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.
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.
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.
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.