Ex-Cardiff-by-the-Sea resident Helen Stickler would rather not talk about her new film, Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator, a documentary about the vertical highs and nose-diving lows of Mark "Gator" Rogowski, professional skateboarder-turned-murderer.
"I think people should go and see it instead of me being a mouthpiece for the film, Stickler says. "If you notice, there's no voiceover, I wanted to remain objective."
Understandably, Stickler is also a bit sick of talking about the film after working on it for so long, constantly tweaking it up until the last minutes before its release, making the film festival circuit and talking to press.
"It started six years ago, while I was a director for MTV. It was a part-time documentary at first, then I started getting the money together," she explains. "For the last three years, I have been spending every day working on the documentary."
Shot on mini digital video cameras, Stickler's Stoked blends talking-head interviews with gravity-defying skateboarding action to present the life of Gator Rogowski.
Abandoned by his father, Gator and his brother were raised by a single mother in Escondido-neither his mom nor his brother are in the film for different reasons.
As a teenager, he became on one of the great skate masters of the 1980s. He was already soaring high when his big victory over Tony Hawk at the Del Mar Nationals in 1984 gave him the break he needed. At the contest, he hooked up on a handshake with Brad Dorfmann to be a spokesperson for Vision Skateboards, then later, Vision Street Wear.
Gator soon had what thousands of skateboarding wannabes pined for: free boards, babes and beer. Never mind he was an undereducated teenager; he was making more than $100,000 a year at his apex.
He paid off his mother's house and sent his 15-year-old sweetheart, Brandi McClain, gifts and plane tickets so she could visit him after school. He bought himself cars and a house. Parties were wild and kids were drunk beyond their years. "Skate Bettys" were always ready and willing to provide a different type of thrill.
Unfortunately, the party was over for Gator and many of his colleagues within a decade. They soared high-manifestly speaking-before dropping to new vertical lows.
"I always felt his story was tied into the good and bad of skateboarding in the 1980s and the vertical era," Sticker says. "With the film I tried to be objective.... His story is the story of skateboarding's growing pains, and the boom and bust for the vertical era."
Stickler went to considerable lengths to speak to everyone in Gator's life, from professional skateboarders Stacy Peralta, Lance Mountain and Steve Caballero to those involved in the murder investigation and trial-though many did not make Stickler's and editor Ana Esterov's final cut.
The filmmaker had enough to make a 10-hour mini-series, but, she says, "you gotta choose your boundaries."
Gator's tendency for violence was well publicized in 1986 during a contest in Virginia Beach, Va. when he struck a cop and was hauled off to jail, making him a hero to the thousand of boys who probably saw more empty swimming pools than libraries.
Gator thought he was invincible as he shredded the parks and vertical ramps, living it up with youth on his side. But he had one glaring weakness: his need for attention.
"Well, I think I need to be interviewed," Gator once said. On another occasion, he confessed, "Getting noticed is something I can't live without."
The crash was unavoidable for someone whose problems were compounded by an as-yet-undisclosed bipolar disorder.
As skateboarding took a more streetwise attitude, Gator's endorsements, trophies and respect faded. He found God and started preaching to local skate punks, but became more depressed and desperate nonetheless. It was only a matter of time before something snapped for the fallen hero.
In 1990, during a Jägermeister binge in West Germany, Gator impaled himself through the neck on a fence. The next morning he did not remember a thing.
Then, on March 20, 1991, Gator beat 21-year-old Jessica Bergsten over the head with a Club steering-wheel lock, raped her for nearly three hours and strangled her in his Oceanside condo before burying her in the desert near the Arizona border. The gruesome details of the murder sent ripples through the extreme- sports community.
Stoked suggests Gator could have gotten away with the murder. Rogowski claims it was his Christian values that made him confess, but his admission to craving attention might also explain why he turned himself in.
If Stickler's interesting documentary suffers from anything, it's that within a mere 80 minutes she decides to focus on the skateboarding lifestyle rather than the facts of the murder and the real motivations behind the night in question. (We hear Gator only via telephone, since California law prohibits Stickler from filming a subject in prison).
"I was less interested in the details of the act itself than how he got there," Stickler says, before adding in an unguarded moment, "I just couldn't reconcile [how] someone who was a role model to hundreds of thousands of people could commit such a horrible crime."
In a disappointing move, the latest edit of Stoked deleted the emotional speech of Bergston's father at Gator's sentencing, "out of respect of the wishes of the family," Sticker explains. It remains unclear why including an emotional plea that shows the havoc released on Gator's family would be disrespectful. And one has to wonder, how is that being "objective"?
Sentenced to 31-years-to-life in prison for his crimes, Rogowski's life and the times he lived are subject to all types of interpretations-mostly tragic-and hopefully the Stoked viewer will discern some of it's lessons about fame, fortune, transition...
"There are so many lessons to be learned," said Stickler. "I don't want to go there." ©
Hurry! Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator shows at the Ken Cinema in Kensington only through Thursday, Sept. 11.