Sheldon Candis's new movie, "Luv," tells the story of a young boy's relationship with his uncle through the course of a day in Baltimore. Parallels with "The Wire" are inevitable, as the television show has, for better or worse, defined "Baltimore" for the outside world.
"Luv" explores similar themes, and the director also manages a large and talented ensemble (Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, Charles S. Dutton) coping with issues of morality and individual choice. The more striking difference is that "Luv" takes a child's perspective for this classically structured coming-of-age story set in the Baltimore crime underworld.
"Luv" begins with a young boy (a brilliant Michael Rainey Jr.) engaged in a primping routine, as his school clothes are laid out carefully on a chair. He wields a bottle of cologne almost too big for his hands. Then, he pulls out a black gun from a drawer, points it at the mirror, like a mini-Travis Bickle, yanks the gun to the side and pulls the trigger. Water sprays out, and he jokes to himself "You were scared." This sets up a delicate balance between violence and fragility for a child who is aware that violence exists, but unclear about what it actually means.
Then we meet the boy's uncle (a debut performance by the rapper Common), a schemer who wants to open a restaurant but needs to get $22,000 over the weekend for the payment. Plans go wildly awry. Uncle Vincent is intent on teaching his nephew Woody about the world, dispensing advice in the form of pithy phrases. He doesn't buy it: "How do you expect me to learn if you don't tell me nothing?" he asks.
In the film's most memorable scene, Uncle Vincent encourages Woody to drive his car, because "every man needs to know how to drive." He leaves Woody alone to drive the car, gleefully stalling and starting in a light drizzle, while outside his uncle takes to the phone to raise his cash as his small nephew spins alone in the parking lot. It's darkly Shakespearian, questioning what it means to be a man and reckoning with your family history.
In the Q&A below director Sheldon Candis reveals his influences, from "The Bicycle Thief" on, and learning about his own uncle from "The Wire" creator David Simon. "Luv" hits theaters January 18th.
Maggie Lange: Do you have an affection for Baltimore? Is this something you tried to show as a filmmaker?
Sheldon Candis: Oh definitely, I was born in Baltimore. It's a major part of my life, I have a real love and affection for Baltimore and I think it's a special place. I once heard in terms of the HBO series "The Wire" that it was a forgotten American city. I felt that wasn't true, I felt that it was a beautiful American city.
ML: Are you back there often?
SC: All my family is still there, I got back once a year. One thing we do do, the greatest Baltimore thing, is cracking crabs.
ML: What genre is this movie?
SC: Me and my writing partner, Justin Wilson, coined this phrase "the driller" – the dramatic thriller, a movie basically that's steeped in human emotions but with undertones of a thriller and for me I always wanted to undertake the genre which is really also considered a crime drama, and infuse it with heart. It's a genre that's usually macho and has a lot of violent acts, and I wanted to create a genuine family bond within it, hence the title "Luv." It's a love story with a boy and his uncle.
ML: Did you have an uncle like Uncle Vincent?
SC: "Luv" is a fascinating story inspired by true relations I had with an uncle. My real life uncle is Uncle Vernon, who is in a state prison in New Jersey. He actually read the script in prison and gave me really good notes on it.
Something very auspicious happened in one year in the process of creating the story, before the screenplay. David Simon, one of the co-creators of "the Wire," was giving a talk and during the Q&A portion, I said: "I'm from NW Park Heights," and he said, "We should talk after."
I told him my uncle was around at the time he was there, and he said: "There is a strong chance I will know him." I said, "well my uncle is Vernon Collins," and he let out a huge laugh. He wrote many articles in the Sun about him. He said, "Your uncle was a great manipulator, he would use anything or anyone to get what he wanted." I was a young kid in the car with him, sometimes at three or four in the morning in Baltimore city, when a kid would look less suspicious. He said, "I'm going to tell you things you didn't know about your uncle. I have to tell you your uncle allegedly killed a lot of people in the city."
I immediately called Justin, and I said this is what makes it really special. Through the course of a day, he finds out he doesn't know who he thought he was. How would it have shaped me? Then I began to write letters [to my uncle] and we shared information and talked about things. He didn't deny anything, but he shared with me, but he also didn't admit anything.ML: What would you say is the most important thing that Woody witnesses on his travels?
SC: My uncle did use to say the thing about "owners versus renters," and it comes directly from Justin, from his uncle. That statement is beyond owning material possessions, it's about taking ownership for one's self and one's life. Thematically speaking, it's a kid who experiences these bad things through his life, how he's able to navigate through them. By the end of film, you are an optimist, you believe he becomes a productive member of society. There is a moment for Woody that he sees there is another side of his Uncle that he never witnessed before. It's about people we look up to, a moment when we see that they're flawed, but we love them anyway. There is a moment in the apartment when a drug deal goes bad, when he sees his Uncle kill someone, that he comes of age — he realized no one is going to take care of him.
ML: Tell me about the beginning scene — this little kid in this "Taxi Driver" moment.
SC: That was Justin's idea, with water gun and mirror, he wanted to from the very beginning to set the audience in a place of how we all felt about violence and ask how does violence affect a kid? We all experience violence through movies, video games, and entertainment. He's only experienced it that way, as he should. He hasn't experienced it in real terms. [This scene] is a plant and payoff for what's going to happen in the film. It's what happens when we're faced with real moments, the kid in the mirror with the squirt gun quickly through the course of a day, comes of age. I believe it makes him a stronger person.
ML: How did you manage such an extensive ensemble cast?
SC: I'm really fortunate and thankful and consider myself really blessed that in my first film I had such wonderful actors who were earnestly moved by the materials and showed up and gave of themselves. "Luv" is a truly American independent film, with a tiny, tiny budget. We were joking we made it for $2 and a turkey budget. To have Danny Glover and Dennis Haysbert, also to find Michael Rainey Jr., a special kid, this is only his second film. All of these actors, only making SAG scale, minimum wage. To work with Justin for so many years on the screenplay; there were 45 different versions of the script in three years. To see actors connect with what was written, it's a really special thing. Actors are emotional people, they want to be moved by something and connect to the material.
ML: Any movies or works that particularly influenced "Luv"?
SC: A couple things. When I was growing up, I knew that Barry Levinson was from Baltimore, and I thought I could be like Barry Levinson from the other side of the tracks. Spike Lee was one of my heroes. The Coen brothers, they gave such a distinct voice. I also saw an homage to old black and white with "The Bicycle Thief." I saw it in film school, so inspired and moved by that film, I could connect to characters and circumstances. It felt like I had that relationship with my Dad and my Uncle, and Vincent in "Luv" is an amalgamation of my father and my uncle. I also always joke that "Luv" is like if "Pursuit of Happiness" was punched in the face by "Training Day."
ML: And what is next for you?
SC: I'm inspired; Justin and I have been writing together for nine years. We are working on a lot of other things – a TV show, a mini-series off of this book we found about a slave in the White House, when James Madison become President, he had 10 year old manservant, slave by the name of Paul Jennings, who helped save his portrait. We want to make a really great historical mini-series inspired by American history. There's also another smaller movie I want to make based off another true relationship with a close friend of mine.