William Strobeck, macadam cowboy?

Photos courtesy of William Strobeck
Interview: Benjamin Deberdt

We thought his recent Cinematographer Project interview called for more probing of William's mind, and we unearthed this more in-depth interview that had only been available in French in Sugar magazine and in German in Monster magazine until now. Read about his early days documenting derelicts in his home town, filming for Photosynthesis, and what keeps him excited…

William Strobeck and Jake Johnson

Self-portrait with Jake Johnson
People usually start documenting their surroundings, before evolving into photographers or filmmakers. Is that your story, also?
My grandmother got me a camcorder when I was about 14. There was a huge crew of kids where I grew up, because there was a museum in my hometown, with something there similar to a Love Park type of thing. I used to just go there everyday. I basically quit school, and was hanging out with all these kind of delinquenty type kids. I got the camera, and all I did was film with them, because we wanted to make videos and have little premieres where we lived. It was a lot of good skateboarders too. It wasn’t like “let’s film some crappy stuff and put it out!”. Our town had the real good kids.
Describe the kind of city this was…
Syracuse? Size wise, it’s not even a quarter of New York City, it’s a really small city. Maybe four or five big buildings, and you could skate from one side of the city to another… I grew up on a lake, so this was a big city to me when I first went down there, because I wasn’t used to that. And then, when I moved to Philadelphia from there, I was like “Holy shit, this place is big!” and, when I moved to New York, “Wow, this place is even bigger!”. So, yeah, Syracuse is really small, but it’s a real city. Bad shit happens there… Actually, the littler cities seem sketchier than the big ones, now. There are really sketchy, people see what’s going on in big cities on TV and want to mimic it, and there is nothing to do there, either, so that’s what they got to do: cause trouble!
What’s the story behind you moving to Philly?
I think it was 1996, I was 17… My friend from Syracuse went down there to study at University of Penn, so a bunch of us went to visit and skate. The scene was awesome; it was Matt Reason, Rick Oyola, Freddy Gall… Just like I had seen in the Sub Zero video. You could skate everywhere without getting kicked out. The ground at City Hall was glossy! They repaved it five years in, a bit similar to Love Park, but then, you could fall and slide super far, you’d never get hurt! So, my friend Ben was living there, I hung out there for a bit, and four months later I got my GED and moved down with this girl I was dating then. I didn’t even bring my camera. I just skated, met a lot of people really quick, lot of really cool kids that were in to art and interesting stuff.
How did you end-up getting more seriously into filming, then?
I had my camera sent to me… It was a low budget 8mm, and I was at Love everyday, filming friends. I started filming with Stevie Williams… Then, my camera got stolen by one of the homeless people. I left it on a bench right near me, in a bag, while I was skating. I turned around and this homeless guy was running with it… A month later, I was talking to my girlfriend telling her I wanted to film, thinking I could make it happen, and she ended up putting the money down. We drove down two hours to the Sony outlet and I got a VX1000. I carried it in an army duffle bag, I didn’t even have a regular bag for it! I started filming Stevie, my friends, like Rob Pluhowski… Stevie must have been 17. He’d just come down to Love, take someone’s board and just start skating it. He was amazing, it looked like he was dancing… I still have that footage somewhere… It didn’t matter if I was filming people skating or hanging out, because personality wise it was great. It was a lot of funny stuff going on!
How did filming for Photosynthesis enter the picture? This was your first job in skateboarding, right?
Yeah, that was the first thing where I was getting paid for filming skateboarding. Josh Kalis was filming for an Alien Workshop section in 411. Joe Castrucci, who would create Habitat later, was filming for that, and would eventually edit it. This Industry section was amazing when it came out… So, they were filming and Josh was doing a backside kickflip over the two cans at Love that day and I ended up filming it, also. I was actually poaching it! [Laughter] I ended up giving my angle to Joe. A month later, they were like: “we’re going to do a video, do you want to help film? We can pay you a day-rate.” Two days layer I was at Love filming Josh. It happened really quick. They were: “Do you want to film, we’re doing Photosynthesis…” Just like that…
 Anthony Pappalardo and William Strobeck

