Not letting Brian Lotti just skate on by
The longtime pro -- and a SoCal insider -- breaks down the L.A. skate scene
Downtown Los Angeles has been a fixture in skateboarding films and magazines for decades. Perhaps the best extended look at the city as a venue for skating came from longtime pro and filmmaker Brian Lotti, whose "1st and Hope" delivers great riding but also treats downtown like a featured member of the cast.
ESPNLA.com caught up with Lotti to talk about the process of shooting downtown, what makes it a great venue for skating, and how he tried to feature the city in his work.
What was your first connection to downtown L.A. as a skating environment?
When I was in my 20s, I was pro and skated all over Southern California, mostly in San Diego and in Los Angeles. I took a hiatus from that, was painting a lot, and I came to Southern California and I visited some friends, and one of my friends was like, "Hey, you should go downtown. They just finished the symphony hall, and downtown is really cool at night. Nobody's there, it's kind of empty. It's a great place to go skate."
So I went to the top of the hill. You know, first rule of skating a city is to get to one of the highest places so you can skate down. And boom! I had this great experience one night skating downtown L.A. I remember really being struck by how picturesque it was at night, and how urban it was.
What makes skating downtown different than Venice or Santa Monica?
Downtown is a place where there's lots of stuff to skate, and there are certain times during the week where there's very little traffic. You don't get kicked out of places too, too much, though that's kind of changing. But basically it's a place where you can skate around. You don't have to drive from spot to spot. Most all other places in Los Angeles, you pretty much have to drive. Get in your car, drive to a spot. Skate, and drive to another spot. Downtown, you can skate around and find spots and sessions.
You can kind of create a big-picture flow that goes beyond what you might be doing in any one spot?
Yeah. That's the original experience those skateboarders had growing up. Before kids were really into magazines and before the emergence of all these really technical videos, which are kind of a deceit in a way, since most people don't really skate like that. Originally, most all of us would just skate around our neighborhood or the little suburban areas where we lived. Just skate from spot to spot. I think everyone likes downtown because it's a place where you can do that.
There really aren't a lot of other places like that in L.A.
Has that emphasis on being in the right place for five hours until you get the trick right, or making sure that the photo is perfect, or whatever, has that taken away from the experience of just being out and skating a place? Whether downtown L.A. or downtown Dayton?
Yeah. I think it's more artificial. There's a lot of posturing, there's a lot of artifice in the skateboard industry that kind of dominates everything, in a way. It dominates magazines, dominates videos. I got into skateboarding because it was a thing I could do on my own. I didn't have to have a coach yelling at me. I could go out, and it was freedom. It was about having fun. It wasn't about trying to prove anything or do anything in particular. It was just thinking freely.
So sometimes, when I take stock of the nature of the magazines or the videos, there's so much posturing, it's so competitive and there's so much artifice to it, it's kind of a false reality in a way. Skateboarding is really just going out and skating with your friends, and having fun. That hasn't always been represented in the way it used to be represented, you know? The skateboard industry has become pretty competitive, and it's really upped the ante. So yeah, sometimes it might be good to remind people that skateboarding is really just not that serious."
If you go to Venice, even if you're not a skater you expect to see people on skateboards. You don't necessarily expect to see it downtown. Does that change the experience? To be somewhere the general public might not expect you?
A lot of skateboarders love to go to places where there isn't anybody else. Where there isn't a heavy presence of skateboarding. A lot of times, a heavy presence of skateboarders means there's regulation. Or there's an awareness with the local police or local businesses, so part of why downtown is cool is that it's a commuter city that is a ghost town in large part for much of the week. That's why it's fun to go skate there.
When you started planning out where to go for "1st and Hope," how did you attack the map? Where you wanted to go and how to link those places together? Because geographically you can get from place to place, but there is some distance.
Yeah, there was some magic realism. It was trying to strike a balance between featuring spots that were cool and iconic and highly skateable for a group of people, and also trying to render a feel for how a city actually flowed. So we kind of split the difference.
What was one of your highlights?
The Department of Water and Power building at the top of the hill. That flat, mesa-like plaza around that building, that really iconic building. It has those blocks, those marble blocks, if you're skating that thing, there's a big water moat around that place. It was awesome. Everybody had a blast there. That was like the kicker-off session in a way. That was really fun, and it made a lot of sense because people already were kind of going to that spot. Everybody loved skating those marble blocks.
I hear that's a pretty tough one to get though, because you can get kicked out pretty quick.
Yeah, now it's been ransacked so much. Now the security guards there are really on point, and they'll chase you if you try to get in.
Where did you take it from there?
