Jealous cowards try to control. Rise above. We’re gonna rise above. They distort what we say. Rise above. We’re gonna rise above. Try and stop what we do. Rise above.
—“Rise Above,” Black Flag
Any self-respecting skater kid wants to hit the famously awesome steps at Beverly Hills High, at least once, just to say he did.
“There’s always skaters there,” says director Larry Clark. “There’s always white skaters, all these Beverly Hills skaters; people bring their families and their little kids, and they have picnics on the lawn.”
Fine for them, but when the heroes of Wassup Rockers, Clark’s latest film, about a bunch of South-Central Latino kids who are into punk rock, tight clothes and gnarly street skating, arrived there early one morning and started skating when nobody was around, the notoriously separatist Beverly Hills cops came and busted them. They were made to sit on the sidewalk and endure a lot of racist crap about how they don’t belong there.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re gonna make a film here,’?” recalls Clark. “?‘We’re all permitted, and I’m just showing ’em the location, they’ve never been here before.’ And the cop says, ‘I’ve been warning you for three months.’ And he gave ’em all tickets.”
Of course, the cops hadn’t warned these guys specifically, but they damn sure looked like the sort they’d warn . . .
“[The cop] says, ‘What else are you guys doing in Beverly Hills?’ He calls in, ‘I’ve got seven Hispanics here . . .’ and they make them stay there, they gave ’em all $180 tickets,” Clark continues. “They had to go to [court in] Santa Monica at 8 in the morning — and they live in South-Central. I said, ‘They’ve gotta go to school, how are they gonna get to Santa Monica?’
“I showed him my DGA card, you know, ‘I’m a director, this is what we’re doing.’ He didn’t want to hear it. He kept saying, ‘I’ve been warning them for three months.’ So I said, ‘How many tickets have you given out in three months?’ He says, ‘You’re the first.’ The guy looked just like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.”
That experience became a scene in the movie, and it couldn’t have been contrived with nearly as much authenticity if it hadn’t happened in real life.
Wassup Rockers is a “quintessential” L.A. story, as they say, and possibly of more interest now with the success of Crash, which deals with some of these issues in much cornier and less true ways.
Our stars in Wassup are a brotherhood of Salvadoran and Guatemalan kids ranging in age from 13 to 17, none of whom are interested in taking drugs or drinking alcohol and all of whom are crazy about those two traditionally “white”-style pursuits, skateboarding and punk rock. Generally disparaged as “Mexicans” by the black homies who populate their neighborhood in equal numbers, the skate kids heroically resist falling into the gang trap, and suffer a lotta verbal abuse for their mode of dress, which is tight, tight jeans, dirty sneakers, rock-themed ?T-shirts and long, head-banger hair. Marked as weirdos within their larger hip-hop/gang-style neighborhood world, they’re getting beef not only from the black kids but from the other Latino kids — which they simply laugh off, for the most part, or thrash off with their punk band and brazenly skate across town, letting the slings and arrows fall where they may.
And in the scene they based on getting busted, Jonathan, Kico and Milton (a.k.a. Spermball) are really messing with the cop, which looks like a lot of fun.
“Jonathan and Kico would tell me, ‘Anytime we get busted that Milton’s with us, we know we have to run, because Spermball’s thing is fucking with cops and running,’ ” says Clark.
In the film, when the cop busts them, Milton, who is the biggest of the bunch at just 12 years old, snatches up his skateboard and runs to the other side of the police car and grabs the cop’s sandwich, and says, “Give me my skateboard or I’m gonna eat your lunch.” The cop runs around, and the kids all grab their boards and take off.
The boys are just being themselves in this film, which makes for sufficiently great acting and captures their true spirit and energy. While skating at the school, they indulge in an activity that young skaters of all races, creeds, colors and religions can relate to, which is to attempt foolhardy jumps off a steep-stepped ramp, only to suffer the usual gruesome wipeouts. Meanwhile, two white girls are checking them out with brassy lust, and invite them to their opulent home in Beverly Hills, where the boys hang for a while — and don’t steal or spray-paint the place. Instead, the film’s stars, Jonathan Valasquez and Kico Pedrasa, get “close” with the girls, one pair acting swiftly and passionately, the other engaging in very sweet small talk about the differences in their worlds. Their talk, like much of the dialogue in the film, is unscripted.
Further adventures in Beverly Hills ensue, including various encounters with wealthy, uptight old white people who shoot at them, and wealthy, debauched show-biz types who want to fetishize and sexually exploit them.
All the while, in the background there’s director-writer Larry Clark — the man behind the notorious films Kids, Bully and Ken Park — who has a rather aw-screw-it attitude toward filmmaking that stands in marked opposition to the oily-shiny high-budget pop effluvia of the Hollywood film biz.
The opportunity to appear in a semi-high-profile film doesn’t come a-knockin’ just every day in the hood, and for the boys of Wassup Rockers, it could just be a real life-changing kinda thing. That opportunity actually came about a year before filming began, when Clark and a colleague from the French culture-lifestyle magazine Rebel were driving around L.A. scouting locations for a photo shoot of Tiffany Limos, the lead actress from Clark’s recent Ken Park, and they came across Kico and his pal Porky skating in Venice.
They looked, in Clark’s words, “poor.” Not “I-stole-my-distressed-T-shirt-from-Urban-Outfitters” poor — really poor. “Their style struck me,” says Clark. “Their shoes were cracked and painted with regular house paint to stop them falling apart. And they had these shirts that were old and way too small. I found out that where they come from, these kids had to fight to be who they are and dress the way they do. They were authentic.” Kico and Porky, then 13, told Clark how they got shit from the gangbangers in South-Central for growing their hair long, wearing skinny jeans and listening to the Ramones. Clark had found his new muse.
Clark explained to the boys what he was doing and ended up shooting photos of the skater kids on their home turf in South-Central. Rebel was so thrilled with the results that they published a 23-page spread and released two covers of the issue, one with Tiffany and one with Jonathan.
The film’s scenes and dialogue are all based on stories the boys themselves told Clark during the year or so he spent hanging with them shooting photos. A fascinating blend of cinéma vérité and scripted narrative, much of it has the gritty look and feel of a homemade movie done on a hand-held video cam.
Now, you can imagine that for these kids, having the story of their lives turned into a film must’ve been pretty damn amazing. The funny thing is, now that Jonathan and Kico, in particular, are potentially on the cusp of, well, stardom, they seem fairly unaffected by it. Though just 15, both have a kind of heavy grounding in reality such that the lure of fame doesn’t quite make them quiver with excitement. Of course, their nonchalance might be an affectation, another way of defending themselves from hurt and disappointment — if not outright danger.
Wassup Rockers opens with a scene of a gangbanger kid getting blown away by a couple of other gangbangers doing a drive-by. It’s dramatic, sure, but Clark is hardly taking license. Violence surrounds these kids. Shortly after filming wrapped, a 15-year-old girl was shot outside Jonathan and Kico’s school. Recently, one of their friends, the 17-year-old guitar player of the Reliants (one of the several South-Central punk bands featured on the Wassup Rockers soundtrack) got caught in a crossfire and was shot in the eye. The bullet lodged in his skull, and he’s now unable to play the guitar.
The kid who got shot in the film is a fictional character, of course, but Clark based him on this kid called Creeper, who really did get shot a few days before filming began. Watching this movie is a bit weird like that, because Clark mixes in scenes drawn from reality with his scripted narrative. But it’s all the same thing, in a way, because the story came to Clark after going to skate parks every Saturday with Jonathan, Kico, Porky, Eddie and a few others. He got to know them, and they told him stories.
The film starts with some rough footage Clark did with a 14-year-old Jonathan in his bedroom, shirtless and scratching himself like he just rolled out of bed. Jonathan gives the details about his friends and their life in the hood, how they got into skating and punk rock, and some interesting facts about his friends’ habits and lifestyles — how his homey Milton got the nickname Spermball, for example (“ ’cause he likes to jack off a lot”). The first half of the movie is made up of all these stories that Jonathan and Kico and their friends told Clark.
