Early in Gimme the Loot, Adam Leon’s entirely winning debut picture set in the world of Bronx graffiti artists, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), the pic’s teen taggers, stumble across one of their creations defaced by a rival crew. “Don’t let me catch one of these motherfuckers bumping our pieces,” mutters Malcolm a scene later as he orders pizza. “I’ll come up behind them and it will be like some Goodfellas shit … I’ll put two in the back of the head!” For a moment, it seems as if the film will play out like so many urban dramas, with violence and bloodshed cutting short these two young lives sometime late in the third act. But just for a moment, because Sofia, a no-nonsense tomboy, shoots right back with comic street smarts: “First of all, nobody in their right mind is going to give you a gun. It’s not funny. And second of all, you shoot someone, you shoot them in the eye!” And right then we realize that while Gimme the Loot may take place on some of the same mean streets, it couldn’t be further away in tone and spirit from all those other violent dramas. Nothing bad will really happen to these two lovable tough-talkers as they crisscross the city one summer weekend, trying to score the cash needed to bribe their way into Citi Field for one epic tag (the giant apple that ascends following a home run), while simultaneously discovering romantic feelings for each other.
Of course there are complications, not the least of them a rich-kid stoner, Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), who Malcolm sets his eye on, a lost pair of sneakers and assorted low-level antagonists who harass, humiliate, but never defeat, our winsome heroes. Crackling with the energy of downtown New York, which the picture captures at times in an almost documentary style, Gimme the Loot is an appealingly modest film that winds up a real crowd-pleaser by virtue of its sharp direction, taut pacing and enormously endearing performances by its two leads. Premiering at SXSW, it was picked up by IFC Films and then selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. I spoke with Leon in a downtown cafe about growing up in New York, business plans and how his first film came together.
So you grew up in the East Village?
Right around here, yeah. A different city.
And what was your first encounter with filmmaking?
I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but my dad was friendly with Billy Crystal, and when they shot the Washington Square Park scenes for When Harry Met Sally, he let my dad and me come and visit the set. I was young, seven or eight maybe, and I thought it was so cool. I shot in Washington Square Park for Gimme the Loot, so I guess there is sort of a connection there. My parents are huge movie fans. Growing up, my mom really didn’t want me watching Saturday morning cartoons, so she would show me movies that were probably a little bit above what I should’ve been watching at the time. And then my parents divorced, and that’s what we did on the weekends. We went to go see movies — also, probably, movies that were inappropriate for me to be seeing at that time.
Did any ones in particular pop out?
The first movies I saw as a kid that made me want to [make films] were the Star Wars movies; I just loved them so much. But I remember my mom taking me to see Rain Man and my dad taking me to see The Mosquito Coast.
And then what did you study in college?
[Laughs] African-American studies. I think it feels because of the movie that there is a connection there, and maybe there is, but I think that the movie came organically for other reasons. I didn’t go to college planning on doing that [major]. I’d gone to this great high school in New York, Hunter College High School, which is this magnet public school. It’s really diverse, with kids from all over the city. And when I went to college to this Ivy League school, University of Pennsylvania, I expected that it would be that times 10. But in the initial classes I was taking, people were brown-nosing the professors, always trying to say the right thing. In the African-American studies classes, people were getting real, and there was a more diverse group of students. I was really attracted to that. But anyway, in college I wrote my own screenplays, and I started to work on movies. The college also had this great library of DVDs, and I would take out a DVD every other day and watch movies at night.
So do you think those early influences — Star Wars and even When Harry Met Sally — are what prompted you to make a real crowd-pleasing film instead of an art film, or small personal drama, as your debut?
[Filmmaking] is an art, but anybody who is going to be making something that’s between 70 and 180 minutes and putting it in movie theaters is ultimately showing it for an audience. You can work out your own issues, but it’s for an audience. Now, Gimme the Loot, in particular, I think is trying to be a crowd-pleaser. I’m really focused on that relationship between the storytellers, the story being told and the audience. I want to make things that move an audience. Not every project that I’m interested in necessarily has that goal, but no matter what, I do think that I’m really audience-focused. That’s essential to me.
So what happened after you graduated from Penn?
