Born and raised in NYC, Gimme The Loot director Adam Leon has risen to success with his feature debut, which follows graffiti artists Malcolm and Sophia as they embark on a two-day mission to tag an infamous local landmark. The film won the grand jury prize at SXSW, competed in the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Festival, and is released in the UK this Friday. FilmJuice’s Events Editor Beth Webb, caught up with the director to talk about the process behind making the film and his homage to the city that he grew up in.
Which scene in the film best represents your vision of New York?
In the movie we were trying to show a New York that we know still exists, one that is gritty, a little tough, and full of energy. So I would say the three shots towards the beginning where [Malcolm and Sophia] discuss their plan for revenge on their rival crew best show the NYC of Gimme The Loot. We see our characters at an old-school Bronx pizza parlour, out on a bustling South Bronx street, and then underground on a subway platform where they hop a turnstile. That sequence hopefully captures the energy, character, and vision we were trying to achieve.
How far did you build the relationship between Malcolm and Sofia and how far did your actors come on their own?
It’s a long process that starts on the page, then develops in the rewriting, and then takes on new life when the actors get involved and really embrace their characters and make them their own. Once Ty and Tashi were able to truly “find” Malcolm and Sofia in the rehearsal process, I genuinely felt we were in a good place for the whole movie because their relationship is the key to the story. Everything else is basically just deciding where to put the camera.
Do you think their stories could work in a different city, in a different country?
Yes, with some minor adjustments to the plot. Ultimately the movie is about these two kids, their relationship, and the adventure that they go on during summer days when they’re set loose in their city. I think those elements, who this kids are and the journey they take, could translate to another place. Now, once we had that story we set out very consciously to make the setting, in this case New York, a key component to our portrayal. However, the characters and the story itself I think are pretty universal and I hope identifiable.
Why did you want your central characters to be a boy and a girl?
I wanted to explore a relationship between a teenage boy and girl that was truly a partnership and something stronger than just a romance. When you’re that age and dating someone, you’re usually not dating them three months later, but what Malcolm and Sofia have is a deeper connection. But they’re good looking and hormonal and, hopefully, charming in their own unique ways, so it is more complicated than two guys being friends. That type of relationship, one that I think some people can identify with or at least wish they had growing up, felt creatively interesting to me.
Why did you use graffiti to bring the characters together?
We wanted to the movie to feel like a fast paced, low-rent adventure in the streets of the city. I had been working with some graffiti writers and I felt that the culture, as well as the physical risks they take, fit in perfectly with world and tone we were exploring in the movie.
Having written Malcolm’s role with an actor in mind, did Sophia’s character shape around what you had created already or did she come at a former or later stage?
I think the character was one of the stronger ones on the page, but one of the joys of making a movie is being able to hand the character over to the actor, and Tashiana was able to really flesh her out and make he feel like a genuine person. It was key that Sophia be sympathetic and identifiable even though she is very tough and at times does some questionable things, and Tashi brought that side out of her as well as a vulnerability that was essential.
This story could exist in any previous decade; do you think you could make this film in New York ten years from now?
Well, I hope so. But yes, I think there will always be latchkey kids out in the city streets having fun and getting into trouble, making the city their own
Do you intend to stay using New York for future projects or are you moving further afield?
I love shooting in NYC, and would hope to do so again, but at the same time I am interested in going wherever there is a great story, and for me a great setting is essential to whatever story is being told.
Gimme The Loot is released in the UK on the 3rd of May 2013.