Before there were X Games, before there were skate parks on every corner, miniature Tony Hawk figures in every Happy Meal, there was the myth of the Dogbowl -- an expanse of curved and flowing concrete that drew skateboarders like a mythical Siren. It was small, tight and dangerous -- an empty, kidney-shaped swimming pool at the back of a Santa Monica mansion. During the drought of '75, a scruffy band of Venice skateboarders stealthily began skating in empty swimming pools across Beverly Hills and into the Valley. The Dogbowl was one they could glide without worry -- however thrilling -- that the cops or the owners would show up.
On a breezy spring afternoon in Pasadena, the Dogbowl has reemerged, looking blue and shapely, enticing or pernicious depending on your point of view. Black Sabbath blares from speakers, and teenagers in '70s garb -- and men dressed as teenagers -- loll, chat, work, flirt. It's the last official day of shooting on "Lords of Dogtown," inspired by the true story of the renaissance of Southern California skateboard culture, and the set has the slightly loopy feel of a montage from a happy-go-lucky '70s film, all sunlight and breezy and slightly high.
On the rim of the pool lounge the film's leads: John Robinson ("Elephant"), with flowing blond hair, who plays Stacy Peralta; the behatted Victor Rasuk ("Raising Victor Vargas"), who plays alpha dog showboat and future world champion Tony Alva; and Emile Hirsch ("The Emperor's Club"), who's shaved his head and tattooed a zipper down the middle of his skull for his role as the self-destructive renegade Jay Adams. In this scene, they've come to hang out with Sid (Michael Angarano), a composite character who's ill and confined to a wheelchair.
Unlike the other three, Sid is a rich kid, and his dad has let him drain the pool, creating the Dogbowl. They look like they're just chilling, but it's actually a constructed tableau.
"I wish we could be in there," says Catherine Hardwicke, the director, pointing to the bottom of the pool, where she wants to station a crane. A tall, lean, blond Texan in shorts and a sleeveless flowered shirt, Hardwicke was an architect and then a well-known production designer before, at somewhere over age 40, turning into a writer-director with "Thirteen," a drama about out-of-control teenage girls in a destructive folie a deux.
Around her neck hangs a small, boxy video monitor, which she clutches, and perpetually fingers, as if she's caressing the image to life. She wants to be both close to the monitor and close to the actors, so this is the solution, and it shows on screen. In "Thirteen," her visual style was to combine intimacy with the unhinged, hyperkinetic speed of teenage life. In "Lords of Dogtown," she's added a kind of hallucinogenic lyricism, as kids skate hanging from the back of buses, off piers, and 'round and 'round empty concrete pipes. The propulsive, bittersweet result has given the studio, Sony, hopes for a summer hit with its June release. The crane gets moved to the pit of the pool, and the scene begins. "Just keep hanging and loving life and thinking how bitchin' we are," she says in a Texas twang. She wants this take to be silent. "You're all too tired to talk." This is supposed to be a moment of connection for the three heroes, whose unexpected success as skateboarders has catapulted them out of the grungy streets of Venice. All the egos and defenses have finally been shelved, and they all remember -- if just for a second -- the love of the sport and the brotherhood that once bound them. The camera swoops in under the rim of the pool, and then zooms up high, directly above them. Hardwicke meticulously repositions the actors between takes so they fit just so into the frame.
As the team moves on the next setup, Hardwicke, who's less den mother than groovy big sister, keeps everyone going. "Are we getting weary? Do we need Red Bull?" she jocularly calls out.
In her hands, "Lords of Dogtown" is less a paean to extreme sports, a trippy video of flashy skateboard moves, than a tale of kids raising themselves in the dingy beach community. This racially mixed crew of teenagers from mostly broken homes is discovered by the irascible, hard-partying Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), a Fagin-like owner of a local surf shop, who molds them into the Zephyr Competition Skate Team, better known as the Z-Boys. Their gritty, urban street style of skateboarding captures the public imagination, launching the whole modern skate-punk aesthetic.
With her laid-back assurance and distinct vision, Hardwicke has been able to corral a lot of difficult personalities -- some who have not always gotten along, as the movie well documents. Almost all the original Z-Boys and scenesters have worked on the film in various capacities, and the actors seem to look up to her.