I worked on other people’s projects, did p.a stuff. I p.a.’d a couple of Woody Allen movies. I worked on some of my own little silly shorts and music videos. I took film festival jobs, which were really great because you worked for a few months, and you got to be around that industry and meet people and see movies, but then take a couple of months off and work on your own stuff. So that’s pretty much what I did.
Do you think your work at film festivals — that peek behind the curtain into the festival business — informed your filmmaking? Was there anything that you picked up from watching the process of films being submitted, selected and rejected?
Well, there are a lot of bad movies, that’s definitely [Laughs] true. But really, I think of it as a positive experience, and especially when you work with [an organization] like the New York Film Festival. There’s a lot of politics in any sort of organization, but you’re surrounded by people who really love movies. And there’s this mix of celebrity and excitement, even though it was in some cases a low-level job. But you’re able to take Olivier Assayas around and watch the vice presidential debate with him and stuff like that. But I think the thing that informed Gimme the Loot the most was that I saw how a movie that was 80 minutes and fun stood out when people are watching five movies a day. We knew that Gimme the Loot, if it was going to be successful, was going to have to be successful via the film festival circuit first. And so it was encouraging that what I wanted to do was going to fit well into that mode.
Did you ever explore going out to L.A. and making films there instead of in the New York independent world?
Well, one thing is that I can’t drive. I mean, I’m a real New Yorker. And I felt that I should “write what you know.” I had also co-directed this short film called Killer, and I worked with Ty, who plays Malcolm in Gimme the Loot, and some nonprofessional actors here in New York. I was really excited by that process and I wanted to do it again. I had a good idea for a first film that could be made for a really low budget. Somebody read the script and said, “You can go and make this movie for $1 million and you could get somebody from Gossip Girl to be Ginnie. Or one of the kids from The Wire to be Malcolm.” That just didn’t feel right to me. People told me a lot of things. Somebody told me to make the characters white. And I think the response to that was, “Well, one of [this film’s] advantages is that we can make it for very little money, and so we can kinda do what we want.” I felt I had a good first feature that was on the right scale. I see people try to make a $5-million movie for $100,000 and that doesn’t work. This felt like it should be homemade. It wasn’t the first script I wrote, it wasn’t the first project I was pursuing, but it’s the first one that really felt I could go out and do.
And what inspired the story?
It was a few different things. I think the first thing that came was the tone and the setting. I knew these kids, and I knew that their lives were tough. They come from gritty neighborhoods, but they’re not necessarily miserable — not all of their mothers raped them, you know? And while those stories are really important and deserve to be told, I felt like there was another story that deserved to be told, too — one that wasn’t about identity politics or self-realization, one that was really about youth. I just wanted to do something that was about two or three days in the summer of these really smart and endearing kids, kids who I knew in real life. So, I looked for a story set in that world. And then, when we did the short, we worked with some graffiti writers. I knew that world a little bit going in, but I got more involved with it when I did the short film, and I thought it was a great jumping off point. Then I went to a Mets game — I’m a Yankees fan, but I went to a Mets game. It was my friend’s bachelor party, and I just saw the apple go up and said, “That would be such a great get for a graffiti writer.” And it kinda came from there.
How long did it take to write the script?
I wrote a draft in about four months or so, and then for the next year and a half, as we were getting the movie made, I just continued to rewrite. I’d go on the subway and eavesdrop on conversations. I’d work with the actors on the language, on what felt real and authentic. And by the time we were ready to shoot, our shooting script was pretty much what you see in the movie.
What was your production like?
I think that the plan always was to prepare as much as possible, to get a crew together that was really on the same page, a very small crew, to really know our characters and the tone inside and out, to know how we wanted to shoot this, and then to go out there and shoot it fast to grab that energy. And, so, every day was very exciting. Every day was an adventure. Kids wouldn’t show up, and so you go and you find kids in the neighborhood to be in your movie instead. My dad said to me a few weeks before we were supposed to start shooting, “Look, just don’t get freaked out when things go wrong.” And Natalie [Difford], my producer, and I, we laughed and said to him, “Dad, everything’s going to go wrong.” And we embraced that. When something would go wrong, we would say, “Well, how do we make this better?”
