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Tribeca Directors to Watch: Student Academy Award Winner Justin Tipping ‘Kicks’ Off the Fest Tonight

Tribeca Directors to Watch: Student Academy Award Winner Justin Tipping 'Kicks' Off the Fest Tonight

The Tribeca Film Festival officially opens today, complete with the Opening Night premiere of the newly-created U.S. Narrative Competition category” “Kicks.” Co-writer and director Justin Tipping has been on people’s radars for awhile, having won a Student Academy Award and the Lexus Short Film competition, which led him to making another short produced by the Weinstein Company. Many believed Tipping had the potential be the next Ryan Coogler (who just so happens to be a friend of Tipping’s), in the sense that he was an exciting, young Bay Area filmmaker telling stories of young people of color. The delay, which will end tonight, in Tipping reaching the stage with his first feature is “Kicks” is a somewhat costly indie, complete with stunts and visual effects, and his cast of largely non-profession of teens of color didn’t necessarily have room for bankable name actors.
Indiewire checked in with Tipping to learn about his approach to filmmaking, the relationship between Italian Neorealism and the type of filmmaker he wants to be and his path to making a first feature that draws from his experiences as an Oakland teen.

You went to film school for undergrad and then the AFI for grad school. Was film school important to you becoming the filmmaker you are today? 
For me, personally, film school was very important, but I think it’s different for everyone — there’s no right path to becoming a filmmaker. In fact, I never really knew you could have a career in film until I got to UCSB. After several misguided and failed attempts at a business economics major, I found myself in the Film and Media Studies program which focused primarily on film history and film theory — revolving primarily around analysis and applying cultural theory to film I was able to gain a greater understanding of the educational, cultural and political effects films can have on society as a whole. This really influenced me as a filmmaker in terms of what story I’m telling and why. You’ve got to have a point of view. And on top of that, it was during this time I was looking at the under-representation of so many people throughout Hollywood’s history I sort of just said to myself why can’t I be the one who tells stories I want to see of those marginalized groups?  
I was also being exposed to hundreds of films spanning every genre, movement, and country — it was like learning a new language — having that many films to reference creates a foundation to help build your own film vocabulary.  I even worked as a projectionist and got to watch films for classes I wasn’t even taking. However, there was little production courses, and that’s why I decided to apply to the directing program at the American Film Institute a few years later after working every job on set I could in LA.
The American Film Institute was like getting ten years of experience in the industry in just two years. It was a place where you could spectacularly fail and experiment with ideas with the short films you made. I concentrated in Directing, so that’s all I did — working everyday with actors blocking scenes, collaborating with department heads from the other disciplines, and the faculty treat your productions the same way studios run shows.  I was blessed to have mentors around like Frank Pierson and Gill Dennis. It was a dream come true to have such legendary filmmakers roaming the halls and being able to ask them questions and opinions. On top of that, you get to see all of your peers make films from conception to final cut and you’re on set every week in different capacities helping your fellows out. This let me see all the successes and failures from script to screen. It taught me how to utilize time on set, how people manage crews, etc.     
I was lucky enough to leave school with a short film that helped launch me to the next level. Even if I hadn’t had the success I did with my short out of AFI, I would’ve continued making shorts until I made some waves. 

How is this film influenced by Italian Neorealism? Is that an influence that’s specific of what you were going for with “Kicks,” or your approach to filmmaking in general?
I studied Italian cinema in Rome and that had a huge impact on me. Maybe even more subconsciously than I was aware of now that I think about it. Filming on locations, using non-actors from where we were shooting, but more specifically the type of stories being told in the Italian Neorealism space were often very small stories about very simple things on the surface yet the stakes were so high and the stories spoke to the way people lived at the time on such bigger levels. Films like “Umberto D” and Pasolini’s “Accottone” followed characters Hollywood wouldn’t normally follow — people on the fringes of society, almost forgotten by the world, the lower class, yet their stories are treated with such gravity and emotional weight.  

“The Bicycle Thief” was a huge inspiration behind “Kicks.” How a stolen bicycle could affect an entire family in such a devastating way, I looked at that structure and thought about my life, where I grew up, and when developing “Kicks,” I often went back to that film. However, it wasn’t just directors like De Sica — I was also visually influenced by Fellini and his dream sequences that managed to be very surreal yet so grounded. It’s a hard tone to create and maintain. There’s definitely a shot in “Kicks” I’d refer to as the  8 1/2 shot. 