“And the second half, I just made up,” says Clark, “because I wanted to see what would happen if I got ’em out of South-Central, and I just made that up. It was like stream of consciousness. I was just having fun: Okay, well, someone calls the cops, they have to run, they go in the backyard, whatta they gonna find there? And then they find this and they run again, and then they run across the yard, and then a dog comes out and bites Kico on the ass! And just like, keeping it going.”
Other characters in the film include Rosalia, the local 14-year-old ho, played with excellent style and humor by first-time actress Ashley Maldonado. Professional actresses, with the exception of the Jonathan’s mother — that’s his real mom — play the boys’ mothers. For the scenes shot in Beverly Hills, a couple of beginner actresses were cast in the parts of Nikki (Jessica Steinbaum) and Jade (Laura Cellner).
A good example of how the kids themselves actually wrote much of the script is a scene at the end, where they’re trying to get back to South-Central, they’re tired, they’re beat; they finally get back, and they’re walking in the street and they run into some gangbangers.
“The way I wrote it,” says Clark, “was, as they walk, the [gangbanger] says, ‘Where you from?’ And I wrote it so Kico says, ‘Fuck you.’ And then the gangbangers just see these kids, who they could just kill, having that much balls, and they just let ’em pass and walk on.
“So when we get ready to do this scene, Kico says, ‘I can’t say “Fuck you.” I wouldn’t say that.’ [The gangbanger] says, ‘Where you from?’ And Kico says, ‘Nowhere,’ and walks on. I said, ‘Kico, I want you to say “Fuck you,” ’ and he said, ‘No, I’m not gonna say it, ’cause I wouldn’t say that, because they’d kill us.’ ”
“Yeah,” says Kico, “because how would we say ‘Fuck you’ when we know what goes on down there? That’s why I’m like, ‘I’m nowhere.’ He’s [the gangbanger] like, ‘Why do you wear your shit all tight?’ It’s like, ‘Oh, because we don’t give a fuck what you think.’ That I will say, I always say that. But not ‘Fuck you.’ ”
In their own not-so-peculiar way, the particular bunch of kids Clark fortuitously happened upon turned out be a real go-getter typa crew. In their spare time — when they’re not out skating — they’ve got a band together, the Revolts, a few rehearsals of which are highlighted in Wassup Rockers. It’s full-on raging punk rock, and hey, they’re good. Eddie the drummer in particular is a blast-beat demon, Porky’s a quick and adept bassist, and shirtless Jonathan handles the Cookie Monster lead vocals.
“Well, yeah,” says Jonathan, shyly, “we hadn’t practiced for a year, but right now we’re really getting into it again, and we’re starting to get everything together. I don’t know by when we are gonna be playing, but . . .”
Punk rock was blasted constantly in the car during Clark’s year of hanging out with the kids, and they would make sample CDs; all the bands on the film’s soundtrack — except for Defiance — including their own band and South Central Riot Squad, the Remains, the Retaliats and Moral Decay, are neighborhood bands the boys turned Clark onto, what he calls “Latino ghetto punk rock.”
What got these guys into skating and punk rock? Were there other kids at school into all that?
“Yeah, it’s big over there,” says Kico, “but like we’re the ones who usually kicked it out together, like all seven of us. But like there are other skaters now.”
Jonathan adds, “Like before, everybody used to wear baggies over there . . .”
Did you ever wear baggy clothes?
“Yeah, I was starting to, but then my brother started listening to music, to like the Ramones or the Misfits, so that was always in my house; I would listen to it all the time, and I started getting into it. And then, I was into skating already, and then I started wearing tight pants with small shirts.”
Can you guys actually skate in the streets in a big bunch like that? Without getting mowed down?
“Yeah. That’s what we always do,” says Jonathan.
“We always get chased off the side, because we never really skate the spot,” says Kico. “Like when we go to private properties, we don’t really skate that way, ’cause we always big, like 10 or seven, like it’s a big bunch. I’ve been doing it for five years already. Now a lot of kids are into that.”
The mind churns a bit savoring the impact this film’s going to have in the hood. If a lot of different kinds of people get to see it, these skater dudes could end up being influential figures. But they’ll have to deal with some lifestyle changes too, because they’re going to have at least semifamous faces. That might cause problems.
“We don’t know about that yet,” says Kico.
You know, envy and jealousy, etc.
