Manhattan and its boroughs have provided the lively backdrop for a number of independent movies, from the boy-on-a-Coney-Island-odyssey classic Little Fugitive (1953) to Spike Lee’s controversy-courting race-relations drama Do the Right Thing (1989). Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, which won the narrative feature grand-jury prize at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, is a terrifically entertaining addition to this subgenre. It’s a tale of two graffiti artists, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), who come up with a ramshackle plot to deface the Mets apple at Citi Field. The film tracks the duo over a long summer day during which digressions, distractions and disappointments are plentiful. And Leon makes inspired use of the numerous locales, as well as his leads’ effortlessly natural chemistry, to create a suspenseful, humorous and ultimately melancholy love letter to our great melting-pot metropolis. The 31-year-old filmmaker discussed his feature debut with TONY in a midtown office.
Time Out New York: There’s a history of movies that have been shot on the streets of New York and taken advantage of its atmosphere. Did any of these films inspire you?
Adam Leon: Definitely. I saw Little Fugitive at Film Forum about three years ago, and it was an instant inspiration. One of those things where you go, “That’s it! They did that!” And if they can do it, then I can too—just take to the streets and really capture New York. We had a very small budget on Gimme the Loot, but we had this amazing natural production design from the city. Another key thing—and this was the impetus for the whole idea—was Little Fugitive’s use of New York kids who have these vivid lives and come from these tough backgrounds. I think that film has so much heart and doesn’t sell out its characters. And that was the goal with Gimme the Loot.
Time Out New York: Did you go into different neighborhoods while researching the script? Or did you already have a good feel for the urban locale?
Adam Leon: I grew up in New York. I went to a public school with kids from all over the city—a really diverse student body. So I knew this world and was able to venture all over. Then two years ago, I codirected a short film on which I worked with nonprofessional teenage actors, and I became reinvigorated. I felt there was a different kind of urban story to tell—one that could be more fun and could really take the audience on a ride, but sort of be steeped in those great New York movies we’ve discussed.
Time Out New York: How did you meet Ty Hickson, who plays Malcolm?
Adam Leon: I worked with great casting directors, and they found him in a skate park. He had a small part in the short I made. He was 15 then, very precocious and bouncing off the walls. Then we started to tour with the short, and he and I became friends. I saw that this kid had a lot going on, and I really identified with his wide-ranging interests in music and movies—we’d go see things like Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) together. He’s just a really interesting, smart kid, and I loved his humor and sensibility. I wrote the script with him in mind.
Time Out New York: How about Tashiana Washington, who plays his partner and friend, Sofia?
Adam Leon: We looked at over 500 kids, and had plenty of false starts. Sofia’s a tricky role because she’s really tough and strong, but also has a deep vulnerability. You have to be interesting enough to hold the screen for the whole movie. We would get these girls who were so interesting, but couldn’t act; we’d get others who could act but were too old. It was a long, hard process. Then Tashiana came in. We called her back immediately after first rehearsal and had her read with Ty. They got along great and had a really good chemistry. We knew they were going to click as characters.
Time Out New York: Why did you decide to set the story in the world of graffiti artists?
Adam Leon: Some of my really close friends in high school were graffiti writers. I had a lot of ambivalence about the culture: There were things about it that I thought were incredibly cool and amazing, other things I just didn’t understand or struggled with. Which, to me, means it’s a subject that’s very interesting. I started to think of these graffiti writers as real-life action heroes and I felt that would be a great jumping-off point for the upbeat, fast-paced, exciting tone that we wanted to set for the movie.
Time Out New York: There’s been some argument around Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild about whether a white man should be directing a story primarily focused on African-Americans. Did the question enter your mind during production, and have you encountered any criticism along those lines?
Adam Leon: Everything enters your mind when you’re making a movie. Very early on, before I put pen to paper, I thought this question might come up. There were constant discussions about it, but what it came down to for me was about creating authentic characters and putting them in situations that feel genuine. Then it’s for the audience to take away what they will. In terms of the fact that I’m a white boy making this movie, I would just say that the process of creating Gimme the Loot happened very organically: I met Ty. I wanted to do something with him. And I wanted to explore a relationship between a teenage boy and a teenage girl—one that was very much built on love and partnership, but wasn’t sexual. I think it would be ignorant to not acknowledge that race is a huge element in who these characters are, and I think we took that very seriously and talked about it a lot. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a film about racial self-identity or racial politics. There isn’t an agenda in this movie, but because of the crossing of paths—the class, race and gender elements that naturally come into play—that theme is there to be looked at and discussed. I love going there with it.
Time Out New York: Let’s talk about shooting on the streets of New York. Was a lot of it guerrilla-style?
Adam Leon: A lot of it was guerilla-style, but at the same time, it’s gotten very easy to shoot in New York. The mayor’s office is pretty amenable, and I purposely wrote a lot of daytime exteriors for the movie because that means you don’t have to pay location fees. If you’re not using high-level equipment or blocking off streets, you can plop a camera down wherever you are. In this film, we’re all over the place—almost 70 locations. We were legal for a lot of it because we were doing these daytime exteriors. But we definitely did steal some stuff here and there. (We didn’t get permission for Ty to hop that turnstile, for example.) The idea was always that we’d prepare as much as possible, build the team up as strong as we could, then see what the city throws at us.
Time Out New York: What was the biggest thing the city threw at you?
Adam Leon: It was sort of a constant stream. It threw Hurricane Irene at us. But one of the most memorable things was when we showed up at a deli, and the guy who was supposed to be there wasn’t around. So we say to the kid working there, “We’re supposed to shoot here.” And the kid’s like, “I don’t know anything about this.” And I’m like, “We’ll put you in the movie.” And he’s like, “Okay.” While we’re setting up, this other guy comes up to us and he says, “Hey man, do you want somebody who looks like Snoop Dogg to be in your movie?” I was like, “I do. I do want somebody who looks like Snoop Dogg in my movie.” That looseness on set was constant, but the point was we were very prepared ahead of time, so we could adjust on the fly.
Time Out New York: You worked with Woody Allen early in your career. Were there any lessons you learned from your time with him that you applied here?
Adam Leon: So many. I’m very, very thankful for that experience. I worked for him as a production assistant and an editing intern. I was able to get pretty close to him on set as well as in the editing room, which was particularly instructive. You see this master craftsman come in every morning, and he takes a production-like attitude towards editing. I know people who are much more lax, who say, “We don’t have the pressures of shooting anymore, so we’re going to take our foot off the gas.” Woody doesn’t do that. His attitude is, “We’re going in here, we’re making decisions, following our instincts, and we’re going to move this movie along every single day.” I remember I asked him once why he cut a beautiful shot, and he said, “It’s not helping me tell this story. Why do I have to show people I can do a pretty shot?” Lessons like that were so important—about having no sentimentality and moving along in a very workmanlike way.
Gimme the Loot opens Friday, March 22, at IFC Center.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich