Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot,” which took home the Best Narrative Feature award at SXSW 2012, opens in Los Angeles this weekend with a 96% Fresh rating to back it. (The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas compares it to Spike Lee’s debut “She’s Gotta Have It” “in its bristling energy and smart, sharp-tongued characters.”) The festival hit, which also went to Cannes, New Directors/New Films, the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle Film Festivals, grabbed the attention of director Jonathan Demme when the Jacob Burns Film Center (where both Leon and Demme are active) screened it for him. He was happy to come on board as Presenter when distributor IFC approached him. Leon tells Charlie Rose that Demme thought it was an “ego boost” to be asked, but Leon insists the honor was all his.
Leon grew up in Greenwich Village, graduated from Hunter High School and majored in African American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he
spent much of his off-hours watching DVDs he had checked out from the
library and writing screenplays. Before he left school he worked as a production assistant on Woody Allen’s “Hollywood Ending” and continued on to “Melinda and Melinda,” where Allen let him watch him in the editing room. (Allen’s PR rep Leslee Dart is Leon’s step-mother.) “Gimme the Loot” follows short film “Killer,” one of six shorts selected for New Directors/New Films, also starring Ty Hickson.
Weeks before Leon’s first feature production kicked off, his father, a now-retired veteran of the music industry, took him and one of his producers out to lunch. He told them not to freak out when things went wrong. Leon laughed and said “Dad, everything’s going to go wrong, we’re shooting guerrilla style in the Bronx!” But things went very, very right.
Below, Leon and I discuss his “Gimme the Loot,” which follows two Bronx teenagers as they plot their revenge
on a rival graffiti-writing gang over the course of two summer days.
Those two characters, Malcolm and Sofia, have personality to spare.
Sofia (Tashiana Washington) is one of the freshest female characters to hit the screen in
Sophia Savage: What has the past year been like for you, since “Gimme the Loot” won at SXSW 2012?
Adam Leon: Pretty unbelievable and surreal. That probably sounds cliche, but we were never expecting this to happen to our movie. To bring it around the world is wild and to be able to having it come out in theaters, that’s my absolute dream come true. I’m also so thankful to have been able to share this all with our deeply talented and downright fun team.
Do you consider your films purely works of fiction, or are they heavily inspired by your own experiences?
I think you grab everything and anything you can that works when telling a story. It could be a personal experience, it could be a anecdote someone told you, etc. But this is a movie of fiction for sure.
When you cast a film, what are you looking for in the actors?
Well first they have to meet the criteria of the role. There are plenty of talented actors that just aren’t right for a specific role because of their look, their age, their vibe. But then people who are determined and focused and passionate and also that I feel comfortable trusting.
Sofia and Malcolm are great characters. How did you develop their traits and the relationship between them?
A lot of rehearsal and workshopping and just hanging out with Ty and Tashiana, really exploring and discussing who these people are and trying to also be honest and authentic to what their lives, relationships, and conversations would be.
The other great character in the film is the Bronx itself. Tell us about shooting there and what its been like to represent it to the world through this film?
We loved shooting in the Bronx. Not a lot of people go up there to shoot and when they do it’s usually about portraying it as this miserable place, which it isn’t. I mean, the Bronx, it’s tough, there’s no doubt about that, but they really opened up to us because of the type of story we were telling, because we’re New Yorkers, and I think because we really went there with nothing but love and respect in our hearts.
What’s your process like on set with your crew? And how to you ensure you will get the authenticity you need in each shot?
For this movie, we needed to embrace the fact that the City was going to throw us for a loop constantly. Kids wouldn’t show up, locations might fall through, so we all had to go with the flow and embrace the adventure of it. And also since we were working with these non-professional, young actors, it was key that the set feel very comfortable and friendly. We worked on and discussed creating that atmosphere and hiring smart, cool people to be on the movie’s team.
What was your budget and length of shoot?
Our production budget was $65K, our total budget was about $100K more than that. We shot for 21 days and a couple reshoot days.
Biggest challenge of getting this film made?
Casting. We have all these non-professional teenage actors, and they’re amazing, but finding them was tricky, in particular finding Sofia.
Do you want to continue to make independent films, or are you hungry to work with bigger budgets in the studio system?
I want to tell stories that thrill and excite and audience and work with excellent, dedicated, smart people who are on the same page as me. I think that can be possible at various levels and with various types of stories, but it’s a challenge to pull it together no matter what. I do love that challenge though.
How do you think “indie” filmmaking has evolved over the past five years? The festival scene? And do you think those changes are positive?
I guess the digital revolution is the key thing, not just in terms of keeping film costs down, but also the ability to shoot in so many places with a small crew. I think of “Frances Ha” and the Paris or “visit home” sequence, or even the recent Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky videos shot there where you can just take a few people and go jump on a plane and do it.
If you could only watch one movie over and over again for the rest of your life, which would it be?
You’re directing a silent black and white film; which two living actors do you cast?
I would cast Meryl Streep. That’s really all you need, she can play both parts.
Best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
I would say the best advice I received was, “Go make Gimme the Loot” and the worst was, “Don’t make Gimme the Loot, it won’t work.” I’m glad I listened to the former because at least for us, we’re proud of this movie, it’s what we wanted to make and we’re so excited that some people seem to agree.