“Oh, we already got that,” Kico says. “People don’t like us, and they’re always talking shit about us because, I don’t know, we just skaters, and then they always talk shit about us, our girlfriends and everything; we had a skating team and we’d always be like the best out of everybody. Then they know that we did a movie now, and they think we’re all fuckin’ conceited now, think we’re all the shit now . . . They just talk shit all the time.”
“They talk shit,” adds Jonathan.
One major fringe benefit of the film was loads of new skateboards for the entire crew during production. Previously, of course, they had little cash to speak of, and couldn’t buy equipment. But Clark got hooked up with some of the skateboard companies, who were happy to supply them with boxfuls of boards for the obvious promotional returns. And now that the film is out, the kids are sponsored too. They get clothes and equipment, and soon they’re going to have their own boards, having formed a skateboard company with Danny Minnick, the photographer who filmed the skateboarding scenes in Wassup Rockers.
And the band’s starting up again — if they get the band going, for sure they’ll be able to get shows, and maybe get signed to a label, or whatever way they want to do it. Having acted in this film is going to pay off — and since it took over a year to make, it’s a good thing they stuck with it.
“I was gonna start giving up after a little while, but . . .” Kico laughs.
“I didn’t really care, ’cause like all the while we were just having fun,” says Jonathan. “He would take us to skate, he would take all of us, and we would listen to music, loud or whatever, we’d take a cooler with drinks.”
“And then we’ll just ride around, fucking around with him, talking shit to people in the street. We loved it when we fucked around with him . . .”
“Then I would feed ’em. So every Saturday, I would take ’em out all day . . .,” Clark starts to say, before Jonathan cuts him off.
“You never feed us!”
“I always fed you.”
“No, you haven’t,” says Kico.
“We had fun,” Clark says, “and I’m the guy that paid the price, ’cause these kids beat the shit outta me all the time and fucked with me and called me names and . . .”
“We ripped his boxers off twice,” says Jonathan, laughing. “We gave him a wedgie so hard that his boxers would rip.”
Adds Kico, “We had him from the front, and I had him from the back, we would pick him up . . .”
“We would go other places to eat, and what these kids would do is steal all the straws. I mean, 150 straws — they’d have 30 or 50 straws apiece, and then all the way back they were spit-wadding, spit-wadding other cars, spit-wadding me as I’m driving 70 mph. I mean, it was crazy,” says Clark.
Sounds stressful . . .
“It was stressful,” Clark continues. “And there’d be four in the back seat, and then one laying across their legs, so it was five in the back seat, and then Eddie would get shotgun. And then me driving. And a few times, there’d be too many — I gotta ’95 Camry, right? So I could get like five in the back seat, seven in the car including me, but there’d be nine, right? So they’d say, ‘We’ll trunk it.’ I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘We’ll get in the trunk.’ ”
You can get busted for that.
“I can get busted for having five kids in the back seat with no seat belts on. And then two or three in the trunk sometimes, and I’m thinking, here’s this old white guy with all these Latino kids in the car, five or six in the back seat — what if we get busted? Martin Luther King’s birthday, we all went to a bowling alley and we had 13 people in the car; Jonathan was in the trunk with Cindy and Spermball.”
“I was in there too!” says Kico.
“Spermball, Kico, Jonathan and Cindy, his girlfriend, who he had broken up with — but they got back together that day in the trunk!” Clark says. “I mean, there was no need to make up all this stuff, it all came from those stories.”
One day, Milton called up Clark and said, “I can’t be in your movie anymore, Larry.” Clark asked why not. And Milton said, “ ’Cause I don’t want to be Spermball anymore.” Clark said, “What? You have to be Spermball, that’s the greatest name in the world! There’s no better name in the world than Spermball!” And Milton said, “No, I can’t be Spermball, my mom won’t let me.”
Clark had to think quickly, because he had his script prepared and Spermball was all the way through it. So he said, “Okay, Milton, here’s what I’ll do: They’ll call you Spermball, but then you’ll say, ‘I don’t wanna be Spermball anymore,’ and then I’m gonna take you on this whole adventure, you’re gonna be a main part of it, and you’re gonna start getting respect. And by the end of the movie, you’ve gotten respect, and they’ll call you Milton.”
