Director Adam Leon Talks His Award-Winning Debut ‘Gimme the Loot’

With a modest budget and cast of non-professional actors, Adam Leons’ debut feature film Gimme the Loot premiere last year on the festival circuit and immediately won over audiences. And after winning the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in 2012, appearing as an Official Selection at Cannes, Leon’s Gimme the Loot will finally begin its theatrical run this Friday at IFC—the perfect home for a film such as this with the perfect dichotomy between well-crafted narrative and homegrown feel.

Leon, a Native New Yorker, taken with the idea of young love and intimacy interwoven with a universal tale of youthful adventure, crafted a film that showcases newcomers Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington as Malcolm and Sofia, two young graffiti artists from the Bronx who embark on their own plan to tag the New York Mets’ Home Run Apple after being buffed by a rival crew in Queens. 

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Leon to chat about the New York he grew up in, finding the perfect kids for the roles, and sharing his directorial debut with audiences all over the world.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background as a filmmaker?
I grew up in New York and I’ve wanted to do this since, well basically since I knew you could do this. I was like four or five years old and I just pursued it. I think there’s that initial thing where I knew I wanted to do it but when adults would say, “what do you want to be when you grow up," and kids say one thing and then a week later wouldn’t be saying it anymore, I didn’t want that embarrassment, so it was years before I’d admit it. Because I’m crazy; I’m like that. But yeah, I always wanted to do it. I didn’t go to school for it purposefully but while I was in college I started writing, I started PA’ing. My college had a great DVD library and I would just take a lot of movies out. So after college I continued to PA and took film festival jobs, which were really great because you could work for a few months in the industry, meet people, sort of learn how that operation works and then you have a little time off to write and work on other people’s stuff. So I made little music videos, worked on other people’s projects, co-directed a short film about four years ago that is really different than Gimme the Loot but used non-professional teenage actors and Ty who plays Malcolm is in it. The project sort of developed out of experience, not the content but some experiences I had making the movie.

Is the world of Gimme the Loot the environment you grew up in?
Yes and no. I went to a public school that was pretty interesting—diverse kids from all over the city, all different classes and races—so that’s there and I think that’s a major part of the movie and the city that I knew growing up. I have some friends that were graffiti writers but I wasn’t. I tried it for like a week and was terrible. I was ambivalent about it in many ways and I’m not from the Bronx, I’m from downtown. So there’s a lot I can relate to and a lot I knew about and was around but it wasn’t really my world.

So why was this the story you wanted to tell as your feature debut?
I was very interested in that there were these kids I knew growing up and kids I was working with that are working class kids, they have these vivid lives, they come from tough neighborhoods and have in many ways, difficult challenging lives, but aren’t necessarily miserable people. So that’s the kids, for the most part—there were some others that were going through some deeper, deeper stuff—but there was a lot of kids that I knew that were just like that. So when the kids in Superbad steal booze it’s like, oh kids are kids, and they are and that’s great and that’s fun, or stealing a keg in Dazed and Confused, it’s the same thing. And I was like why do kids in Dazed and Confused and Superbad get to have all the fun when there are kids in New York that do have tough lives but they still have fun.

Yeah, I enjoyed this being a story about these totally normal kids and it did have a very universal feel to it.
And that’s the idea. It’s not that different than going cow tipping. I mean it is, but the relationships are there and there was that idea of the tone. And you never want to never sell out the characters and where they come from, but we can do that in this world with that tone and that meant the idea of a universal concept. And here, that’s this relationship between a teenage boy and a teenage girl that is built on love and built on friendship, where they sort of give each other a hard time but make each other better—but its not necessarily a sexual relationship. So I do think in many ways it is a love story but it’s not a story about hooking up, because I think when you’re dating someone and you’re that age, you’re usually not dating them in three months. And so this is something a little bit more, and maybe one has a crush on the other at some point but really they are partners. He says that later in the movie and he’s being a little bit coy but I think that more than anything, that is what they are.

That came across pretty early that there was this connection between them and that even when he was with the another girl, she knew their relationship was much deeper and different.
Right, exactly and he talks up and tries to push her a little bit and she definitely pushes him too. But yeah, I think that there’s a trust there. So that kind of relationship at that age and with this general idea of the tone in that world, those pieces were there and I was really inspired by that. I thought if that could all work it would work really well for a first time film with non-professional actors for a low-budget, and that’s what I’m going to be doing, that’s what I can pull off right now. So I think I have a world, a tone, and a seed of characters and a relationship that will all mash together. From there this idea of graffiti writers, but it was reinvigorated when taken with this idea of these kids as real life action stars—but in a very kind of low-budget, natural way where they climb buildings and jump over roofs and run from police and there’s the threat of violence from rival crews. So there’s the threat of injury and jail and getting beat up and all of that’s there but it’s not there to make money or do anything except express yourself. So it fits into the kind of tone we were doing and into the kind of relationship we were working on and the type of story we were going to be able to pull off.

