“There’s three sides to every story, my side, your side and the truth.”
America, 6th October 1996, at the Skateboarding World Championship the top 2 competitors are Tony Hawk and Tas Pappas. On Tas’s last run he had sustained what would later be diagnosed as a broken rib and was praying that he wouldn’t have to skate again. It came down to a run off between the 2. With Tas’s younger brother already placing in the competition it was up to the elder sibling to put the Pappas brothers on top. He was hurting but he wanted to win, wanted more than anything to beat Tony Hawk, he wanted to be known as the guy “who went ballistic”. And he did, he skated like he didn’t care if he busted the rest of his ribs, and Tas won. This would mark the height of the Pappas brothers’ fortune, the 11 years following were consumed with partying, drugs, prison, and murder.
Sheffield, June 2014 and Tas and film making team of George Pank and Eddie Martin are at DocFest to promote “All This Mayhem” a documentary that charts the rise and fall of Tas and Ben Pappas. 4 years in the making, Tas finally has the opportunity to tell his side of the story.
When I meet the team they are discussing the poster for the film; George admits it’s a tricky business to get it right. Tas suggests a room full of broken trophies and smashed up skateboards with him lying on the floor grinning and Ben stood above him about to drop a TV on his head; at this point I don’t know that Ben is Tas’s brother, or that he has been dead for 7 years.
We travel to The House, a local indoor skate park, Tas and local youngster Dylan skate up and down while Eddie, George and I look on. If I catch Tas falling off of his board his annoyance is plain; quickly telling me not to use any of those photos. Later I realise that this is a pretty mild reaction for Tas, in the film we see him smashing up boards, swearing and shouting; angry at himself for making any little mistake. I see his boredom coming through as well; he feels under pressure here, he’s agitated. He is also shy amongst these kids as the place fills up, but with skating no words are needed, it is the ultimate democracy here, just waiting for your turn on the ramp.
30 minutes later and Tas has managed to get both George and Eddie on the ramps. Seeing his director and producer ‘dropping in’ at 12ft after nigh on 20 years since they last got on a skateboard is a testimony to Tas’s powers of persuasion. As Eddie puts it “It’s just easier to give in”. This is my first taste of Tas’s relentless drive and penchant for high stakes fun.
Born in 1975 and 1978 respectively in Melbourne, Australia, Tas and Ben Pappas had a difficult childhood full of violence and insecurity; their parents “were fighting like crazy”. He and Ben sought refuge in the world of the skate parks, very quickly gaining a reputation for being talented and unafraid. They soon became kids that could beat anyone around them and their sibling rivalry pushed them to the limits of what could be done on a board. These teenagers from a small suburb got spotted, sponsored and found themselves in America on a rollercoaster ride they were not emotionally equipped to deal with. After their supersonic rise to skateboarding stardom the brothers brought about their own fall from grace, a fall which ended tragically for Ben Pappas, with him taking his own life after killing his girlfriend.
Shortly before Ben died, whilst he was trying to clean up his act and get back into the skateboarding scene, he met up with childhood friend and film director Eddie Martin who at that time had already made his first documentary. Ben joked with Eddie that he should make a film about him and his life but Eddie told him “Your story’s not done yet” thinking that Ben would pull it together and get back to the top. After Ben’s suicide Eddie still didn’t want to make the film “I was like no way I’m not fucking going near that story because it was just too personal, knowing all the people involved and how fucked up it was I didn’t want to be that kind of documentary guy that is like ‘my friend’s died – great’, it just wasn’t right at that point in time”. However, there was a film already being planned called ‘Gnarly the Ben Pappas story’. Tas had been approached whilst in prison in Australia and although it already had some funding he wasn’t happy with the film makers approach. When Greg Stewart, one of the film’s contributors and long-time friend to the Pappas brothers, got approached by the “Gnarly” team wanting to use his home video footage he went to Eddie and told him that he had to be the one to make the film; finally Eddie agreed.
Eddie recalls his first visit to see Tas in prison; he was nervous, especially as Tas had a reputation for “being a bit of a psychopath” at that time. “You could visit them on the weekends and it was like a 6 hour drive. I just remember the whole process of getting checked in to go into prison. I think he was probably just as nervous as we were because I literally hadn’t seen him for 20 odd years”. No doubt the skating connection of their childhoods helped to persuade Tas that Eddie would do his story justice and he eventually agreed that the film could be made.
Eddie Martin has his own style of making documentaries and tells me that he doesn’t like documentary film making that tries to manipulate what an audience might think, so I asked him about the “truth” of his film, reflected in its opening line,
“It’s Tas’s version of the story, his experience. Someone can come out and say ‘hey that didn’t happen’ but that was real to Tas so I wanted to put it out there because people will probably try to discredit his journey. People can argue points but at the end of the day that was his experience whether you like it or not”
In the run up to the 2nd screening of “All This Mayhem” at DocFest, Tas and the team are on edge and they have a full house. It’s my first viewing of the film. At the Q&A afterwards Tas jokes with the audience “You sent my ancestors to Australia, I am your scum”, everyone has a chuckle; Tas knocks himself before anyone else has a chance to do it. The relief at getting this final screening over is clear and everyone is relaxed (except Tas who rarely seems able to relax).
