To be honest with you, the state of film affairs for documentaries is pretty sad right now. It's really a dying breed. The film world has been hit pretty hard as well; there's been a decrease in tickets sales, and it's not just because of the economy. There's been a slump in the movies, and it's also because people have more access to films online. People can download films. So it's kind of a two-edged sword. It helps, but it hurts. And there's nothing you can do about it right now. And we're really happy for the exposure, but documentaries--a lot of people don't want to pay to see documentaries in theaters. A lot of young people would rather wait for the DVD. And on top of that, the distributors don't want to distribute the film as much because they know a lot of people won't go to see documentaries. Documentary filmmaking is really at a crossroads right now, and I'm very lucky. I really am a huge-sort-of-success story in comparison to the other documentaries that are out there who didn't have the same sort of content to engage people on YouTube or the same sort of pop-culture message or appeal.
Has the success you've had with Planet B-boy led to more opportunities for the feature film?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The film executives out there who have expressed interest in it had no idea it existed. We came to realize that all these other dance films out there are kind of lame in comparison, in terms of the dance skill. It's not exactly You Got Served. Or what's that other one? The Streets? What's that one called? There are a lot of dance films out there that focus on hip-hop dancing, but it really doesn't exist in the way they portray it, because they make it a competitive dance. But this is the battle dance. And no one ever understood it on the commercial side. No one ever understood it. The last time they made a real b-boy film was back in the '80s with Beat Street and Flashdance. They just allowed them to do what they do. But once they tried to control it--there's a movie called Breakin' and it was totally wrong, you know? And I feel there's room now to do a very real movie on breaking.
What do you see as your biggest challenges in making this feature film now that you're so connected with the global b-boy community? It seems like that's a ton of pressure if you're going to make a feature film about this culture.
The pressure really is in creating a good story and having the executives see that there is room for a good story. That would be the first objective: to write a good story, which is what we've been working on. It goes into this dance form, shows the history of this dance, the reality behind this dance form. It's very complicated; it's a very sophisticated dance form, which a lot of people think is just made up on the fly, where kids are just rolling on their backs--it's just a dumb dance. But there's definitely a language behind it. And it's hard to explain that. It was very hard for me to explain that in Planet B-Boy, because I didn't have the time. But now that I have a much more controlled medium to work with, I'm trying to implement that sort of information so that people can see that, wow, there is a language. I know that a lot people watched my film and they didn't really understand so much of it. But there is still a method in the madness. And I'm trying to achieve that in the creation of the story in the screenplay while also telling a good story and also making political statements about America.
In what way?
It's interesting how America creates things and they're sometimes just improved by people outside America. Like b-boying--America is one of the top countries, but it's not the only one. There's other countries like France and Germany and Russia and Korea that are bringing things that you've never seen before. There are also political problems within this dance form where people have a problem with the power end of it, because there's so much power involved in it now that people complain that the emphasis on the dance has been lost a little bit. There's a split between two schools right now, and there's something to be said about that. They're calling what the Koreans do "circus," because you can only watch them spin around on their heads for so long, because you don't really see the character come out in their dance…
But that's not all they're doing.
It's true--it's not all they're doing. They have dance within the power, but there's more power than dance. But that's changing too right now, because a lot of these Korean kids, who all they do is acrobatic stuff, you can take them to a club and a lot of these kids don't even know how to--they just can't dance. It's crazy, because their rhythm is power.
That's fascinating.
Yeah. And I never got to explore that in the story. When you see a phenomenal dancer who's got character and is bringing this whole persona, it's mind-blowing. Because he's telling you this story, and when you see it as a story it takes it to another level--this dance form--in terms of the way you understand it. And you can't understand unless you understand a little bit of the language, and we try to break that down in this film, though I never really got to break it down entirely. It's like listening to jazz--at first you're not even sure what you're listening to. Or you go to a museum and you're looking at an artist's work, and you don't know what the fuck is going on. It's intimidating; you know there's something there, but you're not sure what it is. Then you read the bio and you read what the artist was influenced by and what he was trying to say, and it takes on a whole new meaning. The same with if you watch a documentary about Miles Davis and then you learn what happened in his life and how that translates in his music. And that's what b-boying is. Parts of it are like freestyle jazz; it's that sophisticated. There's a whole language behind it. That's why when you watch the audience, you understand there is a language--they're all vibing off the same thing. I'm still at a point where I still don't get half of what's going on sometimes.
