How Skateboarding, Cooking, and Boxing Taught Me To Make Films

Guest post by John Zhao

Riding skateboards, boxing with the locals and cooking up a storm were the fun and affordable things I grew up enjoying. Film school I avoided because it wasn’t as affordable and I was paranoid it would take out the fun. After I eventually experienced making a first feature, I couldn’t help realizing a list of pastimes that seemed to inform me of how to go about being a first-time filmmaker. I’m sharing this list from my journal and hope to hear what other filmmakers do in between the cuts.



Former Skaters Spike and Harmony

That public location essential to your performance will try to kick you out. Have a getaway plan or a good lie.

There’s a lot of fun to be had even if your wallet’s near empty. The world is your playground.

Skate videos are absent of narrative and plot. They’re a cornucopia of rhythms, textures, music, and poetry that can keep me intrigued for hours. How can a feature film do the same?

A general disrespect for money and authority is healthy.

Enjoy feeling pain over and over again. It can take a dozen drafts to find your film’s soul and a twenty takes to nail your best move. See failure as slapstick, not sad.

Skateboarders bail and crash the second they become self-conscious of where to land, or intellectualize their movements mid-air. Take a leap of faith when you’re “almost ready” and WILL IT into existence. Staying delusional like this while making films seems to work out.

Every skateboarder dances their own style. Finding your own style and voice, and being completely yourself can be a challenge. But you can make someone lonely in their world feel less lonely for being who they are. You can teach something new and push things forward.

It’s an athletic art form. Develop a great sense of space, timing and balance. Being physically fit is essential for the ride.

Ang Lee, who loves to cook when not making films, directing The Wedding Banquet followed by Eat Drink Man Woman."

Between the producers, the director and the ADs, getting the best ingredients, timing everything accordingly, and serving it while it’s hot will make or break a good recipe.

The reward is in seeing everyone enjoying a great meal; especially if it’s a healthy one and with lots and lots of people. A film can be healthy or unhealthy, social or antisocial. It's up to the chefs to steer it towards good taste.

Too many cooks in the kitchen can mean trouble.

Your waiter interacts with your audience. Make sure your “restaurant” has “waiters” who care and about people.

Making dinner for someone you love, and even for yourself, always winds up tasting better than making dinner for the masses.

And chances are if you had no budget like me, you’ll be doing more cooking than ordering.

Always seems like the hole-in-the-wall venues play the best stuff on their menu.

Following the recipe word for words takes the soul out of it.

Don’t cut your own finger on the cutting room board.

Too much money spent on fancy pots, pans and tools won't necessarily make a better meal.

Respect the taster. Authenticity is key. Anyone can taste the difference between greasy Chinese takeout to real dim sum in Chinatown. Make something that rings true.


Stay in the center of the ring. Stay in the unified field. Never hang around the ropes.

You can tell if a boxer hasn't been doing his jump ropes and mile runs.
Do your homework before going on set.

Find the poetry and rhythm amongst the chaos and fear.

If you’re shy like me, learn to not be afraid of confrontation (at least for the duration of the fight).

As each round goes by (or each take), your time is limited.
Make decisions wisely under pressure.

Bend the rules once you know how to follow them.

And chances are you’ll want to make a film about boxing one day...

Being completely exhausted is evidence that you’ve done great work and given it all you’ve got.

Your "career" can end any day. You're only as good as your last fight.

Scorsese coaching Deniro."


John Zhao is a Korean-American filmmaker who moved to NYC to shoot his first feature with strangers and rent money to redefine his role as a broke college graduate. He’s starting to skate again, reluctant for any more boxing brain damage, still enjoys cooking for his girlfriend and hopes that will carry him through making his second feature this year.


Sometimes: Think Small And Find Success

There is a better mousetrap. One of the problems with the old way of making a film -- with the belief that someone would buy it -- is that the apparatus only applied to a few select films aimed at the widest audiences.  Yes, occasionally a filmmaker hit the lottery and everything aligned perfectly to engineer a sale, but by now we see that clearly as the exception and not the rule.  Some of the beauty that is being revealed during The-Collapse-Of-The-World-As-We-Once-Knew-It (COTWAWOKI), is that new experiments bring a wider selection of work to a wider selection of community.

Reading the NY Times recent article on how music labels are taking they DIY approach that they had for bands, are applying it to films too, frankly warmed my heart -- or whatever that is when you get the warm wave from the top of your head down through your toes. Endomorphines?  Anyway, it gives me hope that one day where ever you are in this country of ours, you could see interesting diverse culture among a crowd of similarly-minded and appreciative audiences, that one day you could find your own community in every county, no matter what you liked, or believed in.  Okay, maybe that's a tad idealistic, but...

You see, when filmmakers sought to sell their work, the work was supposed to be designed for everybody.  The work was going to be publicized to EVERYBODY.  When you aim widely, you are really limited in both the stories you can tell and how you can tell it.  When the target gets small, the game changes.  We get new options.  In the new game, there can be far more winners.  When we think small, we can think in a much broader manner as to the what & the how.  Thinking of a different game, we can think of far more models than the old one.

It made me think back to John Bradhum's post on TFF on "Film Gigging". It made me think of Peri Lewnes and others efforts to build a Film Club & Pub circuit.  It made me think of 's Joseph Infantalino's tale of finding cinephiles in New Jersey.  It made me think of way back when Docker's sponsored the Fuel Film Tour and we found bigger indie audiences in Columbus, Ohio than we did in NYC.  It makes me think of micro-cinema and living room theater circuits.  It makes me think of Eddie Burns and his new film "Nice Guy Johnny" designed for digi distro.  It makes me think of the thousands of alternative rock genres, and how music fans support them all.

The other day I got a great email from Drag City pushing Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers".

Drag City is seriously considering going into the movie rental business!

Why not? We've just about done everything else in the entertainment business, putting out music for twenty-plus (and a few minus) years on whichever format the people fancied, and eventually branching into booking live entertainment (music and comedy so far), radio (wherever they'll let us broadcast - thanks WMBR, WNUR and anyone else we may be forgetting), the book world (hardback and paperback books, as well as magazines of various kinds and even a comic book), television (not ready for prime time yet), and finally, the holy grail of the entertainment industries, motion pictures. This summer, we handled the successful and compelling theatrical distribution of Harmony Korine's successful and compelling Trash Humpers across these United States, booking and promoting the film in fifty-plus (and no minus) markets, all told. This was followed with the release of the Trash Humpers DVD on September 21st. So far, we've sold several thousand copies in North America.

Their email continues in a refreshingly rock and roll manner, biting the hand that feeds.  I suspect as time goes on I will get more and more of such letters, geared towards one taste or another of mine, pushing the product that you can only get from them.

Someday they will all know where we are.  Someday we will have revealed our tastes to such an extent that the good stuff finds us.  Someday there will be no escape from the things we might love.  And then, when that day comes, it won't be about people trying to appeal to everyone.  It will be about being true to that special someone.  Instead of expanding our reach, we will know we should just direct our reach.  Direct it, and be true, be specific, and be precise.  It won't be that lie of "build it and they will come."  It will be "build it so you can find them".