“I Had a Moral Crisis”: Bing Liu on Minding the Gap, Personal Doc Voiceovers and Cycles of Abuse
Bing Liu’s first feature documentary, Minding the Gap, draws upon a deep trove of skater tapes he’d kept since his teen years. The film tracks three male skaters growing up (or failing to) in economically dispossessed Rockford, IL. Two are the director’s old friends: in between countless beers, Zack is introduced as he prepares to have a child he clearly isn’t ready for with his girlfriend Nina. Keire doesn’t have any attachments beyond family, but finding his first job is a struggle; the ultimate goal is to get out. The third character is the filmmaker himself. What all three subjects have in common is being raised in abusive households, a shared trauma that becomes clear early on. (In an interview, Keire refers to his late father as a disciplinarian; asked what he means, he says, “Now we’d call it child abuse.”)
What isn’t expected (but is unsurprising given how cycles of abuse work) is the discovery that Zack is beating Nina. At one point, he plays Bing a tape of her screaming at him as an example of the unjust anger he feels he has to put up with. When Zack leaves their car to go into a store, Bing asks Nina about the point, and she adds important context: before the part of the recording Zack shared, he was abusing her. This information sets the filmmaker on a new tack: trying to figure out what’s going on without betraying Nina’s instruction to him not to confront Zack about this, lest it make her situation worse. That the film arrives at a certain answer by film’s end, in a startling riverside rant from Zack including his opinion that sometimes people are just asking for it, raised questions about how, exactly, the film arrived at that point without betraying Nina’s trust.
I was shaken by Minding the Gap, a profoundly discomfiting, ruthlessly edited film about cycles of abuse, grounded in a background of widespread economic turmoil that makes the prospect of Growing Up even harder than it might be otherwise. I’ll cop to not having seen it at Sundance: I caught up later, having been thrown off by the part of an earlier cut I’d seen. It seemed disingenuous not to bring up that context, as well to ask how exactly that climactic non-confrontation came about. Bing Liu cleared that up for me, along with diving deep into a certain mode of the documentary process. The film (recommended) enters limited release this Friday, the same day it premieres on Hulu.
Filmmaker: I had seen part of a cut that you had about a year ago. What I remember is, there was a lot more voiceover and the structure was different. There was a scene in the first ten minutes where you’re going to meet your mom to do the interview about you being abused by your stepfather, and you’re being interviewed in the car on the way: “So how do you feel about this?” At a certain point, obviously a lot of those things changed. Documentary editing processes are inherently long and complicated, but I’d love it if you could talk about thinking through some of those changes.
Liu: I didn’t begin the film wanting to be in the film. My background is, I got a camera to make videos when I was 14. I watched movies that inspired me, like Waking Life, Kids and Gummo. Some of my first shorts when I was a teen were this sort of Slacker plot where I follow people around Rockford as they interact with each other. The structure is based off of hand-offs, to give you a slice of community and the people in it. Anyway, I learned cinematography and editing through going to forums. There’s this website called Skate Perception that was kind of the Reddit for skate media makers all over the country. This was in the 2000s, when the internet was still finding its identity in many ways. It no longer exists; forums aren’t really a thing, for the most part.
When I was 19, I went to school for literature. Then I got my first PA job and worked my way up to the camera unit, so I got more traditional training on the job. I wanted to make gritty independent films that explored the same issues the movies that I looked up to when I was a teenager: coming of age, trauma, what it meant to live in really confusing situations. Of course, you try to figure out your world narratively. All that said, when I started making Minding the Gap, I wanted to do this project based in the skateboarding community. It was very on-the-nose with these issues about skateboarders’ relationships with their fathers and, branching off of that, what it meant to grow up. So the high concept was skateboarders of all different ages, races, genders—some were parents themselves—all around the country, sitting in front of a camera.
Filmmaker: Intercutting, connecting the dots?
