“It’s sort of like watching
a child grow up,
‘cause I’ve made
hundreds of rough cuts
over the years.”
– Director Bing Liu
Chicago-based filmmaker Bing Liu, the director of the Sundance award-winning Minding the Gap, sat down with Reel Chicago to discuss the making of his cinema-verite-style documentary. The film currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is available on Hulu, and is an epic feat in filmmaking that includes 12 years worth of footage and involved 5 years of principal shooting.
Liu credits one of his first mentors, cinematographer Thomas Ciciura, for teaching him that “movies take a long time. It’s not like you go shoot for three months.”
Liu continues, “You want to make your own film? You better pick something you know you want to spend years making. I took that advice to heart, and I chose something to me that was more important than just making a film.”
Minding the Gap is a gut-wrenching look at the relationship between skater culture, race, masculinity, domestic violence, and child abuse. The film seamlessly weaves these grand topics together through the lives of Nina Bowgren and three Rockford, IL skaters — Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson, and Bing Liu himself.
MINDING THE GAP TRAILER
However, according to Liu, that was not always the case. Before starting his Diverse Voices in Docs fellowship at Kartemquin Films, the project included up to 24 different skaters.
In 2013, “I had started what would become Minding the Gap. I had gone around the country for a year and a half and casted skateboarders, trying to get at these themes of ill-father relations and abuse and trauma.”
“I met Keire a year in and then started following him, and that’s sort of when I got to Kartemquin.”
Technically, they met when Liu filmed Keire getting into a fight at a skate park as a teenager. However, their friendship began with Minding the Gap. Liu remarks, “For Keire, we went on a journey together.”
The discipline and patience Liu learned from Thomas Ciciura made him a perfect fit for Kartemquin Films — the legendary film studio known for its long-form, personal, and social-justice-driven filmmaking in Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and countless other documentaries.
Liu comments that, at Kartemquin, “people really care about the social impact their films make… It’s hard to encapsulate what it is, but there is nothing else like it in the country that I have seen.”
One of the major benefits of having Kartemquin produce Minding the Gap was the feedback screenings that began as early as 2015. Early on, it became clear to Liu that he needed to find “a way to let audiences know that I have skin in the game… To let them know that, hey, I want to jump off the cliff in the same way that Zack, Nina, and Keire are investing this much openness in the film.”
However, Liu knew that he didn’t want to be in the film in “any sort of traditional way.”
Further enhancing the verite style, Liu is never taken out of the role of the director. He never tricks viewers into thinking he is just another subject.
Aside from a few skating scenes, he is rarely seen apart from a camera. The audio for his voice is heard during some of the most intimate and painful interviews. In one of the most important moments, he is seen behind a camera.
In the sole scene where Liu is interviewed, he discusses the making of the film and how the camerawork of the scene won’t match with his own shots.
Liu elaborates, “How do you show vulnerability when you have complete control? That is the paradox. You know, ultimately, that’s where the idea to hire an extra crew to go film my mom came from. It was like, well if they film me, and they start rolling as soon as I get in the car and drive out to Rockford and do a posting afterwards, they’re bound to catch something.”
(Spoiler alert) The skin in the game that Liu refers to is the abuse he experienced as a child. However, like most things in Minding the Gap, domestic violence and child abuse are uniquely approached.
When Liu discovers during filming that a charismatic subject is perpetrating abuse and violence, he continues to follow that subject.
“Because of my step father, I knew intimately the way that men can act one way out in public and another way behind closed doors. And in a fucked-up way, it was normalized for me,” says Liu.
He continues, “So, I saw an opportunity there to understand and create empathy and see domestic violence in such a totally different view than I’d seen before. So, I went with it.”
Eventually, almost four years into the making of the film, the well-established documentary editor Joshua Altman (Trading Spouses, The Tillman Story, 30 for 30 Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, and HBO’s The Final Year) became involved in the project.
Liu states that it was “as a consultant at first because he was working on another film, but then he freed up for a couple of months and we were able to work side by side.”
When asked about what moments he hated cutting out of the final film, Liu laughs, “I mean it’s hard to say, it’s sort of like watching a child grow up ‘cause I’ve made hundreds of rough cuts over the years.”
