New York-based writer/director Adam Leon is going to have a tough time topping these past few weeks. At the recently wrapped SXSW film festival in Austin, the first-time feature filmmaker won the event’s Narrative Grand Jury Prize for his debut, “Gimme the Loot.” Shortly after the win, Sundance Selects announced they had acquired US rights to the film. And now, less that two weeks after SXSW, Leon is back in New York screening his film at the New Directors/New Films festival to packed, enthusiastic audiences.
“Gimme the Loot” follows Malcolm (Tysheeb Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana R. Washington), a pair of scrappy young graffiti artists trying to make their mark on the Bronx scene. “From the first scene, in which the duo awkwardly jack paint canisters from a store and hop into their getaway car, Leon establishes his characters as a pair of lawbreakers living on the fringes of society but remain essentially innocent, giggly children,” wrote Eric Kohn in his review out of SXSW. “Inhabiting the same bubble of hip-hop attitude as ‘Wild Style’ did nearly 30 years earlier, Leon’s movie resurrects the subculture with genre charm and low-budget appeal.”
What’s Next: Leon told Indiewire that he’s working on “something that’s a little different. I’m so passionate about it that I’m paranoid to talk about it.”
You grew up in lower Manhattan, not the Bronx. What inspired you to tell a story that’s not based around the area you’re most familiar with?
I made a short film a few years ago set in the Bronx. It was where most of the cast was from. I like to explore the city as much as possible. I’m familiar with different neighborhoods. It felt like that’s where these characters would be from. I also felt like this area isn’t shown on film that much.
What is it about the Bronx in particular that lends itself to you filmmaking sensibilities?
There is so much activity and vibrancy in that part of the Bronx — Castle Hill, Parkchester area. The streets are alive. You put a camera there and you can capture a lot a flavor.
Given that you’re not from the area, what’s the reaction been like from Bronx folks who have seen “Gimme the Loot”?
So far the reaction hasn’t been negative. There’s been no outcry. There are two African-American main characters, but I don’t think it’s a quote-unquote black film. I think it’s a New York community story. I think that when people watch the movie, they get that. Hopefully we were true to all the characters, not just the two leads.
That’s where the element of surprise comes from; the films has this really authentic vibe, something you can’t fake. How did you achieve that, while being truthful to the characters and their world?
Part of it just being around the city and listening to conversations and being observant of all different kinds of people in the city. Part of it is really collaborating with my cast, and not being shy about needing that authenticity and asking questions.
I think that we all, as a crew, could tell when something felt false. We always made sure we got it right.
Did you encourage your cast to improv, or was it pretty tightly scripted?
It’s pretty tightly scripted. I definitely encouraged them to use their own words, always. I would say that scenes themselves were rarely fully improvised. In general, we would say, “Okay you’re going to ask for this, and you’re going to say no, and you’re going to convince her by saying this.” I scripted everything, but I was willing to let the actors play with it. But some of the actors didn’t like to do that. Some of them had a harder time to do anything that was on the page.Is the graffiti art world something you’re inherently familiar with?
I grew up somewhat involved in that world. I had some very close friends who were very immersed in graffiti. When I did the short, we ended up casting a couple of graffiti writers. I was just very taken with their dedication and the risks they were taking. I thought it was a great jumping off point for a tale set in the city.
For the film, I knew we had to get that right, so we brought in a bunch of people to talk to us, in particular artist Greg Lamarche, who’s sort of a legend. He taught the kids and me a lot about the culture and history, and how to actually do the graffiti itself.
Had you ever done it yourself growing up?
Oh, for like five days when I was 16. I was terrible. I’m not good with a pen. I’m better writing and telling people where to put a camera.
You captured New York in a really fresh and vibrant way. Does this film accurately depict how you see the city?
Yeah. There’s an element of throwback to how we captured the city. There was an early thought to not show any chain stores or banks. I began to abandon that idea to really just capture what I was seeing in the summer of 2011. What I am sort of drawn to is the character of the city, which I think is still very, very vibrant.
A lot of the joy I derived in watching “Gimme the Loot,” came from the bystanders you incorporate into the frame. If you were to go on to do bigger things in the future, would you strive to maintain that ‘on the fly’ style of shooting?
I love working that way. I do think that style can be incorporated in more movies shot in New York. You have to be careful with releases and all that, and we were, but I think there’s something that can be said about having a long lens shot and just capturing the city wide. I definitely like that style a lot. There’s also something to be said for shooting fast in the city, if you’re prepared enough to do that.
Do you see yourself becoming a New York-based director with tales set in the city?
You know, the thing I’m writing right now is not set in New York. I love making movies. If I’m able to continue to make them, then I definitely think that some of those movies would be shot in New York. I think it’s important to expand your horizons, but of course New York is my home. I love to shoot here.
You’re at ND/NF following a win at SXSW where you world premiered. How does your head not grow exponentially over the past few weeks?
I struggle with the answer, because you’re asking me this in the middle of it all. I was talking to my producer the other day. It hasn’t been three weeks yet. I think we’re sort of in a daze. We worked really hard with a great team. It’s the movie we wanted to make. The great things that have happened over the past few weeks have been so fulfilling. There’s still nothing greater that when somebody comes up to me after the movie and tell me they thought it was great. But yeah, it’s been a crazy, mind-blowing few weeks. I think I’m just starting to digest it. I’m very, very thankful. We’re blessed that people are enjoying the film.
Bringing it from SXSW to ND/NF, the experience must be…
At ND/NF, the audience was predominantly over the age of 40. Were you wary of how they would receive it?
Before we even made the movie, we sort of felt like a SXSW audience would be ideal. It’s a young, fast, fun movie. In terms of a prestigious dream, we really wanted to play in New York. ND/NF is that. I think we had this advantage at SXSW, where the audience is sort of perfect for the movie. With ND/NF, it’s such a New York movie that I think that New Yorkers respond to it.
I think we’re really lucky that these are the first two festival stops. But they are way, way different experiences. That’s been its own sort of adventure. To be in a rowdy crowd in the Alamo at Austin where they’re eating during the movie, and then play at the Museum of Modern of Art two weeks later — it’s sort of a headtrip.