From filmmaker Crystal Moselle and based on her critically acclaimed feature Skate Kitchen, the new six-episode half-hour HBO series Betty follows a diverse group of young women navigating their way through the predominantly male-oriented world of skateboarding while finding their own style and place at the skate park. The series stars Dede Lovelace, Moonbear, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell and Rachelle Vinberg, who were all in the original film.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer/writer/director Crystal Moselle talked about how the TV series evolved, deciding the approach they wanted to take, referring back to the original film, the specific production challenges that come with shooting skateboarders, what makes this specific crew of young women so compelling, how she’s grown as a filmmaker, and the projects she’s currently developing.
Collider: I saw Skate Kitchen when it came out and was really interested in your approach to this TV series. How did Betty come to be?
CRYSTAL MOSELLE: HBO hit me up, right when [the film] came out, and I think that we always knew there was more to explore. Quite a few people told me when they watched the film that they wanted to live in that world forever, and they wanted to know more about the other characters and their stories. And for me, knowing these girls and this world, there are so many stories that I wanted to tell, so it felt like the natural progression of the project.
Was it hard to figure out how to tell this story as a TV series and how to split up the episodes?
MOSELLE: No, ‘cause we saw it as one big arc for the season, and then you tell the individual stories throughout that arc. For me, a television show is similar to a movie, in the sense that you’re telling people’s stories. With a television show, you just get to tell more people’s stories and it’s collaboration between the characters. It just felt like there was endless material and story to talk about. To me, it felt very natural.
What made you decide to take the approach of doing this as a re-imagining in the same world with the same characters? Why did that feel like the best way to do this?
MOSELLE: When you’re in the writers’ room, you’re with a bunch of people and you’re all spitting ideas out, and there’s just a certain point when it makes sense. We had started writing the show, where it was a continuation of the movie, but it just felt better to make it an origin story about a group of girls and how they come together, without even saying that they want to. It just naturally progressed that way. It felt good to tell that story.
Were there times that you referred back to the film and what you did in the film at all, or did you approach this not thinking about that while you were writing?
MOSELLE: I referenced several themes from the film, showing that I really wanted the tone of the television show to match the film and I wanted it to feel like we’re just hanging out with these characters. And I wanted to bring the improvisational qualities of the movie to the TV show as well. So yeah, it was definitely a reference. We actually went back to it later on as we were writing. There was a moment where I wanted us to watch these scenes in the movie, so that they could really see the tone that I’m bringing to it and what’s important to me.
Were there themes or stories that you wanted to explore that you couldn’t have done in the film or that weren’t a part of the story at that time that you could now explore with the series?
MOSELLE: Yeah. I’m really good friends with the girls and I’ve known them for four years. Whenever I hang out with them, I’m always writing notes about stories they tell me and things they tell me. I have this massive list of stuff in my phone of things that they say and funny things they do and stuff about their relationships that I’ve gone back to all the time.
Was there anything that you wanted to do differently with your filmmaking approach?
MOSELLE: I just wanted to approach it the same way and keep the integrity of the movie. HBO loved the movie so much, and one of the things that they said to me was, “I want to make sure we have those scenes where the girls are just skating with that beautiful score and music, and you’re hanging out and being with the girls.” That’s something that I really wanted to keep intact as well. You go on a journey with a project and it reveals itself as you continue working on it, and that is that. I’m very intuitive with the way that I work. I just go with the moment, and I gather my thoughts and ideas, and I move forward with them and see what reveals itself to me.
Are there any specific production challenges that come with shooting something skateboarding and skateboarders?
MOSELLE: Yeah. When you’re reeling in a group of skateboarders at a park that all wanna be skateboarding, it can be challenging. When you’re working with non-actors, it can be challenging because they don’t even understand what it means to be professional, so you just go with it. But the payoff is this beautiful authenticity that you get with their world. If we were gonna shoot at a certain park, I’d say to the casting people, “Please go to this park and find people from this park so that they don’t feel like we’re invading their park. We’re actually giving back to the community.” It was very important for me to give back to the community and be able to really show their world. It’s difficult working with non-actors, that’s for sure. Hopefully everybody is on their board. We’re not hiring stunts or anything. Everybody is their own stunt double, so you’re holding your breath and praying to god that everything will be okay, and it was.
