'Minding The Gap' Director Bing Liu On Crafting One Of 2018's Most Compelling And Acclaimed Documentaries [Interview]

When filmmaker Bing Liu was a younger man shooting skateboarding videos of himself and two best friends Zack and Keire in their hometown of Rockford, Illinois, he likely didn't realize that years later he would use that footage, as well as more deeply personal interviews with the two and many of their closest friends and family to compile a portrait of broken homes, domestic abuse, and undeniable impact of role models — both good and bad. While skateboarding begins as the central focus of the resulting documentary, Minding the Gap, it eventually becomes the much-needed escape from the real world for this kids — a real world that includes alcoholism and getting his girlfriend pregnant for Zack, and losing his father and coming to grips with being the only African-American kid among his group of friends for Keire.

Minding the Gap, which won a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Documentary Filmmaking and has additionally won countless Best Documentary and Audience awards along the 2018 festival circuit, explores the grueling transformation from adolescence to adulthood, made all the more painful since these three are exceptional on their boards and must give up their time a skate parks in order to get jobs to support themselves and their loved ones. There's a confessional tone to the project that Liu himself takes part in when he interviews his mother about her abusive second husband, who mercilessly disciplined him as a child.

Liu used his skills as a camera operator to find work in the camera department of many features, shooting primarily in and around nearby Chicago, including jobs on such films as Divergent, Transcendence, Jupiter Ascending, and Chi-Raq, as well as series like Shameless, Sense8, Empire, Easy, and The Girlfriend Experience. In addition to Minding the Gap (his first feature), Liu is also a segment director of Steve James' latest documentary series America to Me, a look at one of Chicago's most progressive public schools, located in suburban Oak Park, which is airing on STARZ; James is also an executive producer on Minding the Gap, which is now playing on Hulu and is making its way across the country for various theatrical showings.

/Film spoke about Minding the Gap with Liu in Chicago recently, about a week before the film was scheduled to begin a two-week run in the city, and he discusses the reaction his two friends had to seeing the film for the first time, the feeling of interviewing one's mother about such a serious subject, and the role skateboarding plays in his life and in the movie.


I'm glad I got to see this on the big screen first.

Thank you for doing that.

Yeah, the skateboarding sequences alone make it essential. There always seems to be in a crew of skateboarders that one guy who has a camera and has to capture everything. How did that job fall to you? Did you just happen to be the guy with a camera?

To widen out, there's a little less of a sports analogy—like "You're the first baseman, you're the short stop"—it's more like, there are a lot of skateboarders out there, and most of them don't have a filmer in their crew. But when there is a filmer, no one is designating anyone except for themselves, because they have fallen in love with that aspect, and that makes a community coalesce. To me, skateshops, which is public space where skateboarders can go, and filmers are what makes a community really thrive.

There is something about having those videos up on YouTube, where you can share them, that really gets you recognized too.

Don't forget, when I started, YouTube wasn't a thing. It was Hi8 tapes and in high school, there was another crew that distributed their tape on VHS, and it was hard to get a copy, and we were dubbing copies with people who had two VHS players. You had to track it and the sound was terrible [laughs].

There are moments in the film where the guys decide it's time to grow up and make a living, but you had this skill that you turned into something remarkable as a career. Do you feel lucky in that respect?

I think so. It's about what society values. Skateboarding is so hard, and you see the work that goes into it. When you watch Zack or Keire, they skate and it's like a jazz player playing jazz. It's just not valued; they still do the work and strive and grow from it. I liken it to the different forms of education that are now popping up in the education field. It's like "What type of learning are there, and can we respect for types of learning?" It just so happened that making documenting and having these types of chops put me in a valuable place in the marketplace.

How much time is represented in this film?

I was 14 when I was filming selfies of myself. It wasn't until I was 19 when I caught footage of Keire getting into a fight; he's much younger than me. I'm 29 now, so anywhere between 12 and 15 years.

At what point did you realize there might be a story or stories here worth assembling and that there might be something bigger going on among your friends?

The film is reverse engineered to make you feel like it was accidentally made into a film. It started out with my first shoot with Keire talking about abuse with his father. My second shoot with Zack was him going to the hospital, because Nina was going to get induced labor. It was guilt in that this was the film, and through editing, we dug through archival footage so that you're growing with me as the filmmaker on this journey from when I first started to now. When I was filming as a teenager, I experimented with interviewing people and putting that in my skate videos. I made a film when I was 17 about people talking about their problem in this Slacker-esque way. When I first started Minding the Gap, I went around the country interviewing skateboarders, and a year in, I went to Rockford and met Keire for the first time.

I'm guessing that at different point for different people watching the movie, it's going to dawn on them that this isn't a film about just skate culture. It's about domestic abuse and abuse in general, and that aspect sneaks up on you.

[laughs] It took a lot of different rough cuts to get there.

How many would you say? What were some of the early versions focusing on?

Hundreds of versions. There were a lot of little changes; it's like watching a child grow. One day you wake up, and they have a third arm [laughs]. I kept filming things over the years and edited it in. Like when Zack went off to Denver, I said, "Okay, how are we going to rework the film to make that work?" Or when the abuse between Zack and the mother of his child comes up, how do I handle that. It was a process and a dialogue between the shooting and the editing. But that moment with Keire where we commiserate about crying, where the theme of child abuse becomes pretty clear, that moment was in there for years. It was a matter of where it went, because that was always going to be a turn. Sometimes it went earlier ,and I thought "We don't even know Keire yet; this is too early."

How late in the process did you interview your mother?