Seeing the film is my chance to find out more about the story; the narcotics and partying from a ridiculously young age, (Tas tells me later how he first did coke aged 16 at a rave/S&M club where a guy was cutting a woman on stage), the drug busts, prison time and the terrible spiral into heroin addiction for Ben. The striking thing from the film is seeing the dual descent of the brothers, the parallels of their lives going wrong. But then as Tas says in the film when they were growing up “we were inseparable”. Ben also thought of them in that way; when they were kids after watching the film Platoon Ben astutely described himself and Tas as being like Barnes and Elias, with Tas assuming the role of the ruthless and brutal Sergeant Barnes to Ben’s gentler more noble figure of Elias. Both characters representing the different sides needed in order to survive their nightmarish situation. From that point on any daring skateboarding feat which required Tas to go all out to win, any reckless stunt, or crazy scheme was referred as him having to “Barnes” it.
But then Tas left for America alone (Ben was still at school) to pursue his skateboarding career, “I am not going to lie there were a lot of lonely times. It was hard, no family to look after you, no real home”. Upon Ben’s arrival in the states he and Tas set about skateboarding world domination and for a brief season they were riding high but their celebratory partying turned into self-annihilation and once Ben got busted for smuggling drugs in 1999, at aged just 21, their dream of being at the top together was over. Their separation meant it was only a matter of time before Tas himself got into trouble. Indeed in the film when Tas’s brother Ben gets busted for drug smuggling all the people who knew them say how shocked they were that it was Ben who got busted, the tone of their voices implying that if it had been Tas they would not have been surprised such was his reputation amongst everyone for being the “nightmare” brother.
At the Q&A after the screening people ask Tas about Tony Hawk, who declined to take part in the film. Part of the narrative is not only the rivalry between the Pappas brothers and Hawk but also the implication that Hawk sabotaged Tas in a competition; when asked of his opinion of Hawk Tas starts singing “America fuck yeah”, it gets a laugh and well sums up the differences in Hawk’s and Tas’s characters . Hawk played the game, he was the good guy, the sponsors’ golden boy and everyone loved him; Tas partied and acted out, he was a trouble maker, he refused to bow to authority, not even his own sponsors. He wanted to “burn down the bridge” all the time, not just when he was competing.
Tas is unstoppable; spinning the decks at a party, skating along the streets of Sheffield, sinking a glass of wine like it’s vodka shot. But approaching 39 with his old leg injury playing up he is forced to sit down a lot, a pose at odds with his intensity. Still he sits like a man ready to jump up and get into action at any time. Tas still likes to ”Barnes” it and is full of outrageous tales of his party days interspersed with those of prison life. He enthusiastically demonstrated the “psycho” act that he would use in prison to make people keep away from him or just to wind up new cellmates. He admits his anger fired him up and helped him through that time
“I had my training in there, and I would be pacing the yard and walk up to a massive wall and pretend it was a ramp and do three spins and they would just walk off, they thought I was mad not realising in my head I was doing a trick. Then they watched me training in the yard jumping up and down on tables and I would finish my training session with blood pissing out everywhere after ripping my shins and they would think ‘God this guy is crazy’”.
Incarceration meant getting clean and dealing with his issues without the prop of drugs and booze to numb the physical and emotional pain. But Tas hated AA meetings, talking about his benders just made him want to go on one, “I like drugs, I liked that lifestyle. I didn’t do it because I didn’t like it. When I was in prison the first thing I was thinking was when I get out I just wanna get on it straight away”. Later when Tas tells me about his childhood the need for self-medication of this sort becomes apparent, like many survivors of abuse his inclination towards depression and substance misuse is 3 times the average.
During his stretch inside in Australia (his 3rd, this time for drug smuggling) he started reading the Bible and he found comfort and strength in his new belief “God gives everyone a hard time, all of us, it was finally in my 30s, it took a lot to wake me up, the death of my brother and my father.” He admits that when that happened he felt he had to grow up as his father wasn’t there any more to tell him what to do, to get him back on track. It was when he was in jail in America for a drugs related offense awaiting deportation that Ben died; Tas’s father had to make the phone call to let him know,
“He didn’t want me to hurt myself. He couldn’t be my dad at that point, I was in prison, he couldn’t come and help me, he was like ‘I need you to be strong for me I need to know one son is going to live, if you go to water in that place you can get stabbed and die, I can’t get you out of this one’, he was worried. He died a year and a half later from a heart attack.”
