interview with michael ien cohen (writer, director, producer) of “Humanity Stoked”

It was November 19th, 2017, we were playing a show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn that night, it was the tail end of a tour. Grateful, yet exhausted we pulled up to the venue and did the normal load-in, soundcheck situation. I remember being not in the greatest mood, needed to eat a meal, and did not have any time because I had an interview scheduled and they also wanted to film us a little during soundcheck, I vaguely knew what it was for – a skateboarding documentary of sorts. Michael had a lot of energy, it seemed he had a big dream, ambition, a good vibe, very positive, very focused – the kind of stuff that touring bands I feel are predestined to resist because we rarely experience the opportunity to recharge or be around this kind of energy. I remember sitting on the corner of the stage with a big bright light on me for like an hour and we talked about a lot of existential, human topics, the world at large, I kept tripping over my words or maybe I cared so much about the conversation I wanted to make sure I conveyed the answers well – it was the kind of interview I wish always happened, the kind of talk I always want to have. Honestly, afterwards I didn’t know if I would ever see this film or if anything would ever happen with it, but I enjoyed the talk.

Fast forward to March 2020, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and I get an e-mail that the official trailer for “Humanity Stoked” (the film i interviewed for almost 3 years ago) is done and I watch it. (above) “HO-LY SHIT. HE DID IT. HE PULLED IT OFF.” My mind was blown to see a bunch of not only the best, most well-known skateboarders, but some of my favorite skaters of all-time apart of this film. This same film I will also be in and provide music for. NICE!!!!!

So anyway, Michael and I have been in touch a lot as he’s begun rolling out promotion, trailers, teasers for the film and I wanted to take a chance to interview him for REALLY NICE and help spread the world about the film, made entirely for free and will be donated to charity which stars Tony Hawk, Nyjah Juston, Shephard Fairey, Lizzie Armanto, Chris Cole, Bob Burnquist, Boo Johnson and many many more.

REALLY NICE : Tell the world a little bit about the film “Humanity Stoked”. An elevator pitch. And a bit about yourself. Elevator pitch.  I know you struggle with being concise just as much as me, haha, so we will start with a good exercise.

Michael Cohen : Super Short version:

The Humanity Stoked Documentary is an exploration into the challenges of moving humanity forward, as seen through the eyes of the world’s most iconic professional skaters, activists, scientists, artists, musicians, and educators, all of whom share unique experiences and perspectives shaped by their love of skateboarding.

Kinda Short Version:

Humanity Stoked is a documentary featuring a multitude of world-renowned skateboarders and other life-long skaters that are also scientists, artists, musicians, politicians, activists, philanthropists and educators. While many of the subjects are known for their skateboarding prowess and are leaders in their respective fields, the film focuses on what we can learn from their unique experiences and surprising insights. Their perspectives on the many social, environmental, and political issues that face humanity have been shaped by their life-long love of skateboarding.  The film reveals ways in which we can peacefully, openly, and intelligently advance humanity into the future. The conversations focus on issues such as human rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, what we teach children about fear, environmental protection, giving back, the value of science, art and music in education and to society, drug addiction and recovery, mental health, and more. The documentary’s purpose is to encourage deeper thought and new perspectives, and to inspire people to think more empathetically and profoundly about the world around them.

As for me:

I was born in Brooklyn, NY and began skating in 1975 at 7 years old. I moved to California when I was ten years old, and moved back to NY only two years later. I’ve been a New Yorker again ever since, but those two years in California were transformative for me, both as a skater and as a human being. After I moved back at 13, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, which was to be a filmmaker and a philanthropist. I had lofty ideals for a 13 year old hahaha. The thing is, my family life became tumultuous and I became side tracked. I was one of those kids that needed more guidance, a mentor of sorts during those years. I ended up drifting away from my dreams and by the time I was in my late 40’s, I came to terms with the fact that I was letting fears hold me back in a box of convention and hadn’t spent a single day of my life trying to become any of the things I always knew were my destiny. I slid into a deep two-year depression and when I eventually climbed out of at 50, I vowed never again to let fear guide my hand. I began work on Humanity Stoked as a first-time filmmaker, without any film making equipment or experience and without a single connection to anyone in the worlds of pro skating or film making. I was reaching out from the bottom of a dark barrel of emptiness to change my life and help change the lives of others. I also created my Non-profit, the WhatStopsYou.org Foundation to help kids and young adults avoid living the same “safe” but unfulfilling professional life I had lived.

RN : How did the idea for it come about?