Which is how the movie now ends. It could have turned out quite differently, though, as circumstances in the dangerous, small world of the hood change rapidly — two of Clark’s actors left during the filming, started smoking pot and drinking, cut off their long hair, and became gangbangers overnight.
“The movie’s about that, also,” says Clark. “The movie’s about that there’s a certain age that we all go through, that happens to all of us, where we can try on different guises, we can be who we wanna be. You know, you can be a gangster one day, a punk rocker the next, Polo’d-out, preppied-out the next. But these kids live in an environment where you can’t really do that without having to fight all ?the time.”
“There has to be a moment in your life,” he says, “when someone has to help you understand that you’re not worthless. When I was a kid, I had very low self-esteem, and it was very difficult for me to find myself and to think I had any worth at all, and only when I started making photographs and making work did I realize that I had something.”
Sadly, a few of the kids with whom Clark has previously worked have found their lives playing out much like characters from his previous, darker movies. Brad Renfro, who played Marty in Bully, recently got caught buying dope on Skid Row in a random police sting. The Los Angeles Times published the photo of his arrest.
“What scumbags to do that to a kid,” says Clark, who is still in close contact with Renfro. “He’s young and he’s in trouble, and they put his name on the cover. Must have been a slow news day.”
Skater-hipster Harold Hunter, who starred in Kids, OD’ed on heroin in February (his death was widely attributed to a heart attack in the press) after years spent straddling fame and destitution in New York. And Justin Pierce, who played Casper in Kids, hanged himself in Las Vegas in 2000. Six years later, it is still something Clark has difficulty talking about.
“I’m emotionally involved with many of the people who work in my films,” he says, “but that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Clark is especially protective of his Wassup Rockers, who, thanks to their ZIP code, are some of the most vulnerable of his stars. The pressure for Jonathan and Kico to follow their friends who fell back into the life is enormous — but they have other plans. Both are already slated to appear in Clark’s next movie.
While some of these kids definitely had issues, says Clark — Porky, for example, is downright suicidal, though it’s played for pathetically comedic effect (he tries to drown himself by dunking his head in the bathroom sink, but he comes up for air when he runs out of breath) — now, anybody in the film who didn’t feel any self-worth is feeling much better.
“The thing was, I met these kids, and I said, you know, you never see kids like this in movies, and they should be seen. Because they have so much fun — they were having so much more fun than anybody. They weren’t smoking pot, they weren’t drinking, they were at that age where they just wanted to have fun, and it was just a pure moment in time.”
Wassup Rockers is essentially focused on what it means to have guts: The skater kids do what they want to do, and don’t let people mess with them about it, and constantly have to stand up for themselves. Jonathan and Kico, too, show admirable composure in several love scenes in the film.
“It was fun,” says Jonathan.
“It’s fun. No problem,” agrees Kico.
The boys also had to do their own stunts, such as when they fight the boyfriends of the girls who pick them up, and Kico gets thrown out the window into the swimming pool. Did anybody get hurt?
“We all did fall off the stairs,” says Kico.
“I banged my head,” says Jonathan.
Which is nothing compared to the series of grisly wipeouts the kids suffer in their attempts at skating the steps at Beverly Hills High. Kico messed up his left finger in one particularly bad landing.
“It was difficult,” says Clark. “But these guys were amazing, and we were there, you know, and we had to get it, and if we didn’t get it, we didn’t have it, and I really relied on Kico and he came through. This kid got beat up so bad through the movie . . .”
“I had the worst things,” says Kico.
“But Jonathan, when he crashed and burned so bad, man — when he did that split? One leg gets caught and he keeps going? That’s so painful to watch, man. Seriously, guys, when I see you doing that in the film, I feel bad,” Clark laughs. “But I’m happy it happened!”
“When this guy made me jump off into the pool, three times in a row, back to back, bowbowbow!, my back was all red and I got sick the next day,” says Kico.
Clark also attempted to jump off the roof of Jonathan’s house on a skateboard — after all, they’d done it, so why couldn’t he?
“He broke his rib!” laughs Kico.
“And fucked up my knee,” adds Clark. “I feel like a very old man. But I’m young in my head.”