With Tas’s history it was a given that he would find it hard to entrust his story to someone wanting to make a film about him. It wasn’t just Eddie and Tas who were old friends, George Pank told me about his and Eddie’s history with skateboarding,
“Eddie and I met through skateboarding, we literally met at the corner store when I was 9 years old. Skateboarding was just this total California culture which was hitting Australia and we just took to it, we loved it and I spent a lot of time skating round the neighbourhood with Eddie. We were just into skateboarding in a big way and we had that connection and we kept in touch”
The strength of the skateboarding fraternity cannot be underestimated in bringing this group together to get this story made; and also the affection that George and Eddie have for Tas despite his often bullish stance.
George admits “Until the point you’ve got a locked picture that you know Tas likes, there’s that constant thing over you of what if you made a film and he hated it? One, I don’t think it would be successful and two, I hate to think how that would impact on Tas and three, what he might do about it!” he laughs, I laugh, it’s a nervous laughter as we imagine just what Tas might do if he didn’t like the film you had made.
We arrive at the time for the formal interview; we are sat in a cramped humid room at The Crucible and Tas clutches a cushion in front of him, protecting himself from an imagined attack. He is nervous of me again, scared of what I might say, what I might ask him. But in the end he can take it, he’s been through worse than this; not just his bereavements, prison time and the loss of contact with his 2 oldest kids but also his painful upbringing. “Growing up as a kid for most of my childhood I was sad, I would cry myself to sleep a lot and I was sexually abused and my babysitter used to bash me on the regular cos I was wetting the bed”. Tas touches on his childhood in the film, but is more open with me in conversation about his early years and the consequences since,
“I was sad my dad was gone, I was sad when I wasn’t with mum, when they broke up she was keen to give us to our dad and it hurt she gave us up so easily. I know other people have bigger problems but for us as kids that stuff hurt. I’m not blaming her, I found myself making the same mistakes, I fucked up in America and got deported and my kids probably feel like I deserted them but I just didn’t have the tools.”
Tas has a good deal of self-awareness for someone who seems at first to just hurtle around causing havoc. He knows he is playing up and acting out but he can’t seem to help it. He was finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is taking medication for it; the symptoms seem to have been clearly present during his teenage years and have continued through his life. It’s estimated that 60-70% of people with BPD will attempt suicide at some point and Tas admits that he had tried to kill himself.
“I’ve tried a few times especially after Ben died, I just wanted out. I would shoot up to 500 bucks worth of smack in one go and then wake up in a hospital and just go ‘fuck I’m supposed to be dead’ and you just feel like shit because of all the things you saw growing up, you know it fucks with your head”
Official literature says that 8 out of 10 people with BPD would have experienced parental neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse during their childhood. Ben also had been under the care of a doctor for mental illness, Tas was aware of it but didn’t have the full picture, “He called me up saying he was having these thoughts like he was crazy and always imagining bad things and he was on a mad amount of medication”, but the medication could not help Ben get through the dark times in the end.
Tas’s impulsive behaviour and emotional instability can be put down to his BPD but going for so long undiagnosed meant to most people he was either a “psycho” or just a “natural asshole”. Tas puts his and Ben’s childhood experiences up as a reason as to why they were so fearless with their skating at such a young age, seeing their parents turbulence all around them “it was along the lines of almost self-punishing, you know like just hurting, we [felt we] deserved it so if we do cop it … then sweet”. In the film many people who knew them at that time said they attacked the ramps and their lack of concern for themselves made them all the more daring than those around them.
For Tas and Ben seeing the violence and alcoholism in their parents’ marriage was bound to leave scars. In the documentary their mother is not really mentioned and although she is alive Tas does not currently have a relationship with her, “I understand from my own life I need forgiveness and I am trying my best to forgive her but I also know now that she is damaged almost as much as I am. She could only do the best she could but I can’t be around her because we are both very volatile”
Tas spent some time in jail in America for a physical assault on his then wife, which he is deeply ashamed of, and Ben had a history of physical intimidation towards his girlfriend who he later murdered. With such a difficult childhood with their mother it possibly comes as no surprise especially when Tas intimates his mother shared her low opinion of women in general with them which surely would have had a lasting effect on the brothers.
I ask him if his upbringing has made him more mindful of his relationship with his own kids, “You try and break the cycle; it’s bloody hard isn’t it? You’re still you, no one is perfect, if anything we’re all fuck ups. [When bad stuff happens to you when you are a kid] it sets you up for life, and it’s a hard thing. I said in the doco I’m a fucking piece of shit so who gives a fuck, you know what I mean? Yeah that feeling… I do have happy times and have happy periods but that is something which sticks with me. It makes it really hard how you look at the world and yourself, and I have ruined relationships looking through those lenses. The hard part is you can see the pattern but you can’t change it sometimes. You just feel like there are certain behaviours you can’t seem to stop and you know you are hurting everyone around you”
Tas’s current home life looks very different from the old days. He works ‘on the ropes’ now; cleaning the windows of skyscrapers in Melbourne. He says the heights have helped him with his vert skating, skaters never retire, the mega ramps hold no fear for him now that he scales tall buildings. Maybe flying above us all, whether on the ropes or on a board, is easier for Tas, leaving the difficult realities of life on the ground for a short while.
