The coolest thing about first-time writer-director Adam Leon before he made GIMME THE LOOST, his extraordinary neo-realist film about a pair of Bronx-dwelling, daring young graffiti artists, was that he was a production assistant for Woody allen around the time he made HOLLYWOOD ENDING and MELINDA AND MELINDA. GIMME THE LOOT justifiably won the 2012 SXSW Film Festival's top honor, the Narrative Grand Jury Prize, and a few months later, it won Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Now, the film is finally hitting theaters and is currently available on VOD.
When I sat down with Leon last October during the Chicago International Film Festival, he struck me as a confident who stepped out of his lower Manhattan roots and into a world he knew little about but was eager to learn by spending a great deal of time in the neighborhood where the film takes place and talking to his supporting cast, many of whom are first-time actors. GIMME THE LOOT is wise beyond its maker simply because Leon is smart enough to let the setting and situation speak for itself.
I think that's all I'm going to say about young Mr. Leon; I'll let him speak for himself, which he's clearly capable of doing. I can't wait to see what he's got for us next. Enjoy our talk…
Capone: Hi, Adam. How's it going?
Adam Leon: Awesome. How are you?
Capone: Yeah. It seems like the way that you painted these kids’ lives, by our definition, every day is a struggle, except I don’t really feel like they feel it is. It’s just another day for them, but it’s hard to believe that this only takes place over a couple of days, because it feels like about a month’s worth of danger. And I realize you're compressing things to a certain degree, but at the same time, I wouldn’t doubt that all of these things are going on at the same time.
AL: Right. I really wanted to do this adventure set in New York with these characters that I think have a tough background and do have it hard, but aren’t necessarily miserable people. I guess that’s the best way of saying that. I think that while there’s a little bit of Murphy’s Law here where things just keep going wrong for them, but in some ways it's almost better for them in the long term and helps to bring them together in other ways. I think hopefully it’s fun for the audience to see.
Also, I feel that when they look back on these couple of days a year later, it would be the best two days of their summer even though a lot of things go wrong, because it was the most exciting. They had something to do that was fun for them.
Capone: You would consider these two days like exceptional in their daily routine?
AL: I wanted to do something--this was a super-early idea--about kids who are in this environment. I wanted it to have this warmer tone than you would expect, but I also wanted to follow them around for a couple of days in their summer vacation and I wanted those days to be probably the most interesting of their summer, but not about saving the world or not necessarily the most crazy of their life. It’s just a little bit of a slice of life, but a particularly delicious slice of their life.
Capone: I love the almost anti-love story dynamic of it, because the banter that they have and the insults they trade, there’s a skill to what they are doing, how they are insulting each other. Was all of that back and forth scripted, or was that just them going at it?
AL: Yeah, I think people are surprised at how much it is scripted and I worked a lot with them. There was a lot of rehearsal and there was some workshopping as well, so scenes would adjust and change and we would come up with ideas. Having said that, there are moments, some of the funnier moments… I always encouraged them to use their own words, but we workshopped it so much that it pretty much found a real foundation and locked in.
But then we would go on set, and that morning maybe somebody would say something funny and we would incorporate it in. I would always, if there was moment that they found, let them find it. So there are some jokes in the movie definitely that we found on set, but they weren’t necessarily improved, or maybe Tashiana [Washington] would say something. I remember the cell phone deli scene where she ends up calling him a "bodega bouncer," and she improved the line where she calls him like a "deli guard" or something like that, and I was like “That’s good, but let’s change it. Let’s make it bodega bouncer.” So we were all working together.
Capone: If I remember correctly, his character's name is “Bodega Bouncer” in the end credits.
AL: [laughs] Yes, he is the Bodega Bouncer. So there was always this search for making it better, and we would tear up pages on set, but we came in with this pretty scripted. Because of the way that we were shooting the movie, we had to be. I think we had to all know what movie we were making, what we needed to get, because there were so many other factors at play, so many other things that could potentially go wrong, that to go there without really knowing what we were going to do, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything.
Capone: Did you have a single permit for anything that you shot in this movie?
