"LUV" director Sheldon Candis
Nigel M. Smith "LUV" director Sheldon Candis
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.

Why's that?

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?

"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."

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.