He has 3 children but he only gets to be with one of them; his 2 eldest live in America where he currently cannot return due to his drugs related conviction. Tas lives with his partner Helen and his youngest child Billy, who at 6 years old is already a master on the skateboard and by all accounts is very cheeky and charming, just like his dad. Everyone says Billy looks just like Ben and Tas says he feels he has a second chance to redeem himself, to be there for Billy in a way he felt he wasn’t there, couldn’t be there, for Ben.
“All This Mayhem” is a moving film; the interviews are beautifully shot, people are candid and funny, but it doesn’t shy away from the awful chain of events that happened. It could easily have focused just on the highs but that is the sanitised version we all too often get shown of top sports people, no one wants to see the underside, the mental health issues, the depression, but it is important that these stories get told as well. As Eddie Martin says “it’s hard, [Ben and Tas’s] life had so much detail and so much happened in it you could do a 13 episode TV show so to cut it down to 90 minutes and make it cohesive [was a challenge]”. It might make for a darker film but it has heart.
With the film’s worldwide release it will undoubtedly shine the spotlight on Tas once again, the question is will he be able to cope with this possible second rise to fame. Has he got it in him to resist the temptations of being on the road, in the public eye, or will the old demons be too hard to ignore? Tas has a philosophical view, “it says in the Bible I won’t give you more than you can handle”, but he also admits that despite “[trying] to live a different life in the last 7 years, old trains of habits and thoughts haven’t fully broken yet, I have had a couple of slip ups since I got out of prison, I’ve managed to stop shooting up drugs every day but all the underlying issues I still have to deal with”.
From what I have seen the film promo tour already seems to have knocked Tas temporarily into the past and he himself admits he can see the dangers of it; it reminds him too much of his old skating days when he was on tour, partying and the centre of attention.
Tas and Ben were risk takers, it was what led them to the heights of professional skateboarding, it was also what led them to think they could get away with smuggling drugs. There was always going to be a consequence but the crux of Tas’s journey and the story of him and Ben; that the brothers somehow both felt they deserved the bad things that happened to them after they rose to the top, is poignant to say the least. They were the agents of their own destruction but could they ever really escape the upbringing they had experienced? There is a moment in the film where Tas has won, really won, he is the world champion, the commentators are trying to convince him it’s true, but he can’t believe it, he thinks it’s a joke; it is a heart-rending scene because at his core he felt that he didn’t deserve it, that he wasn’t worth it.
During one of our chats I asked Tas, considering everything that has happened so far, when he thinks about the future what does it look like,
“I would like to help people, I’d like to skate again but I also know that my plans in my own mind get twisted along the way so I’m just putting my faith in [God] that he will direct me to the right thing cos whenever I try chasing anything or trying to make it happen it just goes wrong, so I just need to sit back and trust. Life is a work in progress it took me 38 years to be that much of a fuck up and it’s probably going to take another 38 years to try and get it right. Being content with what you’ve got is where happiness lies”.
On our last morning together I attend the DocFest final awards ceremony with the team and they are all clearly nervous, Tas and Eddie especially so. “All This Mayhem” is up for the Special Jury award alongside such heavyweight topics as the victims of thalidomide, same sex marriage campaigners, violence in Africa, Bosnian war survivors and Korean serial killers; the fact that it was nominated is a testament to how it has broken out of its initial cover as a subculture genre film. Because it isn’t a film about skateboarding; it’s a film about the brothers relationship with each other, their struggle to make a new life for themselves and their inability to avoid the repercussions of their childhoods – their fate.
George says how the film had a profound effect on all of them over the 4 years it took to make, “I think for all of us it was a personal thing – we’ve all grown a hell of a lot, maybe we’ve all worked things out about ourselves through the making of this film, about families and choices and trust; being able to trust; being able to take that step”.
“Mayhem” doesn’t win and Tas has to talk himself down, not believing he was going to win anyway but still… Afterwards he says he didn’t have a chance “I was up against the holocaust” but he wanted to win, he always wants to win. As Eddie says “Tas has this incredible fighting spirit and he never fucking gives up and that’s inspiring to me”. And I think, yeah, me too.
Postscript – “All This Mayhem” took home prizes for best direction (Eddie Martin), best editing (Chris King) and best original music score (Jed Kurzel) in a documentary at the 2015 AACTAs.
Photos: Ric Jones, Katy Vans, George Pank