Here's a tip for indie filmmakers eager to attract big-name talent to a small-budget project: Write a script that will allow actors a chance to, well, you know, act.
That's the sage advice of Baltimore-born writer-director Sheldon Candis, whose debut feature, LUV, opens this weekend in theaters throughout Houston and other major cities under the auspices of AMC Independent, almost a year to the day after the drama had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
And before you dismiss his game plan as simplistic or naïve, consider this: It worked for him.
"Throughout the whole process," Candis said last spring while introducing LUV at the Nashville Film Festival, "I just held onto the idea that if you write something compelling, the actors would show up. Because at the end of the day, they're actors.
"I just held onto the idea that if you write something compelling, the actors would show up."
"Dennis Haysbert, for example, is a great actor. But unfortunately — and fortunately, for me — he's selling car insurance every day. So when you send him something that he can actually immerse himself him, and become a character — he gets excited about that.
"It's the same thing for Common. I always knew he had the ability to show depth and emotion in a role. And he got the chance to do that here."
Of course, it helped that, in addition to offering great roles to terrific actors — Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and Lonette McKee also loom large in the cast — LUV (which Candis scripted with writing partner Justin Wilson) tells a potently engrossing and often unsettlingly suspenseful story.
A story, it should be noted, that's loosely based on events from Candis' own life.
LUV details an eventful day in the life of Woody (impressive newcomer Michael Rainey Jr.), a wise-beyond-his-years 11-year-old boy who yearns for a reunion with his long-absent mom, and lives with his grandmother (McKee) in a modest Baltimore home. Also living under the same roof: Vincent (Common), Woody's uncle, a slickly dressed smooth operator who effortlessly elicits the young boy's worship.
One morning, Vincent invites his nephew to ditch school and ride around Baltimore with him in Vincent's shiny new Mercedes-Benz sedan. At first, it seems like a near-magical day of close bonding and new experiences, as Vincent buys Woody a flashy new suit, takes him to dine in a fancy restaurant and gives the impressionable boy a tantalizing taste of living large.
As the day wears on, however, Woody becomes increasingly aware of his uncle's bad companions, criminal activities and violent impulses. Worse, he comes to suspect that the father figure he has long idolized may be exploiting him as a companion to hide his true intentions. And maybe to serve, when push comes to shove while dealing with a tough customer (Haysbert), as an accomplice.
"Basically, it's a fable. It's the story of what a boy wants to see in the world, versus what's actually there."
"Basically, it's a fable," Candis said. "It's the story of what a boy wants to see in the world, versus what's actually there.
"I don't want to make it easy for you, because I believe that life is made up of shades of gray. Every boy searches for a father figure — but not every boy finds the right one."
During his youth in Baltimore, Candis looked up to his own criminally inclined uncle, Vernon Collins, who later served as inspiration for a hardboiled badass character on the critically acclaimed, set-in-Baltimore HBO series The Wire. When Candis was close to him, however, the guy seemed rather more benign, if somewhat eccentric.
"I was nine years old at the time," Candis recalled. "It was a situation where my mom and my dad fought a lot. And my Uncle Vernon, he was my hero. He would pick me up and remove me from that situation. Many nights, he would take me driving through Baltimore, and I would be out until 3 or 4 in the morning. Many nights, I would just fall asleep in the car."
Years later in Los Angeles — where he attended USC film school — Candis met writer-producer David Simon, creator of The Wire, who was at once surprised and amused when Candis spoke of his Uncle Vernon. Simon — who had written about Vernon Collins during his days as a Baltimore Sun reporter — directed Candis to Wire scriptwriter Ed Burns, a novelist, producer and former Baltimore police detective who had his own tales to tell about Collins.
"Ed told me that my uncle was the great manipulator. That he could use anything or anyone to get what he wanted. So if I was this nine-year-old boy in the car with him — Ed believes that if my uncle was transporting drugs, and a police officer passed in a patrol car, my uncle wouldn't look suspicious. It would just look like a father and a son in a car.
"And I was literally turning white in the face to hear so much specificity about my uncle that I never knew before."
Common conveys the perfect balance of charisma and menace while playing the character modeled after Candis' errant uncle.
As Candis sees it, Common — a rapper turned actor who currently co-stars with Anson Mount on the gritty cable-TV Western Hell on Wheels — conveys the perfect balance of charisma and menace while playing the character modeled after Candis' errant uncle (who, last time Candis checked, was serving hard time in a Trenton, N.J. prison).
"He was involved in this movie before Hell on Wheels," Candis said. "And he said something that really means a lot to me. Because up to this point, Common had always been involved in big movies. He's been in Wanted with Angelina Jolie. He's been in Terminator Salvation with Christian Bale. But this was the first independent film he ever did.
"And he saw there was a huge, night-and-day difference from being in being in a huge, $100-million Hollywood movie. I mean, this movie was made for two dollars and a turkey sandwich. But he said what he gained from this experience was, he was able to take that and apply it to working on Hell on Wheels. It was all about being fast on his feet, and creativity, and always being ready and prepared.
"And I'm really, really proud of him, because I think he gives a heartbreaking performance here."
The River Oaks 3 is opening a Best Picture hopeful — and bringing back another — just a few days after the announcement of nominees for the 85th annual Academy Awards. Amour, the newcomer, is Michael Haneke's near-universally praised drama about the twilight years of a long-married, increasingly frail French couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva). And Beasts of the Southern Wild, the indie phenom that spent a respectable hunk of 2012 in H-town theaters, is Benh Zeitlin's audacious fantasia about life in a small Louisiana bayou community viewed through the eyes of an imaginative child.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston kicks off the 20th Iranian Film Festival with screenings of Vorood Aghayan Mamnoo's No Entry for Men at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nega Azabayjani's Facing Mirrors at 9 p.m. Saturday and Till Schauder's The Iran Job at 5 p.m. Sunday.
And over at the AMC Studio 30, Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, a typically boisterous Bollywood comedy-drama (with songs), spins a fanciful tale about a clash between rapacious capitalists and resourceful farmers, with the emphasis on a drunken industrialist who doesn't realize his plans to seize farmlands to build an auto plant are being undercut by his not-entirely-faithful young driver.