We wanted to show some skating where you just skate down a sidewalk, or go for a couple blocks and not stop and get a feel for what it's like to skate a real city. We filmed one line down Grand Avenue, which had some new planters and cool things. The three of us just tried to skate and take turns doing tricks. We kind of leap-frogged down the street. A lot of what we were doing was kind of reaction to many skateboard videos, where the editing would feature just a trick. Say a guy doing a trick on a handrail down the stairs. Just that trick, then cut. Cut, trick, cut. Cut, trick, cut. We felt the skating is just as important as the trick. Let's let it flow. That was a big part of it.
We skated down Grand Avenue and skated down Temple, then we made another right, and skated down I forget. I think it was Olive. Geography was important. We thought, "This is downtown L.A. Let's show the different neighborhoods a little bit." So we ended up in Little Tokyo. We wanted to show the aspects of that neighborhood, with the sidewalks, and there's the main drag with all the noodle shop neon signs. And a legendary skateboarder that everybody knows and loves, Eric Dressen, he used to live in Little Tokyo, so he was kind of the featured guy that joined the journey.
Then there were also epic spots that people loved, and were really close to downtown. There was a really, really good bank-to-curb at the L.A. County Jailhouse, and we figured out a way to stage a session there for a couple hours, and invited some guys.
What was your favorite aspect of downtown L.A., as a venue for skateboarding?
That it was kind of untapped. It was so new and it was ironic in the sense that it was a city, but it was kind of like a wilderness. Very wild, very empty. A very rugged, no-man's-land kind of place. It felt like a great place for skateboarding because nobody really cared we were there. We weren't really getting in anybody's way. Actually, I felt that by skateboarding, we were in a way encouraging some kind of cool culture. Some kind of bohemian or progressive culture.
Joey Brezinski is an L.A. native, and called downtown "grimy," when compared to, say, Santa Monica. I think he meant it not just in terms of aesthetics, but also that lines are obscured. Things aren't laid out there for you. Would you agree, and then what does that do for the skating if that's the case?
A good skateboarder is going to be creative wherever they are. If they're in a skate park, they're going to be interpreting it however they see the world. Downtown, yeah, it's not really built for skateboarding but there are things that skateboarders skate. There are curb cuts, there are walls, banks, steps. Part of the grit I think of when I think of downtown, it's kind of that no-man's-land. There's a ton of homeless people there. For years, that's where people from the jails, the mental institutions, the county hospitals, everybody was getting dropped off there.
But it is like a blank slate. Downtown's not the beach, where skateboarding seems to make sense. You see a skateboarder next to a rollerblader, or a skateboarder doing a trick on the curb, it's like, "Oh yeah, that's California. That's California culture." Downtown, even the so-called downtown renaissance, it's still a gnarly place. The switch still hasn't fully been flipped on."
It seems like downtown is a great place to represent the sport's reach, culturally. In terms of who is participating.
It has passed through those culture boundaries. That's one of the most fascinating things about skateboarding. It's one of those sports that's really brought all kinds of different people together. It's tough, because when we talk about the X Games, competing, and venues, and "the best" and how people individuate, that's part of it. Skateboarding is as much jazz music as it is basketball. And I think everybody can relate to it. Everybody can do it anywhere. It's really an egalitarian pursuit, like basketball. I was in Watts, talking about trying to build a skate park. All the kids down there want one. There are novice pros right now coming out of South [L.A.] that are incredible. So it's already crossed those lines. It definitely has.
Downtown is a democratic space. It contributes that mixing pot thing in that kids like to go to certain spots where they've seen us, as pro skateboarders, skate. They like to test their mettle. Downtown has a lot of that.
The movie is about 40 minutes long. How many hours did you shoot? How long did it take you to film?
We spent about 30 days total shooting it. Maybe 40 or 50 hours of footage.
You mentioned something before about how so many videos aren't true to life, because so much is cut out. People falling, or missing the trick. In "1st and Hope," how did you try to balance that to show the city in the way you wanted to?
The skateboarding sometimes was sacrificed. Some of the shots, we were really trying to frame the city, and frame certain corners and views of the city. The skating was secondary. We weren't as much focused on a great trick. Some of the skating, we tried to include a few bails. A lot of times, we would skate and get warmed up, and we would film, letting the camera roll a few times, and whatever we got we got. Some guys would fall, but it would be in the final shot we ended up using. Let's try and do good stuff, but we're not going to kill ourselves. We're not going to stay here for five hours and do the same trick until we get it exactly right. Which happens, a lot more than people even understand.
When I started "1st and Hope," I was going at it much more as an artist, and wanted to make a film about skateboarding through a city. I really didn't care about the tricks or the spots or the people. I really didn't. I invited friends, because it was more like I wanted to see the city through a skateboarder's eye.
Do you feel your movie has had an influence on how people see downtown L.A. for skating?
Maybe a little bit. Maybe it's gotten people out, and down there, and reminded people that it's really fun just to go and push around. Kind of let it roll, you know?
In the end, would you just recommend people take a day, start at the top of the hill, work their way down and see what happens?
Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's a good experience for sure.