The cast is largely young teenagers. What was your approach to casting and working with them?
It was a major undertaking. I knew I was going to have to find a mix of non actors and actors. Having some kids with experience would definitely help how fast we could move on set. So we had casting directors seeing hundreds of kids in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We were lucky enough to get pros like Kim Hardin who has casted everything from “Next Friday” to “Hustle and Flow” to spearhead the LA search.  

At the same time, I was in the Bay Area going out with my producers to every youth group we could schedule including RYSE, United Playaz, Youth Uprising to name a few. Also just street casting. We had open calls and flyers ready to go. So we would literally run up to kids in the neighborhoods we were going to be filming in and asked them to audition. It worked. I even took to Instagram to get a hold of friends of friends and artists and local rappers I thought had a good look and vibe.

I loved “Romeo is Bleeding,” is that how you ended up casting Donte Clark?  
No, I actually had no idea who he was at the time. We had an open casting call at RYSE [a non-profit youth arts center] in Richmond and we were seeing any kid that wanted to audition. We saw Donte in the hallway and asked him to read the part of the cousin. He just picked up the sides and did a cold reading that was pretty incredible. I gave adjustments for fun and he took them — it was clear he was a natural and had performed in some capacity before.  

As I talked to him on tape I realized he taught spoken word and was a writer himself, so I asked him to share some spoken work on the spot. He performed a piece he had written, and it blew everyone in the room away. I guess the rest is history. I later learned “Romeo is Bleeding” was in the middle of filming him when I casted him. He’s a raw talent and hope he continues to pursue acting and the arts in general. He deserves a biggest platform he can get. 

How much of this story has been taken from your experience growing up in the Oakland Bay Area?
Mostly everything is inspired by experiences I, myself, my friends, or my family went through and stories they shared. Usually when I write, my characters become part me, someone I know, and part imagination. I don’t really feel the need to put all my business in the streets if you know what I mean, but yeah, I got jumped over some Nikes, and I recorded rap in makeshift bedroom studios. And the beating I took over Nikes, the humiliation I felt walking around school with black eyes, a busted lip, knowing I didn’t get a hit in and being told by my brother and peers that it was all good anyway because “you’re a man now.” That is the emotional impetus and the most important theme I wanted to explore in regards to masculinity and what society equates with being and becoming a “man.”

It’s pretty backwards in retrospect and my interest is in how we can create a dialogue to solve this notion that masculinity is synonymous with violence — why do we perpetuate it? how can it be un-taught? This story, at its core, is universal in the sense that violence amongst cliques and hanging out with friends, and partying in the Bay Area isn’t necessarily different than any other teenager no matter where you’re from or what your socio-economic standing is. Teenage years are rough because you’re so impressionable and it’s difficult to navigate social hierarchy’s and societal norms that are created before you even get there.  The Bay Area is so diverse culturally and racially, it’s truly a beautiful melting pot of people from all walks of life and everyone’s got a story — it’s important they’re all heard. 

I understand that you’ve been trying to get this film off the ground for awhile now. Why was it so difficult to get made and how did you eventually pull it together?
Yes, I’ve been living with this story for a long time now. I actually had the idea in 2009 while studying at the American Film Institute and finished the first draft of the feature script in 2011. 
I think it was difficult to get made because, well, I had written an R-rated coming of age story that dealt with heavy subject matter, all roles for the most part called for African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, Filipino, or mixed-race undiscovered or “no-name” teenage actors, and it was extremely stunt heavy with visual effects. This made it a “major indie” in the sense we couldn’t just go shoot it, and we needed more days and more money than a typical indie film, but we were never going to get a small studio type budget as this was my first feature.

With all that going, it took a long time to find producers who were going share the same vision and let me make the film I set out to make. I even tried applying multiple times for grants and funding at various places that support indie filmmakers and stories like mine, but never had any luck.

But then I finally met David Kaplan and Animal Kingdom right after they premiered “Short Term 12” in LA and he loved the script, believed in me, and we shared the same vision. Pulling the finances together to fund a film like this is an art form within itself and, after some time, David was the one who pulled it all together from various sources around the world.  

It took a lot of meetings, lunches, pitches and perseverance. And ultimately, we were able to make creative choices that allowed us to operate within a certain budget by cutting pages from the original script, and re-thinking my approach to the visual effects and stunts without compromising the story.  

“Kicks” will have its world premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

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