Watch Van Alpert's New Film That Explores The West Coast Skate Scene
Last week, we stopped by The Berrics for the premiere of Van Alpert’s latest documentary, Red Bull Music presents: LA Skate + Music. In the indoor skatepark, the film was projected onto the wall, and it wasn’t long before skaters were gliding up and down ramps while being fueled by free tacos from the truck outside. The film explored the music and skate scene in LA; we were introduced to the stories and perspectives of Mikey Alfred and the Illegal Civ Skate Collective, Hesh, Chelsea Castro, Race Nagel, and Anaiah Lei (to name a few). Today, the film is released to the public. We spoke to the director, Van Alpert, about his upbringing in the art world, his global life, and the immediacy and intensity that drives his work. Read below for the full interview, accompanied by BTS shots from the making of this doc.
(Fun fact: if you’ve been to Milk LA, you can’t help but notice the infamous “We Never Close” neon sign. Alpert designed it!)
This isn’t your first time being featured on XYZ. Welcome back.
I was featured on Milk.xyz about a trailer that I made like four or five years ago. We are actually now in production to finish the feature doc. It’s my first feature film about this kid named Leandre. When I first moved to LA 10 years ago, I met this kid in a skate park. He was 12 years old and his little brother was 10 and they came up to me and asked what I was filming. I met their mom at the park and I have all of that footage; it’s all this incredible footage over the last 10 years. Leandre has a small cameo in my red bull film. I put him in everything.
You’ve lived in Miami, New York, Cuba, Holland, and LA – how do those creative scenes differ? And why have you stuck with Los Angeles?
In Holland, the market is so small; TV is like a grain of sand compared to TV in LA; same with New York; the overall resources of set builders, construction, just overall American labor in different cities; it doesn’t compare to LA. Los Angeles is the Mecca of making films and building your wildest ideas. There are a lot of big artists that have studios here because the overall workers are so high level.
Have you always felt artistically inclined?
Yes, yes. My mom’s father, my grandfather, is from Holland; my mom’s whole side is from Holland. And just, generally speaking, I feel like Dutch people are drawn to the arts somehow. There are a lot of great painters that came from Holland and my grandfather was a painter. He owned a small supermarket, as his day-to-day, and he never made any money as an artist, but in his attic, he had a little studio. And as a kid, I would visit Holland every summer, and out of all three kids that I grew up with from my mom, I would be the one sitting up there with him. He’d teach me little tricks and whatnot. My dad is a shoe designer and shoemaker and he drew pretty well. Naturally, we’re all pretty creative. My mom was a singer and model and my mom’s sister is an actress, so it’s in the blood.
Did you take art classes in school or did you just follow that path because it’s what you grew up with?
In Miami I was definitely the best in my art class; I was always really competitive like that. Even in graffiti, I was always really competitive. I wanted to be the best in my crew and had to figure out a way that my stuff stood out. I got accepted to a few really good art schools in Miami; one was called Dash and the other was called New World. I didn’t go because I wanted to play basketball with my friends. I went to like an all-boys Catholic sports high school.
I dropped out of high school and then I went to theater school because I wanted to be an actor. I never even knew about directing. I never even knew I was smart enough. I didn’t even know that that was like a thing. I just thought like, “Oh, I can be in movies… I’ll try that.” I moved to New York when I was 17 and I went to all the different little theater schools there and tried all that, and I didn’t like it. By doing that I figured out how to direct. When I moved here 10 years ago, I got a scholarship to Art Center in Pasadena, and I also went to film school in Cuba. I lived in Cuba for a year.
When were you in Cuba?
I was in Cuba when I was 20. I had a friend from Miami that moved to Cuba to go to the University of Havana. He started making a documentary about surfing. At that time, I was getting pretty good at making little videos, like homemade stuff with little point and shoot cameras. They didn’t have iPhones at the time. I went to Cuba sort of as his roommate and his assistant. We went to a film school there on a farm. They have really amazing schools there, that are really cheap. You just have to kind of have to have the balls to move to Cuba and do that.
