Kickflips, counterculture: Director Sam Jones talks Tony Hawk documentary ‘Until the Wheels Fall Off’

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“I only have one way of doing things,” filmmaker Sam Jones shared in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I am always trying to go deeper into someone else’s experience to be able to compare it to my own.”

His documentary “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” is an inspirational tear-jerker and a captivating cultural cornucopia that follows Tony Hawk’s journey to success and stardom as a professional skateboarder. Few would expect such an action-packed film to strike this heartwarming chord, but like Hawk’s own ability to transcend skateboarding conventions, the documentary’s touching subject matter exceeds its playful image. 

“When I was starting my career as a journalist, I was still holding out hope of getting a record label for my band or becoming a professional skater,” Jones said. “This film is probably the most personal thing I’ve ever made.” 

Attributing the film’s intimacy to his shared history with the subject, the documentarian hypothesized that Hawk may not have engaged in such open dialogue if Jones hadn’t had such a keen understanding of the 1980s skate scene. 

“Not too many people understand the nuances of being in such a small, weird counterculture pursuit that a lot of parents thought was dangerous and akin to being a criminal,” the filmmaker explained. “I think if you don’t understand that, then you can’t really tell the story correctly.”

But Jones’ connection to the film goes beyond an understanding of the skateboarding industry. The documentarian remembers meeting and observing Hawk before his rise to fame.

“I met Tony in 1983 when he was probably 14 or 15,” Jones said. “We were both skinny kids who developed really late and didn’t have a peer group that totally accepted us … we were picked on.”

Hawk’s external torment was a core focus of the documentary: From his mother openly labeling him a “happy accident” to fellow skaters making fun of his lanky physique, Hawk seemed to face teasing from nearly everyone in his immediate circles. As Hawk rose above this belittling, his painful backstories proved to be especially compelling pieces of cinema. 

“I observed him from afar, taking those disadvantages and shortcomings and turning them into inspiration or fuel to push his own drive and his own determination,” Jones described. “That’s something that I always admired about him, and I wanted to make sure it came across in the film.”

Hawk’s unwavering persistence and perfectionism is substantially recognized throughout the documentary, contending that the skateboarder’s obsessive work ethic was a pivotal force in granting his success. Even when mocked by his idols, Hawk continued to fly high.

One of Tony’s notable critics was Duane Peters, an older professional skateboarder. Describing Hawk’s spinning techniques as “flippy doo da day bullsh—t,” Peters expelled bits of dialogue that embellished the film with quirk and grit. 

“Go f—ing play with your sister’s baton, bro,” Peters impolitely scoffs in the film, relaying his first encounter with Hawk. 

“Duane is a character, and I was scared of him as a kid,” Jones revealed. “I think there was a little trepidation from Tony when I said I was gonna go interview him because Duane has this legacy in skateboarding. Everyone spoke about him.”

Jones’ interviews with Peters accomplished the unfathomable: digging through his tough exterior and unveiling heartbreaking personal stories, these conversations allowed audiences to meet the real Duane Peters. 

“It was one of the great treats of the film for me,” Jones said, “to be able to sit down and ask him those questions and have him be open and insightful and emotional. I’m so glad that he’s in the film.”

As the documentary asserts, Peters left an undeniable mark on the skate community. Motivated by the older pro-skater’s tenacity and charm, Hawk carried out Peters’ legacy into mainstream sports.

“I don’t think there would’ve been skateboarding in the X Games if it wasn’t for Tony, and there certainly wouldn’t be skateboarding in the Olympics,” Jones stated. “There wouldn’t be all these skateparks that all came to fruition in the early 2000s if it wasn’t for Tony and some of his peers pushing the sport so hard.” 

Thanks to Hawk’s diligent endeavors to popularize skateboarding, teens today can pursue this passion with confidence and vigor. UC Berkeley students are all too familiar with the young skaters who perform ollies and kickflips all day and night in the Lower Sproul area of the campus.

“If you can put most of your attention on skating, and spend the kind of time that the greats do, you’ll get more out of it,” Jones said, encouraging Berkeley’s skaters to endure through missteps and frustrations.

“I think the beautiful thing about skateboarding is you get outside, you get to focus on being creative at the same time as being active and you get to find out what you’re made of,” Jones professed with excitement and warmth. “Feeling-wise, it’s the best thing in the world.”

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].