Were there ever any times that any of them came close to injury?
MOSELLE: Rachelle [Vinberg] rolled her ankle the first week of shooting Skate Kitchen, but then she was fine. It miraculously got better in two days and everything was fine. And everything was fine on the show, too. With any production, you’ve just gotta trust that everything’s gonna be fine, and it was.
What do you think it is about this crew of young women that makes them so interesting and so appealing to audiences?
MOSELLE: I knew, right away. I knew the minute that I saw Nina [Moran] on the train. Her charisma pulled me right in. I walked right up to them and asked if they wanted to do some sort of project, and her and I pulled together the right people. I just have a weird thing with casting where I know when something’s right and it’s gonna be good. It’s amazing, each one of them is so unique. They fit perfectly in the show and they’re all so different. It’s just a part of my process, I guess, finding these amazing characters. It’s something that I feel very confident in.
Obviously, collaborating with them allows for an authenticity that you wouldn’t have otherwise. What do you feel that you would have never known about this world if it hadn’t been for their involvement?
MOSELLE: I would have known nothing. I was ready to leave New York at the point that I met them. I was like, “I need to get out of here. I wanna move to L.A. I’m so over New York.” And then, I met them, and fell back in love with the city and saw the city from a different point of view. It’s cool ‘cause there are these moments where we’d be filming a scene, and they’d be standing up and talking, and it would just feel awkward, so I’d tell everybody to sit on the ground, and then it just makes sense. There’s a real connection that they have with the concrete and the pavement that gives them ownership over the city. It’s beautiful.
Why do you think skateboarding has always been seen as a male-dominated thing, and that the females who do it are looked at differently?
MOSELLE: From what I understand, skateboarding wasn’t male dominated when it first started getting popular, but then it took a turn. I’m not sure exactly what that was. I have no idea. I’m not a historian on the subject, but we get these ideas in our head of, “Oh, you’re not supposed to be doing that. That’s a male sport.” But we can do anything that a man can do. It’s just about changing our belief system and shifting that. It’s rowdy and dangerous, and it’s on the street. Before there were skate parks, there was street skating in New York. Los Angeles was more like transition skating, in empty swimming pools that maybe weren’t at their house. You’re never really in your own space. In New York, there’s a lot more skate parks than there were 10 years ago, and 15 or 20 years ago. There was one, 20 years ago. So, there was a lot of street skating and you’d have to take over other people’s spaces. It’s seen in this negative way, that skateboarders are rowdy, they’re doing illegal things, and they’re bad. They’re slowly getting taken more seriously. They’ll be in the next Olympics, which is a huge step.
How do you feel that you’ve grown as a filmmaker since you started making films, but also since you’ve done this film and now this series?
MOSELLE: When I first worked with them on the short, I had never worked with actors before, let alone non-actors. We figured out this world together. We navigated it together. I’ve become a stronger director through it, from all of the experience of working with them. I definitely know a lot more about creating story and knowing what I want and feeling more confident in what I want.
Have you thought about what you’d like to do next as a filmmaker? Would you like to explore more seasons of this show? Have you thought about what other kinds of things you’d like to do?
MOSELLE: I’d love to do more seasons of this show. I have another script that I’m writing right now that’s based on my father’s experience working at a mental health institute in California. I’ve been working on that for awhile. It’s a very complex story, so it needs to be told in the right way. It’s not straightforward. There’s a lot of moving elements. I think working on a TV show has been very helpful ‘cause I’m learning about navigating different stories within the one bigger story. And I have a documentary that I’m working on, about a robot named Sophia. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’m trying to do.
Betty airs on Friday nights on HBO.