First-time feature filmmaker Sheldon Candis made a splash in Park City this time last year with his U.S. Dramatic contender "LUV," a blistering semi-autobiographical tale that cuts close to the heart. The drama, written by Candis and Justin Wilson, centers on Woody (remarkable newcomer Michael Rainey, Jr.), an 11-year-old boy who is dealt a harsh dose of reality when his Uncle Vincent (Common) decides to show him what it takes to be a man in Baltimore.
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. "LUV" opens in select theaters this Friday.]
Candis, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has several short films to his name, including "The Walk" and "The Dwelling," a documentary that chronicles the lives of two homeless Tokyo residents. Additionally, he has created viral web content for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rock the Vote and world-infamous street artist Banksy.
Having your debut feature premiere in the U.S. Dramatic compeition at Sundance is quite the feat.
Yeah, I went to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time while I was at film school at USC just to experience it and that was amazing. It was just, like, "Wow, this is where I wanna be someday," 'cause for myself I always wanted to define myself first as an independent filmmaker as opposed to a studio filmmaker.
I'm a real big art head and if you go on my Facebook page, there's all types of photographers and artists. I'm always OCD about finding new bands and music, so there's something about independent film to me that's just arty. To me, it's cool. Whereas nowadays with the studio system… I want to watch a movie and be filled with heart.
The film has plenty of heart, despite being very dark. The Baltimore you depict in the film isn't a safe place, but it's a gorgeously atomospheric one.
I once heard that Baltimore was the forgotten American city and I just didn't embrace it. I was, like, no. Baltimore is the beautiful American city and for me I felt like it is a world that deals with violence and drugs, but does it have to be dark? Baltimore during the day is really beautiful. If I'm actually experiencing it, it's really beautiful. What you experience in the film is a heightened sense of reality because it's from Woody's point of view. So it's even brighter. It's how a kid sees the world, or how he imagines he sees it, versus what's actually there. The same way that he looks to his uncle. This guy's a superhero to him, the kid draws pictures of him, that's how much he looks up to him. But over the course of one day it's like, "Whoa, you're not as great as I thought you were."
So take me back to your time spent in Baltimore as a kid. How closely is "LUV" tied to your own experience?
It's very close to my own existence and my own childhood in Baltimore, but it's a fictional story inspired by a true relationship with one of my uncles. Fortunately for me, when I was in Baltimore, I was what they call a "stoop kid." What a stoop kid is is an observer of violence that doesn't partake in that world, but he clearly sees it. So I was one of those kids and I was always indoors watching my grandfather's movies and I've always had kind of a vivid imagination. I always see things as a movie.
As I was experiencing these very, very viscerally emotional things as a child and I'm watching these movies, I felt like my life was a movie. I didn't know the craft of filmmaking or the craft of screenwriting, but I started to understand that this is all really, really interesting. So it became a situation where I left Baltimore and moved to North Carolina when my parents separated.
Then I find myself going out west to USC film school and while I'm in film school… I've always had this idea of a story in my head: I was nine years old, not 11 like Woody in the movie. My uncle would pick me up at night and take me driving through the city with him and some places I would go into, other places I would just fall asleep.
I mean, we all knew he was a drug dealer; he drove a nice car, had a really nice home and never seemed to go to work anywhere. As I got older, I had an inkling of an idea of what a really compelling story could be, but then it was later, once I had graduated for USC film school, that I started to get specificity on the world and on my uncle and just how close to danger I actually was. For Justin Wilson, my writing partner, this is the moment where it became, "Wow." It's like "Pursuit of Happyness" punched in the face with "Training Day." It really is like "Training Day" from an 11-year-old's point of view.
Your own story didn't take place over the course of one day and night, like Woody's journey in the film. Why the choice to have "LUV" transpire over such a short time frame?
Justin and I, we just love one-day movies, like "Training Day," "Dog Day Afternoon." When done well, to me it's even more special of an experience because it's not done over three days, a week, two months, a year or during World War II. This is one day, it's present. Your time stamp's there just reminding the audience that this is all happening in real time, even though it's movie real time. It makes this situation for this kid seem even more intense, even if it's subtle.
On top of the challenging time sequence you had to pull off with "LUV," you worked with a child actor, staged a few action sequences and worked with a massive ensemble cast. What made you think you could pull all this off in your first feature?
Go hard or go home. I feel like now I understand the statement that people say — that if you only get to make one film in your lifetime, give it your all, like you're never going to get this opportunity again. For the many years that me and Justin developed the script and in the many years after that that it took to get the film made, a total of eight years, I just never stopped believing how special it was. Of course, there's a bigger-budget version of it, but it's not this story.
How long was the shoot for this film?
Nineteen-and-a-half days. The half a day I don't even remember. The only thing I remember is that there were shots I needed and when I got to that half a day, honestly I couldn't think straight.
Was your family at all wary about the fact that you were portraying them in this light?
No. They knew it was Baltimore, they knew I always a had a heart's desire to make Baltimore movies in the same way that Barry Levinson made Baltimore movies or the same way Spike Lee makes Brooklyn movies. What they did know was that I'd taken basically every family member of mine and made them a character in this film. So they're having a really interesting experience with the movie beyond the narrative.
You must have been a little nervous about putting a child actor through wringer like this. How did you negotiate the boundaries with Michael and his family?
It was a negotiation. When it came to the guns, Michael is really interesting because he's a true kid at heart, but he has such a really sensitive soft side about things, to people being hurt. So when it came to any uses of guns, after a take he would be like, "Sheldon, I don't wanna do that again."
For me, you always have to understand, whether you're a filmmaker or a plumber, a janitor, a lawyer, we're all dealing with the human condition. This is a privilege for all of us to be in the world of filmmaking and to tell stories and to actually make a living out of it. He's a child and we are making a movie that's make believe, but he's still a child in his life at 10 years old. This is going to affect him and I had to be very respectful of that. So when he said "Sheldon, I don't want to," I understood. I really did.
One thing that I really wanted to touch upon before we're done here is the humanity of "LUV." Almost every character, no matter how corrupt, has a redeeming quality, an empathetic quality that makes them fully dimensional as people — like the detective who carries around a picture of his kid, or the druglord dealing with the death of a loved one. Where did that come from, that inspiration to lend humanity to every single character and not make anybody out to be a villain?
Because even bad guys are people. Even the bad guy has a wife calling and saying, "Hey, can you pick up some milk and eggs on your way home?" So it comes back to we're all dealing with the human condition.
A prime example is the Jamison character — the drug tester. When we went back through it, I went, "He just doesn't feel real, he just doesn't feel like a real person to me." So we're meeting with Common and we're going over scenes and talking about backstory and really developing things and he is a very health-conscious person. He really watches what he puts in his body. So he makes protein shakes out of agave, hemp and almond milk. I though that was really interesting.
While rewriting the script, I thought this could all apply to Jamison. A guy who is really about purification in his body, taking care of himself and eating healthy, but his business is he's a drug dealer and has to test drugs which therefore contradict his pursuit in life. So we're all hypocritical and I thought that's really interesting. I'd never really seen a drug dealer like that — wheatgrass drinking and chopping up prescription pills and putting them in a smoothie. It all started with being really aware of listening and observing life and people's characteristic traits. That is his trait, he watches what he puts in his body. In this country, we consume a lot of meat. So Jamison says "Vincent, I bet you still put dead things in your body. Me, only living things."