Oscar-nominated doc Minding the Gap is an intensely personal story about three former skater kids whose lives are all touched, in different ways, by the subject of abuse. With the film in cinemas and on VOD from today, we spoke to director / cinematographer Bing Liu about making the film and going to the Academy Awards.
How did the project come about, first of all?
So, I was 23 and I’d been living in Chicago for about four years. I was getting my start in film as a Third [Assistant Director] and a Grip when I was 19 and working my way up in the camera department. But I’d always made short films on the side and so it started as an idea to go around the country and interview and follow skateboarders around, regarding their families and how that affected them, becoming adults. A year in, I went back to Rockford, where I grew up, and that’s actually when I met Keire for the first time. He was like a 15 year old kid, really charismatic and bubbly. The first time I really did a sit-down interview with him was when he told me that his father was physically abusive and then we proceeded to have a two-hour conversation that was unlike any other conversation I’d had up to that point, in terms of just how emotionally honest and transparent it was. And then, around that time, that’s when I started working with Kartemquin Films in Chicago, who are best known for the film Hoop Dreams, and that’s when I changed course and wanted to make a feature film, something more along the lines of Hoop Dreams, a character-driven film that feels like a story and puts story first. So I committed to Keire and then I bumped into Zack, who I knew, but not that well. I’d filmed with him a few times when I was a late teenager, before I moved to Chicago. Anyway, his girlfriend was eight months pregnant and that seemed like a trackable story, so I set up my shoot to go to the hospital with them, to film her pregnancy induction. Fast forward five years later and we had Minding The Gap.
That’s quite an extraordinary decision, in that Zack and Nina’s whole story could have gone very differently
When I started following Zack, I had been spending a lot of time talking to people about what it meant to have a relationship on the rocks with your father. Part of that ensemble piece was following people who were fathers already, but I had never seen somebody in real-time have to learn how to become a father, so I think either way it would have been interesting, even if it had been a more healthy, positive fatherhood experience. I was interested in that as well.
You make a decision in the film to deal with your own story, your own abusive childhood. How much of that was reality – at what point did you realise this was going to be a personal story for you too?
Never, really, until the very, very end, did I realise that that was what was happening. The original intent of me putting myself in the film was trying to give an answer to this really complex situation where I was putting myself at risk of exploiting them and having the audience feel like I was exploiting them and having the people that I was following feel like I was exploiting them. So I wanted to put in the very film itself, these are my motivations for going into this very private issue, between Zack and Nina and Keire as well. So the reason why I sat down with my brother and my Mom was to try to avoid voiceover. But then those conversations turned into a reckoning with the past and from there, because we had the emotional material to do it, we were able to have this other storyline for me that was outside of my investigative filmmaker storyline, which was me personally confronting the past. And so that happened after Nina revealed to me that things had gotten physical between her and Zack and it sort of organically rolled into me trying different things to set up my motivations as a filmmaker. That interview with my Mom happened a year after Keire moved out of Rockford, to give you a sense of timeline.
The film gives you the sense that the three of you grew up together but as you’ve said, that’s not really the truth of it. At what point did you decide to reverse-engineer that relationship, and also how much of the footage of the three of you together was authentic?
If you watch the film, there’s never any footage of the three of us together. There’s selfies of me and then there’s footage of Zack and Keire together, which was a true relationship. Keire is considerably younger than both Zack and I, and when his father died, Zack sort of took him in, he went to go live with Zack and there’s a lot of footage out there that’s just of them together. It was never intended to – I never went into it thinking, I’m going to trick people into thinking we had a friendship that we didn’t have, I just thought, oh, I’m going to make this fun skate montage that’s going to show that we all came from the Rockford community and have a slight nod to who we all are to each other. To me, I was the older filmer that both Zack and Keire looked up to, they watched my videos growing up. And Zack had told me all he ever wanted was to be in one of my videos growing up. So, if you listen carefully, there’s a line where I ask Keire during that first montage, ‘what did you think of my videos growing up?’ And he says, ‘well, I thought you made cool videos because of this’. That’s the only real nod to our relationship as kids growing up in Rockford.
