By Crystal Bell
Director Crystal Moselle acts on instinct. She doesn't hesitate, not with her camera and especially not when action approaches in real life.
She first discovered the Angulo Brothers while she was walking down First Avenue in New York City; six young men in black suit jackets and ties ran past her, and, on a whim, she ran after them. They became the subject of her first documentary feature, The Wolfpack. Her followup film, the atmospheric Skate Kitchen, has a similar origin story. She was riding the G train when she spotted two young women, Nina Moran and Rachelle Vinberg, carrying skateboards; there was just something about Moran's voice — with an energetic inflection like a gravitational pull — that drew her in. Moselle needed to know more.
"I'm obsessed with authenticity and realism, and I guess it's like my life's work," the 39-year-old filmmaker tells MTV News over the phone from her Brooklyn apartment. "My goal is to create life in a way that feels like you're watching it happen rather than it being contrived or set up, or whatever."
Moselle is currently curled up with her partner-in-quarantine Isobel, a 15-year-old cat she borrowed from a friend on Facebook a month ago. ("I just wrote on Facebook, 'Hey, does anybody want to lend me their cat?'") Despite her feline age, Isobel's "young at heart," the director says. "She still parties all night long."
It's the kind of energy Moselle needs right now because even as the city shuts down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, her brain does not. She's currently writing a script about her father's experience working in a mental hospital, in addition to filming her next documentary. "I'm always inspired by a million things," she says. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop. Nothing will stop me, even COVID won't stop me. I'm weird. I'm still shooting a documentary amidst all this."
She's also busy promoting her HBO series Betty, a reimagining of Skate Kitchen starring the same spirited New York City skate crew that captivated the writer-director on the G train that summer four years ago. Rachelle Vinberg and Moran return in their respective roles as awkward shredder Camille and lovable stoner Kirt, respectively. They hit the pavement alongside their real-life friends and collaborators Moonbear (quiet documentarian Honeybear), Dede Lovelace (feisty Janay), and Ajani Russell (free-spirited weed-dealer Indigo). Like Moselle's past work, Betty is a portrait of youth today, bursting with vibrancy and style. "There's something really beautiful about youth," she says. "There is this naiveness, an innocence and awkwardness. That time before we all get jaded or lose our excitement for life, that's what I love to capture."
Similar to Skate Kitchen, the series tackles narratives and themes inspired by its actors’ own experiences — like the emotional push and pull of female friendships, #MeToo, white privilege, recreational drug use, and fighting the patriarchy. Quite literally, in Kirt's case: She nearly gets into a fist fight after calling a dude "shrimp dick" over a turf war at the skatepark. But the story never lingers. It moves through the motions of everyday life, roaming through plot like a group of teens drifting through the streets of New York City: kick, push, and coast. The show, in essence, is a vibe.
That has a lot to do with Moselle's collaborative and fluid approach to storytelling. "The world is theirs. The way they speak is theirs," she says. For Moselle, a script is a living, breathing entity — a loosely constructed narrative that allows for surprises. Her ability to record moments as they unfold, and do so aesthetically, is her strength. "I love those moments of discovering things for the first time," she reflects. She knows that the most human moments come not from a plan but rather from a possibility, and she encouraged her cast, many of them complete novices to acting, to play around. "Some of the best moments were when we just let them do their thing," Moselle adds. "And I think that was really important for me to not feel like they were reading lines."
During a scripted scene in which Kirt spends the afternoon high on mushrooms in Washington Square Park, Moran improvised some of Kirt's prophetic musings. "When she says, 'I don't really understand time right now,' that really killed me," the creator says with a laugh. "It was so good."
It helps that Moselle has spent the last four years working with the women of Skate Kitchen. She knows them, knows their strengths and eccentricities. Moran even pushes her to skate. ("I can get on a board and skate around," the director says, "but I'm like 40 years old, so I'm trying to not hurt myself right now.") Despite the 20-year age gap between them, Moselle says that she's learned more from Vinberg and crew than they've probably learned from her. "I'm inspired by the way that they see life and are so ambitious and relentless with what they're doing," she says. "They're incredibly open to letting women into their space. It's this idea that there's enough space for all women to succeed." That spirit is integral to Betty; the six-episode series is bookended by Kirt's desire to host an inclusive, all-girls skate sesh.
Women are also the creative force behind the show, and it was important that the skaters-turned-actors spent time in the writers' room to craft narratives that felt authentic to their own experiences. "The stories are definitely inspired by their situations but also inspired by situations that the writers have gone through," Moselle says. She's a credited writer alongside Executive Producer Lesley Arfin (Netflix's Love). "There's certain things that we wanted to focus on, like Me Too. We were all talking about Me Too in the writers' room, and I've never seen a story where young people deal with that. Like, what if you had a friend and he was accused of sexual assault? How would you deal with that situation?" Janay grapples with this firsthand when her childhood friend-turned-ex is caught up in an accusation he swears isn't true. Betty navigates the difficult gray areas of assault and buried trauma by letting these women process their discomfort and talk it out, whether it's sitting together on a curb or sharing a blunt with friends in your bedroom. It's these moments in which Betty truly feels alive.
"We see a lot of dudes talking about things, but you don't see many women speaking about what they actually really talk about," she says. "Young women have a lot of questions. And I think it's good to know that that's something that happened, and it's real. It's women talking about their bodies and their sexuality or joking around about that stuff, it's not taboo. It's OK. That's what we actually talk about."
And when they're done talking, they grab their boards. There's nothing that the sound of wheels turning on pavement can't fix. And Moselle will be there to capture it.