How far would a teenager go to reclaim his pair of stolen Air Jordans? In Kicks, a grim coming-of-age adventure set in Oakland’s East Bay, director and co-writer Justin Tipping and his best friend and co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden, who met while students at the American Film Institute, explore the ever-evolving definition of masculinity through one teen’s pursuit of his pilfered sneakers. John Horn, host of the KPCC radio show and podcast The Frame, interviewed Tipping and Beirne-Golden about the real-life inspiration behind Kicks (which recently went into wide release), finding money to produce their challenging indie film, and what it means to be a man.
On the first day of film school you both found the basis for this creative partnership despite vastly different upbringings. What was the common ground?
Justin Tipping: We definitely came from polar opposite experiences. That might be why our creative relationship works well. But our common ground seemed to be in emotional intelligence.
Joshua Beirne-Golden: When you’re coming from a whole different set of experiences, you have these overly intimate conversations where you’re getting to know everybody, finding out all of their deep, dark secrets. Justin talked about having gotten jumped for his shoes when he was a teenager, and then we talked about the shared experience that we both had of feeling like it was really hard to define ourselves as men in the world. I grew up gay, and having this idea of masculinity that I had to live up to felt like one of the most formative experiences of my entire life. It was this burden.
What did you hear growing up regarding masculinity?
JT: You weren’t allowed to express the full gamut of your emotions. You could only be angry. As soon as you started to be like, I feel vulnerable, then you’d be called a pussy. You have to be this patriarchal-like figure that’s stoic.
JBG: It’s particularly tough when you are inherently an emotional person. Because we both were, we grew up feeling a little bit like outsiders.
There are a lot of complicated themes in the movie. How hard was it to get off the ground?
JBG: We originally intended to make it for a very, very small amount of money. We thought, We’re going to write this script that feels like it’s an experience that Justin knows really well and we both loved and felt attached to. We’ll make it for basically no money, but it’ll hopefully announce both of us as filmmakers. Very quickly, as we included things like cars, stunts, astronauts, and guns it was like, Oh my God, this is not the movie we had intended to make. People were like I love this script. You’ll never make it because there are no stars, it’s a really difficult story and there are themes that are a bit heavier in it. It took us a while to find David Kaplan and Animal Kingdom who had made Short Term 12 and Obvious Child. He was crucial. He went out and found …
JBG: Literally, 20 people.
JT: Independent financiers.
JBG: What’s amazing about it is that those people who came onboard and put everything they had into the movie, loved it all the more because it was so tough to put together.
JT: Michael Covino was an executive producer. Then he ended up becoming our locations manager and transpo department. It’s that kind of passion from somebody like Mike, who understood the story and how important it was to tell, that he went out of his way to move the port-a-potties on his own.
How important is it that the film is seen in Richmond and Oakland’s Bay Area, the locations that inspired its making?
JT: I think that that’s going to be the most rewarding. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. I just want to go to Richmond and sit in a theater with a bunch of kids and see what happens. That’s the most exciting thing to me, because that’s who we’re trying to reach; to hopefully change minds or points of view or help a kid in a similar situation feel a little less alone.
JBG: That will be the most special thing. Many of the cast members are from these communities, and they were such a huge part of the film, so to see that reaction will be beyond special. In a way, we made the movie for child Justin and child Josh. We talked a lot in the early phases about how we wanted to make something like the movies we grew up on, like Stand by Me or The Goonies, but took place where Justin grew up, and show those kids and their lives in a way that was beautiful and adventurous and also dealt with the realities of where they are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.