New York, Old School :: Adam Leon on ’Gimme the Loot’
Writer-director Adam Leon’s first feature film follows two New York teens as they make their way around the big city in pursuit of a dream. Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are street artists who believe that if they can "bomb" the Mets home run apple, the coup will be a shortcut to fame and glory. All they need is $500 in bribe money. So begins their mission to scrape together the cash in any way they can -- stealing, pawning, selling drugs, whatever they can manage. It’s not going to be easy, because they, too, are pickings in an underworld where everybody is both plotter and prey.
That’s the plot, but the story and the way the film unfolds is considerably more limber and fresh. "Gimme the Loot" feels like an early Spike Lee movie built on a Woody Allen foundation, but with a post-racial, twenty-first century gloss. New York serves as a character in its own right, and the movie celebrates the city’s lesser-known quarters while not shying away from the rougher aspects of life on its streets.
What’s surprisingly effective and refreshing about "Gimme the Loot" is how it maintains a sweet tone of light comedy while delving unapologetically into immoral (or amoral) situations, including theft, drugs, and graffiti. Refreshingly, the movie never apologizes, moralizes, or punishes these transgressions; neither does it glorify them. This is the world Sophia and Malcolm inhabit, and as such it’s the only world they know. Leon’s script and direction take their point of view, as insiders within a milieu most of us can only imagine.
Street Art -- or Vandalism?
Central to the story, of course, is the street art (or vandalism, depending how you wish to view it) that the kids create and in which they take pride. For denizens of the streets who see themselves as artists and buildings as publically available canvases, the city is one gigantic, complex gallery with unending opportunities for expression. To the owners of those buildings, however, street art is something quite different... but then, this is not a movie about property owners.
"I thought about this a lot when I was growing up," Leon told EDGE in a recent interview. "I have strong feelings both ways. I am very sympathetic to the idea that street art can be viewed as vandalism, and I think in some cases it is pure vandalism.
"At the same time, I find it very fascinating and amazing that these kids who are really good at creating this art take these incredible physical risks. Some of them are literally risking their lives, let along the legal risks and the dangers of conflict with rival crews, to pursue their art and be part of this culture. It’s not for any monetary gain. I find that fascinating, and in some way admirable. I think it’s a complicated issue. The movie is not really about graffiti, but I think that that culture is very fertile ground for the story."
"Gimme the Loot" is not really about any given social issue such as truancy or vandalism or young street toughs; if it were, it could all too easily turn into some sort of do-gooding, anodyne "After School Special." Instead, the film touches on, and comments on, a range of issues though sheer observation, and without getting preachy.
"It’s about characters first," Leon noted, "and I think it’s a mistake to go in and say, ’I want to say something about this.’ Instead, you nee to think about our characters: How do you say authentically who they are and try to make them as fully realized as possible and put them in situations that feel exciting and interesting and entertaining for an audience, but still touch on larger issues?
"If the audience chooses to take some of that from the move, that’s great," Leon continued. "If not, that’s great too. I didn’t go in trying to make a social message piece -- in fact, quite the opposite. What we wanted as to make a movie that was a little bit more fun and little more of an adventure than we normally expect in this world, wile staying true to what that world it. In itself, that makes this film a little bit different."
Actors to Watch
The casting helped Leon hit the right tone. Tashiana Washington has appeared in a few movies before now, usually as an extra; here, she has a chance to shine, and shine she does. Indeed, there are moments when she dazzles. She’s a complicated character, vulnerable to the ways in which adults exploit her naivete and her ignorance, but all too willing to fly right back in someone’s face and give vent to her grievances. Rather than stew over her defeats, however, she bounces right back into the game -- not much older, but getting wiser by degrees.
Ty Hickson pulls off Malcolm’s mixture of adolescent bravado and ineptitude with winning charm and a natural comic presence. (Who else could possibly have spent half the movie running around New York in socks, having lost his shoes in an amorous yet innocent misadventure, and not seem like an utter moron or detract from the film’s essential believability?) The characters spend much of the movie apart, having separate adventures that bring slightly different moods to the movie, but when they do share the screen their very different personas mesh in a likable fashion.
"It’s a huge testament to them." Leon said. "I had worked with Ty before, and I really developed the role with him. Tashiana is, I think, a fantastic actress, and she is very diverse in the role. It’s a huge compliment to the movie, but it shorts them that people think they really are Malcolm and Sophia. What they really are, are two very smart, dedicated, focused young actors who pulled it off."
