Illegal Civ is not Making Movies for Everyone
Words: Robert Brink / High Snobiety, June 2021
Photography: Sam Muller
“I think the simplest way to put it is that Mikey's the fucking Godfather,” says 23 year old Nico Hiraga, skateboarder, actor, model, and longtime friend of North Hollywood director, Mikey Alfred. “That's what he is to me and how I see him in our crew. He’s the owner of Illegal Civ, but I don't see him as much of a boss — he’s a bro. He just runs shit. He was born into a 40-year-old's mindset.”
“I don't know where it comes from,” says the 26-year-old Alfred. “I’ve always had that energy. I love other creative people and I love working and making stuff with them. I've been around the entire globe and I've gotten to see a lot of stuff from a young age and I really value my life and my time, so I try my best to make an imprint and make sure when I get older, I really look back at my youth and I'm like, ‘Okay, you used the shit out of that youthful energy!’”
“It’s a skater thing too, right?” he continues. “We are always rolling; always moving forward. You learned how to do one trick, now you have to learn it to fakie.”
North Hollywood, Alfred’s debut as a feature film director, was supposed to be released in theaters this May, but, you guessed it, Covid-19.
“We could have put it in theaters if we wanted,” Alfred explains, “but we felt since theaters are only open at 25 percent capacity that the vibe is kind of weird. So I was just like, ‘Let's just put it out on a streaming service. We'll do theaters on the next movie, it’s all good!’ So now the film is up on Apple and it's the number one comedy for a couple weeks straight now — NUMBER ONE!”
“Isn’t that crazy?” says the film’s lead, 23 year old Ryder McLaughlin. “Some little skaters from LA are number one on iTunes.”
“It all feels really cool,” Alfred continues. “Not just because it has skating in it, but because of the subject matter. I've already had a few kids come up to me and be like, ‘My mom always hated that I skated and I showed her the movie and that it was popular. That helps me and I appreciate that.’ Another kid told me that his mom, after watching the movie, was like, ‘I understand more now, it's a lifestyle, it's a whole thing.’”
And that understanding comes from the film’s authenticity. North Hollywood follows the struggle of a talented high school skateboarder, Michael (played by McLaughlin), trying to decide whether to follow society’s script by sticking with school and a traditional career path versus skipping it all to spend 12 hours a day jumping down stairs to pursue his dream of professional skateboarding, while his blue collar dad (played by Vince Vaughn) panics that his beloved son is ruining his future. An all too common feeling these days.
But with skateboarding’s rising popularity in mainstream culture, music, film, TV, and fashion, alongside its long-awaited debut in the Tokyo Olympics next month, the sport’s acceptance as a legitimate career path is likely only to accelerate.
North Hollywood’s stars all truly rip on the board, too. No stunt doubles or savvy editing were necessary to capture the skateboarding. Hiraga, who plays Michael’s friend and fellow skater Jay, and McLaughlin do it all themselves, the same way they do every day, and the way they have done it as friends for years. Both met Alfred the way most skaters meet one another — out and about on their skateboards, and through other friends on skateboards. The three, and others, clicked over time, became a crew, and called themselves Illegal Civilization.
“Being able to film the skating the right way was important to me,” Alfred says, having grown up filming the Illegal Civ crew before they were even a thing — just friends riding skateboards all over LA. “The cinematographer let me hop behind the camera on all the skate scenes.”
Pro skaters like Bobby Worrest and Tyshawn Jones are cast in the film as well, playing the role of seasoned pros and mentors for aspiring Michael. The film also features cameos from legendary pros like Andrew Reynolds and Paul Rodriguez (playing themselves). While we’re name dropping, other cast members include Euphoria’s Angus Cloud, Miranda Cosgrove, and Mid90s star Sunny Suljic, with Pharrell Williams on deck as a producer.