But in answer to the question, it was pretty late. So it started with the crucial Mom interview, the scene with my brother, but those are things that we’re trying to build up towards, where we have to set up the filmmaker character in a very subtle way, because you don’t want people going into this thinking, ‘oh, it’s a personal doc, it’s about the filmmaker’s story’ – how can we do that without voiceover? So one of the ways to do that was just to go back into my archive and look for selfies that I shot of myself and old footage of myself, that was the original intent of going back into the archive. And then I discovered this footage of Keire as a little kid [smashing an older bully’s skateboard] , I didn’t realise I’d filmed that, I didn’t know who Keire was at the time. So when I saw that clip, I was like, ‘oh my god, I think this is Keire’, and I sent it to one of his friends and he was like, ‘yeah, that’s Keire when he was a little kid’. So then I was like, ‘okay, what if I find more footage of Keire?’ So then I got more footage of Keire – I mean, I went to two main filmers that had filmed Zack and Keire a lot, growing up, and they just gave me thumb drives. I was like, ‘give me everything you have of Keire and Zack’, took a look at that footage, and I was like, ‘okay, cool, we can cut this into like a little skate montage’.
So some of those really early shots of Zack, for example, are not shot by you at all?
There must have been like three or four times when Zack and I were at the skate park together and I filmed him. But anything outside of the skate park, with the tomfoolery that they get into, running around town, doing shenanigans, I never had those experiences with Zack. But they mirrored my own experiences of running around Rockford a couple of years before Zack had done it, with my own crew, doing the same thing. But it wasn’t like we were strangers to each other – in a town like Rockford, it’s like, if you skate, then you’re a homie, you’re down with the other person, especially in that era.
The editing in that sense then is extraordinary, because it really does build that picture of the three of you being friends. Can you speak about that process? What sort of guidelines did have for yourself for that process?
I just went off intuition. I went to film school, I went to school for literature, so I had an understanding of story structure, but I did what I’d done since I was a kid, I just cut and emulated films that I’d seen, what I thought storytelling was. So I was just cutting as I went along, as I was filming. I’d cut scenes and I’d assemble things together and I’d try new things. I did that for years and then when I met Josh Altman, who was my co-editor, in the final year, he sat down and he gave me this task, to cut Keire’s story on his own, then Zack’s story on his own. And then once I did that, he looked at it and he was like, ‘okay, I want to come on board this project and I think we can get into Sundance’. And I was like, ‘oh, okay’. And then we just worked with cards and it was very surgical. I mean, if you took a look at all the different versions of the film on a digital whiteboard that we used, it was like everything in the film has a purpose. I remember we were both cutting side by side and Josh and I would always ask each other, if we were unsure about something, ‘what is the purpose of that? That shot, what is the purpose of this scene, this bite?’ And that was the process.
So it’s fair to say that you weren’t really friends with Nina, or with Zack or with Keire in the traditional sense?
Not in the way people think of best friends, no. I mean, we were part of a very insular subculture, but no, I had no idea who Keire was, and Zack, I knew nothing about him.
So, given the reality behind the relationship, you get extraordinary openness from all three of them. So how did you work on that?
Actually, it was just done as a one-man band. Aside from the interview with my Mom, where I hired additional crew to do this meta thing, I don’t think it ever felt like we were making this film that was going to be seen by thousands of people. And Zack and Keire not only had watched my skate videos growing up, they had watched my work on other videos that I also would put online. So they knew I wasn’t making reality TV, they knew my tastes were something a little more artful and thought out. And I can’t speak for them, but it’s a two-way street – they really wanted to participate for some reason and I can only suspect that it was because it helped them just process things that they were never able to talk about with anybody else. Like, Nina told me that I was the only one she was talking to about what was going on between her and Zack. I was the first person she told. And if I’m that person, and I only knew her after starting to follow Zack in the film, that speaks to the sense of isolation that a lot of young people feel. I also had the benefit of being a skateboarder and skate filmer who they looked up to. So whenever I would film skateboarding with them, it didn’t feel like we were making a film as well. It was really fun and I could show them the footage after they had landed a trick, and it was like a pause button from the emotional gravitas of everything else we were capturing. And then, I’ll say one more thing, I told them early on that we were going to show them the film before we picture locked, to give them a chance to see everything in context and that I wanted them to be okay with what we ended up with. And I think that put people at ease and by the time we showed people the film, everyone was on board with it. But there was never a time where anybody was like, ‘put the camera down, stop’. There were definitely days where Keire’s just, like, he doesn’t want to talk about anything heavy today, like I get it.
