"Gimme the Loot" follows Malcolm (Tysheeb Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana R. Washington), a pair of scrappy young graffiti artists trying to make their mark on the Bronx scene. "From the first scene, in which the duo awkwardly jack paint canisters from a store and hop into their getaway car, Leon establishes his characters as a pair of lawbreakers living on the fringes of society but remain essentially innocent, giggly children," wrote Eric Kohn in his review out of SXSW. "Inhabiting the same bubble of hip-hop attitude as 'Wild Style' did nearly 30 years earlier, Leon's movie resurrects the subculture with genre charm and low-budget appeal."
What's Next: Leon told Indiewire that he's working on "something that's a little different. I'm so passionate about it that I'm paranoid to talk about it."
You grew up in lower Manhattan, not the Bronx. What inspired you to tell a story that's not based around the area you're most familiar with?
I made a short film a few years ago set in the Bronx. It was where most of the cast was from. I like to explore the city as much as possible. I'm familiar with different neighborhoods. It felt like that's where these characters would be from. I also felt like this area isn't shown on film that much.
What is it about the Bronx in particular that lends itself to you filmmaking sensibilities?
There is so much activity and vibrancy in that part of the Bronx -- Castle Hill, Parkchester area. The streets are alive. You put a camera there and you can capture a lot a flavor.
Given that you're not from the area, what's the reaction been like from Bronx folks who have seen "Gimme the Loot"?
So far the reaction hasn't been negative. There's been no outcry. There are two African-American main characters, but I don't think it's a quote-unquote black film. I think it's a New York community story. I think that when people watch the movie, they get that. Hopefully we were true to all the characters, not just the two leads.
That's where the element of surprise comes from; the films has this really authentic vibe, something you can't fake. How did you achieve that, while being truthful to the characters and their world?
Part of it just being around the city and listening to conversations and being observant of all different kinds of people in the city. Part of it is really collaborating with my cast, and not being shy about needing that authenticity and asking questions.
I think that we all, as a crew, could tell when something felt false. We always made sure we got it right.
Did you encourage your cast to improv, or was it pretty tightly scripted?
It's pretty tightly scripted. I definitely encouraged them to use their own words, always. I would say that scenes themselves were rarely fully improvised. In general, we would say, "Okay you're going to ask for this, and you're going to say no, and you're going to convince her by saying this." I scripted everything, but I was willing to let the actors play with it. But some of the actors didn't like to do that. Some of them had a harder time to do anything that was on the page.