For a movie as much in love with New York's outer-borough street life as Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot, it will not do just to talk about the film. That's what Leon insists, and so I find myself heading north with Leon on FDR Drive on an overcast Friday afternoon, en route to the Bronx, where much of Gimme the Loot was shot.
The not-especially-late-model Toyota Tercel is being driven by Sam Soghor, a high-school friend of Leon who served as co-producer and locations manager on Loot, in which he delivers a monologue about the abhorrent proliferation of men wearing sandals on the streets of his beloved city. Soghor is also a licensed NYC tour guide and trivia expert; over the course of our half-hour drive, he offers a digested history of the poorest borough, from the Puritan zealot Anne Hutchinson (massacred along with most of her family by the native Siwanoy near Split Rock in 1643) to Robert Moses, forefather of the Cross Bronx Expressway. Leon can scarcely get a word in edgewise.
Set over the course of three long, sweltering summer days — the city all but empty of the Hamptons elite — Gimme the Loot follows the exploits of two burgeoning teenage graffiti writers, Malcolm and Sophia (charismatic newcomers Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington), as they attempt to tag (or, in the movie's parlance, "bomb") the large plastic apple that rises from the Citi Field stands when a Met hits a homer. The "loot" of the title is the $500 needed to bribe a security guard to give them access to the stadium; Leon's film is about the schemes Malcolm and Sophia devise to get that cash, from hocking stolen spray cans on up to one of the most hilariously bungled burglaries this side of the 1950s Italian classic Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Leon's goal was to make a kind of urban adventure story involving characters and neighborhoods too often reserved for urban horror stories — think Precious. The result hews closer to Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It in its bristling energy and smart, sharp-tongued characters. "I didn't want to do a movie about graffiti, but I felt like the profession of graffiti writers gave the characters an excuse to run around the city in a way that's of their choosing," the 31-year-old director tells me as we drive along Castle Hill avenue, in the shadow of the 6 train. "I wanted there to be strong-minded, prideful, passionate people who decide to go on an adventure." Leon also likes to think of the characters as real-life action stars who climb buildings, run along rooftops and get chased by the police, "but in a very low-rent way, which is how we were making the movie."
By this point, we've arrived at our destination: Jenny's Roti Shop, a neighborhood eatery operated by a Trinidadian émigré and her family, where the specialty is the "doubles," a sandwich of sorts consisting of curried chickpeas between pieces of barra. Jenny's provided lunches for the cast and crew, for which it receives a special thanks in the film's end credits, along with a more general — though no less sincere — one to "all the people of New York City."
"Ultimately, in New York, people either don't care that you're making a movie, or they'll help. It takes too much time to try to stop you," says Leon, who shot scenes in the Bronx, Queens, and such rarely filmed Manhattan locales as Tudor City and Peter Detmold Park — not always with permits. Leon and cinematographer Jonathan Miller often shot from a distance on long zoom lenses, allowing the actors to weave in and out of the uninterrupted flow of daily New York life.
"There were some times in The Bronx where people were looking at us like, 'What's going on here?' " Soghor says."But if you go out there with respect and with love in your heart, it's fine."
Then, as if on cue, a young African-American woman approaches from a nearby table.
"I'm sorry, I don't meant to interrupt, but my boyfriend's a graffiti artist, and if you go down the street, you'll see that he painted my face and his face on the wall," she says. "It's awesome."
"You should check out our movie," Leon replies. Soghor searches for a card promoting the March 22 opening at the IFC Center.
"Cool," says the woman. "I would love to see this place on a big screen. No one ever comes around here."
Gimme the Loot is a somewhat incongruous debut for a Jewish kid from Greenwich Village who twice interned for Woody Allen and, in his excitable demeanor and self-deprecating cadences, could nearly pass for one of Allen's on-screen alter egos.
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"There might be an assumption that I'm African-American because the two leads are African-American," says Leon. "I'm not a graffiti writer, either. It was just about: 'How do we get this right?' "
Leon admits that one producer who read his script early on suggested making the characters white, allegedly to increase the film's "marketability," despite the fact that the total production budget was a mere $65,000. Then there was the casting consultant who couldn't stop referring to Hickson (whom Leon wrote Gimme the Loot for after casting him in a short film, Killer) in terms of other black actors, despite Leon and Soghor's insistence that Hickson's screen persona was close to a young Tom Hanks or Matthew Broderick. "And she said, 'So, he's like a nerdier Taye Diggs?' " Leon recalls, incredulous.
"We worked really hard to try to make this movie authentic: characters, language, clothes, locations, graffiti," Leon says. That even extended to creating a public-access cable TV show, the All City Hour, a purportedly "archival" excerpt of which appears early in the film. And in the year since Gimme the Loot premiered at the South By Southwest festival in Austin (where it won the Grand Jury Prize) and screened at Cannes, Leon has continued producing new episodes of the All City Hour together with Soghor and other Gimme the Loot alumni. (Shot on weekends, the show airs weekly on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network and similar access channels in the Bronx and Brooklyn.)
Leon says, "Back when we didn't know what was going to happen with this movie, if we would even get distribution, I had this idea: Let's get a public access show, and we'll have a show built around the movie, and hopefully we can get a Village Voice profile. 'Look at what these kids did! It's a real New York movie! You should go out and see it this week!' "