[laughs] There's something beautifully honest about that. That's pretty extraordinary.
But that's why my co-writer's a b-girl who's written her dissertation at Columbia on b-girling. So she's helping me a lot. And that's another thing: I know lots of dancers who are really well educated. Super smart--smarter than most of my friends. They just happen to be dancers. I've met many MCs and graf-heads who are just amazing personalities, amazingly intelligent people. I'm invested in this culture, and I'm still shocked at how smart so many of these people are. And it's just that they choose this medium for self-expression because they think it's cool. It represents who they are. So what I'm trying to do is have smart characters in my film who have swagger.
Of course.
I want to make a smart film that has a good story. I'm a big fan of some great directors out there who inspire me to have great characters. Not these idiot kids who don't really exist to some degree. In a lot of these dance films out there, you look at these kids and it's all contrived by these people who know nothing about the culture. It's their version of how these people speak, how they act. And it's bullshit, quite often. We're trying to go for the real deal, man. There are a lot of people who are interested in this, and it's just going to be this battle between me and the executives, I think.
What do you think the nature of the battle is going to be?
Really over quite a lot of things. Because they want to make a film for 14- to 18-year-old kids, who are the ones who go and actually pay to see these types of movies. But I'm hoping I can make a film that's good enough for a larger audience, in terms of its content, its storyline. So I'm hoping that a 14-year-old kid would get it and get a sense that there is something important going on in this film, this message, and a 25- to 35-year-old can watch it and be like, "Yeah, I get this." There's something really universal about this theme of honor and America's place in the world, even through b-boying. So that's what I tried to do through Planet B-Boy, the documentary. I wanted to show people, look, these are the kind of kids that you would ordinarily dismiss as street kids, but look, they all have something in common with you.
What is the difference between breakdancing and b-boying?
It started off as b-boying when it was in the Bronx. And then you had the art world in the Lower East Side, like Keith Haring and all of these event promoters from the East Village who caught on to this whole b-boying thing. And they brought it downtown, and for a while all these kids, like the Rock Steady Crew, were dancing downtown as part of this exhibition art. You'll see pictures from this era where there were these venues downtown that had this meeting of Afrikaa Bambaataa's space-age shit and the whole indie art scene downtown. So, for example, a lot of Keith Haring's thing was ripped off from graffiti, and that's because there was this whole downtown thing.
And then Malcolm McClaren, who put together The Sex Pistols, was working with Blondie at the time. He wanted to use the b-boys in a music video, so they went in there and started doing their thing. Then movie producers saw this and someone from Paramount said he wanted to use these kids called the Rock Steady in this movie they were doing called Flashdance. So they shipped them out to Pittsburgh and they did that one little scene, but that was the scene that went around the world. At the time [the media] were asking, "What is this stuff called?" and they said, "B-boying." And they said, "That doesn't mean anything, but it's a dance. Let's just call it breakdancing." That's sort of in a nutshell how the media came up with the term breakdancing--because it was easy to understand, as opposed to b-boying. But the b-boys were like, "All right, that's fine. I don't care." So the whole world knew it as breakdancing, but the b-boys never called themselves that.
It's fascinating and it's very complicated, because you'll have kids in Europe who are like "Yeah, we're breakdancers," and New Yorkers will be like, "Yo, you're not breakdancers; you're b-boys." And they're like, "Well, we were breakdancers because when we started dancing, that's what they called it in America and in Germany. We weren't aware they called it b-boying." So breakdancing is also a proper term. Then you'll have this other school of people who don't care, you know? But the kids from New York and the other dancers from the United States, they don't like to be called breakdancers, 'cause it really harks back to that time and how the form was exploited in the '80s.