Were you there for the argument scene between Zack and Nina?
Yeah, I mean, I was the one-man band for everything, so I shot everything. I’d heard that Zack and Nina had fought a lot, but then I ended up just going over there. I knew that Nina was going to come home from work, so I thought I’d hang out there for a few hours, see what their dynamic was like. But I had no idea they were going to break out into an argument like that. It lasted for, like, an hour – it was a really long argument. But it’s weird, because they didn’t tell me, ‘Bing, put down the camera’, they didn’t feel any sense of like shame or guilt or embarrassment that they were being filmed. And Zack was miked up. The only time they referenced the camera was like ammunition for the argument, like, Zack would say something like, ‘oh, you’re only being like this because Bing is here filming, aren’t you?’, ‘Oh, you’re trying to act cool in front of the camera’. I don’t know – I would have thought maybe they would have wanted me to stop, but they didn’t. And as the argument progressed, I got more comfortable, like getting an over-the-shoulder, getting cutaways, but at the beginning, you see at the beginning when it’s starting, I’m like, wide, to get like, far away from them.
You mentioned Hoop Dreams already, but were there any other films or filmmakers that influenced you and your career? I was wondering if you’d seen the Up series, for example?
Yeah, that sense of time scope wasn’t that big of a deal for me. That archival footage really did so much for me – I was surprised at how much the archival footage did for the story, in terms of expanding the sense of time. But I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘I’m going to make this seven year, 12-year journey of a film.’ It only happened in the last few months of post, when we worked up the archival footage. But I mean, I certainly watched that series, the 7 Up series, and it was interesting. I don’t know, I was never really much of a film buff. I would always feel like an illterate fool when I was around cinephiles who had seen and catalogued a lot in their heads. But the film that made me want to start making films, I saw when I was 15, it’s called Waking Life, the weird Linklater thing. And I didn’t really watch documentaries until I started working with Kartemquin. I saw Hoop Dreams for the first time, like a year, a year and a half, two years into making Minding the Gap. But the Steve James film that influenced me the most is actually Stevie. I’m really into films that just feel so organic – it’s like that’s the magic of documentaries. Films like Sherman’s March, that film really influenced this film, in terms of, like, me figuring out how to put myself in the film.
Was there much that you cut out that you really hated to lose?
Yeah, I think the biggest one was this one storyline of this father and son. So there’s this 13 year old kid who lives in the Rockford suburbs, he would go hang out and skate with Zack and his crew and sort of looked up to them. And he had a 40 year old dad who used to skate, who was like a punk skater in the ’80s, who would just like drop off this 13 year old kid with his crew, and it was like the question of what is good parenting? Is he a good father? This is the opposite [of normal] , right, because this kid can do what he wants, but these other fathers are very constricting and controlling. But the dad was so honest about discipline too, he talked about how this one time he hit his kid, he hit his son and how it reminded him of the way that he was disciplined in his own household and he had a deep regret about it. So it was really interesting and powerful and totally aligned with a lot of the themes that we were dealing with, but ultimately there’s only so much you can fit into a 90 minute film, and I remember someone telling me, you have to have a really good reason to go above 90 minutes in a feature length film. And by the time we had Zack and Keire and Nina and it started working, it was like, ‘oh, we got into Sundance, we can move forward’. And they gave a lot of themselves – documentaries are hard, because people just give so much of themselves and you want to honour that, but they understood.
Getting the Oscar nomination must have been pretty crazy. What was that like?
It was kind of surreal. I was 30 years old, which feels really young to be getting nominated for an Oscar. I was also fighting a flu, so I was in bed and I was in and out of sleep that night, which just added to the delirium of the whole announcement. And then, I’d been working on another film for the past couple of years, so I went and filmed inside of a prison a few hours later, so I got up and took some Tylenol and got ready and it was just a very stark contrast, getting nominated for an Oscar and your phone’s blowing up and then it’s, like, put your phone away into a locker and then walk inside of a maximum security prison and talk to this guy about what he feels about being locked up and how much he misses his family, and then to get out and have to spend ages answering congratulations for this other thing that’s very far removed. But it was funny, because some of the people we’d been following for the film were starting to find out, and they congratulated me too.
