To understand Adam Leon as a filmmaker, you should know a little bit about Professor Sauce and the Rambunctious Vibes. They were contemporaries of Booker T and the MGs in the 1960s that he and composer Nicholas Britell have spent hours talking about in the process of creating the musical accompaniment for his two films “Gimme the Loot” and “Tramps,” recalling their heyday and marveling at their limited discography, imagine what it must’ve been like to be a fly on the wall at the clubs they played. Leon likes the band so much that they’ve showed up in both his movies. However, while you immediately understand the pull of the Rambunctious Vibes’ earworms upon hearing them, you shouldn’t bother doing as deep a dive as Leon and Britell do when discussing them since you won’t find them anywhere but one of their films. They aren’t real, but they need to feel that way for Leon to make the movie.
“We imagine what the story of this band is and then what happens to them, so there’s an instrumental jazz track in “Gimme the Loot,” called “So Gracefully” and in “Tramps,” it makes a new appearance but it’s a different rendition of it that we call “Almost Gracefully,” says Britell of creating the musical history of Professor Sauce. “And it’s like the band has gotten back together many years later, they’ve lived their lives and so [we have] this story of what’s happened and how this music has changed over that period of time, so we imagine the story for ourselves of who the players are and how that sounds different.”
Leon’s desire for authenticity isn’t limited to the score. Ashley Connor, the cinematographer on “Tramps,” recalls having to do a particularly complex camera move when technically everything was working out, but the writer/director still wasn’t buying it.
“He’d watch me do a movement and do a zoom and he’d be like, “I didn’t believe you,” and he’d really push me to do it harder,” says Connor. ““He treated me like another actor where he’d just continually ask me to do more, and sometimes I’d get frustrated and be like, ‘What do you mean you don’t believe me?’ I believe me. [But there] would just be something about the way that I zoomed that felt anxious or it felt like I wasn’t sure of myself that Adam [would see] so the movement felt like an honest movement. We’re not interested in movies that do arbitrary motion for the sake of motion or some cool camera trick because it’s cool. If we’re going to do a three-minute zoom shot where the characters run around the streets, [we’re asking] what is a way to make it emotionally involved?”
Leon’s bone-deep conviction in the worlds he’s creating gives him something in common with the characters he’s followed thus far who have been driven to beg, borrow and steal by the tangible fantasies of a different life they’ve created for themselves while their present situations seem dire. In his lively debut “Gimme the Loot,” he tracked Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), a pair of teens in the Bronx who strive to tag the Big Apple with graffiti at the Mets’ Citi Field to get their moment in the sun, while his latest, wildly entertaining film “Tramps” concerns the slightly older Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), who find themselves caught up in a heist scheme when Danny’s brother (Michal Vondel) calls from prison, asking for Danny to trade places with him for a hand-off. Danny, who dreams of being a chef, isn’t cut out for the criminal life, nor it seems is Ellie, who fled a turbulent relationship in Pittsburgh and is aiming to make some quick cash in New York before resettling elsewhere, but the two nonetheless forge a connection in their belief in better future, whether or not their visions align with each other.
Propelled by that optimism, Leon has distanced himself from other filmmakers who embrace setting their films on the streets as a function of limited budgets, often portraying how they deal with hardship as just one facet of his characters’ personality as opposed to something all-consuming. But in an equally significant way, his work is distinguished by just how meticulous and ambitious it is, undaunted by filming in many of the city’s most populated locales to draw upon its energy and filled with rich character details for even the smallest of roles so that the aspirations and realities of the people in his films are relatable, even if their backgrounds and the adventure they’re embarking on is not.
Leon is the first to admit he doesn’t pull off these magic tricks alone, part of why he hasn’t put a director’s credit at the start of the film as most traditionally do, and his process doesn’t adhere to the typical flow of most films where collaborators come in at specific point in the production and leave when their personal contribution is complete. Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work. In the first of these conversations, we spoke to Leon about how he first conceived “Tramps” with his co-writer/producer Jamund Washington, finding the film’s structure which takes the characters out of the city to upstate New York and back again, casting movie stars before they know it, and how he got all his collaborators on the same creative wavelength.
So this whole thing started for you in Peru of all places…
It starts in a lot of different places with a lot of different strands, but the plot idea of the brother replacing another brother on a heist because the older brother’s in jail came from this other idea that I had because of this weird, funny thing I was thinking about while I was on a trip with my brother in Peru. This idea came to me while we were at lunch and I wanted to do a romantic adventure. I love those Hollywood screwball comedies and I wanted to do one that felt modern and honest and genuine in that kind of world with the kind of characters that I wanted to see, so that idea that I had in Peru, I was like oh, that could be a fun way to kickstart something that would hit the tone and genre style of what I wanted to do.
You’ve described this as very different than “Gimme the Loot,” but structurally, it operates similarly with a lot of locations and the pace of it – did having that experience shape how you approached this?
I really wanted the characters to leave the city and go to the suburbs – to Westchester – and then to come back. When I was talking to Jamund Washington, who wrote the script with me, about the idea, I was like, no matter what, I want to lock us into that because I felt allowing them to exit the environment that they’re from, but also has all of these people around it to then go to this place that feels foreign and [would] isolate them would allow us to really explore this theme of them trying on the best version of themselves, [having] the free space to do that.