Liu: Yeah: showing them skating, showing them in their element, going about their daily ritual. That’s what I had when I came to Kartemquin and did a fellowship with them. They introduced me to films like Hoop Dreams. That was my first time hearing the term cinema verite. Gordon Quinn said, “I just hang out with the camera. Sometimes I shoot, sometimes I don’t shoot. But it’s the characters’ lives that lead.” And I was like, “Oh, this reminds me of making skate videos and filming everything outside of skateboarding to piece together a narrative.” I was trying to capture things that represented story points. Like, “Oh, Zack is getting a pregnancy check-up with his girlfriend. I wanna go film that.” I wasn’t like, “Don’t pretend like the camera’s not here.” I was very interactive, in a Sherman’s March sort of way.
All that being said, from the first assemblies, I was in it as a person behind the camera. Writing about the film—not in grants but just for myself, in essays and diaries—I knew I wanted to explore these things that I had so many questions about in my own life through other skateboarders. I knew that I wanted to be honest about, “I’m part of this community, and I have gone through similar issues.” As rough cuts and assemblies kept getting made and I kept showing them to test audiences, people would invariably ask how I came to find the story. Sometimes people were like, “Would you consider putting yourself in the film?” I’d usually say no, and that was that. When I kept seeing personal docs, they were more quote-unquote “traditional personal docs” that were very much that first-person narrative. They were narrating their lives, they were doing this backstory explanation stuff. So, that was my take on what it meant to put yourself in the film. I didn’t want that. Not to knock on personal docs, but it’s hard to do it in a way where it doesn’t seem self-indulgent or naval-gazing, where you can set up a reason for the audience to care beyond liking the filmmaker.
We did a test screening at DCTV. There were some key people there, including Jean Tsien, the editor. She took me out to dinner beforehand in Chinatown and I told her a little bit about the film. Afterward, she found out I was thinking about interviewing my mom and was like, “You have to do that.” [laughs] And I was like, “Okay, I’ll try it.” At the time, I had my brother in it, so I was finding a way to enter, but not fully enter. That was always the question mark for me. Once I interviewed my mom, it was like, “OK, I’m in the film on camera.” As I kept getting more feedback, that was more of a question for me going into the screenings: “How do you guys feel about me being in the film?” I wanted to avoid voiceover, but people just kept telling me to do it: Gordon told me to do it, Steve told me to do it. He gave me advice on doing voiceover; he does it on a lot of his films.
Filmmaker: So you tried it. Did they bring in a story editor or somebody to work with you, or did you try to figure it out alone?
Liu: I just tried laying stuff down. It’s hard to say, because I did fundraiser versions. It was my free-time project, outside of being a camera assistant. I did this for many years out of my bedroom. I’d drive out to Rockford; sometimes I’d get footage, sometimes I wouldn’t be able to find my characters, and then I had to drive back to Chicago. But yeah, I just tried laying down voiceover. When I finally started working with Josh Altman last summer, he suggested that he interview me. So I wrote out a bunch of questions that I felt were pertinent to what mattered to the story and I had him ask me, and sometimes he’d go off the script. I got really into it, and it was really hard for me. We hugged each other afterwards. I remember not liking it, not really feeling comfortable about it.
Filmmaker: Do you remember why?
Liu: Because it’s not my story. For the longest time, this film was a present-day story before I entered it. You watch this guy become a young father for the first time, you watch this kid remember things about his dad and come to terms with it. It felt like forcing this narrative down an audience’s throat. And it doesn’t pay off, really, where I have some sort of conclusive thing at the end. Josh, at one point after doing it, was like, “Are you down for leaving your story out of the film?” And I was like, “No, we’ve gotten this far, and I think it’s pretty important that I’m in the film.” Basically, the movie we came up with was, let’s just get Zack and Keire’s story up and going first, and I’ll figure out my story later. So back when Josh was consulting, he was watching cuts. He had me do a cut of Keire’s story, just on its own, to make sure it works; do a cut of Zack’s story, make sure it works. For the first through second versions of both of those, it was like, OK, we have a film. That was the point where he was like, “Bing, we can make it to Sundance.” I was like, “What? Are you sure?” [laughing] I was in disbelief. But he has gotten four films into Sundance before, so I was like, OK, I guess I believe. So we wove those stories together and got them working. I think that was around the time where I watched Sherman’s March. I was really taken with how you can embrace the fourth wall, not be on one or the other side of it. You have to open yourself up completely, just to do it. That was also around the time I dug back into the archival footage. It was like, if we’re gonna do that technique, I should just show my relationship with these guys but also with the camera. That’s when I pored through hours and hours, looking for Zack, Keire and myself, logging all those.
