Only one film was showing at the Village East cinema on a crisp Monday night, but the crowds inside and outside the theater’s royal lobby buzzed with energy. Outside, skateboarders in hoodies and tiny beanies huddled under clouds of weed and cigarette smoke. Inside, behind a makeshift bar, someone was pouring wine into tiny plastic cups.
Posters for the theater’s regular blockbusters were gone, replaced by a series of grainy images of a close-up of a bloodied back, fireworks being set off on a Manhattan street, and a shirtless young man with a dazed expression – all taken from Play Dead ‘, filmmaker William Strobeck’s third feature-length skate video for Supreme.
In the auditorium, those who did not arrive early enough to secure a seat stood in the aisles. For almost an hour while the film played, the 100-year-old cinema was the scene of a boisterous party, with hordes of skateboarders smoking indoors, sloshing wine and yelling at the screen.
During the final scene – which featured a whopping kickflip by skateboard superstar Tyshawn Jones across the tracks at the 145th Street subway station – the building almost trembled in front of the screaming audience.
A little over a week later, Mr. Strobeck, 44, was hanging out in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. After returning home from a screening of the film in Japan, he was jet lagged and wore a low-pulled Yankees cap and a faded purple hoodie made by his new skate company, Violet. Around him, skaters were doing tricks on the dozen or so random ramps on the asphalt ball field.
A young man sitting on a bench shouted, “Hey, Bill!” and asked to take a picture. “That often happens with skaters,” he said.
Filming skate videos usually means staying behind the scenes while daring skaters take center stage. But after more than two decades, Mr. Strobeck has built a cult following. He began filming the blossoming scene at Love Park in Philadelphia before working on seminal skate videos like Alien Workshop’s “Photosynthesis” in the early years.
The skaters he filmed are the first to give him credit. Mr. Strobeck’s work with Supreme has helped transform perceptions of the New York and East Coast skateboard industry more broadly by challenging the longstanding notion that the best skateboarders live in California. His full-length videos for Supreme feature a lot of New York skateboarding, but “Play Dead” is the only one filmed entirely on the east coast.
“People can make careers in New York,” said Beatrice Domond, 27, a professional skateboarder. Mr. Strobeck has featured her prominently in his videos for Supreme and she is the first woman to be sponsored by the brand.
“You never have to go to California in the winter unless you want to,” she continued.
On this afternoon in Tompkins, little did Mr. Strobeck know that Mr. Jones, 24, perhaps the young skater he has worked most closely with in the past decade, would soon be crowned the winner of the Skater of the Year award announced by Thrasher Magazine. Mr. Jones also won the title in 2018, largely thanks to tricks provided by Mr. Strobeck. He was the first New York-born recipient in the award’s three-decade history.
Mr. Strobeck got his start with skateboarding on the east coast. In the early 1990s he skated on a granite and marble plaza at the Everson Art Museum in Syracuse, NY (The museum, designed by I.M. Pei in 1968, took a progressive approach to skateboarding: because it viewed the activity as an art form, it allowed skateboarders free ride on the outside ledges and stairs.)
Mr. Strobeck’s mother often drove him there from her home in nearby Cicero, and he stayed in Syracuse for days. He crashed with friends, skipped school, and got free meals from a pal who worked at a nearby subway. in the 10th He dropped out of school in 12th grade and got more involved with what he called the “wrecks” at the museum, skating, and performing shows in Syracuse’s burgeoning hardcore music scene.
“We rolled the dice and took each other’s money,” he recalled.
Mr. Strobeck’s mother struggled with mental illness and was often absent for long periods during his childhood. When she wasn’t around, his grandmother looked after him. He lived with his aunt and uncle for about two years, he said, when they were in their early 20s. Mr. Strobeck said he was worried about his mother and “very scared something bad could happen to her. And that was a crazy feeling. I’ve behaved in many different ways.” They have a good relationship now, he said.
He believes his difficult home life led him to skateboarding. “I think for a lot of people, skateboarding is something you do to get out of there,” he said. “I can’t explain how special it is, but you don’t care about a lot of things because you can just walk and skate. You go skating and you’re only with your friends. You are an individual with a bunch of people.”
Young and undiscovered talents are often the focus of Mr. Strobeck’s films. Many of the skaters in Cherry (2014), his first film for Supreme, were largely unknown, including Mr. Jones, who was 14 at the time.
“I just remember looking back — being close to the energy and how excited they were killed everything else I wanted to do,” Mr. Strobeck said. “It was the best because I thought what these kids are right now is what I think is the most original and authentic thing about skating.”
Four years after “Cherry,” Mr. Strobeck and Supreme released “Blessed,” which featured many of the same skaters. Some had growth spurts, and skateboarding was faster, more advanced. Play Dead continues to document the evolution as the kids have grown into adults and become some of the biggest names in skateboarding. Watching the three videos back-to-back is a bit like watching Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy or Boyhood, a real-time coming-of-age story.
Most skate videos focus on rapid-fire tricks, where the camera turns on just before a skateboard’s tail hits the pavement and turns off immediately after the wheels hit the ground. Mr. Strobecks, on the other hand, lingers for a long time before and after a trick, capturing the faces of the skaters on the curb or the confused looks of passers-by.
“He brings reality to skateboarding videos where it has personality and not just tricks,” said Mr. Jones.
Mr. Strobeck often zooms in so close that you can almost see the whiteheads on a skater’s face as they approach an obstacle. Then he will quickly zoom out right before the trick. It’s frenetic, dizzying – and pretty close to what it feels like to sit on a skateboard or just hang out at a skate spot.
“I think when Bill started doing the zoom-in thing, he was trying to get down to the figure of this person who was going to do the trick,” said Jason Dill, a professional skateboarder who has been with Mr. Strobeck for more than 20 years. character, Mr. Dill said has a lot to do with facial expressions. “When you are determined to perform a physical act, your face is different,” he said. Mr. Strobeck, he added, “just wants to show people 100 percent what they are.”
After leaving Tompkins Square Park, Mr. Strobeck walked a few blocks away to his East Village apartment. Inside, the floor was littered with books and Supreme paraphernalia and a few Violet products. His apartment has served as the backdrop for countless photo shoots starring skateboarders, actors, artists and other downtown New York personalities. In 2019, an art exhibition at the Milk Gallery in Chelsea recreated the tableau with a scale model of his bedroom.
Actress Chloë Sevigny was photographed in the apartment. “It’s like he always does when you walk over, and if he doesn’t ask you, you’re kind of disappointed,” she said.
Mr. Strobeck usually photographs people in a confined space, about a meter from the foot of his bed, in front of a large-format print of the mantelpiece in his old apartment.
(When I first visited Mr. Strobeck’s current apartment for the release of Blessed in 2018, his guest furniture consisted of a pair of Supreme camp chairs. An Eames chair has taken their place.)
Shortly after I saw Mr. Strobeck, Thrasher updated his Instagram with new footage of Mr. Jones on 145th Street. The caption read, “The 2022 Skater of the Year is…”
“One more,” Mr. Strobeck wrote to me.
Woman. Sevigny said no one ever knew why Mr. Strobeck kept shooting at the wall in his apartment. “But you’re a game because you love him,” she said, “and you understand that his brain is bigger than anyone even knows.”