Mon. Jul 6th, 2020

Interview: Director Crystal Moselle (‘Betty’) on sitting on the NYC pavement and turning movies into TV

Crystal Moselle has been working with the same actors over the past few years. She found them on the subway, just in her day-to-day life as a New Yorker. The relationships to these young, female skateboarders have led to a Sundance selection and critical acclaim with Skate Kitchen, with the first season of Betty on HBO, and now with the recent announcement of the show’s renewal for a second season. I chatted with Crystal to hear about her relationship with these actors, with the city of New York, and with making stories that garner more press than usual for up-and-coming filmmakers. 

How are you doing?

I’m good.

Where are you based currently?

I’m in Brooklyn in Fort Greene. 

Have you been in New York during the entire quarantine?

Yeah, I’ve been here the whole time. It’s kind of been great.

Where are you from?

I’m from northern California, from Mill Valley. Right north of San Francisco. 

Oh, when’d you move to New York?

22 years ago to go to college. 

Where’d you go to school?

I went to SVA. School of Visual Arts. But, yeah. 

What made you stay in New York this long?

I don’t know. I just love it, I guess. I keep trying to leave but something always brings me back.

Yeah, it’s kind of a weird place to live.

Yeah, it’s weird but you find your places. But for me, I just really connect with people on the street a lot. And then I make a movie about them. 

Do you find yourself staying in New York more for the people or the place itself? 

I think it’s just that I’ve lived here for so long it’s the convenience of being here. I have ideas that I’m going to leave and then I swear to God that same week I’ll meet some skaters on the train. And then all of a sudden I’m making a short film with them and then it’s a movie and then it’s a TV show and then it’s the second season of a TV show. I don’t know. I find that my life is a bit random but that’s a great part about my life, too.

Did you grow up being into film and television?

Yes, I videod a lot. I was into acting. I did a lot of plays. I did some video art programs at Otis College in southern California. I kind of always knew I wanted to be in film. Once the video camera came out, I was very interested in making videos.

What’s something when you were growing up that you watched over and over again?

My friend gave me a video tape of Grey Gardens that I watched. I loved it. And then I met Albert Maysles when I was 18 years old when I moved to New York. I was at some film festival thing. I was just completely starstruck and he was just very nice to me. And I had a few other run-ins with him before he passed away.  

How is that? Growing up watching these people’s films and wanting to be in the industry, and then coming and meeting these people? How is that feeling and experience?

I’ve worked my ass off so hard for so many years. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years. It just feels like the natural progression sort of, after working so hard on the things you care about. I care about process the most. This part I’m like ugh. The press part is exhausting. I’ve been doing it nonstop for years. And the projects I’ve done have garnered a lot of press because there’s a good backstory to both of them. Behind The Wolfpack and Skate Kitchen. There’s a lot to talk about behind the scenes. But at the end of the day I just like to be on set with the girls or the doc subjects.

Why do you think that is?

Because I like to create. Creation is a really nice feeling. 

Do you find yourself saying the same answers to the same questions over and over?

It depends on who’s asking. This is actually a different, interesting conversation. Usually, you’re just like this robot doing this in your head. You have your backstory. It’s nice just to talk about the process.

Are there other parts of the industry like that? That just comes with the creation itself and you just have to do?

You have to do the press. You want people to understand what you’re making. People are curious, I guess. It’s all a part of the process. The press part..there’s something about it that’s a little exhausting. And I think it’s because you’re doing the same thing over and over again. Like I would never want to be in a band and play the same song over and over again. That’d drive me crazy. Yeah that would suck.

In terms of Betty, how was it transitioning a story from a movie to television in shorter episodes and a shorter season?

It was really fun. The writers’ room has become my favorite place. It’s so creative and breaking a story is so satisfying. Making it all work together and starting from nothing and I like having these overarching ideas with specific things. Like having a guy cry in every episode in season 2. I want a man to cry. I want men to cry. I want to show things that happen to people. It’s the challenge of bringing real life into something that is fiction. It’s really fun. Especially when you’re thinking of the things that normally you don’t see that happen every day. I love that part. Young women talking about their bodies. You don’t see that. I wanted to include that. I don’t know. What was the question?