How long did you shoot?
The initial production was 21 days. We did a couple of little reshoots. And I think the shooting style that I wanted for the movie really fit with the production demands, which was to not do a lot of coverage. We had done a lot of rehearsals, so the actors really knew their roles and the scenes. And, so, I felt comfortable and confident with them doing three-minute takes. We were then able to do a lot of takes so that when the noise was bad or a passerby looked at the camera, we could just keep going.
How big was the crew?
We were usually around 10. I believe the biggest day we had 15, and the smallest day I think we had seven. We had our on-set producer, one art person, sometimes, the d.p., an a.c. and usually sort of a grip/gaffer, although not every day. There was one sound guy, a couple of p.a.s, and that was pretty much it. Jamund Washington is one of the producers, and he ran the set. He’s really also a creative producer with me. I just wanted him by my side talking through every single shot, every single moment. He went to film school at Columbia and I really loved collaborating and working with him.
Tell me about the camera and the shooting style. When did you make the decision to give it this very definite video look?
We shot on the Sony F900, which is a camera that was developed by George Lucas for Attack of the Clones. It’s a surprising choice, I think, because it was developed to [show] how sharp and crystal clear and amazing digital technology is. I wanted to go for a look that has a sort of a grittiness, a little bit of a throwback feel. We looked at a lot of 16mm documentaries from the ’70s, like An American Family, and bad film transfers. We also looked at early digital stuff, like ’80s sports video and things like Hoop Dreams. We experimented a little bit with just actually replicating those looks, but what I really wanted was to evoke those looks while still being a modern movie. I told my d.p. [Jonathan Miller] that I wanted it to feel like summer 2011. I didn’t want fake grain, but I did want it to have a sense of the homemade. “Lo-fi,” “construction paper,” those are the words that I used. We did a lot of camera tests. We tested the Alexa. We tested old cameras. We tested the 5Ds. And we kept going back to that camera over and over again. It shoots on HD cam, and we used standard def lenses. And my d.p. messed [around] a lot with the settings. He upped the gain a lot, even in the daytime shooting, to give it that grainy feel.
Did you ever worry about where the line between artfully and intentionally scuzzed out and just plain scuzzy is?
My producers [worried], I think. [Laughs] There’s this thing that post production people say: “The scuzzier you make this in camera, the less we’re going to be able to do in post.” But my argument was, “I know what I want this to look like, so let’s get it to look like that. I’m not going to be changing my mind later.”
We talked in the beginning about personal films and audience films. But every first film is, in some way, a personal film. So what’s personal about this movie for you?
There’s so much. First of all, New York — it’s a huge part of who I am and how I identify myself. It’s a cliché, but New York is a character in this movie. It’s a love story between these two characters, but it’s also a bit of a love story between [them and] the place that they exist in. And then there’s just channeling what it was like to be a teenager. Stories and conversations I had growing up are in the movie. And I’d like to think that there’s a bit of me in those three main characters, in Malcolm, Sofia and in Ginnie. Ginnie’s definitely reminiscent of a lot of girls that I knew growing up. Malcolm struggles with the girls, wanting to think he’s the greatest, but it doesn’t always work out. And Sofia’s pretty much what I’m like when I’m hungry, [laughs] which is tough, no bullshit and kind of moody, but hopefully not a bad person. I don’t know … of course it’s a personal film, but it’s not necessarily autobiographical.
What about the music? You sidestepped a lot of obvious hip-hop for more of an R&B approach.
It was a really early instinct to not have [the score] be hip-hop, although there is a lot of hip-hop in [the film]. And, again, that was about setting the tone and also setting a little bit of a separation. It goes to a bigger point, which is we wanted everything to be authentic, but we weren’t trying to make a fake documentary. We were embracing the idea that the characters should feel real, the locations are real, the graffiti and all of that should be really, really true to life, but that this is a movie. We wanted to have fun, so let’s embrace that. The music was really about setting that tone.
Did you use Kickstarter for music licensing funds?
We didn’t use it for the music. We had a Kickstarter campaign that was later in the game, after we got into SXSW, for finishing funds. I think people misuse Kickstarter sometimes. They write a script and then they go to Kickstarter. The more of the team you have built and the later you are in the process, I think it’s easier for people to say, “This is a real thing,” and get on board.