AL: We kind of… We should be giving a more rock-and-roll answer to this than the truth, but I will tell you the truth, which is that in New York for the way in which we were shooting, which is no real equipment, just a camera… I purposely wrote so many daytime exteriors, because I knew what the budget was and also I wanted the production value of New York, you don’t actually need a permit anymore in New York to shoot that way. So a lot of those street scenes are legal, but not permitted. But then, when they're doing graffiti, that’s definitely not permitted, and some of the night stuff isn’t permitted, and anything that’s in a park you’re supposed to have a permit for. So there is some guerilla stuff there definitely.
But in general, the mayor’s office in New York is really cool. They gave us a few permits that we did need, and we didn’t forge, we fudged the rest in terms of just telling people who asked, “Where’s your permit?” “Oh, it’s upstairs. Go find the permit,” and we would just shoot it quickly. But it wasn’t maybe as guerilla as it looks, just because people in the city just don’t particularly care. You just put down a camera and block a scene as fast as you can.
Capone: If you just stay out of traffic, they’re happy.
AL: Right, there’s something more interesting going on, especially because we are not blocking the streets. We want people to just walk right by.
Capone: I was going to say, I thought I saw a couple of moments where people in the background were looking at the camera.
AL: We tried to avoid too much of that, and I don’t think that there’s so much that it’s egregious. Really early on, we talked about embracing the method that we were going to shoot this movie and the fact that it was going to feel like a first-time movie, that it used non-professional actors and that that energy. It was okay if somebody looked at the camera, because it's a movie, and we were acknowledging that it’s a movie. “This isn’t supposed to be a fake documentary where you're in the head of these people.” It’s an adventure. It’s a ride. It’s fun and just capturing the spirit of where we are from was more important than anything else.
Capone: You identify them as graffiti artists, but we really don’t see a whole lot of that. That’s not the focus of the film. I’ve read a lot of interviews that people did with you, some of whom hadn’t seen the film yet, and all they are talking about is that aspect. Why did you make that decision not to really show Sophia doing her thing?
AL: Well, I didn’t want to make this movie about graffiti. I was fascinated by these graffiti writers and the risks that they take. I sort of see them as real life action heroes, and that’s a jumping off point. I didn’t want to make the movie about graffiti, because I felt like it was going to quickly devolve into a melodrama. It wasn’t enough to grab me, so it’s their profession. It’s what gives them the impetus to go on this adventure.
You do see them doing graffiti in the beginning of the movie. You see it a couple other times, because it was important for me to always bring it back to that “this is there. This is what they care about. This is their passion.” It's, Luke Skywalker is a farm boy, but STAR WARS isn’t about farming. It’s sort of that, but he’s not that person without having that experience and that was the idea that we had. It was really to give a jumping-off point to explore these other ideas that we had, yet also it was really, really essential that we were authentic to graffiti culture and that graffiti writers who see the movie won't call us out for bullshit.
We had this guy, SP1, who’s this legendary graffiti writer who came up in the eighties from Queens and founded this in-the-culture magazine called Skills and is a real name in that world and knows his stuff. He came on as our graffiti advisor, teacher, and guru. He would come in every week for rehearsal and do graffiti class where he would literally teach the kids how to do the art, and he would also talk about his personal history and anecdotes, what it’s like to be a writer, the culture, the language, and just really try and get into their heads. And the actors are so good, they really started to see the world through a graffiti writer’s point of view, because that was necessary. I said to SP1, “If you see this movie, it needs to feel true to you, because if it doesn’t feel true to you, the 80-year-old grandmother who sees it, even though they don’t know, they're going to smell it.” So hopefully we did that, even though I don’t think it’s about that.
Capone: Characters like these are hardly ever seen in movies anyway, and in any other movie. They're criminals to a certain degree. Aside from the graffiti thing, which we could talk about the artistic value there--I certainly think there is some--but they're also plotting robberies. But they’re not bad kids, I don’t think. How do you strike that balance?
