Charlie Samuels, a filmmaker and photojournalist, has spent the better part of the last couple of decades securing old film footage from the days when he and his skateboarding-loving friends ruled the streets of New York City. The result was “Virgin Blacktop: A New York Skate Odyssey” which is an engrossing and informative documentary that plays New York’s Margaret Mead Film Festival later this month.
Charlie granted an exclusive interview where he discussed the film, the skate culture that inspired it, and more on October 10, 2018.
Directing, skateboarding, and photojournalism
Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to become a director and/or study filmmaking?
Charlie Samuels (CS): The need to tell the story in my film, “Virgin Blacktop: A New York Skate Odyssey” but I made loads of short films before VB.
But as a photographer, I direct all of the shoots (besides photojournalistic ones) so it was a seamless transition. I actually did not study film one bit. I worked as a P.A. on a few features in New York like “Three Men and a Baby” but I come from the school of learning by doing. Film school can’t hurt but it’s probably best for learning techniques and making connections.
With photography, I didn’t get serious about until my last year at college (while studying graphic design) and then I assisted over 100 photographers within five years which taught me a tremendous amount and allowed me a long successful career in NYC. That was an incredible base with which to transfer to filmmaking. Even Stanley Kubrick did it that way.
MM: Would the filmmaking have ever come about had it not been for your celebrity as a skateboarder?
CS: What? I am far from a celebrity skateboarder! The closest I got to that was in my hometown of Saratoga Springs where, when I was lobbying my local government to reopen a skateboarding pool “The Saratoga Bowl” after they filled it with dirt for seemingly no reason without warning.
I was very upset because that is my favorite way to exercise. The media called me “The 50-year-old skateboarder” but that was out of necessity - a symbiotic relationship between myself and the press with a David & Goliath story structure. I’m thinking of making a short out of that year and a half battle, anyone wants to help?
MM: And you were a photojournalist too?
CS: I AM a photojournalist from the heart and documentaries are super similar. I’ve been a stringer for The New York Times since I shot skateboarders for their magazine to start my career then came many other newspapers and magazines as clients. Photojournalism is the opposite of directing because the whole idea is to be unobtrusive and fade into the background hoping subjects don’t notice that you are shooting. Directing and photojournalism are like yin and yang.
MM: When did you decide it was time to direct?
CS: I never consciously decided to the direct - it was just a necessity to tell the story of Virgin Blacktop in the form of a film.
There is no magic to directing - to me, it is a method to tell a story and you need a vision on how to tell that story to guide you through the myriad of decisions required. But what some don’t realize is the making a documentary requires both directing and fading into the background even separate from interviews. In a doc, you often have to set the tone, vibe or literally tell the subjects what you’re doing before you start shooting. I mean, almost 100% of the time subjects ask you what your shooting for? That answer you give IS directing and subjects want to be directed but in certain situations it is best to say absolutely nothing and see what happens - it’s a way of forcing the responsibility onto the subject to see how they handle it, then hope for magic. If I was starting college I’d study psychology to prepare for filmmaking or photography because it is all about people, even if you are shooting animals or nature. But, then again, they probably don’t have the courses that I imagine I’d like to take, like, “The psychology of media” or “The psychology of filmmaking and photography” or “The power of convincing”.
Movie industry, advice, and editing
MM: How hard was it to condense a life into a couple of hours?
CS: Great question! Musician (and filmmaker) Jim Morrison said that film is “life speeded up” so my mission was daunting: take 9 lives times 50 years, almost 500 hours of one-camera footage and audio tape, thousands of photographs and condense it into an hour and a half! But first get it transcribed by an army of interns! My friend - and Oscar winning documentary Director Louie Psihoyos - said of the need to transcribe footage, “Otherwise, how will you find anything?!” Virgin Blacktop is based on the Wizards competing and creating our community within two years and how we maintained our friendships and unity for the rest of our lives. And I may not have made the film if it wasn’t for the amazing amount of Super8mm footage that super talented cinematographers, Gail Tipton, Carlos Cisneros, Rolf Taylor, Will Hammerstein and James Oursler shot of us back in the day. But to answer your question, I found and hired the absolute best editor in the world for Virgin Blacktop - David Couliau from Paris, a brilliant story consultant Sarah Galloway (who helped edit “Hoop Dreams”), amazingly talented funk musician Bruno Hovart of “Uptown Funk Empire” and many more. I think the biggest responsibility for a director is not directing — it’s finding, hiring and working with the best people you can find in the world. That’s where people skills comes in.
MM: What are the plans for the film and what have you enjoyed most about getting involved with the movie industry?
CS: Our mantra is “The story has GOT to be told!” - Umberto Brownlee (Wizard). Most of the Wizards decided that our efforts should be focused on getting the most people we can to see the film. For distributors or anyone wanting to contribute to be in the credits or a logo on the front of Virgin Blacktop, please have them contact me at Charlie(at)charliesamuels(dot)com
I don’t consider myself part of the industry but the making of Virgin Blacktop provided an excuse to get to know my friends better - the Wizards - and it is an amazing feeling to be finished with a gargantuan creative project - like having a baby. Also, I’m proud that I proved wrong the naysayers who told me, “You’ll never finish it.” I get inspired when people tell me I can’t do something. Crafting stories with visuals and audio that are socially relevant is something I want to continue doing for a long time coming.
MM: So, Charlie, what is coming up for you next project-wise and what advice can you offer to others who are seeking to become documentary creators?
CS: I have many ideas for films, mostly scripted dramas because they are much less time consuming than documentaries! Most I mentioned in previous questions but here’s one altered slightly from a mentor of mine whom I assisted, photographer Greg Heisler: Film what you can’t help but film.