What was the production budget for the film?
It’s tricky, whether or not I’m allowed to say this or not, but I think we’re getting to the point where it’s okay to say it as the release comes up. The production budget was under $100,000.
Private equity, I assume.
Yeah. I had saved up a little money, so I’m an investor. My parents came in with a little bit, but not that much, and we got a couple of other people on board. And then we got really lucky. This wonderful guy I know, a friend who I wasn’t expecting to invest, I had him look at the business plan. He’s a really smart businessman, and I just wanted to see what made sense in it and what needed help. And he came in and gave us the majority of our funds.
Did you do the business plan yourself? Or was that with the producers?
With the producers. We took a really long, hard time on that. It’s the boring stuff.
I’m often quite cynical about independent film business plans. Too many are really based on nothing.
I think it was important for us to be able to walk into a room, whether it was with another producer or an investor, and be honest with them about how it could make money. [We’d say], “It’s a tough business, but here is how it could make some of its money back.” Coming in with a professional document that read like a proper business plan, that had good comparables and was well organized and well thought out, was important to us. I think it said to people, “We’re serious about this. We are professionals, even though this is our first time doing this. We’re not going in this willy-nilly.”
And how did you do the comps with no stars and a first-time director?
Well, we just said it was going to be like Raising Victor Vargas. [Laughs]
It’s funny because I’ve actually gotten business plans that have said that. I remember reading one of them and saying to myself, “Wow. I’m a millionaire.”
We worked for seven, eight years [around the film business], so what we did was just go to everybody we knew. We said, “Don’t worry, we’re not trying to hit you up for money, only an hour of your time for some advice.” You do that, and many people want to help. They show you their business plans, or they give you comps. We were really lucky. The New York independent film world is very supportive in that way. We had in there what would happen if IFC distributed it, what would happen if Fox Searchlight distributed it. We broke down every sort of independent distributor.
So what panned out from your original business plan?
We hit our “high middle” [projections]. What panned out was getting Submarine to represent it [for sales]. I think that was in there as a possibility. And IFC distributing it. I think we’ve exceeded our international [projections].
Being selected for Cannes must have been one of your best-case scenarios.
Cannes was not in our business plan! That was just beyond our wildest dreams. Everybody told us, “You don’t really have international prospects on this movie.” But Cannes changed that.
Who did your foreign sales?
A small French company called Urban Distribution International. They actually don’t really do American independent films. They do a lot of Latin American movies and French movies. We were at New Directors/New Films and Marian Masone introduced me to Eric [Schnedecker, head of sales and acquisitions] at a brunch before our movie was about to screen. I was like, “Just go see it. Here’s two tickets.” And he was like, “I want to watch Mad Men all day.” I said, “Go see the movie.” [Afterwards he said], “I love this movie. We don’t really do independent American movies, but that could help. We can say to film festivals and international distributors, ‘You know us, we don’t normally do films like this. This isn’t just an indie hipster movie. There’s something really exciting and fresh about it.’”
And you’ve had good sales?
We’ve had good sales. We have this great French distribution deal with Diaphana, and it’s coming out Jan. 2. We have a great U.K. deal with Soda Pictures.
Have there been surprises, things you didn’t plan on during this process?
I didn’t plan on a French distributor flying me out to Paris three times to do press and to have it come out on 40 screens in France.
What about the process of filmmaking? What did you learn?
What it confirmed for me, which I already knew, is that I do not produce. I don’t know what is wrong with you guys, [laughs] but I love directing so much. And I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but, obviously, I believe in myself. You don’t do this if you don’t believe in yourself. I really thought I could do it. I’m nowhere near a master craftsman. But I think there’s no doubt I’m a much better filmmaker now than I was a year and a half ago. I do not, however, think that I’m a better filmmaker because of Cannes or because of an Independent Spirit Award nomination. It’s through the process of making the film that I learned so many things. I read interviews with filmmakers, whether they are Robert Altman or even Steven Spielberg, who say that they are always learning. They learn something from every project. And that’s one of the things I really love about it.