W e told a lot of people when we were leaving that we had the trip planned out," Arthur Swidzinski says now. "That we had trained, that we were in tip-top shape. In reality we had gone on the Internet to Mapquest and printed a 150-page document of turn-by-turn directions to New York City. Everything sort of fell apart from the get-go."
Today Swidzinski, now 30, might as well be brutally honest about the hiccups—and occasional full-body dry heaves—that he and Mike Kosciesza, also 30, endured during their 36-day, 950-mile skateboarding trek during the summer of 2008 that began in Millennium Park in Chicago and finished in Times Square in New York City. Because that wayward journey has finally (finally) been converted into a proper documentary, nearly ten years to the day since they first got confused about how to skate their way into Indiana.
Making Shred America the film had always been part of the itinerary. It's why the two longtime skateboarding friends from Niles recruited Tony Michal of Park Ridge and James Lagen of Des Plaines to trail them on bikes with video cameras in tow to document it. There was to be no grand overarching theme, really, no existential commentary. The narrative of the film essentially boiled down to there not being much of a narrative at all. It was about four kids in their early 20s with very little responsibility, some basic experience in film and broadcasting, and a binding love of skateboarding. Fuck it, why not make a memory?
"We were adventurous and wanted to make a movie—so we figured we'd just go out and do it," Kosciesza, who was working as a security guard in 2008, explains.
Swidzinski, who at the time worked at a hospital transporting patients to the morgue, adds, "We developed a passion for radio and making short films in high school. Once we got to college, we wanted to apply what we'd learned and do something coming-of-age that we could talk about when we were 90 years old." Prior to and during the trip, the pair operated as their own DIY press and hype machine (which hasn't changed now that they're promoting the film). They did local radio spots and regularly took calls on their not-smartphones to give updates to the Chicago media outlets following their often illegal slog along the shoulders of state routes. TheNew York Post took an interest; so did Good Morning America. Aside from the time the foursome has a run-in with cops or when they're impelled to interrupt Joe Ohio's leisurely grilling to ask for rides or places to stay, Shred America's greatest moments occur when everyone is actively processing his 15 minutes of fame.
Though that celebrity is fleeting, and though it's tied to an outrageous (sometimes ridiculous) stunt, the team learn to revel in it. The crew collectively buy into and believe in the greater good of the adventure—particularly once they come to the understanding that they mostly don't know what the hell they're doing—and, well, it occasionally turns damn near precious when they do.
"Had it been planned out, the trip wouldn't have been what it was. A lot of the adventure would've been lost," Swidzinski says now. "Today if we had gotten in trouble we could've just called an Uber. I recently got in a bit of trouble during a bike tour up in Door County . . . and I called an Uber."
The Shred America crew eventually made it to New York City, though they did have to take a train in from New Jersey to get there. (As they discovered, you can't skate on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 1 in order to make a grand entrance.) But upon their return to Chicagoland—now with dozens of hours of footage laid out scattershot in front of them—the film stalled and fell flat. Even with the adrenaline of the journey fueling them early on during postproduction, Swidzinski admits that the edit became way too long and he and Kosciesza lost grasp of the story they were trying to tell. They alluded to the circumstance as another example of their lack of preparation. And so the documentary sat on the shelf for years.
"Shred America almost didn't get made," Swidzinski admits.
But sometimes all it takes is quitting a demoralizing corporate job to inspire you. And in 2012 Swidzinski did just that. "I didn't know what to do with my time after I quit, so I opened up the project again. I sat down and wrote out each scene, what it meant, its purpose. Then I called Mike."
"I had moved to New York City in 2011 to pursue a career working in postproduction," Kosciesza remembers. "I ended up as an assistant editor on a documentary film, learning how to cut and structure a film. And then Arthur called. We spent two years trimming the fat of Shred America, figuring out what the story is. He eventually came up with the idea that we should interview ourselves."
That proved crucial. Now so far removed from the shooting of the film, the two friends—along with Michal and Lagen—were able to reflect on the days and weeks of the trip, helping provide context and building bridges between the scenes. "Arthur put on the director's hat, and I put on the editor's hat," Kosciesza says. "We were passing edits back and forth via Vimeo and YouTube, just building the film."
Now the documentary a decade in the making is set to make its world premiere March 24 at the Patio Theater. The proceeds will go to helping get it on Amazon and iTunes. And to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of their initial trip, Swidzinski and Kosciesza plan to take Shred America on tour for a month—in a car this time, but following roughly the same route—to screen the film at libraries, skate shops, colleges, skate parks . . . wherever will have them.
Even though today Kosciesza lives in Brooklyn, there was never much of a doubt about where Shred America would open (even prior to the festival circuit). "It was always going to premiere in Chicago first," he says. "We weren't going to do it anywhere else." v