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'LUV' Writer-Director Sheldon Candis Talks About His Blistering Semi-Autobiographical Debut: "Go hard or go home."

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire January 14, 2013 at 11:12AM

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.
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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?

"LUV"
Sundance "LUV"

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."

This article is related to: Interviews, Sheldon Candis, LUV, Sundance Film Festival