Only one movie was playing at the Village East cinema on a recent cool Monday night, but the crowd inside and outside the theater’s regal lobby was buzzing with energy. Outside, skateboarders in hoodies and tiny caps huddled under clouds of weed and cigarette smoke. Inside, someone behind a makeshift bar poured wine into tiny plastic glasses.
Gone were the posters for the theater’s regular lineup of blockbusters, replaced by a series of grainy close-ups of a bloody back, fireworks going off on a Manhattan street, and a young man without shirt, with a dazed expression, all taken. from “Play Dead,” filmmaker William Strobeck’s third full-length skate video for Supreme.
Inside the auditorium, those who didn’t arrive early enough to get seats, stood in the aisles. For nearly an hour as the film played, the 100-year-old cinema hosted a raucous party, with hordes of skaters smoking inside, swilling wine and shouting at the screen.
During the final scene, featuring a colossal kickflip by skateboarding superstar Tyshawn Jones over the tracks of the 145th Street subway station, the building almost seemed to shake from the screaming audience.
A little over a week later, Mr. Strobeck, 44, was hanging out at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Jet-lagged after returning home from a screening of the film in Japan, he wore a Yankees cap pulled down and a faded purple hoodie made by his new skate company, Violet. Around him, skaters performed tricks on the dozen or so haphazard ramps of the asphalt ballpark.
A young man sitting on a bench called out, “Hey, Bill!” and asked to take a picture. “That happens a lot with skaters,” he said.
Filming skate videos usually means staying behind the scenes while reckless skaters take center stage. But after more than two decades, Mr. Strobeck has built a cult following. He began filming Philadelphia’s thriving Love Park scene, before working on seminal early skate videos such as Alien Workshop’s ‘Photosynthesis’.
The skaters he has filmed are the first to give him credit. Through Mr. Strobeck’s work with Supreme has helped change the perception of the New York and East Coast skateboarding industry more broadly, challenging the long-held perception that all the best skateboarders live in California. His full-length videos for Supreme feature a lot of New York skateboarding, but “Play Dead” it is the only one filmed entirely on the East Coast.
“People can have a professional career in New York City,” said Beatrice Domond, 27, a professional skater. Mr. Strobeck has featured her in his videos for Supreme, and she is the first woman to be sponsored by the brand.
“You never have to go to California unless you want to, during the winter,” he continued.
That afternoon in Tompkins, Mr. Strobeck did not yet know that Mr. Jones, 24, perhaps the young skater he has worked with most closely over the past decade, would soon be announced as the winner of Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year award. Mr. Jones also won the title in 2018, largely thanks to tricks documented by Mr. Strobeck. He was the first New York-born winner in the award’s three-decade history.
Mr. Strobeck came to the East Coast skateboarding himself. In the early 1990s, he skated on a granite and marble plaza at the Everson Art Museum in Syracuse, NY (The museum, designed by IM Pei in 1968, took a progressive approach to skateboarding: since considered the activity an art form, he allowed skateboarders free rein on his outdoor ledges and stairs.)
Mr. Strobeck’s mother often drove him there from her home in Cicero, and he stayed in Syracuse for days at a time. He crashed with friends, skipped school and got free meals from a friend who worked at a nearby subway. In 10th degree, he dropped out of school, immersing himself more fully in, in his words, the “dropouts” at the museum, skating and going to shows in Syracuse’s burgeoning hardcore music scene.
“We’d roll the dice and take each other’s money,” he recalled.
Mr. Strobeck’s mother struggled with mental illness, he said, and was often absent for long periods during his childhood. When she wasn’t there, his grandmother looked after him. He lived with his aunt and uncle for about two years, he said, when they were in their 20s. Mr. Strobeck said he was worried about his mother and “super scared that something bad was going to happen to her. And that was a crazy feeling. I acted out in a lot of different ways.” They have a good relationship now, he said.
He believes his difficult home life led him to skateboarding. “I think skateboarding for a lot of people is something you do to get out of it,” he said. “I can’t explain how special this is, but you don’t deal with a lot of things because you can just go skate. You go skating and you’re just with your friends. You’re an individual with a lot of people.”
Young and undiscovered talent often take center stage at Mr. Strobeck 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 around the energy and how excited they were, it killed everything I wanted to do,” said Mr. Strobeck said. “It was the best thing, because I was like, 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 had growth spurts, and the skateboard was faster, more advanced. “Play Dead” continues to document the evolution: 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 skating videos start with quick-shot tricks, with the camera cutting just before the tail of a skateboard hits the pavement and cutting just after the wheels hit the ground. Mr. Strobeck’s, by contrast, lingers for long stretches before and after performing a trick, capturing the faces of skaters sitting on the sidewalk, or the confused looks of passing pedestrians.
“It brings reality to skate videos, where it has personality and not just tricks,” said Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Strobeck often gets so close that you can almost see the white dots on a skater’s face as they approach an obstacle. He will then quickly move away, just before the trick. It’s frenetic, dizzying, and a pretty close approximation of what it feels like to be on a skateboard or just hanging out at a skate spot.
“I think when Bill started zooming in, he was trying to get into the character of this individual who was about to do the trick,” said Jason Dill, a professional skateboarder who has filmed with Mr. Strobeck for over 20 years. Character Mr. Dill has a lot to do with facial expressions. “When you’re determined to do a physical act, your face is different,” he said. Mr. Strobeck, he added, “just wants to show the person 100 percent of who the person is.”
After leaving Tompkins Square Park, Mr. Strobeck walked to his East Village apartment a few blocks away. Inside, the floor was littered with Supreme books and paraphernalia and a few purple products. Her apartment has served as the backdrop for countless photo shoots with skaters, actors, artists and other characters from downtown New York. In 2019, an art show at the Milk Gallery in Chelsea recreated the painting with a model of his bedroom.
Actress Chloë Sevigny has been photographed in the apartment. “It’s like whenever you go, he does, and if he doesn’t ask you, you’re kind of disappointed,” she said.
Mr. Strobeck usually shoots people in a small space, about three meters away from the foot of his bed, in front of a large-format print of the fireplace in his old apartment.
(The first time I visited Mr. Strobeck’s current apartment, around the time “Blessed” was released in 2018, his guest furniture consisted of a pair of Supreme brand camping chairs. Now there’s a Eames in place.)
Shortly after I left Mr. Strobeck, Thrasher has updated his Instagram with new images of Mr. Jones on 145th St. The caption read, “The skater of the year 2022 is . . .”
“Another,” Mr. Strobeck texted me.
Ms. Sevigny said no one ever knew why Mr. Strobeck always shot people in front of the wall of his apartment. “But you’re game because you love him,” he said, “and you understand that his brain is bigger than anyone knows.”