The Man Behind the Legend Revealed in Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off
Skateboarding, or the art of getting back up
Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, Sam Jones' documentary on the skateboard legend, begins with Hawk falling. In a way, it's symbolic of the beginnings of Hawk's first time on a skateboard, where he crashed while attempting to turn down the street.
"I think [that story] set the tone that I was going to have to work and fight to figure out how to do it and to create skills," Hawk said. "I mean, the bottom line is I wasn't a natural, I didn't get on it and suddenly feel the sense of purpose ... But at the same time, it's pretty daunting when you're 10 years old and realize that you have these great ambitions and it's not going to come quickly."
Jones, a skateboarder himself, echoed Hawk's sentiment. "I knew this even back then when I was a kid, [Tony] was at the skate park longer than anybody. I mean, yes, there's natural talent but there were so many kids that had more talent than him."
Like many kids growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, Jones knew who Hawk was. Jones was at a lot of the same contests, skating at an amateur level in the California Amateur Skateboard League. But it was on Jones' show Off Camera where the two finally connected. "It wasn't until I did Sam's interview show that I realized how deep his experience in childhood was enmeshed with skating," Hawk said.
Jones added, "We had such a great hour-and-a-half conversation on that show and I started thinking about a film after that. I just called him out of the blue and said, ‘Will you let me tell this story of your life?'"
"I could tell that Sam was a hardcore skater from the early days, as well as continuing to skate [now], so that was interesting," Hawk said. "That was more exciting to me because I had had a couple of offers to do biography things and they [were] all very prepackaged, formulaic, and almost all of them were ending with my end of my competitive career at 1999. I tried to tell them that was just one part of my story, [but] no one really wanted to dive into that."
What makes Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (which gets its world premiere at South by Southwest) so effortlessly engaging is the extra mile Jones goes to share Hawk's personal story. In one scene, he follows Hawk on a visit to see his mother, who was in the late stages of Alzheimer's dementia. Jones said, "Tony sits down and he starts telling his mom about what he's doing, what contest he's going to, starts naming his kids and saying where they are and [that] they're about to move out of the house. [He] then says, ‘Maybe they'll move back in, but maybe not. You taught us to be independent.' You couldn't have ever written that any better."
Hawk called those some of the easier parts of filming for him. "When I would go see her, I would just talk about my life and what's going on. Every once in a while, there'd be a hint of acknowledgment, but Sam was very good at keeping it low-key."
"That was really eye-opening for me," Jones added. "My father started to lose some of his stuff now and I wanted to start with that scene in the film, because I wanted to say right off the bat this isn't a traditional skateboard film and Tony has a really unique relationship with [his] parents and they've been involved in his whole life. I really wanted to go there."
And "go there" Jones did. Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off doesn't give a shallow point of view when it comes to Hawk's mental health obstacles. He said, "In our era it was like, you just suck it up. It was the Seventies and Eighties. Bullies were just a thing – they weren't to be dealt with. It was just like you got picked on and that's just how life was."
Hawk had his fair share of roadblocks when it came to making connections with fellow skaters, whether it be because of his father's involvement in the pro-skating world, or older skaters frustrated that his skill set was changing the landscape of the sport. Jones himself had a similar upbringing to Hawk: He was a tiny, frail kid that got picked on by fellow skateboarders. "I saw it happen with [Tony's] dad, and I felt it myself and it was super hard for me. I pushed Tony on that a lot."
Jones then directed to Hawk, "I bet you weren't probably prepared for how many questions I had about your relationship with your dad and the other skaters and how it felt and the names you got called. But to me it was an important part of my upbringing, so I just assumed that it had a bit of big effect on Tony as well."
Both Hawk and Jones are lucky enough to see the sport they are both passionate about continue to thrive and not only that, but open up and become more accepting and inviting. Hawk said, "Girls freely choose to ride skateboards now and have full support in doing so, and don't have to feel outcast or awkward if they go to the skate park. ... When you go to the skate park now, it is a true melting pot of race, of age, of gender. Everyone has the same vibe. I don't know, it's hard to explain, but it's just been so fun to be able to bear witness to and to be able to participate in."
"It was scary as a kid to go to the skate park and know that you were going to go through the same gauntlet of bullying and everything to be able to [skate]," Jones added. "You couldn't even skate certain bowls if the bigger kids were in there because they just wouldn't give you a turn. We showed that in the film, but that was a big part of my childhood, too ... It left a lot of kids behind. I go to the Santa Monica skate park [now] and everyone's helping each other and everyone is so inclusive. It's so different than it was."
Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off
Saturday, March 12, 11:30am, Paramount
Online: March 13-15