Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CIFF notes: talking cheap with Gimme the Loot director Adam Leon

Posted By on 10.24.12 at 05:37 PM

Adam Leon (right) with star Ty Hickson. Photo courtesy Getty Images
  • Adam Leon (right) with star Ty Hickson. Photo courtesy Getty Images
The low-budget comedy Gimme the Loot was one of my favorite movies to play at the Chicago International Film Festival this year. Like Welcome to Pine Hill, another recent New York indie feature, Adam Leon's directorial debut exudes a casually inclusive vibe that I find hard to resist. (The lively audiences at the two festival screenings seemed to think so too.) Most of the multiracial cast consists of kids whom Leon found in the Bronx, and much of the movie's affectionate humor derives from their particular ways of joking and talking shit. Indeed, the slender plot feels like an excuse to spend a few days with the central characters, a couple of teenage graffiti artists who dream of tagging the giant apple in Citi Stadium where the Mets play. Sundance Selects has picked up the movie for theatrical distribution, so you may have another chance to see it here if you missed it at CIFF.

Last week I spoke briefly with Leon while he was in town for the festival. Our conversation follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: One of the main characters in Gimme the Loot makes some money delivering weed to rich folks. One thing I appreciated about the movie is that it illustrates this basic fact of American life—that weed brings together people who probably wouldn't meet otherwise.

Adam Leon: That would make a great slogan for weed! (laughs) But I agree, and I think that's true of any place in America with a diverse population. I know people [in New York] who have been involved in that world, and they were delivering to lawyers, college students, and kids on the street . . . It really can be this great uniter, probably because it's illegal. I think if you were able to just go into a store and buy it, this phenomenon wouldn't exist. But instead, there's this black market, and it creates this environment where people have to help each other out.

I was interested in this idea of people from different backgrounds crossing paths. Marijuana delivery just made sense as a [means of] connection.

So, you had decided on the theme before you decided how to depict it?

Yeah. The idea of the movie was just to do something with these kids who have these vivid lives—they come from this tough background, but they aren't necessarily miserable people. I wanted to do something with them that was more of an adventure, along the lines of movies about suburban kids, like Dazed and Confused or Superbad. Because you don't see [movies like] that in this kind of environment.

The kids you see in Gimme the Loot have fun; they make mistakes and fall in love and go on these adventures. That was what I wanted to show. The rest of the plot came from that jumping-off point.

From Gimme the Loot
  • From Gimme the Loot
In so many American movies, it seems like an underlying theme is, "if you don't have money, there's something wrong with your life."

Or, again, that you're automatically miserable. I mean, life is easier if you have money—the kids in Gimme the Loot spend the whole movie trying to get it—but I don't think that means everything is just a horror show if you don't have it. I hope that people watching the film see that these kids are actually kids.

When I watched the film, I kept thinking about American comedies from the Depression, which are often about the adventures you have when you're poor.

I take that as a huge compliment. But the movie I looked at [when I was preparing to make Loot] was The Little Fugitive [made in 1953], because that's a model of how to work with kids who aren't professional actors. And even though the kids in that come from these tough backgrounds, it's a really warmhearted movie about Coney Island. I love Christmas in July too.

In all these movies, there's a sense that life's just more exciting when you're poor because you have little left to lose.

That was definitely something we were trying to explore. Some of the first people who read the script were put off because they thought the stakes were too low. They were like, "No, it has to be a story about [the kids] losing their baby!" But that's so not the point of this story.

One producer I met with said, "You wrote a good script, but why should I care [about these people]?" And I understand what he meant. No one is supposed to care about whether these kids can put their tag on the Mets' home run apple. The point is that you care about the characters, and they care about it.

This gets to another problem with a lot of American comedies: this assumption that people want to see characters with ordinary, materialistic lives. That's why we get, like, three movies every year about Katherine Heigl meeting a nice guy and buying a house.

I think that Hollywood still makes some strong romantic comedies. But we were working on a much smaller scale, obviously, so we decided to embrace what we had.

You wanted to use the parameters of low-budget filmmaking to your advantage?

loot3.jpg
Sometimes it was about using our disadvantages to our advantage! In terms of production, we spent a lot of time preparing for things to go wrong every day on the shoot, because we knew we couldn't afford to freak out. We had to just go with the flow. And because I had this incredible crew and cast who knew what the essence of the movie was, it was OK when a kid didn't show up for a scene. We'd just go and find another kid in the neighborhood.

How often did that happen?

Fairly often. So, you know that scene where Sofia gets her bike stolen, and she asks those girls why they didn't stop [the thieves] and they're like, "I don't care"? The girls who were supposed to be there were going to do a whole other thing, but they didn't show up. So, those girls on the stoop were just watching the production; we grabbed them and put them in the movie . . . The idea was that if you had a few hours and you wanted to be in the movie, you were in the movie.

Have you shown the movie in the neighborhood where you shot it?

Not yet, but we're going to have some big screenings around there when the movie comes out [in a few months]. We've only actually screened it twice in New York, and both times were at the New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art. It was exciting to be up on stage there with Miko, the guy in the movie with tattoos on his face. He was saying that if you'd asked him ten years ago where he'd be today, he would have said dead or in jail. But instead, he's onstage at the Museum of Modern Art. It was such a wonderful moment, a real validation for everyone involved with the movie.

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