You often utilize your iPhone to create artwork; in a world where we always have our phones out and we’re always tapped into technology, how do you differentiate work and your life?
Interesting question. I just try to find a balance of sharing some personal things, like certain activities that I feel would be positive and inspiring to the people that follow what I’m doing. So, for instance, I’ll post things about my dog because my dog is just good vibes. I like to post stuff about boxing and certain personal things that I do just because to me it’s a positive thing when you’re pushing yourself.
My work life is very similar to my real life and that’s because it’s all about just pushing yourself really hard. With that being said, with my phone for instance, if you were to work with me on one of my jobs, I kind of have everybody ready to go with their phone because I don’t want to miss any moments about anything. I push people really hard, and it’s not in a bad rude way. Since I’m a filmmaker and working with video, a lot of people know about how long certain things take to set up and things like that. And I don’t really like that, I like to just be like ready to go.
I’m always ready. I like to compare it to a western gunslinger; with my phone, I’m the best in the West.
So how do you deal with the fact that by nature, filmmaking is a lengthy process? How do you balance that immediacy with patience?
I like to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, which is pretty much everybody. They kind of bring me back down to earth and I’m always like willing to take people’s advice. If one of like my boys is like, “Yo man, chill the fuck out. You’re going too crazy right now.”I’ll listen to them; unless I really, really feel strongly about not listening to them. I like to surround myself with people that would put me in my place if needed.
I believe in the momentum and the energy behind things. I’m not the only one who doesn’t have any patience. No one has any patience anymore. Nobody watches videos in their entirety. Everybody scrubs through every video. Nobody wants to watch ads and we’re all part of that.
How do you combat it?
So I don’t combat it. I embrace it. And what I do is, I share that immediacy with the people that I work with to keep them on the same level as me. If I cut something really fast and share it with the crew, everyone’s that much more excited to work with me, because they’re like, this guy’s going to get it done. And he’s keeping us like fed, you know? And it works. It’s also trusting yourself, really. I’m not afraid to fail. I’ve made plenty of bad videos that got like 200 views, you know? But I also have videos with 800 million views.
Let’s talk about your most recent project with Red Bull Music, the LA Skate + Music documentary.
I think it’s really cool to work with Red Bull because, first and foremost, when people believe in me and hire me to do a job, I’m really stoked; I’m as stoked on them as they’re stoked on me.
This is my second video with them. It’s surrounding the Red Bull music festival that comes to LA. Last year, the theme was cars and so we did a video on that and it was really cool. They put me in contact with all of these amazing people and then they asked me to bring my people to it. For the first video, I had really cool people to add, which were like the hood, Crenshaw Boulevard guys. For the skating one, they had certain people that they wanted me to work with, and some I was able to bring onboard. That’s what I really enjoy about working with a big client; I’m being paid to work with really cool people. And then, after all is said and done, I’m their friend and that is the best part; it’s way bigger than the actual film itself.
What was it like working with the people featured in this film? Mikey for example?
Mikey’s really inspiring. I like his vibe. I like his vision and he’s got a street side to him, like me. It’s kind of like a fearless sort of vibe and I see how he holds himself in the skate park with a bunch of younger people around him; he’s a leader. I don’t want to compare myself to him, but I feel I relate to that vibe when I’m working. All the guys that I work with are generally younger than me. I like it because I enjoy teaching.
On a personal note – in the film industry, regarding the amount of constant rejection you can be faced with, how do you maintain such a level of confidence? How do you nurture that?
I feel like most people don’t see the other side of me, which I share with my family; they’ll see me completely crushed behind the scenes. I don’t let people see that side of me.
You’ll see it in my work.
GIFS courtesy of Russell Tandy
Stay tuned to Milk for more west coast skate culture.