SXSW: 'Gimme the Loot' director Adam Leon on winning big, landing distribution deal

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Last week 30-year-old writer and director Adam Leon’s feature debut Gimme the Loot, a buddy caper about teenage Bronx graffiti artists whiling away two hot summer days, was awarded SXSW’s Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize. Today it was announced that Sundance Selects has acquired the North American and Latin American rights to the film.

After the jump, EW spoke with Leon about Gimme the Loot, which stars Tysheeb Hickson and Tashiana R. Washington as 17-year-old friends Malcolm and Sofia, and his most triumphant world premiere.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you celebrate your big win in Austin?
ADAM LEON: When they call your name it is a real high of emotion.  We had been in Austin, some of us had been there for a week, and there’s a lot of strong personalities in our group. We all love each other very much, but a lot of us were staying in a house and sleeping on the floors and I think that everybody was about to kill each other. And that all went away. We went out really hard.  We went and we partied and then we went back to my hotel room and we partied some more.

I read that you wanted to make an urban movie about kids that had some joy to it.
I just felt that I hadn’t seen a story set in a gritty, urban environment that wasn’t a social message piece, that was something that was just more of a celebration and fun. These kids live vivid, often difficult lives but they’re not constantly miserable. I thought that they deserved their own story that wasn’t about preaching something, but was more of an adventure.

What were some of your inspirations in the writing?
I looked at the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby movies from the ’70s — Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again. And also some of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road trip films. I know it’s very strange and this movie is more authentic and gritty than those. But I wanted to do a fun adventure and sort of a travelogue but set in New York. Tonally I’m not sure it’s exactly like those films but structurally it is. And I really was inspired by this movie called Little Fugitive by this director Morris Engel from the ’50s. It’s about these kids younger than our characters and they go to Coney Island for a day and it’s shot on real streets and he uses real characters and it’s very sweet and charming but they’re working class kids. Then any of the New York directors — Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet… — and for me it feels like everything comes back to Robert Altman.

Your lead actress here is just breathtaking and a real discovery.
We looked at one person for the role of Malcolm because I wrote it for Ty. And then we looked at over 500 for Sofia. We were a couple of weeks away from having to shut down and start up again because, as you know, we had to shoot in the summer. It’s the more complicated role, they needed to seem authentic to New York, and there’s a look there that’s also very important. One of the things when we first met Tashi is we were like ‘Is she too beautiful?’  I told her ‘this is the only project you’ll ever be on where they’re asking to pad down your breasts.’”

It’s almost a surprise to see a friendship between a boy and girl on screen. Why did you make the decision for these two teenagers to remain platonic? Did you feel any pressure to turn this into a more classic romance?
I felt like they do love each other. I think that there might be something more towards the end. A couple people said they should kiss. That was a note we got on the script. It was important for me that they don’t. Very few people in this day and age from when they’re 17 years old and dating end up together for the rest of their lives. I felt it was more important to show that these two people were going to end up together for the rest of their lives.

You mentioned nerves of having to shut down production. How long was the shoot?
We shot for 21 days over a 30-day span from mid-August til early September of 2011. It’s crazy! We had no expectations whatsoever of making this SXSW. We were thinking we were going to be shutting down! It’s all just been wild.

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