Photos by Stuart Robinson and Samu Karvonen
Phil Evans was at the Vans Park Series, just over two years ago, when the subject of his new documentary, Saint Denis, strolled in.
To paint a picture, it was a sunny day in Malmö, Sweden, and the creme de la creme of competition skaters were ripping the park. On the platform of the bowl, a hefty crew of skaters, photographers, filmers, team managers and general skate aficionados were parked up. Needless to say, this was an exclusive area that required two separate wristbands for entry and, because of Sweden’s strict licensing laws, there was no booze allowed.
But as Phil Evans explains, “Out of nowhere this half-steaming Irish man appears, sneaking in a crate of beer, with no wristbands, just charming his way past everyone… He proceeded to just destroy all the cool guys on the platform.” It happened to be Denis Lynn, a skater from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who didn’t have any reservations about speaking his mind in front of skateboarding’s proverbial “cool guys”, including the editor of Thrasher, Jake Phelps.
“He just slagged the shit out of them,” says Phil. “And I just thought it was tremendous because in skateboarding, the inner circle is so tiny and when those people don’t leave that inner circle they have their coolness protected. Denis doesn’t give a shit about any of that so he was just ripping the piss out of Jake Phelps and all these guys.”
Phil already knew Denis—they’d met about a decade ago back in Ireland—but that was the tipping point where he decided that Denis would make a good subject for a documentary.
“Because I’ve seen so much skating throughout the years, competitions bore the shit out of me,” says Phil. “I was like, ‘This guy is way more interesting than what’s happening in the bowl.’” Phil stops himself to add, “All credit to the skaters, they were killing it, but I was just a lot more fascinated by Denis.”
Evidently, choosing to make a documentary about Denis Lynn would prove to be harder than Phil might have thought. Once Phil had gotten Denis on board, pitched the idea to Carharrt and started filming the project, things started to fall apart for Denis. It became clear that he was in no state to film a skate part.
“It got kind of serious and he was dealing with his addiction issues and missing flights and getting arrested,” Phil recalls. “Honestly, at one stage I completely cancelled the project. I was like, ‘This guy’s fucked, I don’t want to delude him into thinking he can do anything… he needs to get better.’”
From what Phil tells me, it sounds like there were plenty of ups and downs during the year and a half that it took for the project to come to fruition. Denis would frequently disappear to “go on the lash”, which is a very Irish way of describing a bender, and at one point he was MIA for seven months. But when Phil cut him off and cancelled the project, it was Denis’ perseverance that got the ball rolling again.
“Finally he called me and he was clean-shaven, he was very serious and he was pointing at the camera,” Phil explains. “He was like, ‘We’re doing this… this is the only thing I have going on in my life, we have to do this.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”
Denis was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is still a place that’s marred by the leftover ethnic and territorial conflicts of what’s known as ‘The Troubles’. To provide an oversimplified explanation, Belfast is divided between Catholics and Protestants and the city is demarcated by “Peace Walls” which have separated the two groups since the late ‘60s. Although some of the walls have come down in recent years and there are gates that connect the two sides, it’s still a city that’s deeply divided and sometimes violent.
Phil describes Belfast as “a place where if someone hears your accent and knows you’re from one side, you could just get fucked up.” Phil grew up in Bray, which is in the Republic of Ireland (separate from Northern Ireland), so he hasn’t lived in that zone but he’s visited and Denis has explained the situation to him. “If you live there it’s your reality and you have to deal with it. It is gnarly, for sure,” says Phil.
Originally, Phil’s plan for the doco was to take Denis back to Belfast and document him in the city that he grew up in, but that couldn’t happen in the end. Phil says that Denis “was in so much trouble in Belfast, we couldn’t go there.” When I ask him for more details on that point, Phil says he can’t say any more, “for reasons that I can’t go into because there’s some ongoing very sketchy situations.”
This posed a problem for the doco: how do you show Denis’ roots without taking him to Belfast? Phil was forced to tell that part of the story through archival footage, much of which was shot by Ryan ‘Hippie’ O’Neill, who skated with Denis from a really young age. The result is a mash-up of footage. You get to see Denis being a cheeky little kid, watch him skate and hear him speak candidly about his life. The whole film is interspersed with some beautiful still imagery.
Phil basically got Denis’ blessing to tell the story however he wanted to, which was a nice change for Phil after working with so many skaters who, as a rule, tend towards perfectionism. “He just said, ‘No I trust you, you do your thing, but you have to trust me and let me do my thing.’ And that’s roughly how we proceeded,” says Phil.