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SXSW ’08 INTERVIEW | “Up With Me” Director Greg Takoudes

SXSW '08 INTERVIEW | "Up With Me" Director Greg Takoudes

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Screening in Narrative Feature Competition, Greg Takoudes‘ feature directorial debut, “Up With Me,” will be having its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Takoudes co-wrote the project with Maeve McQuillan, which follows a teenager in Harlem who is admitted to an upstate boarding school on scholarship. The film stars Francisco Vicioso, Erika Rivera, Brandon Thorpe and Justin Coltrain. indieWIRE talked to Takoudes about the film and his goals for SXSW.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking?

“Up With Me” is the first feature film that I directed – although I did co-write and co-produce another feature “House of Satisfaction” that will be coming out in late 2008. My becoming a filmmaker started with several years of working rather quietly in the industry in Los Angeles, at Ron Howard’s production company. It was a tremendous learning experience; there was a lot of joy and a lot of intelligence in the air at that company, and it was inspiring, because good filmmaking should usually incorporate both of those things. When I decided to make “Up With Me,” like many filmmakers, I spent time trying to raise money and gather interest – and like many filmmakers, there wasn’t much to show for the efforts. The momentum only changed when I simply took it upon myself to start making the movie.

There’s a big psychological difference between telling people that I was going to make a movie, and actually making it. No one believes that anyone’s going to make a movie. It’s too hard, too expensive, impossible. But everyone believes in a filmmaker who’s actually doing it as best they can. You know, it’s kind of like I grabbed my camera and jumped off this cliff, and started screaming for help – it’s the only way I could get people to make the movie with me, because by that point they had to step in and catch me. For me, making a film is about a leap of faith not in myself, but in the goodness and talents of other people. That’s a hugely compelling concept for me, and certainly motivates me to make my next movie.

What was the inspiration for this film?

The idea for “Up With Me” came out of a desire to make a movie that was, simply, about real people. I got interested in what would happen if I tried to make a narrative feature film while injecting as much unpredictable reality as possible into the process. That meant working with real people, in real places, and using plenty of improvisation – not only for the actors, but for the crew, as well, to incorporate real events while not relinquishing the movie’s central narrative thread. That desire for a creative challenge was matched by a populist impulse in me to want to make a movie that was somehow socially responsible.

So, I headed up to Harlem with the idea of making a movie with teens who were disadvantaged, and had little access to arts, and collaborate on a movie with them. Much like the old story about how Gregg Toland was supposedly able to teach Orson Welles everything about cinematography in one weekend, I wanted to turn these teens into filmmakers, to teach them film skills, and make our movie in a way that the creative responsibility for the film rested as much with the teens, as with me. I thought that if they understood this responsibility, that they would rise to the occasion. And they did. I started with a premise for the movie – about a kid who leaves the inner city for boarding school, where he gets kicked out for becoming the one thing he resisted becoming in the city – a drug dealer – and having to come back home to face the music. Then, I ran a writing workshop for several months with the teens, helping them to open up and write and talk about their personal experiences, in order to shape the characters and details and back-stories of these characters’ lives. Finally, we shot the film with these teens playing the roles that they helped write for themselves. We shot it in their real apartments, and in the streets where they hang out, with their friends and families playing roles in the film.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

Our goal was to make movie that was – as much as possible – a collaboration between these Harlem teenagers and our film crew. But we wanted our teens to take this movie and make it their own. We were willing to surrender a good deal of creative control to them – all non-professional kids – with the understanding that the only way this movie would work, was if the teens came to this project being as creative as they could. I’d been told to expect that half the kids would drop out in the first month. In fact, they all stuck with the film for almost a year of writing and production.

Our casting sessions were conducted as interviews. We weren’t looking for teens with specific acting experience, or with a certain kind of “look” or “type” – instead, we were looking for the most emotionally resilient and naturally creative kids. We were looking for kids who had stories to tell, and were bursting to tell them. That was our criteria. After casting our group, I conducted several months of writing workshops and interviews, where the teens’ own lives filled in many of the details and backgrounds of the characters in the film. My writing partner and I took the teens’ raw material and sculpted it into a script, went to the teens with it, and they gave notes. We went back and forth on this, until we had a script that we could take into the streets, with scenes we could improvise. We shot guerilla-style, with inadequate time, a lack of street permits, trying to infuse as many human moments as we could on the fly.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in completing the project?

Because we focused the production around the real lives of our teen actors, just keeping up with them was maybe the biggest challenge. We found ourselves making this movie in real time with the teens’ lives – and their lives were changing quickly. During the shoot, one of our actors became homeless and was living in shelters, which broke down lines of communication in the production, and I’d have to send out messages to people who knew him, to spread the word about call times and script changes. To the actor’s amazing resilience and talent, he never missed any shoots, and I think channeled his personal hardships into giving an unusually rich and focused performance. We mostly shot the movie on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after school let out, and worked until the available light disappeared, or the teens had to return home for dinner.

Real life friendships and romances between the kids strained, and changed our shooting schedule – and script – on a dime. One actor’s girlfriend was supposed to appear in the film, but they broke up the day before filming, and she refused to be on camera with him; we had to scrap the day, and eventually lost that entire subplot of the film. But these challenges became one of the biggest assets of the production, as well. My closeness to the teens’ lives created an unlikely bond. When we shot in [lead actor] Francisco’s apartment, his mom would cook an extravagant dinner for our crew; for the “welcome home party” scene, his mom took it upon herself (without anyone knowing) to decorate her own apartment with our prop decorations. It was a great, homey way to make a movie. I felt more like a dinner guest than a director, and it took the pressure and pretension out of the otherwise extremely hard task of working out our scenes.

What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?

I want people to see the movie (and like it!) – we have a sales rep, so we also have an eye towards picking up distribution. I’m developing several other features, so I’m going to be bending plenty of ears to set these.

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