There’s also the subtle authenticity of the inner workings of skate culture: The up-and-coming skater trying to impress the right dudes; trying to play it cool; knowing where to be, who to know, who to avoid and what tricks to do; not quite meshing in a traditional American high school culture, where team-based sports dominate; blowing off your friends or girlfriend. It’s all in there — and some of it to the degree that unless you are a hardcore skater, the nuance might be lost on you. But Alfred isn’t too concerned.
“Having Jason Dill play a priest,” he says, “I see that and I immediately start smiling. But if you don't know who he is or his history in skateboarding, you’ll miss it. The way I see it though, if not everyone gets it, that’s fine. It's not even for everyone. It's for the people who are into it and have the love for it. Other people who are open to it, who maybe want to learn, will enjoy it as well.”
So with a cast of well-knowns, Alfred’s own clothing and skateboard brand, working with Mac Miller, having grown up with and been mentored by famed film producer Robert Evans, and his producer credit for Jonah Hill’s 2018 film, Mid90s, you’d figure getting this thing made was a snap — but you’d be wrong.
“I tried to get North Hollywood funded the traditional way,” Alfred explains. “And I got turned down by everybody."
“I ended up asking a lot of different skaters, like, ‘Hey, do you all know someone who could help and kind of hook me up?’ And eventually I got connected to a guy, who connected me to another guy and we were able to get the money. Once we made the film, in my head I was like, ‘Yeah, we'll just sell it to a distributor for a bunch of money and just keep pushing. It’ll be easy!’”
That was not the case, and Illegal Civ in the end distributed the film independently. “There was a day when I straight-up had a real breakdown,” he adds. “I refused to believe that none of these companies thought it was good enough to even be released. I wondered how they all felt the same, but I felt they were wrong. But we got it done, and doing it independently has been so liberating. It makes me excited because now my future isn’t in the hands of people who don't understand me."
Also crucial to Alfred is bringing his friends along the way. Sure, the crew has made skateboarding videos together for years, they have hosted events and been on tour with Tyler, the Creator’s Odd Future, but there are still no guarantees that when one of them gets opportunities in Hollywood, there’s room for them all to come along.
“Something that's really important to me is hiring friends,” Alfred says. “Not only behind the camera, but in front of it — to try to elevate everyone. If I'm going to come in and make a movie, I want to be able to bring the whole gang on a lot of different levels.”
“It didn't feel like work at all,” says Hiraga. “It was surreal. Also, it's incredibly different from working on a skate video because your body is not on the line as much. Although the film does have some skating in it, it was mellow. I was so much more stressed filming for Godspeed than I was making North Hollywood,” he says in reference to the hour-long skate film Illegal Civ released last December.
“Mikey is one of those one in a million friends who is always there,” says McLaughlin. “If I called him right now and said, ‘Hey, I need you to come here,’ he would be here in a second. He's a business dude. I wouldn't live in LA without him. I wouldn’t really be anywhere without him. He knows exactly what he wants, and he'll tell you, ‘Oh, that scene was trash. You should do that again.’ And it’s cool because he’s my friend and he’s always had great input and a strong vision. He’s three years older than me, but feels like a parent. Mikey feels like a man in how he moves — he’s confident and I definitely admire that about him.”
But the crew is not interested in keeping movies exclusive to those in the know. “I'd like to be a person that kids can look at and just feel like, ‘Man, I can make movies too!’ And as I get into the position to be able to help others make their films, I want to,” McLaughlin says. “We're just lacking so many perspectives and there's so many types of people who have never directed, who have never written, who have never acted. There's so many stories and voices that we've never seen up on the screen. And I want everybody to get their chance to put whatever they think is cool up there.”
“IC started as a group of friends making skate videos,” Alfred says. “That morphed into selling clothing to support those skate videos — making anything that services our world and our audience. And we've really never stopped doing that. Since I was a kid I've been a facilitator — I’ve been a guy who tries to put people together to make dope stuff. It's just that now we released Godspeed and North Hollywood within a year’s time, so people are starting to get it. We’ve never really seen a company that makes movies and skateboards before. My whole goal is to try to bring skateboarding to a new level in a lot of different ways. I'm just going to keep it going.”