Common kept his cool last week — and his artistic faith.
While controversy swirled around his appearance at the White House for a poetry reading, the rapper-actor was anchoring a movie in Baltimore that should quiet even those pundits who tried to paint him as a gangsta. With concentration and intensity, he was helping first-time writer-director Sheldon Candis and a superb ensemble flesh out a script that proves (among other things) that gangsterism doesn't pay.
"LUV" — it stands for "Learning Uncle Vincent" — captures the turning point in the life of an 11-year-old boy named Woody (Michael Rainey Jr). It takes place on a day when his ex-con uncle, Vincent (Common), makes him feel like a man for the first time, then teaches him, by example, how destructive and self-destructive crime can be.
Small in scale, huge in ambition, it's the kind of film that even seasoned directors with a slew of hits would find hard to launch, whether in today's play-it-safe studios or the complicated thickets of independent-film financing.
But against all odds, Candis, who lived until age 10 in the same Baltimore streets where he set his story, has filmed it in three weeks, all over town — at Lexington Market and the Mondawmin subway stop, inside Dunbar High School and outside Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, and in Cockeysville, too. He received key support from Pikesville native Jason M. Berman, a producer who is on his own one-man crusade to re-establish this city as a place to make quality films for a price.
"Growing up off of Park Heights," Candis said a week and a half ago, "I'd seen a lot of these relationships that exist between young kids and uncles or other older guys. A lot of them truly want to be father figures to these kids, but they don't have the actual makeup or ability to be positive father figures, given the reality of their situations."
The script he wrote with Justin Wilson is full of savory-yet-unsavory characters. He aims to fill the ticking-clock urban suspense of a "Training Day" with the emotions of classic coming-of-age movies from "The Night of the Hunter" to "The 400 Blows."
"A diamond with flaws," or "a car that gleams on the outside, although the leather seats are cracked on the inside" — that's how the script describes Common's character. And the cracks widen as the film goes on. Vincent wants to go straight. He hopes to open a "big crabs and live music" joint in an empty warehouse along the Canton harborfront.
He discovers that before he can secure a bank loan, he must scrounge up $22,000 to cover his mother's back mortgage payments. He reconnects with his old friends and confederates — including a couple of wily, dangerous brothers, Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and Arthur (Danny Glover) — and signs on for what should be a quick and easy "drop" of knock-off prescription drugs. He brings Woody along.
Ten-year-old Michael Rainey Jr, who plays Woody, told me he was "excited," not intimidated, to be part of Candis' high-powered ensemble: "I never thought I would be working with Common, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Forest Whi — no, not Forest Whitaker."
Excuse him for thinking, for a second, that Whitaker is in it, too. Candis and his producers have filled even small roles with the likes of Michael K. Williams, Russell Hornsby, and Lonette McKee. Actors responded to the script because it put personal insights into a tightly knit drama.
"While this movie takes place in a world of crime and drugs, at the heart of it is the dysfunctional love story between an uncle and his nephew," Candis said. "It's a boy's coming of age and rite of passage, all in one day, He loves and reveres his uncle, but quickly finds out that he is a bad person. And at the tender age of 11 he has to do something to stand up against his uncle."
Getting this movie on its feet also took considerable strength and gumption.
Candis, 31, and Berman, 28, both went to USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Berman and another "LUV" producer, Michael Jenson, fresh out of USC five years ago, formed a production program called "FilmForward Independent" to support the production or sale "of great scripts coming out from USC film students," as Berman told me on the Cockeysville location. Candis and Wilson (another USC grad) put 'LUV" in their hands. Queen Latifah's company optioned it, but didn't move on it.
But Berman kept producing other projects. He was a co-producer on the Iraq War-vet film "The Dry Land," an executive-producer on "Jess + Moss" (a unique relationship movie — about second cousins — that went to Sundance this year), and a full producer on the inspirational golf movie, "7 Days in Utopia" — starring Lucas Black, Robert Duvall and Melissa Leo. Last fall, he shot the comedy "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best" in Baltimore. He assembled much of the same crack crew a half-year later for "LUV."
"'Utopia' opened up a lot of doors for me," Berman said. And for "LUV," too. With his growing clout, Berman could suggest that agents who called him for "Utopia" also might want to look at "LUV."
Getting Charles S. Dutton was key. Last week, off the Key Highway, not far from the Domino Sugar sign, Dutton was about to play his final scene as Vincent's only trusted criminal associate. Dutton recalled, "I was in Los Angeles at a coffee shop and I see these two young guys staring at me, and I'm thinking, well, they're fans. So I'm just going to sit here and drink my coffee and get out of here before I have to sign autographs." The fans were Candis and Berman. When Candis came over, sat down and mentioned that his uncle was Vernon Collins, Dutton snapped to attention.
Dutton knew Candis' uncle from age 12: "We spent a lot of our 'outlaw days' together. If it had been about any other person in Baltimore, I'd have said, 'I don't have time, kid.'"