It might have been the fall of 2015. But I didn't want to make a personal doc. I didn't see any reason to mechanically. Why would the filmmaker need to be in this? But when Nina told me that Zack was being abusive, I had to justify going there as the filmmaker. We needed to keep digging deeper and indirectly still investigating. I think going to interview my mom and helping the audience that I come from this, it helps my case.

Most documentarians do everything in their power to keep themselves out of their films, unless it's someone like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. At what point did you stop resisting that inclination and realize this was just as much your story as theirs?

That was an ebb-and-flow process too. A lot of people at a few early screenings would hear that I come from Rockford, I filmed there growing up and have archival footage of these guys, and they'd ask "How you tried being in the film?" I just didn't see a reason for it. I think what I resisted is less about being in the film and more about doing voiceover. I really did not want to do voiceover; I tried it just because I had to, and it just didn't feel right. But even interviewing my mom, it was like "Okay, I'm going to try this." Or going to interview my brother: "I'm in Rockford, I bumped into my brother at home, I'm just going to ask him to do this. I don't know if it's going to work." And it ended up being really instrumental in me entering the film.

Things get so heavy at points that I started to wonder when the next skateboarding sequence was going to give me a chance to breathe. Those are moments of pure joy when all troubles go away for your friends and the audience. Did you space those out deliberately?

It's funny you say that. That was the initial intent of the skateboarding—the sugar you put on the kale. But something I learned over time was that even that feels repetitive if it continuously serves the purpose of emotional release. You watch the film and skateboarding takes on a different meaning each time and has its own arc. My thing is, the idea of skateboarding as a solve is such a dead-horse idea. It's been done so many times, and often it comes off...skateboarders hate hearing it. "Why do you even need to say that? We get it." It doesn't translate. For me, it's more interesting, the idea how skateboarding isn't a panacea.

Talk about the style you developed in filming the skateboarding, whether you want to film from a distance or be right there among the other guys.

I look many elements from working in a camera department in movies like Jupiter Ascending or TV shows like Shameless. When you work with Steadicam operators and straight camera operators who are amazing at what they do...I'm seen Steadicam operator run full speed, go around in circles, step on a forklift while doing a single take, and it's like "What if we translate that to skateboarding? What if we make it at eye level, so it's less about the board and more about the person?" The skateboard is far away in the frame; it's more about the feeling of being in the headspace of someone who's skateboarding. Then the long shots and tighter shots, along with the rest of the film, I took that from working with ASC [American Society of Cinematographers] cinematographers and their really subtle visual storytelling techniques.

I did notice you'd worked a couple times with the Wachowskis. How did you start working with them and what did you learn from those experiences?

I was a camera department member who worked on many things, and the Wachowskis was a job [laughs]. I worked on Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending—I didn't work on either project for the whole time; I was day-playing a lot. They were very different projects. Jupiter Ascending had a massive budget. We shot on the Southside [of Chicago] by the massive Armory off Garfield Blvd., and turned this giant armory into a massive greenscreen with Channing Tatum zipping around on a line up in the air. Sense8 was more intimate; the Steadicam operator got really beat up on that because they do these long takes without cutting, and he's sweating holding this 100-lb. rig. They're changing out actors in the middle of the scene because that's the conceit of the show. You get a sense that they're very actor-process driven, creating on the fly sometimes.

Can you give me some updates on your friends? How new is the newest footage in the film?

It's pretty new, 2017. Keire is working in a Sweetgreen, like this upscale salad shop, in Denver. He's still skateboarding; he's 22, 23. He's figuring out his life. Nina is working a couple of job and hasn't had the time to go back to school. She's coming out to a lot of Q&As, and feeling really proud about women opening up to her about their experiences [with domestic abuse]. And Zack is acting in a fiction film, right now he's shooting. It's this Berlin co-production, this Danish directors second film; he's the lead.

That's a turn I was not expecting. How is he personally with the drinking?

He's calmed down. It's not like he's still abandoning his apartment and running off to Denver. He's been Sam, the girlfriend you see in the film, for a couple of years, and pays child support. He was working as a roofer before he took off to do this film—it's a SAG acting gig.

I noticed you also worked on Steve James series America To Me.

I did three storylines that became prominent that are all throughout the episodes. It's the DGA that made us change from "story directors" to "segment directors," so it's confusing.

Steve is an executive producer on your film as well. How did you get involved with him?

Before I really started working with him, I saw the film Stevie, which was probably the most influential for me, for many reasons. He didn't really get involved in Minding the Gap until America To Me. He saw a demo of my film, and thought "This guy has a rapport with young people." I don't actually know what he was thinking; that's just my guess. And he hired me, and I did a year with him. And afterwards, in late 2016, Diane, my co-producer and I said, "We should get Steve to be an EP," and I asked him that day, and he was like "I'd love to."

What do Keire, Zack and Nina think of the film?

They saw it before Sundance. I told them early on the process that we were going to do that, before we even picture locked. We wanted them to check it for everything from "This fact is wrong" to "I hate this part." It's not like we're giving them editorial control, but we do want them to be in support of the film.

Zack said he was relieved because he thought I was going to be portrayed worse, but ultimately he was really taken aback by the honesty of the storytelling. Everybody was. Nina relived the relationship with Zack, which was difficult because she hadn't really processed it, so we processed it with her for the first time. Ultimately, I think it was a healthy thing for her. She was the only person who wanted something changed; she just wanted that video recording shortened, and we shave five seconds off of it. Keire was emotionally reflective; every time he laughed on the screen, he's laugh in person. I could literally feel him shaking with laughter and tears on the couch that I was sitting on with him; he was jolting me with his emotions.

Great to meet you. Thank you so much.

I appreciate it.