And how did you go about finding the actors. I thought it was really interesting to see them outside of the film because they seemed so much more mature, and just looked quite different.
It’s a compliment to the movie but I think it’s a less of a compliment to the filmmakers—which is me, the actors, the producers–when people think that we just found them. Ty and Tashiana are very different than their characters. They grew up in New York so they know those kids, they were able to really channel those kids, but they’re really glamorous and elegant and talented young actors. Ty I knew, he was in the short I made. My casting agent for that found him at a skate park and we started working with him. After the short when we were doing the festival scene, I started to spend a lot more time with him and I realized that this kid was somebody I could very much identify with—we shared a similar sensibility, a similar sense of humor, I felt that I could write for him. He’s a really open, artistic kid who grew up in the Harlem projects so he grew up fast—in many ways in a good way. So we’d go to Film Forum together or go see Hot Chip together and I think people wouldn’t expect that but there’s a lot of kids who just like art and I like hanging out with him. So we make playlists for each other and I was like, you know, I got this, I got this kid, I think he could handle a feature role, so I wrote it for him.

Did he want to act at that point?
Yeah, he’s a musician and he’s very interested in acting as well. And so I did that, but for her it was completely different. It’s a very difficult role that in a sense you have to be very tough and strong, there’s a real vulnerability there though as well and humor. You have to have good timing and tone with that and you have to have a look that can hold the screen. It ends up that Tashiana’s extremely beautiful, the actress didn’t need to be someone who was extremely beautiful but someone who has that kind of look. And it’s a tough tone to hit because there’s so much going on there and she is tough and she does talk really tough and she can be at times, if played incorrectly, if you don’t hit that tone correctly, she could come off as threatening and mean—but she’s not. So that was a challenge and we looked at over 500 girls; we did a lot of screen testing, we had some false starts, we were deep into pre-production when we found her and she walked in and she was great. The only thing she did at first, which is something I think a lot of people expect with this movie, is that she read it like it was an intense drama and I remember the first note I gave her was: that’s great but this is actually a comedy. And she was like, ohhh oh and got it immediately. So we were really lucky to find her. But then I wrote roles for people I knew and then sometimes kids wouldn’t show up that day and we’d just cast kids on the street. Sometimes I’d meet a kid and there wouldn’t be a role that was right for him and I’d put him in.

Everyone had a really great chemistry and looked like they were having fun, which was nice to see.
I give a lot of credit to my producers and my team for creating that environment on set because we were dealing with non-professional actors, that was something that was important to us.

Were you inspired by any other films of this kind about just a usual day in the life of teenagers running loose?
Of course. There’s this movie called Little Fugitive from the 50s about these working class kids—younger than our characters—that are they latchkey kids who go to Coney Island for the day; and again it’s this working class world but it has a lot of heart and they went out to the city streets and shot it there. So I had the idea for the movie before I saw that, but I was working on it and I saw Little Fugitive and I was like that’s it, we can do that. They did that 60 years ago we can do that now—shoot in  bunch of locations. People were like, you’re not going to to be able to pull it off, but we were like, we’re writing daytime exteriors, we’re in close to 70 locations, we’re going to pull it off. We always wanted it to have an epic New York feel to it, not just a neighborhood piece. I didn’t purposefully want to watch the kind of New York young movies while I was prepping this. I was watching Barry Lyndon a lot and McCabe & Mrs. Miller; my DP is like, what the fuck is going on?

And the film featured some really great music, was that something important to you?
The music was an early instinct—the soul, gospel stuff that’s most of the music, like rock gospel really. I love that music so much, I thought it was going to set the tone right away and tell the audience, okay we’re going to go on a ride here, we’re going to have fun. I think it also creates a little bit of separation between the storytellers and the story, which I wanted to do. I didn’t want this to be a fake documentary. You want everything to be authentic but I wanted to embrace the fact that this was a movie and that goes to how we shot it too. It’s not like we just happened on this, no, this is a thought out story even though it’s in a very authentic world, hopefully with a very authentic characters. So that music idea was there early. Half the songs are old songs that we cleared and half are done by my composer Nicholas Britell who is a super brilliant guy and did everything from old jazz songs to like Booker T. and the MJs to reggaeton songs to old reggae songs to old dance hall tracks to modern hip hop stuff to like sort of also shoe gazing rock songs and he’s kind of a magician and able to help us out a lot. 

How was it taking the film around to festivals and sharing it with audnces, especially as someone who has spent time working in the different festivals.
Yeah, well I did feel—this isn’t why we made the movie—but having worked at festivals, I did feel that an 80-minute fun movie in the streets of New York would play really well at festivals, because as a programmer we would go and watch 5, 6 movies a day and when you’re watching that many movies a day and when you have to decide if you’re going to watch that 80-minute fun movie, it’s going to get a lot of play so I saw that. We didn’t go into that blind. That was discussed with investors, that was part of the whole process and thankfully it’s played really well. We didn’t know going into SXSW last year what was a going to happen. We were proud of the movie but we didn’t know if it was going to find its audience and by the end of the festival we sort of were very encouraged that this movie would pay very well in a theater with audiences. And then from there it was crazy, we went to Cannes, we were an official selection at Cannes which was really honestly beyond our wildest dreams. I made a joke about it onset. And a first feature with no stars and no known names and that is a lighter movie, although I do hope it has an artistic vision both in its storytelling and its visual aesthetic, but it is ultimately supposed to be a fun movie for an audience. So that was amazing to take it around the world and have audiences really grab on to some of those universal themes that we discussed. We feel very lucky and are very determined to keep going and make the next one. So we’re not just trying to sit back and enjoy this but at the same time we’ve had fun, we’d be jerks if we didn’t have fun and didn’t appreciate both the experience for ourselves as a team but also appreciate the recognition of the work.

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