2012 Sundance festival drama LUV follows 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) as he spends a day with his troubled ex-convict Uncle Vincent (Common). As the film nears its January theatrical opening, director Sheldon Candis spoke with S&A about the process behind the film.
S&A: Tell me about the inspiration for LUV - where the story came from, how the project started.
SC: LUV is a fictional story inspired by a true relationship that I had with one of my uncles when I was growing up in Baltimore. He was my hero. I was probably 9 years old, and even at that age I knew that he was in fact a drug dealer, but I was never exposed to that side of him. I was only given my uncle who loved me and basically was filling in a certain gap that my father was absent in.
Later in life, I happened to have a conversation with David Simon and Ed Burns of [HBO series] The Wire. I tell them who my uncle is and Simon tells me that he wrote many articles in the Baltimore Sun about him, and Burns says he’s the detective responsible for my uncle’s prosecution. He tells me that my uncle was the “great manipulator” who could use anyone to get what he wanted. The fact that he had me in the car with him late nights in Baltimore meant that if a police officer passed us transporting drugs, he wouldn’t look suspicious. We would just look like a father and son in the car. So those are some of the real elements it comes from.
The moment I thought we had a compelling story is when I thought, what if one of those nights when I was with my uncle, what if I experienced him killing someone? How would that have shaped me as a young child?
S&A: Your film tends to get compared to The Wire, since it takes place in Baltimore and deals with a young boy being exposed to drugs, crime. You use a few actors from that series as well. How much of The Wire did you take into account while making your film, and how do you regard the comparison between the two projects?
SC: It’s one of the greatest television shows ever to be broadcast, so when you’re dealing with Baltimore and violence and crime and drugs, you’re always going to have that comparison. But I once heard, connected to The Wire, that Baltimore was the “forgotten American city,” and I never embraced that. To me, Baltimore is the “beautiful American city.” So I chose to shoot the film widescreen anamorphic and the color palette is very soft and diffused. It’s in a completely opposite direction from The Wire because it’s from Woody’s point of view, a young boy’s perspective of how he sees the world.
And for the longest I didn’t want to use any Wire actors because I didn’t want anyone to make any direct comparisons. But I have to say, I have the utmost respect for them because they came in and they were the best people in the room. [In LUV] you get to see Michael K. Williams against type. You get to see him as a detective who earnestly wants this kid to succeed. So I’m thankful that I took Omar from The Wire and Chalky from Boardwalk Empire and I made him a good guy.
S&A: You have quite a few well-known actors in supporting roles in LUV – Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lonette McKee. What was it like being a first-time filmmaker working with all these veteran actors?
SC: It was great. You find yourself watching in awe for a few moments, like “Wow, that’s Mister from The Color Purple.” But I was just so fortunate to have them. We didn’t make the movie for a lot of money. I always say we made it for two dollars and a turkey sandwich. And the idea that Danny Glover is giving his all, and Dennis Haysbert is all the way in, and Lonette McKee is all in - it was just a beautiful experience for black cinema.
I saw a documentary in film school called Wattstax. All these great performers back in the day performing in Watts, and that’s what this movie was like. It’s a grand experience. And you could tell everyone was really rallying behind the script. Everyone who was emotionally moved by it, they really committed to the film. I’m thankful to have that on my first movie.
S&A: You found a strong lead in Michael Rainey Jr., which can be difficult to find in a child actor. Tell me how that came about.
SC: We basically came down to the wire of casting Woody. We made one last attempt and went to New York to work with the team that had found Gabby [Sidibe] for Precious, but it didn’t happen. And I’ll never forget leaving that casting session feeling like a failure. I’d worked on this film my entire adult life. And I basically walked around New York that night feeling like it wasn’t going to happen.
