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Interview: Director Malik Vitthal Explains the Similarities Between War-Torn Nations and the Hood With 'Imperial Dreams'

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act July 25, 2014 at 10:00AM

Writer-director Malik Vitthal spoke with Shadow And Act about casting Boyega, telling a story that honored the community of Watts, and the effect his film had on its real-life inspiration, Bobby "Yay Yay" Jones.
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Imperial Dreams
left: Malik Vitthal; right: John Boyega in 'Imperial Dreams'


On August 9, Sundance-winning drama "Imperial Dreams" will have its LA premiere at Next Fest, the festival's summer film and music showcase.

John Boyega gives an impressive performance in the movie as Bambi, a 21-year-old newly released from prison and trying to turn his life around by becoming a writer. With a 4-year-old son to care for, Bambi struggles to find work, food and shelter without turning back to a life of crime, which proves next to impossible as an ex-con in the poverty-stricken Imperial Courts housing projects of Watts, Los Angeles. The heartfelt storytelling is accompanied by slick photography by DP Monika Lenczewska and a spellbinding soundtrack by Flying Lotus.

Writer-director Malik Vitthal spoke with Shadow And Act about casting Boyega, telling a story that honored the community of Watts, and the effect his film had on its real-life inspiration, Bobby "Yay Yay" Jones.

On meeting and working with Jones:

We met four years ago and we made a short film together. I basically interviewed him and his family, and I really thought there was a great story there. I think it's an interesting jumping off point when you have a young man that grew up in a life of crime that wants to change and go in a new direction. That was the spark for the film, so we wanted to dive deeper into that.

On developing the script:

I wrote the script with my friend Ismet Prcic, who I met 10 years ago when he moved here from Bosnia. He knew a lot about that war-torn trauma that happens, the psychology, which is similar in Watts as it is to Bosnia. So we kept writing it, and then Izzy and I went to workshop the film in the Screenwriters Lab in January 2011. We'd try to bounce it off Bobby here and there, but we worked on the narrative between the two of us and the Sundance advisors.

And then in 2012, we got into another lab in Jerusalem where they brought me out to workshop the script again. It's interesting going and working on it in a place like Israel, which is so close to Palestine. It mirrors a lot of the things that happened in the story, like Watts being so close to other parts of LA that are totally different. So after that process we came back and found a production company, Super Crispy, that got behind us and developed it further, and then we went and shot.

How the film helped save Jones from an extended prison sentence:

Soon after I wrote a first draft, Bobby got busted and they were trying to give him 14 years for a gang injunction, a felon with a loaded weapon, and breaking parole. So I worked with his public defender over the next six months, over different trial dates, and basically gave him the script that I made and the short film to show them that Bobby was on a different track and eventually that helped to get him a plea bargain down to one year.

On casting and working with John Boyega:

We got our number one choice with him. I'd seen him in "Attack The Block" and he's just a special person, in that he does a number of things at one time. He's vulnerable, he'll let you in, but he can also play the role that we needed from Bambi as someone who could be hard and get across the authentic part of coming from that life. Everyone from Watts was really welcoming to him because they knew that he was stepping up to be their voice.

We got lucky that John was able to come out a month early and hang out in South Central with Bobby and De'aundre Bonds and really bond with them and understand their psyche. He's got this special thing where he's able to just morph into somebody, but still bring his own kind of charisma to it. He works really hard, he comes from a good family, and he understood the intentions of the story. He's also a storyteller himself, so we had some great philosophical conversations about the character to be able to take it to the next level. He helps that character jump off the page.

Imperial Dreams
'Imperial Dreams'


On filming in Watts:

The people in Watts were extremely supportive in helping us shoot the film there. They petitioned on our behalf to help us keep the Imperial Courts projects location. The housing authority tried to take away our permit, yet the residents knew this film was a positive story and fought alongside us to keep the location. Over the course of development I spent a lot of time with Bobby and his extended family, so for the past four years we have really had a chance to grow together, and the community recognized the positive effects of my intentions and really welcomed us.

About shedding light on the broken institutions in Bambi's life:

A lot of it was just based on research and the things that happened while I was hanging out with Bobby. I'd go with him to the DMV and he wouldn't be able to get his driver's license for a certain reason, then we'd go to Child Services and he'd just get the runaround. Or I'd be with Bobby and we'd go to get fish or something and come back, and we'd get in a car chase.

So it was about respecting the realities that young men deal with every day, and some of it's institutional, some of it's class dysfunction. Part of recidivism is that when these guys get out of jail, their options are very limited. It's hard to find a job, all that stuff. But we didn't want to stand on a soapbox; we just wanted to show it in an appropriately real light.

On the dream-like style of the film, from the photography to music by Flying Lotus:

A lot of it was from the perspective of Bambi and the way he sees this world, which to some may be crass from the outside, but that's how he sees it. And he's got a poetic way of establishing that in the way that he writes about it. But also, we didn't want it to be too dark [tonally]. It's still got to be magical. So we wanted to bring it all together and help give it its own voice. And Flying Lotus just has an elegance, a sophisticated view of the environment, and then everything else kind of builds around that. Flying Lotus' music, already intrinsically, it's got its own emotional intelligence involved with it that helps bring everything together.

On deciding the film's ending:

After meeting a bunch of these young men, [I hope] this film can act as a mouthpiece to say that no matter what situation you're in, you can get up and keep fighting and achieve your goal. Our goal from the beginning was to be realistic to the environment, to say that there are some very heavy things that you have to deal with in the film, but there's also hope. So we wanted to play to that and have the audience be torn at the end so that it's a very bittersweet feeling, but you know that this kid's going to keep working hard and you have hope for him. You have hope for what he learned through this process.

**

"Imperial Dreams" screens at Sundance Next Fest on August 9 alongside a performance by R&B artist Tinashe. The film is preceded by "M.A.A.D.", a short by Kahlil Joseph commissioned by Kendrick Lamar, Find tickets here.

Distribution plans have not been announced as yet.

This article is related to: Malik Vitthal, John Boyega, Anika Noni Rose, Keke Palmer, Rotimi Akinosho


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