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Director Adam Leon on Gimme the Loot, Graffiti, and Cultural Voyeurism

Adam Leon. Photo: Corbis

Gimme the Loot follows two graffiti-artist teens from the Bronx who plot to tag the Mets Apple at Citi Field as revenge on a rival Queens gang. The movie is the first feature-length effort by Adam Leon, who completed the project for less than $200,000, then went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s SXSW and a “Someone to Watch” award at the 2013 Indie Spirit Awards; we’ll next see his movie open at Manhattan’s IFC theater on March 22. Vulture spoke with the 31-year-old New Yorker about his relationship to the Mets Apple, getting funded in part by Kickstarter, and working with the acclaimed street artist Sp1.

Why tell a story about graffiti artists?
I wanted to tell a story about working-class kids who have vivid lives and tough backgrounds but aren’t necessarily miserable people. And I wanted it to be something that was fun, an adventure all over the city, a low-budget, epic New York story. And I felt like graffiti was a great jumping-off point for that because I’d been working with these graffiti writers, and I started to see them as real-life action stars, jumping over roofs and climbing buildings and running from the police.

Why were you working with graffiti writers?
I did a short in the Bronx, and we were working with some graffiti writers up there. And then we brought in this legendary graffiti writer named Sp1 for Gimme the Loot, but that was after the fact.

Who is SP1?
His real name is Greg Lamarche. He’s an accomplished gallery artist who was a graffiti writer — he still is a graffiti writer. He’s from Queens, he came up pretty big in the eighties, he is pretty well known in that world. In fact, we had graffiti writers on set, obviously, and we were doing this big scene at the end of the day and SP caught a tag, and one of the kids just freaked out. He was like, “I had no idea I was spending the whole day with SP1. Oh my God, Adam, do you think you could get him to sign my book?” And it was like watching an 11-year-old girl get Justin Bieber’s autograph. It was hilarious.

What is “catching a tag”?
Just writing your name without doing a piece; just a quick writing of your name.

And what’s your relationship to the Mets Apple? Why make that the object that the kids ultimately want to tag?
My friend who grew up in Queens had his bachelor party and it started at a Mets game, and I knew what the Mets Apple symbolized because I was a big baseball fan, and I saw it at the game, and I was just like, That’s perfect, that’s a good story. It sets up a natural rivalry from these kids from the Bronx and these kids from Queens.

The dialogue feels really natural. How did you manage that?
I grew up in the city and went to public school, and I’d recently been working with kids that were this age. I would also just — when boisterous teenagers get on the subway, people will move to the other end. But while I was writing the script, I would just pretend I was listening to my music and instead listen in on their conversation and write notes.

Your movie was funded in part by Kickstarter. How do you think that impacted how the movie turned out?
We very purposefully went to Kickstarter later in the game, so the movie had already been accepted to SXSW when we did Kickstarter. So that was really just for finishing funds, for music clearances, and for travel expenses and some postproduction costs — the boring stuff to pay bills. And we don’t have a built-in fan base; we are not Veronica Mars. So it was really important for us to be able to say, “We shot this movie, here are the people who made this movie, but we need help to finish.”

You are a thirtysomething white man …
I am a thirtysomething white man. I’ve been accused of that.

Making a movie about two black kids: Does that strike you as cultural voyeurism?
Well, okay, I’d say a couple of things on this: One is, I really think that this is a movie about New York, and so there’s a lot of characters in the movie, and a very diverse cast. And I think that the story developed very organically. I knew Ty [Hickson, who plays the lead boy], and I really wanted to work with him. And I really wanted to explore this story about a teenage boy and a teenage girl who love each other — but it’s not necessarily sexual in nature. Because I think that when you’re 17 and you’re dating someone, you’re usually not dating them in three months. But what they have is a partnership, it’s a little bit more. And for us, it was about doing justice to who these characters are. And that’s two African-American teenagers. That’s also a 40-year-old guy with tattoos on his face [the kids’ accomplice] and that’s also a private-school white girl [from whom they try to steal money]. It’s about not looking down on them. It’s about not caricaturizing them. It’s about creating characters that feel both very authentic to who they are and where they’re from, but also universal. And it’s for an audience to decide if we did that well.

Director Adam Leon on Gimme the Loot