AL: Yeah, they're not bad kids and they're not jewel thieves. They are really good at stealing. In the first scene in the movie, they rack paint, you know steal the spray paint and that’s what they are. They're good at being graffiti writers. They're good at existing in that culture, petty teenage. It could be a suburban kid, it could be a kid living in the Bronx, but this sort of “kids will be kids” idea, and then they ratchet each other up through their own banter and through their own delusions into saying, “Hey, we are going to be these big master criminals." But I think deep down they know that they're not and I think that it’s good that they can’t really pull that off.
Capone: Plus, they're horribly bad at it.
AL: Yeah, they are. They're horribly bad at it, and so they're not that really. I think that by the end, with the last petty crime that they commit, they realize what it is that they do, and that was a real book end for me to the movie with the first scene and the second-to-last scene, of showing “These are lovable kids who maybe started to reach a little bit above their head.” They’re fine. They’re good kids, like “Don’t worry about them. They're going to have it tough.” You wonder where they'll be in a year or two, but I think you hope that they are going to go down the right path. I think they’re at a moment in their life where they could do either. At their core, I think that they're too good, even if in the movie they sometimes wish they weren’t.
Capone: You said before that you were committed to using non-actors…well they're so good, I consider them actors that never had a chance to act. They're first-time actors in the way you’re a first-time director. Why did you want to go that route, and how did you find your two leads?
AL: Thank you for saying that about them. There are a few reasons that I wanted to go that route. One was that I had co-directed this short film before where I worked with the non-professional kids and I just saw from the audition process “Wow, there are so many,” and I knew from growing up in the city, that there are so many charismatic kids out there in any big city, and the camera loves a good charismatic teenage kid. So that that was going to infuse the movie with the right energy and that idea of being fresh and being authentic that that was really going to help. So even if a performance or a line reading was a little rough here and there, I’m pretty happy ultimately with how it came out. I think we were expecting it to be rougher, but that was okay, because we were going to be really, really getting this super-authentic world captured.
In terms of finding them…And I agree with you, I think that they're really talented actors, and Ty and Tashiana are so different. People see the movie, and they think “Oh I found these kids.” and that gives me a lot of credit, but it’s not fair or true. They're just actually very talented actors. They're really different. Ty is this bow tie-wearing, blazer, new elegant man. Tashi is this really uber-glamorous R&B singer and very soft spoken, but they are kids from New York and they know these kids, and they really worked a lot with that. With Ty, I had worked with him before on a short film. I loved working with him and I thought that he could handle doing a feature, so I wrote the role for him. For her, it was a much different situation. It was a really long search. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of girls. We were in schools. We were finding people on the subways and supermarkets. She had had a little bit of acting experience.
So we found her through that, but we were just casting an incredibly wide net, and it was a long process and we almost had to shut down production. She came through the door, and we sort of had that “pinch yourself” moment. I remember saying “Is she too beautiful?” Then I was like, “Come on now…” “Do we just love her, because if we don’t find somebody in the next two weeks, we're not going to be able to shoot the movie?” [laughs] That’s not what we were about. We were ready to delay the movie for a year, and we had come to grips with that and it was like, “No, we found her. This is the girl.” I’m so convinced this is the girl. Then the others, we did a lot of street casting, a lot of friends of friends. Ty just brought his friends to a party, like “Hey, come to a party, we're shooting a movie,” and then I wrote roles for people I know.
Capone: My favorite scenes are the ones where it’s just the two of them talking. At first, they seem like these random comedic inserts, but there’s actually a progression there. There’s some really frank discussions about sex. Toward the end there, there’s that one scene where one of them is thinking, “Hey, maybe you went a little too far there,” and there’s an apology or close to it. What did you want to do with that friendship, because there is a hint that there is something more between them or there could be.
AL: Right. Thank you very much. For all of the "I wanted to do this for this tone and I wanted to tell a story in this world and as a first-time film," it really is that I started to hear the characters in my head and I wanted to explore this relationship, and that’s when I was ready to put it on the page. For me, it’s a relationship that I think people can identify with. Let me take a step back. I think that these two people love each other and I think that in some ways they give each other a really hard time, but they also make each other better. She is very focused on what it is to be a man; she’s this girl in this boy’s world and she’s a little bit sick of these boys and she wants Malcolm to step up and be a man, and I think that she is helping him in some ways and even though it’s sometimes in a rude method.
