Josh Stewart interview
Interview by: Aymeric Nocus
Q: This year, the Vladimir Film Festival is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Static series of skateboarding videos. May you briefly recount your original background as a debuting filmmaker in Florida, and what exactly was it that prompted you to take things one scale further with the first Static video?
A: Oh boy, how much time do you have? haha.…well, ever since my parents bought our firs VHS camcorder when I was 13 I had been making skate videos of my friends and myself. I was obsessed with it and I pretty much made video parts with every skater I met around my home town at the time. But after the Skatepark of Tampa opened in 1993, I started to meet a lot of rad, talented skaters and decided to try making a full video instead of just random video parts. Immediately after finishing that I felt like it was amateurish and I decided to get more serious and make a more professional video. I was 16 years old now and finally able to drive, so I rented out a little editing bay from this production studio and when I finished that video I had 100 copies made and tried to sell them to skate shops around Florida. At that point I had never seen any other independent videos, everything that was available at the time were only brand videos. So it felt kind of crazy at the time but I actually managed to sell all of the videos I made. It got me thinking that we could get our videos seen by a lot more people outside of Florida and made me want to do another video on a more grand scale. We had an amazing scene and it was frustrating thatSo we moved into making a video with the goal of introducing the Tampa skate scene to the rest of the world. One of the big things that helped with that video was that I had randomly met Jamie Thomas during a trip and he ended up inviting me to help film the Toy Machine team’s Welcome to Hell tour. And in return Jamie filmed a bunch of street footage with me during that trip all across the USA and let me give him a little part in my own video. That video was called Cigar City and after calling a bunch of different distributors I was stoked to get tons of support for it and we ended up selling thousands of copies all around the world.
It was super exciting and fulfilling to see our skate scene getting recognized finally.
Filming for that video we traveled up the east coast to Philadelphia, Washington DC, Atlanta, etc and we met lots of rad skaters and skate scenes, and specifically the skaters in Washington DC got me really inspired. So after Cigar City came out I knew I wanted to try and do a new project focusing on skaters from outside of Florida. And then right around that same time Dan Wolfe came to Tampa to film the Tampa section for Eastern Exposure III. And I’m sure that seeing what he was doing was extra inspiring for me because to this day I consider EE3 to be probably the best real street skating video of all time. But anyways, that year during the Tampa Am contest I saw Jake Rupp skate for the first time and it was the added push I needed to get started on Static.
Q: What exactly was your mindset after the first Static video premiered and came out? You never expected to actively keep it going as an increasingly ambitious series going as far as covering so much of the worldwide skate scene, or did you? Were you already planning ahead?
A: I was really stoked. I just remember after the first premiere in Tampa Jake Rupp saying to me “We did it!” and it made me feel so good to know that not only was he happy but that people around the world were going to get introduced to his skating for the first time. But actually as I was still trying to get the video distributed, I rushed out to the big ASR trade show in San Diego to try to find distributors who’d be interested in ordering the video and I ran into the Planet Earth and Adio guys. And there at the trade show the team manager asked me if I’d be down to do the Adio video. It was an incredible compliment but it was also terrifying. I couldn’t not take the opportunity, but I was only 21 years old and didn’t feel like I had the skills to pull off such a monstrous project. So that all pretty much kept me from getting to bask in the afterglow of finishing Static for very long and I had to move right into the Adio project. Typically, that’s the trajectory of most skate videomakers, is they put out a video that gets them noticed and then they get hired by a big brand and they leave their hometown and stop making indie projects. But, although I loved making the Adio video and working with that insane line-up of talented dudes, it eventually left me super anxious to get started on Static II and get back to working on an independent project. The stress and pressure of One Step Beyond was so different than working on my own videos and also, I felt a need to get another east coast/underground project in the works. So I moved back to Florida and got to work on Static II.
Q: How did establishing all those connexions throughout first your country of origin then the globe fall into place? How gradually did you build the Static network?
A: Yeah, it’s weird because it’s so commonplace now for everyone to be connected through Instagram and social media. People feel like they know everyone already because they saw what that person ate for dinner last night on their Instagram story and they listened to that person’s playlist on Spotify, etc. It’s a completely different world. Back in the 90’s most of us didn’t even have email addresses. I wasn’t really even using the internet until like 98/99. To get Jake Rupp involved in Static I had to call around to find someone who might have his phone number and then eventually I cold-called him and explained who I was and that I was working on this new video I wanted him to be in. Not trying to be a grandpa here and say “In my day it was so much harder” because, yes it really required more effort, but I feel like it made you appreciate jumping those kinds of hurdles a lot more. Going up to Washington DC and immersing myself in their scene was my first experience of diving into a “foreign” culture and working with people I didn’t know at all. It was especially exciting because at the time that scene wasn’t getting any attention at all from the skate media, so I felt privileged to be helping shine some light on them. That feeling was definitely what sparked my desire to do the same thing in other cities. And the next place that I became obsessed with was London. I knew there must be an amazing scene there but you seriously weren’t seeing anything from there in US skate media. So, when I started working on Static II, the first city I wanted to start in was London and I planned the first trip with Kenny Reed. He was bummed because London was too tame of a destination for him, he wanted to go somewhere sketchy and weird. But when we got there he introduced me to Paul Shier and soon Paul introduced me to every skater in London. It went perfectly. That’s pretty much how that all happened. I loved the feeling of capturing slept-on scenes and underground skaters and getting to be showcase them the way I saw them. it just kept snowballing organically from there. At the London premiere for Static II this dude came up to me afterwards in the crowd and complimented the video in a really profound way. I wish I could remember what he said but it really moved me. He introduced himself to me as Soy Panday. I looked him up online when I got back to the hotel and I thought “Damn, the Paris skate scene isn’t getting any attention right now”. And so it continued.
