Street: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your film?
Adam Leon: It’s about two graffiti writers from the Bronx, Malcolm and Sofia. They have a rivalry with this crew from Queens and it’s about this spectacular scheme that they want to pull off and their adventures over the course of a couple of days in New York.
Street: What drew you to the characters of Malcolm and Sophia?
AL: Having grown up in the city—I also went to a diverse public school with a lot of kids from all over the city—I co–directed a short film a couple of years before that used nonprofessional kids from New York, and I really wanted to tell a story about these kids who have these tough vivid lives and come from a grittier existence but aren’t necessarily miserable people. And that are in some ways just kids, but staying really true to who they are, and what their existence is, and what their hardships are. I haven’t really seen that too much, so usually, I think an urban movie about kids is generally bleaker and more “socially conscious.” And for me, it almost humanizes the characters more to say, “They’re kids too. They have fun, and they go on adventures.” So that was a really big jumping off point for me, and the characters kind of came out of that idea, and a lot of observation, and a lot of workshopping.
Street: The film has speaking roles for nearly 40 non–professional actors. Did you realize when you were writing the film that you wanted to work with non–professional actors?
AL: That was an early instinct. We wanted everything in the movie to feel very authentic, very fresh. We sort of embraced the idea that this was a first–time movie and should feel like a first–time movie. It should have that energy to it. So I knew I wanted to work with kids from around town. And some of the roles I wrote for the people that I knew, so I knew that they could pull it off. There are obviously a lot of challenges in doing that, but I was confident that we could find charismatic, talented kids out there, and I think that we did it.
Street: You’ve said that the casting process was one of the most difficult elements of filmmaking. How exactly do you go about searching for these actors?
AL: It’s sort of this crazy combination where there are certain roles that I wrote with people in mind, so 30 percent of the casting was done once the script was done. But then we did a lot of street–casting. We had a great casting director, and we went out and sort of scoured the city––went to schools, public pools, I found some in a grocery store. Just looking everywhere for these kids. Putting feelers out. Emailing people. Trying to cast as wide of a net as possible. And we just saw lots and lots of kids. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of countless kids coming in every weekend, doing all day casting sessions. But then there’s also some characters in the film we found the day we were shooting, so it was just this combination of having written some roles, scouring the city, and finding people when we had to. I think when you make a movie at this budget level, you just have to use any assets you can and you just kind of grab anything you can that helps to tell your story.
Street: Were there any crazy situations that came out of your guerrilla style of filming?
AL: I think that there’s always stuff. We had, god there’s so many, I almost forget them. We just had things where we were shooting these wide shots from long distances. We had a few incidents—several times where people thought that these characters were doing what they were doing really so when they’re stealing flowers or stealing cans—the first scene where they’re stealing spray cans—there were a couple of incidents. It kept sort of happening that day where people kind of stopped them or were calling the cops and stuff like that. And we’re like, “No! We’re making a movie!” and the guy was like, “Yeah right. Where’s the camera?” “It’s all the way over there, look.” And so that was kind of a funny occurrence.
Street: Do you make a cameo?
AL: I do. I actually make two cameos. And people are like, “Oh, is that an homage to Hitchcock?” and I’m like, “No, it’s an homage to not having enough people around on set.” So you know there’s a scene where someone needs to buy some weed from one of the weed dealers, and I just felt like I was the right guy. That I fit the description. I learned it at Penn.
Street: How did it feel to have your feature length debut film picked up by the Cannes Film Festival?
AL: That was absolutely insane and surreal, and it still almost doesn’t make sense. Again, it’s such a small movie, such a low budget––we were completely not expecting it. To be an official selection, there’s 33, 35 movies a year that are official selection, and you know everybody wants that. It completely took us by surprise. We were able, I think, to really enjoy ourselves because we didn’t have any expectations of being there. We shot the movie last summer and we wrapped the movie. Seven months later we’re getting a standing ovation with 1200 people in this glorious theater in the South of France. The historic film festival. It was overwhelming and touching and we were really blessed and lucky to be there. I think we were able to appreciate it for what it was and enjoy that moment.
Street: As a Penn alum, how is it to be back in Philadelphia for Philly Film Fest?
AL: It’s really exciting. I love Philadelphia so much. I still have some really close friends that are down here, and I try to come back as often as I can. I haven’t been back actually in two years, and that’s because of the movie. But I love Philadelphia, and I’m really, really excited to be here, and I’m really excited to be talking to 34th Street! I was a Penn kid. I always would read 34th Sreet. If you told me then, “34th Street. will be interviewing you about your movie that will be playing in theaters in Philadelphia,” I would be—it’s just really awesome and cool. I think those are the appropriate words for it.