What effect do you think the rise of VOD has had on independent filmmaking?
I mean, it’s helped just in terms of getting more outlets. It’s hard to say with Minding the Gap – it was a hard film to market, it’s a hard film to explain, very simply. But I feel like in the more traditional distribution landscape, where there are less players and less accessibility to outhouse films and independent films like Minding the Gap, those films might not be accessible to the 14 year old kid living in Nottingham or something, who had heard about the film but didn’t have like some arthouse cinema in his neighbourhood to go and see the film. So it’s really opened the door for accessibility.
Are you much of a VOD fan yourself? Have you been watching anything on Netflix or Amazon recently?
I don’t actually watch that much any more. I watch films at festivals and I watch private links when I really want to seek out a film for research purposes or just hire somebody or something. Sometimes, I wonder why I’m paying so much for three subscriptions and I only watch something once every three months! But that’s just because of my personal time.
But there’s a lot of travel as well, right? So you could be binge-watching stuff on planes, if you wanted to be.
Yeah, that’s true. The problem with that is you can’t download onto a laptop – you need a tablet in order to pre-download in order to watch stuff and I don’t have a tablet, I just have a laptop. But what I like about planes is they have just total escapism movies. I like airplanes because I can watch The Hangover and get away from all the seriousness that people deal with.
You’ve touched on this already, but what on earth are you going to do for your next film?
I’m in post-production on a film about young men going through these programs that try to help fight gun violence in Chicago. And then I’m about to start my next project about millennial love around the world.
So you see yourself very much continuing in a documentary strain then?
For the next two films, yeah.
And do you think you will perhaps do a narrative feature?
Yeah, that’s in development as well, but those things are much more ephemeral and they can just fall apart at any time, so I don’t know. I’ve never been the person with the five year plan, I just work on what I’m working on and try to stay present and in the moment.
Just for clarification, can you give me a sense of the timeline of the film?
The footage spans 12 years, but I began making the film in 2012. That’s when I began travelling the country and doing this ensemble film. In 2014, I started working with Kartemquin and started following Keire and Zack. And then I basically shot up until a couple of months before our Sundance premiere. January 2018, I did my last pick-up shoot.
And from when you started filming Zack and Keire, did you have a sense of structure? Was it like, okay, I’ll follow these guys and see what we get, or more we’ll follow them until the story crystallises?
I mean, I didn’t have funding until the final year, so that was another thing, right? I just kept applying to and getting rejected by every investor possible, sometimes twice, until that final year. PBS finally believed in us.
What did you learn from making the film?
I learned a lot about the independent documentary ecology, for lack of a better term. How the game worked. I learned how the game worked while I was playing it, the business side, the funding side, and the marketing campaign side of how films get out into the world.
I was thinking also personally, in terms of the emotional content…
I mean, there was a lot of work outside the film that taught me things. I’m not sure how much the film itself taught me, but I took a 40 hour domestic violence course while I was making the film, I began seeing a therapist while I was making the film. Those things were a much more clearly explicit way of getting lessons and context than making the film itself, which felt more like making an intuitive connection with humans, trying to really suss out what a person is feeling over a period of time.
The film implies that skateboarding is a release from the horror of the domestic situation. Was that the case for you too?
Yes, absolutely. But it’s such a subconscious thing. I was doing an interview with a few skateboarders yesterday and there was this mid-forty-something man saying, ‘I never realised these things that happened in my household mattered until I saw your film’, you know? People can go lifetimes and not really realise why they do things, why they did things as children, why they were interested in certain things. It takes a lot of self-work to get a little bit of self-honesty and achieve self-awareness and truth.
One final question: Do you still skate?
I do, yeah. I skated yesterday at a skate park here in London called Hop Kingdom. It’s like a little half brewery, half skate park.
Have you ever skated by the BFI?
Last time I was there, I skated Southbank. It’s, like, the classic London spot, I had to go, make my pilgrimage.
Minding the Gap is available on BBC iPlayer through BBC Three.
Where can I watch Minding the Gap online on pay-per-view VOD?