is interlaced with more intimate suburban or family scenes, resulting in a contrast between whether the skaters choose to confront the city or rest in their familiar environment. As a result it kind of feels like whenever the sensible protagonists head over downtown in a pack, they’re putting up a fight against its crazy intensity all the while figuring themselves out at the same time, a process most notably exemplified by the (left unresolved) wallride battle. How did the plan for the editing come about? Did you first improvise getting the footage then think up ways of putting it together, or did you have a script from the get-go? The sequencing is pretty ingenious.
 
Raul: Aside from wanting the film to be primarily all observational footage, I also wanted to experiment with the edit. "GOUCH" had a firm narrative with a clear beginning and end. With "GNARLEANS", I wanted to try the opposite. The non-linear, playful approach was intentional and worked great with the footage we got. Jazz's intro was pieced together first. Then we used Jazz's wallride attempts as a repetitive element throughout the film. The attempts ground us in that moment while punctuating the scenes that come before and after. The voiceover scenes also anchor us in story and provide some context for the film. There wasn't really a script, so most of the edit was figured out by feel.
 
  
LSM: Let’s wrap this up! Any upcoming projects? Any last words?
 
Raul: Shouts to you for featuring the film on the site!
 
Premiere screening of "GNARLEANS" was in New Orleans March 16th!  We're also announcing a N.Y.C. screening this April 13th. Working on other screenings in other parts of the globe.
 
 
Editing a new short that'll hopefully be out this summer. Starting to rev the engine on another feature length idea.
 
No last words yet. Check in with me when I'm done.
 
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