Filmmaker: Were those mini-DV tapes?
Liu: It’s Hi-8 and mini-DV.
Filmmaker: Was it a pain in the ass to log all that?
Liu: Yes and no. I shot all of it, so it weirdly came back to me. I would put in a tape and be like, “Oh, this is the day I went to the skate park in Milwaukee. Keire and Zack weren’t there.” I’d fast-forward times eight through it just to make sure. Sometimes there were tapes where it’s like, “Oh, this spans the course of a week, you have to watch everything now.” But it was kind of fun, too, and I think it helped my process, because I’m literally reliving the past; it brought back the place and whatever I was going through. So I think it helped in that way, too. Ultimately my story arc—in a more traditional storytelling sense of what does my character want, what are the obstacles—really picks up when I find out about Zack. Then my character has an objective: I want to get to the bottom of this as a filmmaker, so the obstacles are, ugh.
Filmmaker: Nina asks you, at a certain point, not to ask him about that, because that would only make her position harder.
Liu: That’s the moment I put in the film.
Filmmaker: Right. But at a certain point, Zack talks about it at the river side. I’m not sure if he talks about it unprompted, or if there was a point where you had to talk to her off-camera and be like, “Can I actually go back to him and bring this up?” or how you handled that.
Liu: Well, I never directly asked, because, one, I didn’t know how he’d react. I didn’t want him to hate me for asking my question. And two, Nina told me not to ask him, because it would ruin their relationship. I still felt it was so important to try to get at, not necessarily the question of did he hit her, but what is his stance on domestic violence? If you listen to the questions, they’re beating around the bush from far away. That conversation is really long. If you listen to the [unedited] interview, I’ll ask him a little thing, and then, 20 minutes later, go back to that topic, circling around and around, getting closer. Finally, it got to a point where I feel he registered that. In past interviews I’d just kept asking about violence in the home: what you saw in the house, how much did your parents fight. I think over time he started thinking more and more deeply about that. So, it was unprompted in the sense that he want from talking about his parents fighting but brushing it off—“Yeah, the cops would come to my house, but that was when I was really young”—wait, why is that a brush-off? I don’t know how his brain works, but it got to a point where I could ask him about that recording and not have to ask who hit who or whose fault was it.
Filmmaker: Part of the reason I ask is because I’m curious just about how you handled it with her when it came time to bring that up. The other reason I ask is the whole sickening feeling of having the dilemma of knowing about something terrible and being completely unsure of what to do about it. There’s not really a handbook of how to do this.
Liu: I asked other filmmakers, and they gave me scary answers. I asked one producer a series of questions, and she told me, “You absolutely have to avoid the subject if it’s going to put someone in danger.” I had a moral crisis, not just as a filmmaker, but as a person. Like, what am I doing to this relationship? Am I endangering Nina? So I had to consider power relationships: who has the power in this situation, what effect is all this going to have on her safety but also on the future of this child that they’re raising together? It prompted me to do a 48-hour domestic violence course. I knew about the cycle of violence. I’d learned about it, but not in this formal way. I sat down with other advocates in a room for, five Saturdays in a row, did exercises, worked with different DV counselors. And I was like, “Oh, shit, this is important. I need to tell this story.” That’s why I asked Nina. I wanted to confront Zack, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how it would affect their lives. So I knew I needed to get Nina’s permission.
Filmmaker: And you did?
Liu: Not to ask him—
Filmmaker: But about the video he’d shown you part of.
Liu: The video was the most harrowing window into what was going on when I wasn’t filming, when I wasn’t around. Nothing had gotten that bad on-camera. That’s when I was like, “Oh, shit.” Before that moment, I think I was a lot more focused on child abuse, on what fathers had been doing to me, Keire, and Zack. The majority of my questions up until that point were, how did your father treat you, what was your relationship with him like, why did you hate him, how did you learn hate, do you think you would hit your children? But after that moment, I was like, “Fuck.” I remember asking a lot more questions about seeing violence between parents after that. So my questions to try to get at what happened to him were mostly around that recording, I just kept going back to that recording.
