2018 was a big year for movies about skateboarding. There was the Jonah Hill helmed “Mid90’s,” as well as the critically-acclaimed documentary “Minding the Gap.” Arriving under a smaller spotlight was Crystal Moselle’s remarkable “Skate Kitchen,” which followed the life of skateboarder Camille (Rachel Vinberg) as she discovered a found family amongst a group of female skateboarders in New York City.
The film was popular enough for HBO to task Moselle with bringing a spin-off, titled “Betty,” to life as a six-part, half-hour comedy series with the same actresses playing different versions of the characters we were previously introduced to in “Skate Kitchen.” Bold and declarative in its portrait of independently minded Gen Z girls, “Betty” is a solid follow up to a world we want to immerse ourselves in. In our review of the series, we said, “‘Betty’ may be imperfect, but it is incredibly refreshing in its girl power politics. Here’s hoping it gets to show them off more in a second season.”
We spoke to Moselle about making the jump from film to television, and how she was inspired by the real-life girls for the heart of the story.
Did you always know after completing “Skate Kitchen” this was a world you’d want to explore further?
I knew it was possible [laughs.] Some of the feedback I got back from people was that “I could live in that world with those people forever.” I think that there were more stories to explore and I get that’s perfect for a TV show, right?
How was it working with the same actors in this different format?
Yeah, we changed it up a little bit. It was interesting because at first, the idea was that we were just going to move forward straight from the movie. But in the writers’ room things shifted and changed and we ended up doing an origin story of how a group of girls came together.
It was great, me and the girls had gotten really close while working together; they were constantly over at my house and we talked all the time. I think that at a certain point I thought, “Maybe this could turn into a TV show,” and I just continued to write notes about funny things that the girls would say and the situations that would happen between them. I always kind of knew that I loved collaborating with them and they were a part of the process so it kind of just fell into line perfectly.
In “Skate Kitchen” the actors were relative newcomers. Were there any noticeable differences in how you were able to collaborate with them this time around now that they’d had some experience?
It was different because we had a writers room. In the writers room, we’d come up with ideas that were inspired by the girls and their situations and experiences. It was a group of people with their own experiences and I think ultimately when it comes to writing it’s about what you experience and how you can bring that into a project. And then we would have the girls come in and they’d collaborate with us followed by the process of actually rehearsing and then things would change in terms of dialogue and the scenes would get more shape. It kind of just takes on a life of its own and it became a new process for us and it felt like a natural progression of what we’d been doing.
Does that kind of format lend itself to improvisation? Some of the characters felt so real that you have to wonder if some of their lines were off the cuff.
It was a mixture of both because the dialogue was inspired by their conversations and once we’re on set I always go off the script and let them discover their own moments with each other. That’s always when we get the most real moments.
What was it that first thing that caught your interest in this subculture of young women skateboarders?
I met Nina [Moran] and Rachelle [Vinberg] on the train four years ago and I don’t know it was just something that was really charismatic and intriguing – they had skateboards and were having really funny conversations and I just was drawn to them. I think I have this connection to things that fires off and that was something I wanted to go after I guess.
So far it seems like the stories you’ve invested in have been the ones you’ve stumbled upon in real life with “The Wolfpack” and “Skate Kitchen.” Is that innate sense of curiosity something you think is really key to how you choose what stories you want to tell?
Yes, I definitely am the most inspired by the people I meet and have my own experiences with them. I’m not as inspired to work with actors [laughs.] Although I think my new thing is bringing in actors into worlds I create. Like for “Betty,” we found some incredible actors and got my own connection and inspiration from them. I think it worked.
In “Skate Kitchen” we focused mainly on Camille’s coming of age story – or at least a portion of it. Were you excited to explore the other girls’ lives beyond what we’d seen?
Oh yeah. For me, it was the most inspiring to create new stories and actually introduce subjects that I was excited to tell stories about. To me, it’s really all about encompassing this time with these women in the world that we know right now and hopefully make it timeless.
What do you find the most rewarding about exploring the dynamic of female friendships?
I think that these young women really inspired me and I learned a lot from them. I think that sometimes when you’re older you don’t actually listen to the youth but I think that there’s a lot that they can say and we can learn from, especially with all of the crazy things that are going on in our world right now. I think since they are the future they have a unique perspective on things that we don’t see. There’s actually a lot to learn from them and how they treat other women. When I met them what intrigued me about them was that they didn’t have this like “mean girl” attitude. They were incredibly open and kind of encompassing to all women. They’re at the park and see some girl they’ve never met before and they’re going to go up to her and befriend her and ask her where she’s from and if she wants to skate with them. It’s a very different way of just how society acts now. It’s so different. When I came to New York the initiation was by girls in the scene who were kind of assholes to me. I’ve just been inspired by that and the era of mean girls is over in my opinion.
Were you interested in skateboarding before “Skate Kitchen?”
I grew up with skateboarders. I knew only a few girls when I was younger, like Jamie Reyes who actually has a cameo in the show, she was of the skateboarders I used to hang out with in New York back in the day. I’d always hung out with male skateboarders so I knew the scene really well but I’d completely separated myself from that scene and only have a few friends still in the scene like William Strobeck who does the SUPREME videos and who came up with the name for the show.
I’d called him up and told him that I didn’t have a name for the show. We’d been coming up with names for weeks and weeks and nothing felt right and he said “you need to name it ‘Betty.’” I thought oh my god, it’s perfect.
A “Surf Betty” or a “Skate Betty” started off as a girl who actually skates or surfs and then it kind of turned into a girl that just hangs out and is one of the less derogatory terms that’s been used for that. Our idea was to really reclaim that idea.
I loved some of the smaller parallels between the film and the show like Kirt’s rat or the subject of gaslighting. How purposeful was that choice or was it something that just happened naturally over development?
There were certain things with the girls that we thought should be in the show, and we talked a lot about what women go through and the things we think we have to go through as women but actually don’t. We wanted to bring those themes out and discuss them through a story. I really wanted to tell these stories in a way that people haven’t seen before, like them bonding over the idea of someone you know being involved with #MeToo felt important to bring up.
It felt very true to have the character Janay react so realistically – even if it’s unflattering – to her friend being accused of sexually harassing another girl.
Yeah absolutely, it helps paint the shades of how many ways a situation can go. There was a moment we were all talking about our experiences and there are experiences that some of us had had when we were younger that we just thought “oh that’s just part of being a woman” but no, we have to deal with these assholes. Women have been treated a certain way and they’re realizing “no, you don’t have to be treated this way.” Even if it’s something very small and makes you feel a certain way, it’s okay to feel that way and no it’s not okay for them to do that to you.
Is there any advice you would give to women filmmakers just starting out?
Keep making stuff. Because it was never a topic that everyone was talking about until about three or four years ago, I never thought “oh I can’t be this because I’m a woman,” I just kept doing it. I kept pushing and doing my thing. It’s so cliche but I made a decision at a point in my life to never give up and I was like I’m going to go forward with this and I’m not going to let anyone get in my way.
“Betty” is set to premiere on HBO on May 1.