He, I think, softens her a bit, and she doesn’t have enough faith in the world, and I think that he is somebody that can show her that there is a reason to have that. So for that reason, there’s a really deep connection--because of their graffiti--and partnership and bond and love. I think when you’re 17 years old and you're dating somebody, you’re usually not dating them in three or four months. But when you have this kind of relationship, it means more. So also they're good looking and they're teenagers, so maybe one has a crush on one for two weeks and then they meet somebody else and the other sort of gets a little jealous. So that’s there and that potential is there. It’s not, I think, just platonic, but I wanted to deal with something that was a little bit deeper than just a teenage romance.
Capone: I love the way she pressures and baits him into trying to sleep with that girl who he's dealing drugs to. She’s like pushing him to do it, but I don’t think she really wants him to do it.
AL: Right, I think she doesn’t want to admit it to herself and she definitely doesn’t want to admit to him that that would make her upset, but when he goes off and does it, she gives that little…
Capone: I think she’s aware he is going to fail at it.
AL: I think she is, and when he comes back and has failed at it, she's just filled with glee. She can’t resist. That’s like the happiest we see her in the whole movie. It’s a relief for her and a great opportunity for her to make fun of him.
Capone: There’s that great moment, too, where he very affectionately puts his hand on her somehow, and she kind of brushes him off, but she’s smiling when she does it like, “It’s okay.”
AL: Right. I think she doesn’t want to admit how she feels about him.
Capone: Totally believable.
AL: Thanks. Yeah and that came from hanging out with kids and trying to remember what it’s like being like that way and really collaborating with the actors on that.
Capone: I noticed one of your previous credits was being a PA on a couple of Woody Allen movies. Was that nearly as interesting as it sounds?
AL: Yeah, I was really lucky, because I PA'ed on two movies. I was an office PA on one movie, but on the other, I was on set. I had the good kind of PA job, which was first team, which meant that you would take the actors to set, so you’re on set, and then they let me go and intern in the editing room. I think there were only four or five people in the editing room, and I got to basically sit behind Woody and see him edit a movie, which was an incredible experience. I have so much respect for him.
I wish I had some crazy anecdotes, but the truth is that he was really, really good to me, and just to see this craftsman go to work every single day, Especially in the editing room, just how he takes the same approach as you do on set, where it’s like “We're going to do work today.” People spend forever in the editing room, and they over contemplate their decisions. But he’s going to go in there, he’s going to make it, he’s going to make tough cuts. He’s going to be unsentimental about it and he’s so focused on the audience. He jokes about being a narcissistic filmmaker, but he’s so not. Especially once he has that footage, it’s really about “That shot's pretty, but what do I need to do a pretty shot for an audience? I need to make the best movie I can make.” Sometimes they come out as masterpieces and sometimes they don’t, but he takes that real dedicated craftsman approach on a daily basis, and that was really inspiring. He’s also somebody people like working for.
Capone: That recent documentary about him showed a lot in the editing room, you’re right, there was nothing flashy about it. It was just him sitting there with his editor working.
AL: He edited the first cut of that movie in eight days, and it sounds crazy and I just couldn’t believe it.
Capone: Which one was it?
AL: It was HOLLYWOOD ENDING, which I actually think is funny. I know it’s not one of his most beloved movies, but it’s one that I think he happens to likeI have a very soft spot for it. It’s schticky, but it works.
Capone: No judgment here.
AL: So he edited in just eight days, and it just seems incredible. We ended up doing the first cut of this movie in something like 20 days. I think I learned so much from him. My editor, I don’t think she was impressed by much of me, but one of the things I think she was impressed by is that ability to go in every day, and you’re going to make decisions. And when a scene doesn’t work and you realize it doesn’t work, we went back and we rebuilt it and we spent days and days on it. “We don’t need this scene. We don’t need this shot. That joke was funny, but we don’t need it.” Really trying to always think about “What is an audience going to like?” and then showing it to an audience and hearing what they have to say. He does that.
