Skateboarding has become popular enough in America to get the X Games on ESPN and to launch Tony Hawk to the heights of video game franchise meta-fame, but the essence of the sport is still one that encourages weirdness and creativity, and which is grounded in the individual (and maddeningly repetitive) work of nailing one trick or another. Trying to capture this combination of obsessive labor and batshit imagination on film has always proven difficult for filmmakers, whose efforts have tended toward exxxtreme bros trying to get sponsored and get laid, or damaged rebels who don't play by your rules, man. Where's the outsider art for this outsider sport? It exists, in a sense, in a ghost of a movie called Machotaildrop.
This is the story of Walter Rhum and his rapid ascent from total unknown to top skater at the Machotaildrop Skateboard Company, and it plays like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with a touch of Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze. Machotaildrop, unlike most every other attempt at skating on film, takes place in a cinematic universe that both understands skateboarding's weirdness and is capable of speaking that strange language. A skate shop/cake shop is called Cakeskate; a man on crutches is able to effortlessly jump on a board and grind a pipe while holding those crutches. Characters are terrorized by a gang of denim-vest-clad feral skateboarders called the Manwolfs, who mix cartoonish violence with emotional pleas for sensitivity. What I'm saying is it's all pretty insane.
By contrast, the film's plot sounds pretty standard. Young Walter Rhum spends his every waking moment immersed in skateboarding: trying to land tricks, playing a skateboarding arcade game at Cakeskate, and watching videos starring Blair Stanley, the best skater in the world. A demo tape sent to Machotaildrop, the world's greatest skateboarding company, earns him a sponsorship and puts him on the fast track to success. As he becomes a favorite of the company founder, he finds a rival in his fellow company skater and former hero Stanley, and learns dark truths about the company and the lifestyle he thought he always wanted. Except for the skate bakery, this could be the plot of any of Hollywood's wan attempts at skate movies.
The specifics are where things get strange. To be sponsored by Machotaildrop means living at its headquarters, a castle on a bucolic estate. Incidentally, this castle exists in the real world, as a Beethoven museum in Martonvàsàr, Hungary. In the real world, a castle on a bucolic estate probably isn't the first place you'd think to find the headquarters of the world's greatest skateboarding company, but in the film Machotaildrop is owned by a theatrical octogenarian and former circus performer known only as The Baron, who, as the movie goes on, slowly reveals an obsession with getting back onto the tightrope. Machotaildrop's roster of skaters is styled in precisely the way you'd think a well-mannered man named The Baron would dress them—in striped sailor shirts, elaborate sweaters, and smart dress pants. Though the movie has no Oompa Loompas, one of the dark secrets of the Machotaildrop company is that all the company's gear is made by old, shrunken, broken-down former skaters in a sub-basement of the castle. And then there are the Manwolfs. We should talk about them.
The Manwolfs enter the plot by attacking Walter and a film crew, who have stumbled into the abandoned amusement park turned skate spot they call home. The Baron, entranced with the group's untamed savagery, plots to capture their essence through a corporate theme park called Ape Snake, built to control and market the group. The one problem with the plan?
"The Manwolfs are into it for the truth, not for the photo-ops," Machotaildrop director Corey Adams told VICE Sports. Led by a nameless switchblade-toting leader with a voice like Ren Hoek—he's played by professional skater John J. Mackie—who hisses things like "We are sensitive beings" while waving a knife around and training his charges in the art of the brutal high kick. The Manwolfs reject The Baron's every overture, and when their skate spot is destroyed by Machotaildrop, they take the war directly to the company's headquarters.
The Manwolfs' unhinged, violent nature and messy skating stands in stark contrast to the carefully styled skate gentlemen of Machotaildrop, and in a twist that sadly isn't seen very often in the real world of sports (or anything else), the attempted corporate co-option of the Manwolfs results in the destruction of the Machotaildrop company.
"If you look at the history of skating on film, it's horrible," Adams says. He has a point. If you want to watch a movie about skateboarding, other than the acclaimed documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys your options aren't too inspiring. You've got Dogtown's less acclaimed fictionalization, Lords of Dogtown. There's "chase your pro dreams" movies soundtracked by the 21st century's most thoroughly forgotten pop punk—films like Grind and Deck Dogz, which I swear are real movies—and family-friendly fare like The Skateboard Kid or MVP: Most Valuable Primate or Thrashin', the early Josh Brolin vehicle that was Romeo and Juliet as told through skateboard gangs.
So Adams and his co-writer Alex Craig decided to avoid attempting any "realistic" portrayal of skating, and in doing so, Adams says, they found that "getting away from trying to capture skating drew the truth out of it."