But serendipitously one of the co-producers, Shawn Banks, knew a photographer in New York, Johnny Nunez, who called him and said, “I know this kid, he lives out in Staten Island.” I met with Michael that very next morning. When I asked what type of music he listened to he said, “I’m really more of an old school hip-hop head.” And he quoted Slick Rick’s La Di Da Di, which sent chills through me because in the ‘80s I was Michael’s age in Baltimore breakdancing on cardboard to that song.
I told him after that meeting, “I really believe you’re Woody. But next you’re going to have to do a chemistry read with Common. You have to be emotionally present and vulnerable with your feelings. That’s what’s going to get you this job.” So he comes to Baltimore and we do a very intense scene where Vincent and Woody have this argument in the car. And I said, “Listen, when the words on the page end, just keep going.” And sure enough, I call action and the two of them are truly engaged. It was amazing to watch him realistically, in a very visceral way, become so vulnerable. He really is a very old soul and an extremely talented performer.
S&A: What about Common? We haven’t seen him carry a lead role in a dramatic film like this. Was there a particular moment when you realized he was right for the film?
SC: We had a handful of people, but Common was always at the top of that list. There are only a handful of people who really could pull it off - who could be realistically from an urban existence but have a certain type of presence, that could be a gentleman and also be conniving, and use a kid to ultimately get what he wants. He’s conflicted because he truly loves this kid, but he’s just trying to make a way for himself in life.
This is Common’s breakthrough leading man performance and I’m really proud of that. It’s interesting how things happen, because Common’s been in some huge Hollywood movies. But when you take the little film that knew it could, that my mother and grandmother and cousins prayed for all these years, I find it interesting that that is the film that breaks him through. For me, I believe he always had it in him. I never saw that [before] because I believe the roles that he had been given, there was no real complexity to those roles.
S&A: One of the challenges of this film is watching Woody come of age in the middle of this very adult life that his uncle is living. Some would say implausibly so, as he continues to progress in it. What was your take on that – balancing the real experiences you had with your uncle with the fictitious parts of the film?
SC: In Baltimore, kids grow up very quickly. You’re placed in a lot of situations that a child shouldn’t be in and a lot of Baltimore kids lose innocence very soon. For me, it was always about the emotional journey of Woody, and while the film takes place in a world of violence and crime, at the end of the day if you truly are along for Woody’s journey, you believe that this kid survives this.
And it was important to me to be able to make a film in this genre. One touchstone is Fresh - many people would say, “Is it plausible that that kid in Fresh could survive that gang? That he was smarter than those criminals?” From my point of view, I think it is very plausible. I think children nowadays are savvy. An 11-year-old today compared to when I was 11, I believe that kid has more moxie than I did.
S&A: To that point, did you see yourself as trying to show the realities of Baltimore life, or was it more about taking artistic license for the purpose of telling the story?
SC: Can’t we experience a movie that’s giving us both? No one says that this is a documentary or CNN’s Black in America. It’s a fictional story inspired by a true relationship, and that true relationship is in the film. In the audiences at all these festival screenings that I’ve gone to, everyone is connecting to that family bond between the boy and the man. So for me, I have no problem. Some people will say, “Is it really plausible?” I just believe it’s cinema.
S&A: It seems that a lot is being said about manhood with LUV. At one point Vincent actually tells Woody that he’s going to teach him how to be a man. What did you want to suggest about manhood with the film?
SC: My voice as a filmmaker is always about boys searching for their fathers. And not only boys, but all children looking for those figures in their lives. What has happened in our world and especially in our country, our families have become broken. So basically, the film really [says] that this is the nature of what’s happening to our families, but this boy survives it, and that should give us hope.
I really hope that the end of the film is the start of a conversation. I had a screening in Baltimore where one of the hardest individuals just broke into tears at the end. That’s the response you want. You want to take a genre that’s a certain way – if it’s a gritty, urban crime drama - and infuse it with heart, with love.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
After screening at 13 film festivals, LUV is now gearing up for a limited engagement in December followed by a theatrical run in 30 cities and 50 theaters beginning January 18.
Find more info at luvthefilm.com.