Filmmaker: So you had something you could go back to and refer to without actually saying you had talked to Nina.
Liu: Correct. That was my way of trying to get at it without breaking my promise to Nina. I could dig deeper to try to get at the truth of what happened in that video. And they knew that I was going to show them the film before we released it out in the world. They knew that a couple years before we picture-locked. I was going to get a chance to make sure they didn’t feel grossly misrepresented, or that they were not comfortable with something going out. Nina only wanted three seconds cut out.
Filmmaker: That sounds exhausting.
Liu: [laughing] It was exhausting. I lost a lot of sleep over it. I didn’t know how to handle it when I first found out from Nina. Slowly, it got to that point — even asking that question. I can’t believe I asked that question while Zack left the car. But it was because it was so hard to get ahold of them, and I had such limited time; it was such a side project that it was like, “I don’t know when the next time I’m gonna be with Nina again.” They were starting to date again. I think that’s what drove me to ask that question in the car, even though Zack could come back at any moment. But what saved me is that Zack had a beer while he was inside the restaurant. That’s why he was gone so long. If you listen to his lav, he’s ordering a beer.
Filmmaker: You talked about determining your character’s story, and doing all that kind of thinking, which is the kind of thing that also intersects with doing grant stuff, and figuring out narrative process, which is also a cold-blooded thing, sometimes. Was that all new to you? Can you talk about mastering the vocabulary of that process, and thinking through that?
Liu: I was actually working on a short film that Davis Guggenheim called me up for. It was about this gun violence reduction program that was happening in Chicago. I went out and shot a short. It was the first pilot cohort of young men going through this subsidized employment/trauma/forum.therapy sort-of program. I went back to LA to edit at the office and was like, “I need an editor, because I’m editing my own film right now.” They found me Josh Altman, and we worked together over the course of a month or two, or more, on that short. During that time, Davis was sending us videos to watch. He sent us this Masterclass film of Aaron Sorkin talking about writing for character. He sent us a guy from Disney talking about storytelling through telling jokes, things like you have to know the punchline before you deliver the set-up. Aaron Sorkin talking about general storytelling formulas: you have a character who has an obstacle — you can’t have an obstacle too big. So things like that were swirling around my head throughout the short.
Even though he was working on this other project, Kailash, I convinced Josh to come in as a consultant on the side. I showed him a rough cut I had at the time, then we just went and carded out the characters. This is Keire: what does he want, what’s his obstacle, what do we have that we’re building towards? It was kind of hard to figure out what he wanted. For the longest time, I was like, “Well, this is just what happened.” Keire goes through this incredible process of talking and figuring out his relationship with his father. Josh brought in the fact that growing-up things happen.” He gets his first car and his first job. Same thing for Zack. Zack was a lot easier because his story is very external—has a baby, moves out, moves back—so we just streamlined the story a bit.
Filmmaker: I keep thinking about this idea of “best documentary practices,” which often seem counter-productive to me. If you’re going to interview your mom, and someone says, “Well, how does it make you feel?,” you’re in this performative spot. How are you supposed to process this awful thing in your head and present on camera?
Liu: This is how voiceover indirectly helped that mom interview turn out the way that it did. In doing the voiceover—I tried two or three passes of it. The first critiques I think I was getting were, “We want the same vulnerability we get from Zack and Keire from you.” I was like, “Fuck, how do I do that?” How do you look in the mirror and be vulnerable to yourself? It’s hard enough to make someone else be vulnerable to you; how do you do it to yourself? Steve had a different take. For Stevie, he diaried while making the film, so he just went back to his diary to get a sense of how he actually felt, and it felt more natural. For Hoop Dreams, he only did voiceover to set-up scenes. Those were his two examples of how to do voiceover. So that was going on in my head, and that’s why ultimately the last half of my voiceover was having Josh ask me things. I was like, “This is probably the closest I’m going to get to actually being vulnerable.” And I was more vulnerable than any other voiceover pass that we did.
Once we trashed the voiceover, in going to interview my mom, I still had this feeling in my head of, “If I’m going to be in the film, people want me vulnerable and sharing.” That’s why I hired another camera person. I was like, “You need to film me, just film everything.” At one point in the mom interview, I noticed him pointing it at my mom: “Sorry, you need to be on me the whole time.” I’m a very stoic, withdrawn person, so the first few passes of my mom interview that I did before I met Josh were very expository. It was like, this is what I’m giving you backstory about what happened with me. That scene that you see in the film with my mom is Josh’s first pass. He looked at what I wasn’t going to say, he looked at the nuance in my expression, he looked at the similarities of my mom doing this. And that’s, I think, what added to how that scene is set-up, which is a lot more awkward. Whereas before, it didn’t feel earned; you’re dropped into this without understanding how awkward the conversation actually is.
Filmmaker: Do you want to talk about music?
Liu: Yeah, if you want to talk about music. I mean, there is some in the movie.
Filmmaker: I don’t know if there was more, at some point, or less.
Liu: I went to a lot of feedback screenings of other people’s films, that was part of my process, too. Kartemquin screenings are notorious for being just brutal, in the sense that people are being honest, and it’s really politically active. So they’re not only honest about storytelling, they’re also honest about ethics. It’s a boot camp in many ways. Anyway, I heard Gordon Quinn say this many times: “You’re letting the music carry the story. Story should come first; your story should work without music, at all, ideally.” So that was my early thought going into things, and it was very minimalist for a long time. I think when I started working with Josh, we started adding music to the point where I became uncomfortable with it. [laughs] Also, Josh taught me the value of taking a long time to search for the right temp track.
Filmmaker: How so? Because you get into the rhythm of the cutting?
Liu: Nathan [Halpern] didn’t want to really get going until we picture-locked, which wasn’t until a month before Sundance, so it got pushed pretty far back. But in us choosing temp music that we were not wedded to but felt worked for the story and tone, it helped shortcut, not having to veer too far from the temp track. And I kind of kept Nathan on a short leash. Sometimes he’d send things that were a little off-kilter. And we had talked philosophically about things beforehand. I hate this doc being branded at all with the word “skateboarding” on it, and even back then I knew it was gonna be a battle to hedge that. also wanted to hedge against punk rock or hip-hop. The way that I see skateboarding is more like dancing than MMX fighting, a lot more feminine than masculine, so I wanted to stay true to that. The temp tracks I remember choosing were from the film Mustang—really coming-of-age, lots of strings and piano. Then so he didn’t have to veer that far off. The [end credits] Mountain Goats song is because I couldn’t get “Old Man” by Neil Young, but John Darnielle is such a big—that whole album helped me survive my childhood. I was so glad we were able to get that song.
That last swelling climactic crescendo, Nathan kept not going loud enough. Not loud literally, but if you look at his other work—The Rider, Rich Hill—it’s on the droney end. That was one of the cues I just wasn’t happy with all the way to the last day of our six-day sound mix. And I remember being like, just send me the stems, I’m gonna edit this shit, you know? [laughs] I’m on my Premiere, doing the mix. We must have gone through six or seven versions of that, where we just kept telling him, more layers, more drama. But at a certain point, halfway through the mix, he sort of got to me. I was like, “Fuck me, he’s right, maybe it’s too forward. Nothing too cheesy or campy. All right, let’s try it.” Then we rented out a theater during the mix. We could only afford the tiny room—the TV, not the theater. For three hours, the stage next door hooked us up with a small feed, and we watched it down in the theater. The sound mixer, a dialogue editor, and another person that’s helping him, I asked them about that cue, and they were all like, “We actually liked your temp, which felt earned.” I was at DOC NYC last year, in November, and went to this panel for composers, where someone said directors are always nervous about putting music in, because, especially in documentary, that’s where you feel the director’s touch the most. That’s what made Nathan comment about it could turn people off if we go too much with that. So it was sort of a back-and-forth with that cue. There were other things. There was this one guitar part that’s very Bruce Springsteen that was too on-the-nose. I’m certainly happy with the music, and how it turned out.