Collins and Dutton were codefendants on charges of assaulting a corrections officer during a riot at the Baltimore City Jail in 1971. "That particular riot was the catalyst for a major class-action lawsuit against the city jail. … From what I understand conditions haven't gotten any better in 40 years."
Theater gave Dutton his way out of the cycle of crime, jail, release and return. Collins, who had been charged with five deaths but never convicted of them, was convicted on federal drug and firearm charges in 1987.
The script has always been a fictional construction — a kind of "what if?" re-imagining of Sheldon's history with his uncle. As it went on, the writers renamed Vernon "Vincent," and the character became a composite of many different men. Vincent's motto — "I believe there are two kinds of people in this world, owners and renters. I wanna own somethin'" — actually came from Wilson's uncle.
But for Dutton, hints of Vernon Collins linger in the movie's background. "He was very bright, very disciplined," Dutton said. "But we all fell into this kind of hardened outlook on life, and some people stayed with it longer." He added, "When I still look back on all those guys, my generation, a lot of them had good hearts, would give you the shirt off their backs. But in the world that they operated in, they had to be who they had to be — if they were going to be in that world, and maintain any measure of respect."
When Dutton says that "one small decision or another could have changed everything, could have kept them out of penitentiary," he could be talking about the everyday tragedies of "LUV."
What impressed Dutton most about Collins' nephew Candis was the eye he showed in his short subjects. He was so taken with the "terrific" texture of Candis' images, he even asked the young filmmaker, "What kind of director are you planning on being? A visual guy, or an actors' director?" Candis gave him a good answer: "Both." After working with him, Dutton said, "He already has a great eye, and he obviously has a lingo with actors. A lot of young directors don't."
With Dutton on board, Berman said, "it helped us get Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, and then Common, and then, after Common, Lonette McKee, Michael K. Williams, and Russell Hornsby."
But Dutton wasn't the only magnet. Because American "urban" films are difficult to promote overseas unless they become "Precious"-like sensations, they're tough sells for investors. It took several other producers — including Joel Newton and the team of Gordon Bijelonic and Datari Turner — to get the production rolling.
Last year Bijelonoic and Turner were co-producers on two films that went to Sundance, including Sam Levinson's "Another Happy Day" (Sam is Barry Levinson's son). Turner, an African-American, said, "I think it makes a difference to have an African-American producer. A lot of black people do have a problem with all white producers doing an urban film. They're always looking at you, like, is this authentic?"
Keeping the film true to Baltimore — and casting the right Woody — required Berman's hometown connections. Candis had left town when he was Woody's age; the city had changed a lot since 1989. Barry Weiner, who met Berman when he was speaking on a panel with Jemicy School alumni about the challenges of dyslexia, introduced him to Tom Fore, a real-estate developer and entrepreneur who proved critical at helping the filmmakers invest and raise capital and manage the financial end of the production. Fore told Candis and Berman that they had to tap the brains of music-business veteran Sean Banks.
"I'm a pure Baltimore homegrown boy," Banks said proudly on the Key Highway location, "from elementary school to high school, all the way up to Morgan State for college."
Banks' knowledge of the city kept the movie real, and his entertainment and community connections gave the production a huge lift. He became a go-to guy on a grand scale. When the company was desperately seeking Woody, Banks called his celebrity-photographer friend, Johnny Nunez.
"We need a kid," Banks said. "We need him to be able to act, but we also need him to have enough 'urban' in him so he's believable in this role." That's how they got Michael Rainey Jr.
Banks holed up with Wilson, Candis, and producer Newton in a hotel room to hammer out the script's final draft. He served as the writers' — and the actors' — dialect coach.
Banks took Common to meet Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Common said, "Sean is teaching me to say muther and fahther." The mayor responded, "Doesn't everyone say that?" Bank also introduced the cast "not to criminals, but to guys who understand that world."
And he helped Candis search for "real Baltimore people" to fill out the film. Banks and Common found one first-time movie actor strolling through Towson Town Center. He had just come home from prison the week before.
For Candis, coming home as a moviemaker offered a double rush of excitement and nostalgia. "When I was in Maryland, I saw a lot of Barry Levinson films. 'Liberty Heights' is one of my favorites. I wanted to be like Barry Levinson, but I told myself I would tell my stories the way I remember Baltimore — with Saturday basement parties and eating crabs and being the little kid that runs up on the table and snatches the beer and guzzles it."
When Candis was directing Common and Rainey in the Pimlico parking lot, his sense of the past overwhelmed him. "I remembered my mother always telling the story that the week she got out of the hospital, after having me, she played my birthday number at Pimlico — 5-23-79. She played three different horses. One of the horses won."
Candis and company are hoping that "LUV" wins festival awards, critical acclaim and box-office success — and when it comes to popular art, that's one heck of a trifecta.