One way to do that, hilariously, means that this skateboarding movie, which is so perfectly aligned with the sport's sensibility, features barely any skateboarding at all. The movie's only head-to-head skate-off, a staple of other skating movies, is a duel, scored by classical strings, that opens with the participating skaters making funny faces at each other.
To state the obvious, a movie this strange was probably never going to pull down Avengers money. But when it first came out in 2009, Machotaildrop was well received on the festival circuit, has a pretty nice 6.9 rating on IMDB, and seemed primed to be skateboarding's great midnight movie and cult classic. And yet today the only way to see the movie is to hunt around online and hope you come across it on an active torrent or YouTube. Why?
In this case, it helps to go back to the beginning and understand how the movie came about, especially because Machotaildrop's road to the media netherworld mirrors the plot of the film itself. Before Machotaildrop, Adams made Harvey Spannos, a short film about a young boy—his name is Harvey Spannos, if you must know—who wants nothing more than a Blair Stanley pro board instead of the crappy K-Mart board he winds up getting. When he finally manages to get his Blair Stanley board, Harvey realizes it doesn't make him a better skater and isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Adams made Harvey Spannos for a Fuel TV contest in which ten directors were given $100,000 each to make a short film, with the winner getting a feature film budget and the full power of the Fuel TV machine behind it. Adams' movie won, and he was given a million-dollar budget for a feature and told to go create. The theme behind Harvey Spannos—"an appreciation for what's neglected," as Adams put it—would carry over to Machotaildrop's Manwolfs, and that budget allowed Adams to head to Europe to find his castle and also hire a cast of his pro skateboard friends. While the film's most obvious influence is Willy Wonka, Adams also cites the Hungarian film Werckmeister Harmonies as an inspiration, as well as the long, still shots of Peter Greenway's A Zed & Two Noughts. These are all strange films, but Adams was able to make something oddly coherent out of their shared strangenesses and overlapping aesthetics. Adams delivered Machotaildrop to Fuel, which is when the corporate fun and games began.
As Adams tells it, shortly after Machotaildrop finished making the festival rounds, Fuel TV switched focus to become an MMA, rather than extreme sports, channel; as such, there was no longer much interest in his (largely skating-free) skateboarding movie. Following that changeover, Fuel ceased to exist entirely and the channel and all of its assets were mothballed by parent company 20th Century Fox, leaving Machotaildrop buried somewhere in a News Corporation vault along with If I Did It and the magic scroll that could summon a second season of Firefly. Adams said that the occasional distributor would reach out to Fox with an interest in getting the movie out into the world, but the math behind trying to split up the payments from any money the movie made was so complex—and the potential profits so modest that it was easy to imagine accountant fees outpacing receipts—that those distributors were invariably rebuffed.
The movie still had its champions at Fox, although that didn't seem to help. Adams told the story of one company woman who was a fan of the movie and her attempts to convince an executive to give it a release. His response? "The movie's not even worth the calories for me to go down to the basement to look for it."
It's buried so deep, in fact, that when I reached out to 20th Century Fox for a comment on the movie's status, a spokesman for the studio told me, "No one here has heard of that project. Do you have the correct information?" before directing me to the TV studio side of the company, where another spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the movie, as well.
Adams admitted that it was frustrating, at first, to see his work buried for a reason totally unrelated to quality. As years passed, he has come to see things more philosophically. Adams thinks that if the movie had come out, "it would have its run and then it would be forgotten." Now, though, it has taken on a mythical quality. It might only be talked about in hushed tones by the few people who know it exists, but at least it is still talked about. Adams compared finding the movie to the pre-internet searches for vinyl or passed-around mixtapes. "It's a little bit like a treasure hunt," he said.
Adams has stayed busy and in the film industry, directing a number of commercials and a new feature film, Atlas Electric, about a Bollywood producer whose virtual reality robot is kidnapped. He's also working on traveling radio show with Chances with Wolves.
And despite never making it to wide release, Machotaildrop has a legacy, in the form of the Manwolfs. In addition to using the gang in commercials that he's directed, Adams says that he's heard of people creating their own Manwolf clubs around the country; this is made even easier by the fact that you can buy a variety of Manwolfs gear, most importantly iron-on back patches. They're a presence in Atlas Electric, too, and even popped up and caused chaos in a Mister Heavenly video.
So while Machotaildrop won't be coming to a theater near you anytime soon—or ever, probably—it will live on among those with sensitive hearts, a love for brutal kicks, and a healthy disregard for copyright law.