FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Bing Liu, Director of MINDING THE GAP
MINDING THE GAP is the directorial debut for Bing Liu, who will be attending both the Salem Film Fest opening night screening at CinemaSalem on Thursday, March 22 at 8pm, as well as a special encore screening at Endicott College’s Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, Rose Performance Hall on Saturday, March 24 at 4:30pm. Liu’s film was awarded the jury award for breakthrough filmmaking in the U.S. Documentary Competition category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Salem Film Fest program director Jeff Schmidt caught up with Liu to discuss his film:
JS: How did you become interested in filmmaking?
BL: I broke my arm when I was 14 and started filming skateboarding as a way to keep hanging out with my buddies while I was convalescing. Eventually I fell in love with filming–like skateboarding, it gave me a feeling of control and a way to interact with others and step outside of my shy shell. I think it was when I saw Richard Linklater’s film WAKING LIFE that I realized I wanted to take my love for shooting and editing skate videos and translate it into other forms of media. That film really blew me away–to this day I think it’s the film I’ve seen more than any other.
JS: MINDING THE GAP’s roots begin with the early skateboarding videos we see early on in the film – when did you realize that you had a deeper story that you wanted to tell?
BL: After graduating with an English degree, I set out on a year-long couch-surfing mission across the country to try to understand my upbringing by interviewing other skateboarders. I discovered a pattern of family disfunction that felt oddly familiar. A couple years later, I assembled all my footage and brought the project through Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices in Documentary fellowship.
Over the next six months, Kartemquin introduced me to cinema verite, to films like HOOP DREAMS, to character-driven documentary storytelling. Somewhere along the way the name MINDING THE GAP was born, I wrote my first log line, and I made a demo video to pitch the project to funders. After the fellowship, Kartemquin brought me on as a co-production. I continued traveling around the country following up with the skateboarders I’d initially interviewed, but kept returning to my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. I think it was my executive producer Gordon Quinn who encouraged me to keep following a teenager I felt an indescribable connection to: Keire Johnson. We bonded quickly and then when I found out our mutual friend Zack was about to be a father, I started following him too. Eventually all the other subjects tapered off as I dug deeper into Zack and Keire’s lives. Even from the get go, everyone I was filming knew that I was making a documentary about skateboarders’ relationships with their fathers, which was the logline I’d put up on our website and Facebook page. So a lot of the time it felt like just waiting around for the roman candle fights and skate sessions to end, so I could ask them about why they didn’t get along with their dads (laughs).
Over the years of making the film, I actually had to learn to pull back on the issues and lean in to those seemingly mundane moments. So I guess I started off wanting to make a deep issue film but learned that what actually engages people is a story. The structuring of the film in which audiences get to experience me coming into my own as a filmmaker was kind of an accident–I don’t think my co-editor Josh Altman or I really realized that’d be a takeaway. We thought of it more like an interesting way of setting up my relationship with Zack and Keire.
JS: The main characters of your film, also happen to be friends that you grew up with – that must have been both helpful and challenging at times. What was that like?
BL: It was helpful in that they put 100% confidence in me and gave me permission to access the deepest parts of them. The trust was already established–and trust and access are the main ingredients of documentary storytelling. But there’s this idea of loyalty with friends, and I think that was tested during the making of the film. This isn’t the first time this has happened in a documentary, but I feel like we dealt with it in Minding the Gap in a way that was both fair and transparent about how difficult it was for all of us.
JS: There are some really great skateboarding shots in your film that required you to skate and film at the same time, how long did it take you to perfect this unique skill set?
BL: Actually the one time I was on the board was when I was bombing the parking garage and doing that long intro shot. Most of the time I was running on foot. I used a 5D and a Canon 16-35mm lens mounted to a Glidecam, which is like a poor man’s Steadicam. I picked up tips and tricks from Steadicam operators I assisted for, so I got the hang of it pretty quickly but it wasn’t until about a year in that I felt like I’d become completely fluent in the tool. Like fluent to the point of being intuitive If that makes sense. And a lot of it was learned from just being a skateboarder and knowing how they move, too, which is more like dancing than anything else. And my Glidecam technique allowed me to dance along with them.
JS: You picked up an award at Sundance for MINDING THE GAP, what has the reaction been from your friends and family that appear in the film?
BL: We showed everyone the film before we picture locked–it’s something we believe is the ethical thing to do at Kartemquin and they do it for all their films. I sat down with everyone separately and watched with them, secretly trying not to let them know that I was micro-analyzing their body language and facial expressions. Keire’s reaction was sort of like mirroring his emotions on screen but in real-time, it was kind of classic Keire (laughs). Watching with Zack was hard for both of us. But when the credits rolled I looked over at Zack and he was overwhelmed with emotion and we talked for hours about everything with the same sort of emotional openness he had in the interview by the river that’s in the film. It was a sobering moment for him I think. But he told me he appreciated the honesty of the film and how I’d put myself in it as well. For Nina it was frustrating because it was sort of like re-living memories she thought she had moved on from. My co-producer Diane and I, along with a Kartemquin consulting producer, Maggie Bowman, sat with Nina for a while and listened to Nina process all her thoughts. In the end, Nina also told me she appreciated that I told both sides of the story. I sent my mom and brother links, I don’t think I was able to bring myself to watch with them. They both told me they’re just proud of me.
In terms of winning the award, I don’t think it really registered on them. In the end, even high-profile film festivals can still be a distant and insular bubble for people who aren’t involved in that world. I’m excited now that we have some smaller fests coming up. I’m so grateful that Sundance believed in the film enough to have us there, but I think it was a little overwhelming for the cast. With some of the more intimate screenings, I think it’ll be a way for them to see how much people connect to them and their stories. I hope they can feel like their participation has made a difference.
JS: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
BL: At Sundance I was thrilled that everyone walked away with their own takeaways, it communicated to us that we’d made a film that was both complex and emotional; some people really connected to one aspect or one character while others appreciated a specific issue–many because of similar personal experiences. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how our society’s mission of ending violence in the home is at odds with how much we value privacy. I think that’s a thing that the film grapples with, too. I hope that we can start thinking about how these issues are not only emotionally difficult to talk about but can be ethically paradoxical as well. But at this point I’m just glad that audiences walk away feeling like they need to talk about it to process it.
Tickets are on sale now for MINDING THE GAP and can be purchased at the Salem Film Fest Box Office at the Museum Place Mall or online via the SFF website here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/minding-the-gap/