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'LUV' brings a new vision of Baltimore to the screen

For some eight years, Sheldon Candis nurtured a dream — to set and make a movie in his native Baltimore, one that reflected the sometimes mean, sometimes wondrous streets where he grew up.

It sounds like a long time to dedicate to a single project, but Candis stuck with it. But Friday is the day he always knew would come. Throughout the country, audiences will be watching a film marked with the words, "Directed by Sheldon Candis."

Thanks in large part to a successful screening at last winter's Sundance Film Festival, "LUV" is opening on about 50 theater screens in 15 American cities (including Baltimore). The movie stars rapper Common, Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover and newcomer Michael Rainey Jr. in a story about a young boy experiencing both the thrills and perils of growing up in the course of one memorable day with his uncle.

"I feel exhaustedly triumphant," Candis, 33, said with a laugh over the phone from Los Angeles. "I always said I'd take one city, one screen. To be in this position, I'm pretty fortunate.

"You're talking to someone who spent over a decade on music videos and commercial sets — as an assistant, I gripped some, I was an electrician some, I was an office assistant. I did all these things — it was a very humble journey for me."

Perhaps that journey began for real in 1999, when Candis and his family set off on a cross-country journey from their home in North Carolina — he had left Baltimore at age 10 — to enroll him in the University of Southern California film school. Or maybe it started in 2004, when Candis and his writing partner, Justin Wilson, started knocking out the script that would eventually become "LUV."

But the film's origins actually go back much further, Candis said. He'd known since age 13 that he wanted to make movies, he insists, but the roots of "LUV" go all the way back to his youth in Baltimore, a city he says has a lot more going for it than its reputation might suggest.

"I once heard, in reference to 'The Wire,' that Baltimore is a forgotten American city," Candis said. "I, personally, never embraced that. Baltimore is a truly beautiful American city. I wanted to make a film that, while it takes place in a world of violence and crime, it's about a boy with a whole world around him in that big, beautiful city that he lives in."

Making "LUV" — the initials stand for "Learning Uncle Vincent," referring to Common's character — offered more than its share of challenges.

"Nothing about this movie was easy," said producer Jason Michael Berman, who grew up in Pikesville and met Candis while both were attending USC. In fact, while "LUV" was the first project Berman signed on to as a producer, he completed work on five films before "LUV" was finally in the can. "This is the hardest movie I've ever worked on."

Knocking out the script took a few years, getting the financing together took even longer; eventually, a handful of financiers committed about $1 million to getting the movie made. And while casting "LUV" proved relatively easy ("There were a lot of people who believed in this film," Candis said), finding someone for the key role — 11-year-old Woody — almost sunk the project before it could start.

"There was no way I was going to go down this journey of making this film with a kid that didn't work," Candis said. "I needed an actor who was an old soul, who was wise beyond his years."

Weeks of fruitless casting calls and auditions left him wondering, Candis said, if he'd "written something that is not possible — a kid who, in fact, does not exist."

Finally, on the advice of a New York photographer who insisted he knew the right kid, he met 10-year-old Rainey Jr. The young actor from Staten Island handed Candis a DVD of his first movie, in which he not only had to act, but speak in fluent Italian. One viewing, and the director knew he had found his star.

"It's like Michael was a godsend," Candis said.

That first showing at Sundance, Candis recalls, was nerve-racking — despite the presence, he joked, of enough family and friends that "I think we have the Sundance Festival record for largest entourage." But all five screenings of the film sold out, he noted proudly, and an agreement was eventually reached with newly formed Indomina Releasing for a theatrical run, earning enough money, Berman noted, to give all its investors their money back, plus 20 percent.

A newly confident Candis already has a second feature in mind: He and his partners, he said, have optioned Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's "A Slave in the White House," on the life of Paul Jennings, a slave owned by President James Madison. And he has no doubt audiences will get behind "LUV." It is, he believes, the sort of film a director can build a career on.

"I've always aspired to be someone who makes films for all people," he said. "At Sundance, people were always coming up to us and saying how the story moved them. That means a lot."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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