Adam Leon Talks 'Gimme the Loot' and NYC Filmmaking

Actor Ty Hickson, director Adam Leon, and actress Tashiana Washington attend the "Gimme The Loot" New York Premiere at MOMA on March 19, 2013 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics »Writer/director Adam Leon garnered acclaim from critics around the world after his first feature, Gimme the Loot, debuted last year at The Cannes Film Festival and SXSW. His down-to-earth vision of New York City and its lively cast of characters rang true for many people and marked Leon as an artist to watch. We talked with the 31-year-old about Gimme the Loot, shooting his favorite scene, his hometown of New York, and its rich history of films.

There've been a lot of movies about New York especially focused on teens. Were you intimidated making the movie knowing the city's film history?
No, I think you're aware of it and you want to be respectful to both the city and, of course, the history is there and it looms large, but we had a story to tell and we hoped we were showing a bit of New York you don't usually see on films and TV. But yeah, that's one of the things that was very exciting to us—to be able to tell the story both in terms of its tone and its location.

What films were references for you?
Obviously there's this great historic New York canon of movies that I watched growing up but I tried to not watch too much of that as I was preparing, but there is this one movie from the '50s called Little Fugitive that's about these working class kids that go to Coney Island for the day in the summer and its a little bit of a "tough kids from a tough neighborhood." It has a lot of heart to it and is a really fun story. It was shot out on the streets of New York. They just took out a camera and captured what was going on in that environment and that's very much the approach in terms of tone and production we were trying to take with our story.

My favorite scene is when Malcolm is intimidated by the three girlfriends, that really rang true for me. Can you tell me what your favorite scene was?
Well, thank you. That's a scene that a lot of people have a lot of strong emotions about. My favorite scene in the movie is (long pause) I don't know. I really like the scene when Malcolm and Ginnie first meet and they're on the bed and there's this idea of these two people from very different worlds, but, for me, it makes sense that their paths would cross and then how do you get these two people—in this short amount of time—to have a connection with each other. That was always the idea there and it took a lot of writing and a lot of rewriting. It was kind of a constant process and I think that Ty (Hickson) and Zoe (Lescaze) were able to really click and make that scene—that I thought was hard to pull off and wasn't really getting there—they were really able to own the characters and own that situation and I'm really proud of them.

So you guys did rehearsals?
Yeah pretty extensive rehearsals, about three months, a lot of scene work, a lot of workshopping, a lot of just hanging out, talking, getting to know each other, building up a trust between everybody. Really talking through the characters and everything, I think, clicked for all the actors in the rehearsal process so when we were able to go to set they really owned their characters by that point.

I would imagine rehearsals would've played a big part in something like this where you're trying to pump out scenes in the middle of the city.
Yeah I don't think you can put a camera down in the middle of the Bronx and, with all the other things that are going on, say, "Alright what is this scene about? What should happen here?" You have to show up really knowing that because there's enough going on in the natural environment that's going to create spontaneity, it's going to create a looseness, an authenticity that's really going to inform that scene that day so, yeah, it was good to have that preparation.

I wondered if you ran into any surprise moments? Peter Bogdanovich talked about this scene in The Last Picture Show where the sun comes out spontaneously and it changed how this one scene looked and created this kind of "happy accident."
We had this great weather coincidence where it was—we shot in August—and it was the rainiest August on record but somehow we were able to avoid the rain. I mean, we had a couple little problems with it but, in terms of the weather since you brought that up, we did have this scene towards the end of the movie where they're (Malcolm and Sofia) really at their lowest and it was pouring rain that day and it really adds a lot to the scene. There was a lot of things. We'd get to set and have a certain idea of what the shot would be, but, there's these great guys playing dominos over here so lets incorporate that into the shot so we can capture the environment and that moment. There's also a lot of times where kids who had maybe one line or something didn't show up so we had to go into the neighborhood and grab somebody. And there's this scene with these kids rapping and we were just on lunch hanging out and those kids just started doing that and they were really good so we grabbed a camera and picked that up. We wanted to be open to what's going in the real environment.

Can you also talk about the importance of
production design in the movie? I was really struck by the apartment with the graffiti all over the walls.

Kaps' apartment, yeah. That's our art director's apartment and we went to her and said (laughs) "Heyyy, we're going to write graffiti all over your apartment!" And she was really cool about that. So yeah we went in there a weekend before we shot that scene and just had a bunch of graffiti writers come in and, including our #1 graffiti advisor, and just did a lot of stuff and kind of trashed the apartment. She did a great job of turning that place into a natural hangout for these graffiti writers who are sort of on their own in that environment. Art direction is always really key, we wanted it to be understated and feel very authentic and we just worked with a great team and that carries over into all the departments.

Another scene I wanted to ask you about was the water tower scene. I couldn't help thinking about how brave it was for Zoe to get up on those stairs.
It was indeed. She's something else. Her hobby actually is urban climbing, I kid you not. I've seen her climb many a water tower before, but we were all very nervous about all that. But she's a real pro and was very comfortable doing it. It's a crazy scene but I'm very thankful to her for being game.

So you did SXSW and Cannes last year, do you have a celebrity or starstruck moment you'd like to share?
(Laughs) Not really that I can think of. But I did get to talk with Richard Linklater at the San Francisco Film Festival actually and I was really excited to have a conversation with him. He's from Austin and knew about the movie from SXSW. 

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I've been everywhere and done everything. Now I write about movies. It's awesome.