“Our second shoot (with Nina and Zack) was going into the hospital, seeing her get induced for pregnancy for labor. They botched her epidural. She flat lined in the hospital bed… It’s like ‘oh, my god this is so telling that they’re going to the hospital by themselves, there is no parent around, they are not set up for this parenting thing to go well.”
“But, it’s like ultimately, we just had to have the baby get born, figuratively for the story. We just had to pick up the story and things like that.”
He continues, “There were literally hundreds of examples of things and even whole storylines. There was this 13-year old boy who hung out with the group of skaters, and he had this 40-year-old dad who was really open about hitting his 13-year-old child. There were all sorts of stuff.”
While many aspects of Minding the Gap had to be cut, Liu worked hard to maintain its discussions on race and Keire’s experience as, what Liu calls, “a black skateboarder in this mostly white subculture.”
Liu reveals, “I couldn’t tell you how many times in feedback screenings people were like, ‘take the racial aspect out. It’s too distracting from this family violence story.’ But it was so important to me. I mean, it’s such a part of his experience, and you know, it’s only fair to his experience.”
Liu further goes on to state, “I don’t think I would have pushed for race as hard if I didn’t have this Chinese American experience.”
Instead of abandoning the topic of race or completely dismissing the criticism, Liu decided to explore race through the topic of Keire’s father.
“I was in LA at the time, and I called him on the phone, I was like, Keire, tell me more about your dad and what he told you about being a black man. Keire had all of these things to say, and I was like holy shit! Why did I not ask you this before?”
“And I was like, I am flying out next weekend. It ended up being his birthday. He had gotten so drunk that he was puking, so I had to buy another flight and stay an extra day. It was like this whole thing. But we got the interview and he said so much enriching stuff about what his dad taught him.”
Unlike many of the greatest personal docs, Minding the Gap’s cinematography is absolutely breathtaking and operates at the highest level throughout the entire film. It may be Liu’s feature directorial debut, but his camera chops cannot be understated.
Liu already has over 40 credits in cinematography and camera work on projects ranging from documentaries (All the Queen’s Horses) to multi-million-dollar blockbusters (Jupiter Ascending) to iconic Chicago television shows (Shameless).
Besides having shot and directed episodes for Steve James’ America to Me, which premieres August 26 on Starz, Liu is currently working as the cinematographer for Maria Finitzo’s The Dilemma of Desire, as a camera operator for Shannon Kring’s End of the Line: Women of Standing Rock, and as the co-director of Until the Lion.
Until the Lion marks the follow up collaboration between Liu and Joshua Altman (Minding the Gap’s co-editor). “It’s a working title of a current film I’m co-directing with Josh Altman. It’s a project about these two programs that were really fighting to do something about gun violence through young men in the West and South Side of Chicago.”
As for Minding the Gap, Liu delicately investigates his own life through the lives of his friends and family, and he empathetically balances the act of projecting the abuse he experienced onto others.
He places the camera in front of their suffering in order to better understand his own. Liu utilizes his cinematography skills to the fullest and showcases skateboarding as the grand fusion between destruction, independence, anger, and grace.
Minding the Gap is available on Hulu and will have multiple screenings August 31 through September 13 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Liu will be in attendance for the August 31st screening.
Minding the Gap is also set to screen at the 2018 Mosaic Film Festival in Rockford, IL on August 24 at 7 pm and August 25 at 2 pm.
For more information on the Diverse Voices in Docs fellowship at Kartemquin Films, click here.
Contact Joey Filer at Joey@reelchicago.com or follow him on Twitter @FilerJoey.
Minding the Gap LLC
Independent Television Service (ITVS)
American Documentary | POV
Bing Liu — producer
Diane May Quon — producer
Steve James — executive producer
Justine Nagan — executive producer
Gordon Quinn — executive producer
Betsy Steinberg — executive producer
Chris White — executive producer
Sally Jo Fifer — executive producer
Film Editing by
Carlos Cova — assistant editor
Tyler Roth — digital intermediate colorist
James Lebrecht — re-recording mixer
Eric Reimers — dialogue editor/re-recording mixer
Bijan Sharifi — Sound Designer/foley artist/sound effects editor
Funding and Support Provided by
Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program
Open Society Foundations
JustFilms | Ford Foundation
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
CCT Tilden Cummings Fund
Diverse Voices in Documentary