Capone: I was down at SXSW when your film premiered. I didn’t see it there, but I was aware of it, and that’s kind of what put it on my radar for this festival, but you took the grand jury prize there.
AL: We did. We’re famous. [Laughs] Not really.
Capone: What was that experience like, bringing it to this very musical town and showing it?
AL: A few things. One is we always hoped to be able to premiere there, because we felt that the movie was just a good fit for what that festival is, which is young and take to the streets, and there’s so much music in the movie too. Music was such a key part of the movie, and just the youth culture element of it. We just felt it would be a great fit. It wasn’t our decision, but when they gave us the call, we were ecstatic, and it was dream come true time.
I think that they best way to describe it is the bookend of that to Cannes, which were these crazy few months for us, where we went down to SXSW and we really had nothing. There were almost 20 of us down there, and we're all sleeping on a floor, and there’s no agents. We had a sales agent who had just come on, but there’s no agents, no distributor. There’s just really not a support team, and we're just trying to scramble, I’m making schedules for people, and we're doing the best we can, because we won and because IFC ended up really responding to the movie.
By the time we went to Cannes, which was also this beyond a dream come true. It wasn’t even on our radar at all. Un Certain Regard at Cannes is bonkers, but then by the time we are there, we show up and there’s a French distributor and a U.S. distributor, and there are my agents, and there are international publicists and domestic publicists,. And in those three months, we were just like “What just happened?” It was because of what we were able to do at SXSW. I don’t think it’s just the win, but it’s because that’s just a great opportunity to screen the movie for the audience that we felt was right for this movie. I’m so thankful to them for giving us our start and I will never forget that.
Capone: How did the folks in the Bronx feel that have seen this? Has anyone seen it?
AL: I haven’t screened it that much in New York unfortunately, and so we've been talking to IFC about setting up some really big screenings for the neighborhood to come out, because the neighborhood showed us so much love and really opened their doors, and I think we are really excited that people wanted to shoot a movie in their neighborhood and use the neighborhood. So I'm so looking forward to that. I’m pretty optimistic. I’m hopeful they think we did right by them.
Capone: It must be a particular concern, because you’re not from there; you came in as an outsider.
AL: I’m a carpet bagger. [laughs] No, I did come in as an outsider, but the cast and crew are so diverse and from all over the city and I went to public school, I grew up in New York, I knew a lot of kids from all over the city. You’re going into a neighborhood that is not your neighborhood, but I felt comfortable and embraced by the city, and I think that we came with the right attitude and with the right sort of team. It wasn’t really an issue for me. In some ways, yeah I’m an outsider but it’s not about the neighborhood I’m from. But in some ways, I feel like we're all New Yorkers, we're all from the same place, and I hope that as a team--I don’t know about me personally, because I’m very annoying--I think that it was clear that that’s what we were, we're New Yorkers who wanted to tell a story about New York, and people want that.
Capone: I lived there for a while right after college, and watching people walking on the street, it felt totally legitimate. It feels like you just put a camera in the street and watched people.
AL: We did. We wanted to capture New York in that summer as we saw it, which was a little bit different than the way we've been seeing it. There’s this attitude, and I think there is a kernel of truth to it, that New York is becoming a mall, and I’m like, “Well that’s because you’re going to the places that are like the mall. You’re going to the mall when you’re in New York. Let me show you around New York.” To me, that’s what it always was, “Let me show you around our city. Let me show you around that this place has still got that energy.”
Capone: So have you given any thought yet to what you’re going to do next?
AL: I’ve been writing and I’m finishing up a draft on a script, and then there are a couple of other ideas that I’m going to also start jumping into soon. So yeah, I just want to build off of this. I’m just excited.
Capone: Can you give us a clue with what direction you’re going in?
AL: No. I’m sorry. [laughs]
Capone: “I’m making a musical finally.”
AL: Yeah, but you know. I think the things that I’m working on are different and similar in some ways. I see both of those. I just want to keep telling stories and I really want to keep telling stories for an audience. That’s something that is very exciting for me.
Capone: Thank you so much. It was great to meet you.
AL: It was great to meet you. That was one of my favorite interviews. That was awesome.