Washington’s career may already be enjoying an upward trajectory; IMDB lists her as having a role in the upcoming film "Gimme Shelter." Leon laughed over the coincidence of the similar film titles, saying, "She’s in her ’gimme’ phase right now.’ "
Leon addressed the film’s post-racial vibe, which comes across in spite of the fact that most of the street kids are black and when we do see whites they tend to be unsympathetic guys who are charge of some sort of operation (such as Malcolm’s boss, a dealer for whom he runs drugs around the city), rival graffiti crews, or smug creatures from a different socio-economic echelon, such as the mercurial and somewhat disdainful Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a white bohemian girl who Malcolm both longs for and plans to rob.
"I think that we were interested in exploring the idea of how you grow up in a city and your paths cross with others," Leon reflected. "Everybody is kind of thrown together, but there still is a divide between different cultures and different classes. That idea was something I was interested in; we didn’t go in looking to say anything specifically about it, but in terms of plot and character and situations, that idea of paths crossing was an idea we wanted to explore."
Leon went in to discuss how he worked out a story that unspools in an environment that feels a little like the downtrodden Baltimore in the HBO series "The Wire," while avoiding the extremes of violence to which movies of this sort often reflexively resort.
"We were trying to think through what it’s like to be a kid in that environment," Leon recalled. "It is its own reality, but it’s not necessarily that different form anyone else’s. [All the stealing amounts to] its own kind of teenage commodity exchange, but it’s not all that different than when teenagers in ’Superbad’ or ’American Graffiti’ steal the cake or egg the house. It is a sort of celebration of teenage life in those summers when you are cut loose and you’re out on the street, wherever you’re from.
"We’ve been lucky to take the film around the world and the reaction to it has been really strong everywhere," Leon added. "I think it’s because though the movie is set in a very specific time and place, people can identify with the types of relationships as well as the types of adventures that happen when you’re that age. Just because you’re a little bit of a juvenile delinquent doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a hardened criminal."
Who You Are Is Where You’re From
Fittingly, Leon came by the idea for his movie right in the streets of New York City. "It was just by hanging out with these kids in their neighborhoods, seeing how much they are very much still kids. They get into trouble, they fall in love, they’re funny, they’re full of energy. I hadn’t really seen a movie that was about the joy of teenage youth in that environment.
"When you are in the ’American Graffiti’ type environment that can be really fun and a celebration, but when you’re more in an urban environment and working class environment, it’s usually a social message piece. While those stories are very important and they deserve to be told, there is another sort of story to tell in this environment as well -- while still staying true to who these characters are and not selling out their existence. It is a different existence than growing up in the suburbs, nut the teenagers aren’t that different from one another."
As far as New York City serving both as backdrop and character in the film, Leon, himself a Manhattan native, readily acknowledged that he wanted to tell a story that would showcase his city.
"Setting is really important in any story and we wanted to make sure that it’s clearly the case New York is where these characters are from. Where they’re from is very much a part of who they are. We show a New York you don’t normally see in movies and on TV and when you do see it, it’s all about how bleak and terrible it is. These are tough neighborhoods we’re in, without a doubt, but they are still neighborhoods and there’s still a lot of activity and energy going on in them.
"People feel increasingly that New York is turning into a mall, and I think there is truth to that, but there’s still this other city that’s very alive and very active and we wanted to explore that."
Keeping It Old School
While one might have expected to hear hip-hop and gangsta rap on the film’s soundtrack (Malcolm, for one, indulges in verbal marathons that make him sound like a thug from a 16-year-old’s CD collection), the music Leon chose is another surprise: It’s old-school R&B, and it plays against the film’s contemporary immediacy to wonderful effect.
"It was a very early instinct," Leon said of this counter-intuitive choice. "When I was in the idea phase, I was creating a really big play list of songs like this. When I go back and think about it, I feel that it was about setting the tone and saying that we’re going to have fun, that this movie is maybe not what you would expect, and let’s go on a ride.
"At the same time, I think there’s something about creating a bit of a separation between the storytellers and the audience, and that carries over not only into the music but also in the way that we shot the movie. We didn’t do this sort of overly hand-held ’Look, you’re really there’ documentary trope that has become common, because we weren’t trying to trick the audience. We set up these highly composed shots and let the characters move through the space and have their story. We’re there to observe their story."
Visually, the film does achieve a level of polish that independent movies don’t always manage. "We were able to build up a crew of people who hadn’t had an opportunity to work on a feature or very many features, but who really are incredibly talented and they’re hungry and they are determined to do a great job," Leon said. "You can see they are going to take a huge step up and become very expensive to work with soon, but an get them now. Finding them was a challenge, but our producers were able to do that."
If nothing else, New York is the city that never sleeps; such is also the reputation of its denizens. So what does Leon have planned as a follow-up?
The filmmaker refuses to spill any beans. "I’m writing, but it’s not ready yet," is all he’ll say. That’s all right, because "Gimme the Loot" is all the proof audiences will need to know they’ve found an up and coming major new director.