Q: Has there been any decisive moments where you would realize, ’well, I can’t believe I’m doing this’ — getting in touch with people, booking a flight to some new place, or just being out somewhere in particular filming with someone in particular?
A: Haha.…it’s funny, I have two specific moments that immediately pop into my mind when I read that question.
1. When I booked a spur of the moment ticket to Cairo just so we could film a scene for Kenny Reed’s part in front of the pyramids of Giza, that was a blatant moment that caused me to take pause and think “this is insane, what are you doing?”
2. After I moved to NYC to work on Static III and I had just gotten a job working at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. Puleo and I used to frequent this crappy little coffee shop owned by a rapper, haha.…it that was always closed on Mondays, and one day Bobby offered to the owner that if he hired Bob and I we would open it for him on Mondays. The owner said “ok”. And the next morning I found myself sitting in the back of the owner’s car at 5:30 in the morning driving to the Restaurant supply warehouse while his own rap CD blared over the speakers. And as we drove over a bridge into Queens, the Manhattan skyline loomed in the amber morning light to my left and to my right sat Bobby Puleo, my new coworker at a coffee shop job I had just taken. I had just turned 30 years old and I had a mind-numbing thought to myself “What the fuck am I doing with my life”.
Q: How many times do you reckon such passionate work on each piece ever came back to slap you in the face as you were putting it in to the point of questioning your own judgement or sanity — or did none of those thoughts ever occur to you in the moment, and you just rolled with the workflow, maybe even lacking some hindsight to fully grasp how great what you were doing was?
A: To be honest the whole lifestyle I was living was a constant mental battle because I knew very well that my obsession with making the next video was digging myself further and further into debt and distracting myself from developing an actual career of some sort that I could survive off of. It always seemed like I had ALMOST figured it out because I would finish a video and it would sell well but I would realize I hadn’t done enough advertising and hadn’t marketed it properly, or that I had just spent way too much money producing it and that the NEXT video would be different because I would spend less money but market it better. And then I’d meet a skater I wanted to do a part with and next thing I knew I would be 3 years and tens of thousands of dollars deep into another project. It’s always been something I’ve gone into thinking I could do more efficiently and more successfully each time, but I always got lost in the project and came out of it on the other side like a bad acid trip wondering what happened and how the hell I got there.…..and what happened to my credit card balance?
Q: What was something formative for you that you earned through your experience working on the Static series in particular?
A: Realistically, the first thing that comes to mind is learning how to work with people from all walks of life, all personalities, income levels, etc. It’s always been weird for me because I don’t drink and I’ve never partied. So a lot of the skaters I’ve worked with over the years we don’t go out and party together and connect on that level, we specifically work and travel together on the mission of working on a video part. It’s a silly comparison, but it’s somewhat like going to war with someone. You end up in this group of dudes from different economic levels, different cultures and often different parts of the world. We all have this one thing in common, our love of skateboarding, and we work together to create a collaborative art piece. And as the filmer you really have to act as a sort of psychologist of sorts and learn how to work with almost anybody. You have to put your own wants and comforts aside to create an environment that’s the most conducive to letting that skater go through their process and get the trick. I don’t know where else I could apply those skills, maybe as a hostage negotiator one day?
Q: Nowadays you are busy working on Theories Of Atlantis amongst many other video projects, and the latest Static video is always the ‘last’ one but realistically, how much of you is craving to start putting together another installment at some point?
A: Yeah, the fever comes back all the time. Mostly if I find a dope song that would work well in an edit, or I meet a skater that sparks my imagination. But I often miss being out there creeping around the city at night and capturing clips with the boys.
Q: Where do you think that urge to explore and document originally came from?
A: My older brother was a skater before I started. So I grew up watching his skate videos before I even got into skating myself. I think maybe watching videos for all of the other aspects aside from the actual skating in the beginning made me develop a strong taste for strong art direction. So when I’m working on a project I tend to spend as much time as I do filming skating, searching for and shooting conceptual visuals to help drive the art direction in the video.
Citat: So I guess the drive to travel and explore is as much based in the hunt for visual inspiration as it is to work with underground skate scenes or skaters who haven’t had much exposure.
Q: Are you already working on something of the sort — or equally ambitious — in the shadows that you could warn us about? This is only going to be a very limited edition of two thousand copies (may or may not be hand-numbered) and I’d venture the guess that approximately 0.85% of the readership has a slap Message Boards account (still a considerable risk).
A: Haha… I’ve learned to never say never so I don’t rule it out completely, but Theories of Atlantis takes almost all of my time nowadays so hopping on another massive project would be quite difficult, but you never know. I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath but I’m still filming a little every week and have been collecting footage for a while. So who knows, stranger things have happened.
The opening of the Static XX exhibition was held on September 28th 2019 at the Kaštel Fortress in Pula.