“Basically, I’ve Lived It, Know What I Mean?”: William Strobeck’s SUPREME
In late 2018, Supreme filmmaker William Strobeck released his second full-length feature, “BLESSED” – and with packed-out premieres all over the world, it was arguably the most anticipated skate film to date. It was his second major collaboration with the brand since “cherry” put him on the global map in 2014, establishing the filmmaker’s unique ability to delineate the individual personalities of the athletes featured, and to draw an ever-broader audience into their world. Now, the self-taught director knows he’s a mouthpiece for something much bigger than skateboarding.
“When I was making “cherry,” I knew it was more than just a skate video. Even if you didn’t skateboard, when you watched it you could still get stuff out of it. I wanted people to feel like they’re in on the big secret,” he explains. The audience is not only witness to how hard these kids work, how many times they attempt the same trick before landing it, but also to the in-betweens: honest moments among close friends, shifting temperaments, and idiosyncrasies. There’s a warmth to Strobeck’s work, which began in the late 1990s, with his documentation of Philadelphia’s legendary Love Park skate scene and his videos for Alien Workshop. After yearning for a family in his childhood, he tells us below, through his collaborations he created his own.
Due to their inclusivity, the films – much like the Supreme brand itself – transcend skate culture. It would be fair to argue the success of “cherry” was a major engine for Supreme’s current status as a global obsession: an authority with the ability to sell out of any kind of product, skate-related or not.
032c met with Strobeck on two occasions: at home in his New York apartment, and at a local East Village diner where, over a heap of french fries, we got into the filmmaker’s most personal interview to date, beginning with his meeting 2018 Skater of the Year, the Supreme- and adidas-sponsored Tyshawn Jones.
What’s it like making skate videos for a living? Do you film constantly?
Summer, spring, fall, I’m out all day. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted. The kids have big personalities and I have to be there with them. They’re at that stage where they’re just like crazy kids. They’ll punch each other — I gotta try to not get caught in the crossfire with that shit, because it’s gnarly. They give like two for flinching. They still do that shit to me sometimes too. It’s fun though. It keeps me young. If I had an office job, I’d probably feel more mature, but I’d feel like I was missing out.
The kids featured in “cherry” and “BLESSED” – they weren’t all there when you began with Supreme, right?
No they weren’t. The first film I did for Supreme was this little video called “buddy” and the guys at the [Supreme] store told me about this little kid Tyshawn [Jones]. They asked if maybe I could film him that weekend for the commercial.
How did they first hear about Tyshawn?
One of the kids that’s worked at Supreme forever, Ty Lyons, he’d seen Tyshawn over in Battery Park. He was just skating around with his friends and Tyshawn did a trick down a set of stairs, I think. Ty went up to him and was like, “Hey dude, that was fucking sick. If you ever need anything stop by Supreme and get a board if you want.” Tyshawn didn’t know what Supreme was.
There’s that shot in “buddy” where Tyshawn is skating down the side of a building or something? It looks so crazy. He’s so small.
Yeah, the courthouse. He was super confident out of the gate. Usually, when I meet kids for the first time they’ll be quiet because I’m older. He was already just tripping, and pushing his friends, and lying to his friends like, “I’m with my mom right now.” Just goofy kid shit. But I knew there was something special about him. I knew it that day. After “buddy” he’d hit me up every day saying, “Let’s go skate.” When we were doing “cherry” I was with him so much. He didn’t know who I was. I was already known in skateboarding, and he was already being given shit by other brands and being flown out. This one company brought him on a trip to Arizona or something. They were asking him who he filmed with back in New York. He told them my name and they were like, “What! That’s fucking sick.” And he’s like, “Dude, they were tripping that I film with you.” In his head there’s this generation gap. My first videos were some of the first videos ever made in skating. It’s crazy. He was only 13 when he did that trick at the courthouse.
And his face remains so stoic throughout the whole thing.
I told him that it was crazy he did that. It’s really big and he was so small. He told me, “I don’t know. I just felt like this was my chance and I had to do it. I had to do something that people were going to see.” He was already thinking like that. He’s 20 years old now. There are times where he acts like a little shit still, but he’s got the demeanor – like he knows when it’s time to turn it off and be smart about shit. I’ve literally let half of those kids walk on me, because if I do that, then they will see that I can hang out with them and they won’t feel like I’m an intruder. They feel comfortable enough to be themselves. If we were to send another filmer out that they didn’t know, they’re gonna be closed off and wonder, “What does this guy think of us?” Since I’ve known them since they were little, I’m more of a big brother. I’m not giving them orders. They’re their own figures. I want them to do things however they want. I’m just there to document it and tell them if I think they’re screwing up.
Sometimes Tyshawn’ll speak up and be like, “No, I don’t want to do that shit.” There’s a piece of him that definitely understands where I’m coming from though. Like when he jumped over that subway station [on the January 2019 cover of Thrasher Magazine.] There were so many people and cars around. It’s just unreal on that corner. But I told him that if he landed it, I bet he’d get the cover because that’s the Bronx train that he took when he was younger. And sure enough, he got the cover. Then I was saying he’d get skater of the year [for Thrasher Magazine] and then he did. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. That was the highlight in my career and a big start to his.
Let’s talk about you. You’re from upstate New York?
I’m from right outside of Syracuse.
What was it like to grow up there?
It was cool. Well, it was interesting. I grew up with my mother and grandmother – an only child. My mother was sick. She’s still sick – she’s schizophrenic. She was really sick when I was young, though, probably for my first three years she would be talking to herself and laughing. It was just kind of fucked up. I knew there was nothing I could do. My grandmother was the saving grace. She was normal and she worked a job. My mother has always felt like my sister. She’s never had to do anything. She got money from the government and when they found the right medication for her, she was normal for a while. But my grandmother never made her do anything outside of, like, going to the grocery store. It was just a really weird upbringing. At the time I thought it was all normal, but then I started to notice that it was off when she got sick again. She had to go to a psychiatric institution. She was hearing voices. So I moved in with my aunt and uncle further upstate. They were a young married couple – like 18 or 19, just kids. In my head, though, they were so adult. I finally had a mother figure and a father figure. In reality they were reckless, getting drunk and getting in fights. It was super crazy. I remember just craving, wanting to be with my mother.
When did you start skateboarding?
When I lived with my aunt and uncle. My aunt bought me my first skateboard. There was another kid that had a skateboard so I started rolling with him. It was cool in that time period – like 1989 or 1990 – skateboarding was moving from California to other parts of the world. There were VHS tapes of skate films that you could rent. But my uncle was a fucking dick and he was a really abusive alcoholic. I remember being in my room and wanting to be back with my mother. Finally, she was well enough and came to get me. I was psyched. She let me do whatever I wanted. I’d tell her, “Drive me here. I’m meeting up with my friends. Don’t ask me what I’m doing.” I kind of turned it around on her and she felt bad because she’d been sick. It was just the worst thing ever because it was so enabling. In school I would act out. I was terrible. I won a class clown award at the end of the year. I would just do crazy shit. I just thought I was being funny. My home life definitely fucked with me and this was my way of dealing with it. When I finally moved out at 17 and moved to Philadelphia it was for a girl I’d met there – and for skateboarding. I went down with 100 bucks or something, which back then could last you a long time. I didn’t know how to get a job because my mother and grandma never made me.
What was your first job?
I worked as a sign-in-sheet-type security guard. Then I got a job at a coffee shop, before coffee shops were a thing – before Starbucks. Then the place went out of business and I lived off unemployment. It was sick. I was chilling. I’d get like 300 bucks a week to do nothing. I’d skate every day and have the best time. But then that ran out and I had to get another job.
What initially brought you into filming?
My cousin and I used to film skits at his house when we were kids. We’d geek out and make fake commercials and shit. I guess that was kind of the start. It was a fun process and kinda led into skateboarding: the act of going out with your friends and filming all day, then going home and watching it, showing them, and getting psyched to do it again. I never thought of it as a job until it became one. Then I felt like the energy switched.
When did it become a job?
The skate scene in Philadelphia got really big and the skate company Alien Workshop was working on a video with a couple of pro skaters who lived there. I had just started filming with friends and Alien offered to pay me a daily retainer to shoot for them. I was like, “Fuck yeah!” So I quit everything – community college and the pizza place I was working at – and started filming skating. I haven’t had a real job since. I was going on trips to Miami with the whole team, freaking out because I had photos of these guys on my wall and shit. It’s like a kid putting fucking Future and Drake on their wall and the next thing you know they’re going on tour to film them. They were bigger than Michael Jackson to me. I was so mentally involved. I got the magazines every month. Things that were happening on the trips I was on that they would write about in the magazines. It was like an addiction. It was all about movement: if I make the right movements, I’ll get far.
What were the right movements?
When I started working for Alien Workshop, I didn’t have to figure out how to get to another company. I was working for the company with the best, coolest skaters, and it portrayed these guys in the best way. I was filming for them, giving them the footage and they were making the videos. I was in the right place at the right time. I worked for those guys for a long time.
When did you first put out your own video?
Eight or nine years later, when YouTube first came out around 2007, I made one of my own videos the way I wanted to see it. It was called “Smile on Wry Boy” and it was with this kid Anthony Pappalardo. It was just footage I had. It was very me. It got a lot of attention from people online – in the comments or whatever. People were more hyped on it than what was coming out in skating at the time and I think that’s when I started popping. At the time no one was using YouTube like that.
How was your personal work different to the stuff you were doing with Alien?
I felt like it was edgier and more raw. Even though I loved it, Alien had got so big and was becoming corporate. I was working for them less so I decided I wanted to do my own thing, out of boredom I guess. It felt good to have my own platform and my own voice. Once I did that I was like, “Oh, I can do this now. This is mine.”
When did you move to New York?
Two-thousand and three. I moved here because some of the kids I grew up skating with lived in Brooklyn. So I moved in with them. It was a whole new world. I had money because the whole time I was filming with Alien, I didn’t party and my girlfriend didn’t make me pay rent. So when I moved up here, I kind of let loose. Every night I was meeting these people that don’t skate – running around the downtown scene.
Did you know about Supreme?
I knew what Supreme was from when I was younger. One time in 1995 or 96, I took a Greyhound bus from Philly to 42nd St. I walked down and one of the first places I went to was Supreme.
How did you hear about it?
I knew what it was from magazines and skate videos. Kids in the videos would be wearing it. But they weren’t huge then. They were just starting out. When you walked in, everything in the store was skate. I bought like one of the two t-shirts they made. If you were from out of town, the people that worked there and the kids that hung out there would be dicks to you. In the 90s, everyone was a little more rough around the edges. I knew what Supreme was when I started working for them, and I had an idea of how I could do a video for them. Basically, I’ve lived it, know what I mean? I was already doing my own videos and people were psyched on them – skate videos and a couple of music videos and shit.
What music videos?
I did a music video called “Any Fun” with Mark Gonzales for Jason Schwartzman’s band Coconut Records. I was working with Mark a lot in 2010, and Mark was already affiliated with Supreme. He was helping me out. I didn’t have a job. He’s always doing shit. Through him I met a lot of people. He was really helpful.
How did you initially start with Supreme?
My friend Kyle from Supreme asked what I thought about doing a commercial for them, which ended up being “buddy.” I’d told them the year before that if they ever wanted to do a full-length I’d be down. So I agreed and it was a trial and error kind of thing. And that’s when they first mentioned Tyshawn.
So you and Tyshawn started at Supreme at the same time?
Yeah. But I’ve known about it for so long. Tyshawn doesn’t know it as the Supreme that I know, the history. Early on there was a big modeling agency next door to the shop. One of the early Supreme kids, Peter Bici, was in Calvin Klein ads with Kate Moss when she was just getting big. He was just a Supreme kid, you know? They had their own clique and no one could get in it. And they were like going to all the dope parties.
Let’s talk about your films. How would you describe your aesthetic? What makes your videos recognizable?
I’d say, it’s on the fly, personal, and honest. I want the viewer to feel like they are there. I want them to feel like they are a part of our crew and see what it’s like from an insider’s point of view. I want them to walk away and wish they were a part of it. I think detail is what makes my stuff recognizable. I’m sort of blinded by my aesthetic: it’s really just me, so I can’t see what I’m doing. It’s a blur. It’s for others to judge and tell me what they think, really. It’s just coming from my brain.
I’ve watched “cherry” and “BLESSED” so many times over. They definitely feel personal.
Yeah, when I was making “cherry” I knew it would be more than just a skate video. Even if you didn’t skateboard, when you watched it you would get stuff out of it. There’s so much personality in there, people talking to each other and shit. I wanted people to feel like they were in on the big secret. The new video is very personal. “BLESSED” was two-and-a-half years of work. If you work on something for two-and-a-half years, you’ve got to get your point across. And it was big. The owner [of Supreme, James Jebbia] came over my house to watch it, and two weeks later there were fucking bus-stop posters and shit all over the city. He was super hyped when he saw it, but when I saw those, I was like, “Oh it’s on now.” I get psyched watching it. These kids will look back in 10 years and think that this was a sick time in their lives. And my heart was in it. I wanted it to be fucking special. We all worked so fucking hard. That’s as special as I could make it. We got all the rights to the music. Everything’s already edited and it’s like, “We need the song!” Bob Dylan just signed off on it right away. Jay-Z saw the edit and was cool with it. Hearing that type of shit gets me hyped. I’m really happy with those videos.
Do you want to move into something outside of skate films? Do a scripted thing?
I would love to, but I think a part of me has a wall up. I know I can make a film. I will do it when the time’s right. Maybe a good start would be something scripted with these kids, but without as much skating. I haven’t done anything scripted. All that shit in the videos is real, which is cool, because it almost seems scripted. I’ve just gotta try it, but I have this fear, like, “Oh man, after “BLESSED” he made that fucking corny thing.” I hope I wouldn’t make something corny – I would know enough to not put something out. I think there’s room to do something for Supreme that’s scripted and with these kids. Supreme doesn’t need to do a skate thing. I’m just gonna roll with the punches.
Do you know which direction you’d go in?
I’ve been watching a lot of 1980s John Hughes – like The Breakfast Club. There’s nothing like that kind of feel anymore. I don’t know. I want it to be original. I don’t want to take influences from other people. I’ve got ideas. It’s the easiest thing for me. Like I said, I was an only child with no parents really. I was home a lot and my imagination is so big. Growing up, I knew I could think up stuff. It was almost like, I felt magic. I’m a Pisces too. We’re daydreamers.
I didn’t know you guys had big imaginations.
Huge. Most Pisces are artists.
What else are you into outside of skateboarding?
I love photography. I love hanging out with people. I’m very lucky to be able to be free to be me. All my work has allowed me to be me. I wanna make a movie and I’m about to shoot more photos.
Have you done any work lately outside of skating and Supreme?
I’ve been so busy with “BLESSED” that it consumed my whole brain. I did shoot something for Let’s Panic with Chloë Sevigny and Sean Pablo like a year ago, but really that was a day or two of work that I could take off from the video to do. I love the little things I do on the side.
How do you feel about Supreme having gotten so big?
I feel like it got big and a lot of stuff changed after “cherry” came out. That really pushed it. I just felt the energy of it, like, “Oh shit.” It was way bigger than we thought. After that they started making more product and I feel like I’ve rolled along for the whole ride.
Do you believe you were a big proponent of that growth?
I do. I believe that I am. What’s better than to have a group of kids that are fucking super cool, that other kids want to be like? The clothes are going to sell because people want to be like these kids, a crew of cool kids from coast to coast that are good skateboarders and cool-looking and all different. They fit every kind of style. I’ve seen other companies try to do it and they can’t pull it off. We have the most authentic kids, and they were well-curated. Well-picked.
Were they picked?
Yeah they were picked. They were just hanging out at the store. There was just something about them. Everyone has their own individual thing. That being said, everyone in the office and stuff, we all worked hard to get this. Every department is responsible.
What does the brand’s future look like?
I think they’ll have the power to do so much more. Who knows? Maybe in a few years they’ll be collaborating with Mercedes, like, selling a Supreme car or something. Supreme can be anything now. We’re every genre now. It doesn’t have to be one thing. They can make anything they want and it will be cool. You see their accessories and the stuff they’re doing now. They just do it their way. They make tables and shit. As long as it has the little label on it, it will sell. To be involved with it, it’s super crazy. It’s gotten me into another world where I’ve got more eyes on me than if I were just making skate videos. They gave me the platform to make the thing that I really want to make, which was something like “BLESSED” – something that feels bigger than just skateboarding.