Self-portrait with Anthony Pappalardo

How long did making that video take, actually?
I ended up working on it for, I think, three years… I’m not sure. The scene in Philly got really big. Habitat was starting, and I was helping Joe with figuring out the team. As soon as that was locked down, people were there everyday. Brian Wenning, Anthony Pappalardo, they were there every single day. The whole Habitat team was there, filming everyday. Half of that video was done on the East Coast. It didn’t feel to me it was going to be as big as it did. Even when I saw the video, it didn’t phase me as much as the other people because I was filming, editing the footage at home, showing the guys what they had… I was so numb to it. I feel like if you work on a movie, by the time it comes out, you won’t know if it’s good or not, it has to be someone who has no idea of what they’re about to see to tell you. That happens to everything I’ve done. By the time I’m done, it is what it is, to me…
You moved to New York during the filming of Photo, right?
They ended up closing Love Park, I ended splitting up with my lady at the time, and I decided to move to New York when Pappalardo and Pluhowski were living here. A bunch of kids from Syracuse had moved here and had an open room. New York was as exciting to me then, as Philly was that first time. It had the energy, I had no idea where I was… It was really fun, in 2002. It has changed a lot. It feels like the internet was hardly even around when I moved here. It’s Chutes and Ladders Candy Land now. It’s still fun, though…
Oh, so you were not living here when you filmed Dill’s part for Photo?
I was still leaving in Philadelphia, so I would come and stay with him on Canal Street. I was 19 or 20. I was very green, he just wasn’t, really! It was very fun to be around him, then. I didn’t know him very well. He was really young and sparky and was very new to New York, also. So I would go out with him and just watch what would happen! When I went out with him, I didn’t even party or anything. And it was never “let’s go to a bar and have a drink”, it’d be go to this giant ritzy place with all those fashion people. I had an anxiety attack in one of those places, so he took me home! I wouldn’t even go out with him, I’d stay at his house and he’d come back at two or three in the morning bringing people back, while I’d be sleeping on the hardwood floor. [Laughter] I wasn’t really out of my shell, then, I was young and really shy…
You’ve never put out a full project on your own, actually…
No, never… I was about to work for one, but I think they’re gonna stop doing it. Filming skating is a job, now, but it’s something I like to do when it is working with someone I like. It’s almost agonizing to me to film someone that I don’t really want to film. And that’s why I am who I am in skating. When I put out these little videos for people to see, these are the people I like to work with and I want to represent, as they are a part of what I do. To do a full length video for someone means I’m working with a couple people I really want to work with and also a couple people I don’t want to work with, and it’s not my thing… Someone pays you to do it, but sometimes I’d rather not get the money and just do what I like, because this is what I’m gonna leave behind when I’m gone, and those are the people I want to represent, and we’re all friends. I could give the same footage that I filmed to somebody else and they’d make it look totally different than if I am making it.
How did you develop that particular style of editing? Was that something you’ve always been interested in, say when watching movies?
Kids that film today, they do not look outside of skateboarding at all. I don’t feel they do. They mimic what somebody’s doing because they feel like what’s they have to do. When I fist started, I was like that… When I was in Philly, I kind of just mimicked what was going on. I’d take that footage now and do it differently because I feel it could be portrayed a way that’s not like everybody else’s. You should make it the way that you want, but it’s a scary thing to do something new, because when you put it out, it’ll be criticized. So, the way that I do it is the way that I want people to see it. It’s more for me than it is for anyone else. But all that footage always went to the companies that were paying me, and they’d use it the way they wanted. Now I make it mine when I can, and I seem to be getting a good response, so…
There’s been talk of you working on some sort of mixtape of your work…
I know! I just got all the footage logged, so it is in the works. It’s gonna take a little bit, but I’m not in a rush to put it out. But, trust me, there’s a lot of good footage that got overlooked during the making of Mosaic, or Photosynthesis, so it’ll be interesting. There’s a lot of personality stuff too, that goes farther with me. Kids might want to see skating, but to see those guys talking, when they were younger, that’s more realistic to me than a skateboard trick. The people I really like are the ones with the personality. Whatever they do, they’re just interesting to me, and I just want to show people why they are. There are a lot of leftovers, as well as the stuff that got shown, but that still is my favorite, so I want to put it in one video that I can say: “this is mine, this is what I did at that time.” I feel like I’m pushing my way out of skateboarding, as much as I love it. I don’t want to be 50 years old, filming some 15 years old. I find that embarrassing. I know I can do other stuff.