It was kind of about transitioning from movies to TV. That was great, though. Do you kind of come into the writers’ room with a bunch of your ideas or do you open it up for blue sky or what’s your process there?

We totally do blue sky. I’m not sure if we can talk about season 2 yet. For season 1, I had never been in a writers’ room. I didn’t know what we were going to do. I didn’t know. For season 2, we did a pre-room and I had an overarching idea for season 2 that I wanted to do. And then we did a blue sky, and we all came up with random ideas. It was really cool. You start to work as this interesting human machine where you throw stuff out. Pitch, pitch, pitch. Idea. What sticks? And I say “I like that, let’s run with that.” When it makes sense, we just throw it down and see what works. It’s like putting a puzzle together. It’s really cool. 

And of the actual dialogue, how much is scripted versus improvised between the girls?

It’s written out, but I always give the girls room to improvise. If it’s just them hanging together, it’s always going to be better when they’re just doing their thing. They’re really good at understanding the pillars of the scene and what beats to hit. They do what they do best, which is be themselves. They’re funny and fun. I really trust them. 

How does it feel now that you’ve been working with them for more than a few years?

We know each other very well. We’re like family. It’s difficult sometimes because we know each other so well. They know what I want and we all know the tone of what we’re doing. They’re not afraid to say when something isn’t working which I love. I want them to tell me. They’re the ones that are the authenticity of this project. If they think something is corny, I have to know. Because I’m like 20 years older than them. I’m not as cool as them, anymore.

I think the show represents New York in a really specific way. How do you think the characters and the girls themselves represent the city as a whole?

When I met them, I fell back in love with New York. I was ready to leave. I was like “Fuck this place.” And then when I met them, they showed me a side of the city that I’ve never seen before. They have this real connection to the streets. They’re sitting down on the pavement all the time. And I started doing that with them. I was like, “It’s nice down here. I’m seeing totally different from this perspective.” I don’t know. When people say, “Oh New York is dead. And I say that they don’t hang with enough teenagers.” They see it in a totally different way. They’re exploring. They see it how they we don’t see it as adults. And I remember one night I was just following them around as they were doing what they were doing and I was taking notes. 

How did you get around?

I don’t know. Subway. Or just take a car or whatever. Or I’d meet them at a park and they would just sit their for hours and hours. And I remember this one night together we were just walking down the street together and they made me skateboard. I hadn’t skateboarded for like years and I wasn’t terrible and I remember thinking that this is the best night of my life. 

When was that?

2016. Somewhere in 2016. And I remember I had just broken up with a boyfriend that I thought I was going to marry and have kids with. And I was on my way to adulting. And all of a sudden I was totally not and I was doing that now. And I was happier than ever.

Are there any other specific stories like that you remember?

They would come over and just hang at my house for hours and hours. I remember I showed them the short film. And as an adult, you’re like, “What are you onto next?” And I remember they just stayed and all of a sudden they’re just laying in my living room and eating snacks and doing their thing. Not having plans, like teenagers do. I remember sitting back and thinking, “This is great. I’m learning something from these girls.”

What about the music in the show? How do you pick the music?

It’s all inspired by what the girls listen to and what I listen to. A lot of the music is actually from this thing on Spotify called Discover Weekly. That’s how I find all my music. So many of the songs from the show are actually from that, but also from the girls. The girls know that music anyways.

Betty is currently streaming on all HBO platforms.

Michael Frank is a film critic and journalist based in Brooklyn. He thinks the Before trilogy should be in the Louvre and once bumped into John Oliver at brunch. He has bylines in RogerEbert, Film Inquiry, The Playlist, and AwardsWatch. You can find him on Twitter @peachfuzzcritic.

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