MC : Interestingly enough, it didn’t start out as a vehicle to help inspire people, or even as a feature length film.  I was planning on making my first skate part (video) with a drone at a spot in town but it was private property and I kept getting kicked out by the cops. At first I was bummed but then I realized the world already has a million sick skate videos and didn’t need another from me, so I thought about how to make it more interesting. That was the impetus for the 1st iteration in which I’d make a 15 minute video with a bunch of really interesting people. I’d show a minute of them skating, followed by a minute of them talking about something they were passionate about. There was still no humanitarian element to it yet though. Around that same time however, I founded my non-profit, the WhatStopsYou.org Foundation. I firmly believe that when we’re living more fulfilling lives, we’re more able and more inclined to care about others and the world around us. That’s when it hit me, that the real purpose of that little skating video could be so much more, and aligned with the mission of my foundation. I knew it could inspire people, and so I immediately began conceiving what would become Humanity Stoked  

RN : From when we first met and talked until now, it seems you had a vision and worked so hard to fully realize it over just a couple years.  Can you talk about the process a little?  How did you round up such an incredible cast including some of the top skateboarders of all time?

MC : It’s funny Ron, most people find it hard to believe that a film of this size and scope was made entirely for free. The entire production crew, myself included have refused all salary. It’s been part of the ethos of the film and prerequisite to working on it from the start. Everyone works for free. It ensured everyone involved was in it for the mission and for the love. It was also the only way it
could be done, as to this day, I have no investors or backers of any kind. As a result, it also means the revenue can be donated to charity, to affect positive change in the lives of children and young adults, specifically in low socio-economic areas. How I got this epic cast together is also hard for people to believe considering my background. About halfway through production, it became a little easier to get people once guys like Tony Hawk signed on, but the first year was filled with daily uncertainty. It’s why I’m so grateful for some of the famous people in the film who had faith in me and the film’s mission, and signed on first. In particular, I’ve got a ton of gratitude and respect for Bob Burnquist. When I reached out cold to his agent, there were only 8 or 9 people signed on, and nobody had any fame or celebrity whatsoever. I didn’t even have a single pro skater signed on yet. Bob believed in it however and was the first pro skater that wanted to be a part of it. 

RN : What are some of your favorite moments creating the film?

MC : Oh man, there are countless moments that I still can’t believe really happened. Just to list a few, there was a one in a million chance encounter with someone skating through the streets of Havana, Cuba alone in the middle of the night. That encounter allowed for a special skateboard to be signed by the cast and hidden in nearly 70% of all the interviews we did, as well as have a surreal chance meeting with Ben Harper a year later. Of course, I’ll be auctioning that prop off with of other film memorabilia for charity. I also had the chance to surprise a hero of mine with a gift from his hero, Tony Hawk. It’s very moving scene in the film. In a more broad sense, it was simply interviewing people that truly let their guard down and accepted being in a vulnerable state with me, sharing their personal experiences, fears and hopes and dreams. Tears during some of the interviews were not uncommon, and it’s in those emotional moments that people become inspired, myself included. 

RN : In an ideal world what would your dream for this film be in terms of impact it can have?

MC : Look, I’m a passionate person and have my own opinions on all of the subjects in the film because I care about them deeply. It’s not my place nor right to tell other people what to think however. In the end, that doesn’t work anyway, it only divides people even further. What I hope is that the viewers let their guard down too, accept vulnerability, and have an open mind so they may be inspired to think about these issues more openly, lovingly, and honestly, so that progress can be made together. 

RN : What is some wisdom you would want to share with the world, something you think everyone needs to hear right now?

MC : The world is a profoundly beautiful place Ron, yet the problems we face will continue to become more complex over time. As human beings, we’re driven by evolutionary biology to feel safe. By that nature, we tend to think of things in simplified or binary terms so we don’t feel confused. In uncertain times like right now, we are also driven by our nature to behave more selfishly, thinking only of our own interests. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well when applied to larger social issues that require we all live together in a way that fair and equitable. Ironically, our desire to feel safe actually causes us to experience more fear, and its ugly flip side, hate. That in turns leads to division, and we’re seeing that right now. The solution requires all of us to ask ourselves one very important question. What is more important, wanting to have a point of view and perspective that’s actually correct and fair, or simply choosing to believe it is? The later doesn’t require deep thinking, research, nor considering anyone else’s point of view and as such, will never lead to peace and harmony. This is true of a relationship, a family, a neighborhood, a society, a country or the world as a whole. If we want this world to be a better place, it’s time to look inward and start there. 

RN : When can we expect the full film to be out?

MC : COVID has made the entire post-production process more difficult, but we have our sights on this fall/winter (2020). We will be making all announcements on our social media @humanitystoked so follow us to stay updated as well as see a lot of special clips and behind the scenes stuff too.  Be sure to check out www.HumanityStoked.com for more information on the film and to see the full cast. 

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