Hell by William Strobeck

You said you’ve been filming skaters that you find interesting, how does that translate in, say, doing music videos?
I’ve said it before, you don’t get to work with women in skateboarding! There is just no such thing. The only women you get to work with are behind the accounting desk, and you don’t even get to see them, you just send an invoice through the computer! I like working with women. There’s just too much testosterone in skating! You’re in a van, with ten dudes. You stop at a 7/11. You listen to psychos talk all the time. Some of them are awesome, but some people are just obnoxious, because they are just young kids inside. The way skateboarding is filmed and edited, is different than any other thing, whether it’s music videos or short films, and it’s a natural thing for me to do it that way. And that style is probably a little more potent in other genres of filmmaking. If you’re filming a girl riding a bike that way, it might look different. Not saying my stuff is very different. There are old Andy Warhol films, or Kenneth Anger films that are way more abstract than anything I’ve done. I wish skateboarders would watch that kind of stuff that happened in the late sixties and seventies. Some of those underground films are amazing. Memory Screen by Alien Workshop is amazing. Those guys made that in two or three weeks, and edited it from beginning to end, so the first thing that you see is the first thing they put in there. All the way from beginning to the end. That video is probably the best video, visually and also as something that makes you think, in the sense that you try to figure out what’s going on. Nowadays, you put it all in a timeline, and it’s a lot easier to edit. And it’s noticeable how everything can be cut perfect. I went to see this movie that I have on VHS, at the Lincoln Center a couple month ago, that Dennis Hopper made in the eighties, called Out of The Blue. I have a small TV at home, so when I watched it on a big screen, I noticed all the fuck-ups in it. It would never have the fuck-ups today. The continuity was off, and all that, but I liked that. To me it’s natural to have those things in, and in my opinion, things are too polished now.
It’s something you do see in skateboarding, nowadays, that Hollywood fantasy some people seem to have…
Oh, yeah, it’s noticeable who’s doing that in skateboarding! Everyone got their own style, and to each their own… But skateboarding always had a raw feel to me, and especially where I live and do it, and with the people I’m around, so it’ll never be a Hollywood movie in my head. And I think it shouldn’t be! It’s not a pretty thing! Some stuff, like the Circle Board in Paris that kid did; visually, it was a pretty thing, and that was cool. But to make real skating look pretty, it doesn’t work for me. But, then again, for some people out there, it does work and they can appreciate it. The thing I can appreciate about it is the production behind it. And everything I’ve work on, I never had a production. I’ve taken my friends, call them: “Come on out and I’m gonna film you doing this for a half hour!”. My stuff doesn’t cost that much money to make! [Laughter] But I’m looking to go bigger. With a bigger budget, I feel I could intensify what I’ve been doing already.
Where do you see this going in a few years?
I see myself putting out that skateboard video, and moving out of skating. I feel like I’ve done what I wanted to do in it, almost. The people that I was passionate to work with, half of them are not even around anymore. There’s a whole new breed of kids skating, and a whole new breed of kids filming them and they should be doing it. Some of them I appreciate their work and I’d like to see what they end up doing! I’m going to be doing other stuff, more short films, visual stuff. Films with story lines, shorts. I plan on doing a show or two, with the photos and the films I’ve been doing, all together. It’s all leading into one thing I’m really excited to do.
Is skateboarding still cool?
Yeah, I think it’s still cool. It’s just got more of an audience. When I started and where I grew up, it wasn’t cool. If you did it, you sucked, basically! And that was part of why I wanted to do it! It was rebelling against everything people were into, in my hometown. Skating at the time was huge pants and huge shirts and bleached hair, and fuck you for not liking me! They were twelve kids doing it, that was it, and they were delinquents and they wrote graffiti. It’s such a different world now. But there are definitely a lot of great people still involved… But it’s still a cool thing. The girls like skaters, so I guess it’s somewhat cool. Girls did not like them back them, at all! [Laughter] I’m looking for things outside of it that would remind me what skateboarding felt, at first. I’d like to find something like that and get into it.

William Strobeck and Dylan Rieder

Self-portrait with Dylan Rieder

You can see more of William's work here.

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