"I'd heard that Rikk Agnew, the guitarist from the Adolescents, was, like, going to be playing the driveway at this house party in Chino. It was Friday night, and I didn't have anything to do, so I just went up there. And I was like, 'Oh, my God, I've walked into a party straight out of Suburbia.' It was colliding with the collapse of the economy and, like, feeling like everybody was fucked. Like, decline of Western civilization. And it was like, maybe there's a new youth movie to be made."
Fortyish, bearded, dressed in jeans and a partially unbuttoned denim shirt, Tristan Patterson sits on the deck over the koi pond in front of his Echo Park home describing how he came to make Dragonslayer, a lyrical and formally audacious documentary portrait of Josh "Skreech" Sandoval, 23-year-old wastoid pro skater with corporate sponsors, a place in the unofficial skateboarding hall of fame, a gorgeous teenage girlfriend, a history of crippling depression and no permanent place to live.
Coming to AFI Fest Saturday and to the Downtown Independent Nov. 11 courtesy of record label Drag City — with a soundtrack featuring all non–Drag City acts including Best Coast, Real Estate, Golden Triangle and Dungen — Dragonslayer is the first feature directed by Patterson, an L.A. native who spent the past decade writing unproduced screenplays for studios.
His turn to nonfiction filmmaking was accidental. Upon meeting Sandoval in that Chino driveway, Patterson was taken by the mohawked space cadet's star quality. After the party, Patterson remembers, "I tracked him down, I met him for breakfast at this Panda Express in Fullerton, we ate Chinese food, and I said, 'I want to do something where I'll follow you around with a camera, and we'll make something that, like, when you watch it, you'll say, "Oh, cool, that's what that moment felt like." ' "
Alternately dreamy and abrasive, Dragonslayer is a submersion in an endless summer subculture, its nonlinear wall-of-sound aesthetic an apparent attempt to mimic its subject's point of view. ("Some of it literally is his point of view," Patterson points out. The filmmaker gave his subject a Flip camera with which to capture his personal misadventures; Sandoval occasionally remembered to turn the camera on.)
Sandoval's days are spent getting loaded, Google Street View–searching for abandoned houses with drained pools in which to skate and, eventually, hanging with Leslie, an extraordinarily poised student whose romantic interest in our hero is both confounding and inspiring.
It was Leslie's arrival in Sandoval's life that convinced Patterson that what he was calling an "experiment" had the potential to be a feature. "I felt like Jean Seberg from Breathless had wandered into a skate park in Fullerton."
The introduction of the film's heroine complicates underlying, unspoken themes. Is Leslie a "good girl" whose future is threatened by her bad-egg older boyfriend? Or is that classic narrative no longer applicable in an economic climate in which "no future" fatalism isn't just a punk-rock adolescent phase but a mainstream reality for more Leslie-esque kids than we'd like to believe?
The film unfolds in 11 numbered chapters, starting with 10 and counting down to zero. As apocalyptic as this sounds, the final chapter is titled "The Ideal World," and in many ways it depicts a happy ending.
"I thought, this should feel like a punk demo tape that you would find in an alley," Patterson says, echoing Harmony Korine, who described his Trash Humpers, the only other film to date released by Drag City, as his attempt to replicate a "VHS tape found in a ditch." But as much as he hoped to ape the experience of a serendipitously discovered album, Patterson says his numeric chapter structure was equally inspired by the similar backbone of Godard's My Life to Live. "The final chapter of the film becomes moving in this completely elevated way because you realize going into it that, from the filmmaker's point of view, you've arrived at the essential."
Dragonslayer, produced by indie film force Christine Vachon, won the grand prize for documentary at SXSW and has been screening at film fests, but its essayistic, episodic approach makes it an odd duck on a nonfiction circuit dominated by straightforward, talking-head-heavy issue films. Nothing like a traditional social-issue doc, Patterson's one-of-a-kind hybrid captures a sociohistorical moment with the kind of charged authenticity that only comes from a willingness to embrace contradictions: It's discursive and hypnotic, laconic and urgent.
"It came from a feeling that we've been living in a Ponzi scheme that just collapsed," Patterson says. "I think of California living as the suburban dream, and you go out into inland California now, and it's like, this is where that dream is now. Let's look that in the eye. I'm not going to deconstruct it or glorify it — I'm just going to try to see it as cleanly as I can and find something beautiful in it."
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes