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Skateboarder and filmmaker Mark Nickels has been carrying on a decadelong love affair with marble. Just the thought of the silky stone makes him smile and shake his head, turning his eyes to the ceiling in search of the right words.
“It slides. It grinds. It’s seriously…dreamy,” he says.
The 27-year-old D.C. native has made his beloved stone the hero of his latest film effort, Where I’m From, an hourlong montage of professional and amateur skateboarding footage shot largely on the marble architecture of downtown’s Freedom Plaza. Having spent five years shooting the concrete wasteland of Southern California, Nickels’ return to Washington last May set in motion the project he’s envisioned ever since he was a teenager. “I’ve been all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe,” says Nickels, who’s worked on more than 30 skate videos, “and I still think [Freedom Plaza]’s the best spot in the world.”
The downtown footage didn’t come easy. Having grown up in the golden age of skateboarding under an otherwise engaged Marion Barry, Nickels was scarcely prepared for the new regime: He and his dozens of subjects spent the last year scuttling away from U.S. Park Police officers, who now enforce the plaza’s skating ban with $50 fines and the temporary confiscation of boards. And even when cops were out of sight, Nickels still had his work cut out for him: He shoots by riding his own board alongside his subjects, steadying his digital as best he can. “I’ve definitely taken some spills for that camera,” he says, noting two broken Sonys. “It’s like stop, drop, and roll.”
Admittedly, Nickels’ priorities haven’t changed much since he was 15 years old, renting a VHS camcorder for $50 a weekend, filming his buddies as they worked their boards, and editing the video with a pair of shoddy VCRs. “I’d go to school, hate it, come home, and skate until dusk and read skate magazines,” he says. “It became a skate video in my head.”
But there’s no denying that his teenage hobby is now a grinding job. Each full day of shooting left Nickels with maybe a single three-second sequence that cleared the bar for his film. In the end, he had to cull his scenes from about 300 hours of footage. “It’s a matter of constantly working at it on a regular basis,” he says. “Thirty tricks at the end of the month, and you’ve got about a minute [of film].”
The bruises and the endless hours, he says, were worth it. In just a month, the Frederick, Md.–based Pitcrew Pictures ran through the initial 3,000-copy DVD release for Where I’m From. The feedback has convinced Nickels he’s created something of an antidote to the outrageous stunts and lack of subtlety in today’s West Coast skate videos.
“You have kids jumping down 20-stair handrails, doing the most ridiculous stuff,” he explains. “It’s amazing, I can’t deny, but there’s an element that’s missing, and it’s style.” In other words, rather than impress the kiddies, he expects the crafty ollies and 180s he’s captured will give the older, more nuanced skateboarders that tingly feeling all over again: “Super-clean, super-crisp.”
He also hopes to pass along his infectious love of marble—and maybe give those annoying Park Police a heavier workload for the summer. “When a video’s released, all the kids flock to the spots in the video,” he says with a grin. “The Plaza will be hotter than ever this year.” —Dave Jamieson