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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Interview with Skate Witches director Danny Plotnick

Few Super 8 films have captured local hearts and minds like Danny Plotnick's 1986 classic, Skate Witches. The 2 minute short was shot on the Diag in a single day while Danny was a student at U of M. It features a gang of female skateboarders, the Skate Witches, who terrorize male skateboarders. Also the Skate Witches have rats. Despite the films brevity, it really captures the zeitgeist for the mid 80s alt scene. I reached out to Danny, who is now the Director of Film Studies at the University of San Francisco, recently and he agreed to answer a few questions about Skate Witches for me. Below is our email interview.

Damn Arbor: Could you tell me a little about what inspired Skate Witches, or what lead to its filming?

Danny Plotnick: Dana, the witch in the Misfits t-shirt, had talked about wanting to get her old skateboard from her family home and bring it with her back to Ann Arbor. Obviously, Ann Arbor spreads out, and she thought a skateboard would be a great way to get around town a lot quicker. However, she felt she would get hassled by all the boy skateboarders in town. I don’t know if any women were skateboarding in Ann Arbor at that point. If they were, they were few and far between. Dana mentioned this when we were all hanging out. Karen, the queen witch, mentioned she used to skate when she lived in Grand Rapids. I joked that they should form a gang called The Skate Witches. Jenny, the witch that keeps pushing guys off their skateboards, said she didn’t skate, but she’d be happy to join the gang. Dana and Karen never really did get their boards. I liked the notion of them forming a gang in real life, but when it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen, I was convinced that, regardless, we needed to make a movie. So I wrote the movie, they got their skateboards, and the rest is history.

DA: How did you find the actors? Do you still stay in touch with the Witches? Did they really all own rats?

DP: They were all good friends. We spent a lot of time hanging out together that year. We made the film in the Summer of 1986. I think Dana and I were living in a spot on E. Anne Street. That’s where the plan was hatched. Those were our rats. I had one named Maggie. Dana had one called Mr. Ig Wig. The other belonged to Karen or Jenny. Pretty sure Dana remembers all their names and may even be able to identify which is which in the movie. I’m still in close contact with Dana and Jenny. Dana owns a tattoo shop in Ann Arbor. Jenny lives in the Northwest and when I’d tour with my films throughout the 1990s, I’d always stay at her house. Karen, I’ve only talked with once in recent times. She’s kind of off the grid but still lives in Michigan.

DA: Skate Witches is pretty popular--I've found it posted on Spanish and Portuguese blogs as well as numerous English language ones. You've mentioned that one of the reasons you think Skate Witches is so popular is that at 2 minutes, it is a perfect youtube morsel. Do think that there's anything else behind the popularity? For me, I think the appeal comes from the fact that, despite being a somewhat amateurish film, everything appears to be really intentional. Also, Skate Witches really captures the feel of a specific time. Do you think that has anything to do with the popularity?

DP: I think there are a couple of other reasons for its appeal, other than its brevity.

It is an authentic slice of the 1980s made by people living an alternative lifestyle. When people think of the 1980s, they think of Michael Jackson and John Hughes movies and Hall and Oates and all that kind of mainstream crap. In the pre-digital age, there’s not a lot of documentation of alternative life or lifestyles. The film, without intending to, documents that aesthetic. The Skate Witches are wearing their own clothes, their hair is their hair, and their rats are their rats. The film isn’t set directed, there’s no art or wardrobe team. It’s not like the punks on Quincy that are a Hollywood design team’s interpretation of “punk”. It’s the real deal. I think that must come across to people. Now, to be fair, there is some art direction happening. Dana, did spray paint the Skate Witches logo on her leather jacket – which by the way, she still has. I don’t think Jenny had a leather jacket, so she’s wearing mine. But nothing was bought for the film. It all came out of our closets. So the film serves as a time capsule of a certain moment.

I think the other issue has to do with representation. Skate culture was obviously big in the 1980s, but the documentation and the lore of that era probably features little in the way of women skaters. And any woman skating probably did get grief, just as Dana surmised she would if she showed up in town with a board. The film was born out Dana’s frustration around the likelihood of being given grief for something she wanted to do. None of that is discussed in the film, but I feel like that must come through and must subtly eke to the surface in some way. I think it's also meaningful for young women today to look at a film from the 1980s and see women making a bid to be taken seriously as skaters. Of course your better off asking groups like Brujas or the Skate Witches collective out of the Northwest why they like the film! But that’s my guess as to why a younger generation finds the film interesting.

DA: I realize it's a long time ago, and a very short film, but could you talk a little bit about the idea/feelings/mood you were trying to capture in Skate Witches and the directorial choices you made?

DP: Well, I loved B Movies at the time, so the language, which is very over-the-top, comes out of a B Movie aesthetic. I loved Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!. I also liked Sam Fuller’s films at the time. In other words, I liked movies with ham-fisted dialogue. I hadn’t yet seen any John Waters movies, but people kept telling me that my films reminded them of his movies. That’s a comparison I’ll take any day of the week.

DA: Your bio says that you filmed 8 shorts in Ann Arbor before moving to San Francisco, are there other films Ann Arborites should be aware of?

DP: Skate Witches is the one film from that era that I continue to show. The other films I made back then have some redeemable moments, but some cringe-inducing moments as well, so I tend to keep those locked away. Dana and I did shoot a Super 8 of The Dream Syndicate performing That’s What You Always Say, at the Michigan Union in 1986 or 1987. It’s a ferocious version of that song and it can be found on YouTube. The same year we shot Dana’s bands, The Vertical Pillows, doing a song of theirs, Boston Strangler. That’s on-line as well. I also just unearthed a 20 minute doc made by Dana about the Detroit hardcore scene. There’s footage of GBH and the Cromags performing at Traxx and interviews with assorted punks. I’m in the process of getting that digitized, so that will find its way on-line soon enough.

Well gentle reader, I do hope you have enjoyed our interview with Danny Plotnick. When I really love Skate Witches and it was great getting a chance to learn more about the film. I want to thank Danny for taking time to answer my questions. It was great to learn so much about the background of the film and to get a glimpse into Ann Arbor's 80s punk scene. As an aside, local artist, Jeremy Wheeler, recently made a Skate Witches poster for Inktober which you should totally check out.

All images from this article are stills from Danny Plotnick's Skate Witches from the film's Youtube Page.

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