We had the opportunity to speak with director Justin Tipping about his new film Kicks.
The movie, which has received acclaim at both the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of an introverted 15 year old boy who ventures to Oakland with his two friends to retrieve his prized pair of Nike Air Force Ones after they’ve been stolen. We spoke a little about how the process of getting the film made and Tipping’s own personal connection to the story.
So tell me a little about how Kicks developed. How long were you and your co-writer working on this project before you were able to begin shooting?
We had met at American Film Institute almost like the first day actually, that was like 2009, and you go in and have to pitch ideas so I came up with this idea or concept in 2009, and started writing the script in 2011, and finished in about a year, so around 2012-ish. And then it was hard to find the right producers to make this film, you know cause it was all people of color, teenagers, a predominantly unknown casting process was going to happen, so it was difficult. It took about a year to find Dave Kaplan at Animal Kingdom who was able to do what he does, which is almost artful in and of itself, put finances together from like 20 different financiers, so hats off to him for making it all happen. So that’s really how it all came together and then Focus World actually came in at the end, like while we were about to go into production, because people there had known about the script… they just kind of believed in us and the filmmakers and came in and helped us finish the movie and acquired the film for distribution.
Not many films or TV shows seem to be set or filmed in Oakland or Richmond, in what ways do you think this specific area influenced the film’s story and/or its shooting?
Yeah, well I grew up in Bay Area, the East Bay specifically. El Cerrito, which is basically between Richmond and Oakland, I grew up on the border of Richmond so all my friends were from Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, and also my family, so that’s essentially the world I knew and the world I grew up in. And when I was developing it and thinking about it, it just naturally made sense to set it in a world I knew. The themes are universal, but it was important to me that I shoot there, because if I had the opportunity to shoot there I wanted to shoot there, and I did. And it was actually a great experience, the community really rallied behind me and the filmmakers involved. So essentially you got to tell your own story first, my American Graffiti, if you will, I don’t know. [Laughs]
Having seen the film, the movie’s soundtrack is very prominent and comes across as especially integrated to the character of Brandon’s POV, how did the musical elements come together. Were all these songs included from the script phase?
From it’s inception, I knew this was gonna be a music movie in one way or another. There were a few things that I’d already wanted and written in like the “Party and Bullshit” verse that Brandon raps in his head that kind of bookends the movie. That was planned from the beginning because for him I wanted the character to have the security blanket of being able to have this rap video going on in his head, almost like escapism. You know like [quoting verse by Notorious B.I.G.], “I was a terror from the public school era. Bathroom passes, cutting classes”, cause the character himself was the opposite and unconfident. So that was kind of the way in from a character perspective. From there I had written in C.R.E.A.M. [by the Wu-Tang Clan], which is undeniably a classic and above reproach, so I always wanted that to be over him selling candy and hustling, cause that was always a funny juxtaposition to me. Then I also planned on using the Mac Dre song “Get Stupid” cause that was an actual story point for [Kofi Siriboe’s character] Flaco in his emotional arc when he realizes [his son] Young J is really paying attention and listening to him sing. And then the rest of the soundtrack was me like asking friends of friends of friends and hitting up everyone I knew in the East Bay and asking if I can use their songs. [Laughs]. So all the tracks that come from stereos or at the parties or the other needle drops are like Bay Area artists that I reached out to, mainly cause hip-hop is tough and expensive. Like originally I was putting in Nas a cappella [from the song “The World is Yours”], “Nikes on my feet, keep my cypher complete” to transition, and then they were like “By the way that costs millions of dollars so we can’t do that.” I was like good point, note taken. But that kind of led to a more organic and authentic soundtrack and I guess overall sound to use local artists and use my friends’ music. One of the kids who play the cousins, he does spoken word and so he actually helped write some of those rap a cappellas and, not the “Party and Bullshit” verse, he helped write the other internalized raps Brandon recites in the movie.
Another distinctive aspect in your direction was the decision to not shy away from some of the gruesomeness and blood when characters fight instead of a more sanitized or glamourized approach. Could you talk a little about why you opted to go with that style?
I mean for me I didn’t want to go into cartoony or Tarantino-esque violence, I wanted to keep it serious and a serious tone, because sadly that stuff does happen everyday, it happened to me, it happened to a lot of people I grew up with and that was really the message I wanted to communicate. And it was tough to find the right balance, keeping it kinetic, but also making it as visceral in like a very real way. I feel terrible when [Christopher Jordan Wallace’s character] Albert gets hit, and to make the audience feel tension and anxiety if any of the characters were going to get into any fights, so that’s what I was hoping for.
It comes off very effectively so I’d say you succeed.
Great, that’s good to hear. [Laughs] I mean it’s a serious issue for me. You look at like movies that have just come out, like I just saw [Jason Bourne]… and he executes about like 5000 people in the head and you don’t care about the people who are dying. And so because it’s a relevant social context for me, it would be disrespectful to treat violence without a certain degree of attention and care and reality.
Going back to what you said about getting the film made, the movie contains a lot of unknown young actors, can you speak a little bit to how the film was cast?
I kind of knew from the beginning that it was going to be a mix of [experienced] actors and first time actors. And we had a casting director in San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and in LA I was working with Kim Hardin who had done Hustle and Flow and she was working with John Singleton and she is amazing. And we saw hundreds and hundreds of kids through that traditional route, but because it was such a specific age and a specific mold in the Bay Area, I also went out about four months before we were going to go into production, moved back home with my parents and went to every youth group in the Bay Area, and the East Bay, and San Francisco, and just was street teaming as well. I just walk up to kids on the street in the neighborhood we were shooting in and say, “Hey do you want to be in a movie?” and so we saw hundreds more kids that grassroots way. And we ended up with a mix where the three leads had some experience, but everyone surrounding them were essentially first timers who never acted before. And that’s kind of how it came together. The only role that was really cast-able with an actor with a lot of experience would be the Uncle Marlon role. And so Mahershala Ali actually grew up in the Bay Area, he grew up in Oakland-Hayward, he got word of the script and we talked. I was like, “Whoa, Remy from House of Cards is reaching out to me and wants to be in this movie?” It’s trippy. But he’s amazing and we hit it off and just shared stories from the Bay Area and was like “I’ll do whatever you want, let’s make it happen”. So that’s how he came aboard.
Finally, now that Kicks is about to be released have you begun thinking about what your next project will be or what you’d be looking for?
To be honest I haven’t even had time to think about the next project yet, but I’m definitely always looking for those stories that represent…the disenfranchised, looking for that counterculture. Anything that questions what society deems as normal, I think I like to take on. So I’m looking for stuff in any of those worlds, whether it be female driven– maybe that sounds exciting to me cause I’ve been dealing with all the flaws of masculinity in Kicks for so long. I’m definitely looking for something in that arena to take on next.
Kicks will open in limited release on September 9th