In terms of specific locations, I don’t think there were specific locations [that we based the film around] in the writing phase besides the Port Authority, which comes in at the end. In fact, there were a couple in the original script that we ended up abandoning, but while I was writing, I was wondering about what kind of train platforms have these sort of benches and trains coming this way where the heist could work and things like that.
How did you come to collaborate with Jamund Washington on the story?
I worked with Jamund on a couple of projects, including “Loot,” and I just love collaborating with him. I really trust him and his sensibility. After “Loot,” I had developed a show idea for HBO and the show didn’t end up going, but in that process, you’re working with collaborators very, very early in the process. I really enjoyed that. Some people don’t. So as I was developing the idea for “Tramps,” I had a lot of questions early on – will this work, will this not work here and there? And I thought of bringing on a collaborator very early so I could start having that conversation a lot earlier. Jamund and I met for dinner and when I told him the idea, he thought it was really exciting and I showed him some pages that were kind of a mess and we took it from there. He really refined the tone of it and what kind of things define the movie, like [saying] this is the type of scene that would be in this movie and this is the type of scene that wouldn’t. In my early pages, [the tone] was all over the place, so it was this combination of him just being so remarkable of a talent and me wanting to bring in people really early.
It sounds like Ashley Connor came in early as well. How did she come into the mix?
Natalie Difford, a producer who was really there from the beginning on “Loot,” is a co-producer on “Tramps” and she had been on set with Ashley. She said, “You’ve got to meet this DP. She’s really special.” Ashley was actually the first DP I met with for “Tramps” and we met for three hours and I came home and said, “That’s the person who should shoot this movie.” I met with a lot of other DPs, a few of which were incredibly talented and I would love to work with, but it always just felt completely right with Ashley. We really hit it off in terms of the movie and she has this incredible visual sense, but really Ashley is a phenomenal narrative cinematographer.
She got some notice early for those incredible, bold Josephine Decker movies, and those movies have such a distinctive visual quality to them, but it’s very much fitting for those movies. So when I went to my producers and [told them about] Ashley, it was like she’s not going to do that style for this movie because that’s not right for the story. I had a very specific idea of how I wanted “Tramps” to look and the visual language to play out and how I wanted “Tramps” to feel and Ashley was taken with all of those – how “Tramps” should feel is what she grabbed onto and I think she was really taken with the visual language references in the way I was talking about how I wanted to shoot the movie.
You’ve said Eric Rohmer had been an influence in terms of this idea of movement and I feel like you get that early in the shot of the trains passing in front of Ellie – I wondered how that may have shaped the film.
Yeah, I looked at “A Summer’s Tale” and “A Tale of Winter” – the seasonal stories – and showed to Ashley and to my producers for a few reasons, but [I was interested in] that idea of how you handle moving through space and how you handle transportation. So much of this [film] deals with movement of the characters in spaces in which they find themselves. Sometimes you can think of [Rohmer] and it’s like people talking in a room – and there’s a lot of that – but so much of it to me is really about locations and how they get there in both a figurative sense, but in a literal sense as well.
We thought about those travel montages and just the movement of people through cities, which for me is what the movie is about. It’s about Danny and Ellie, so I don’t want to go too much bigger than that, but if you do go bigger, the movie is about two people who are stuck in their lives and they decide to move and that story is told through so much movement – around the city and the suburbs – and the thing that Rohmer does, we made a list of during the writing phase of just how many different types of transportation can we get in? So there’s buses and subways and two different kinds of trains and bikes and running and cars.
There’s a break in the action where you allow yourself a moment to show them as kids in this house. There’s a similar moment in “Gimme the Loot” where Tashiana Washington’s character flirts a little, dropping the tomboy facade for a moment, and it’s a great character moment as opposed to a plot point, but in creating a film like this, what makes a moment like that important?
One of the things I was interested in was that I wanted to hit the classic beats of a Hollywood romance and around the middle of [every] movie, the characters usually sleep together or become a couple. In “Tramps,” they sleep together in a very literal way, not in the sense that they have sex, but I wanted that scene to have that effect of them waking up in the morning as more of a couple, so what then happens over those next 10 minutes in that section is a little bit more of them interacting as a unit and and [reach] the climax of them trying on their best selves, which they’ve been pushing at when they go to the suburbs. That manifests itself in the literal sense of changing clothes and he shaves – they clean themselves up, hopefully not in a bougie sense, but a playful sense of that.
What was it like to find Grace and Callum to be your leads?
When I pitched the movie, I said, “This movie is going to feel really big.” There’s no big speeches in the movie, but it’s about these sort of big moments in small moments. The [characters] are the small cogs in this bigger thing, and to explore their relationship, we really focused on these bigger moments in these smaller scenes and the movie would live in reactions. That isn’t easy to pull off, so I kept saying this movie is going to feel big because we’re going to find two future movie stars who are going to burst off the screen and you’re not going to take your eyes off of them. A little bit to my surprise, people would nod and agreed to make the movie and and then it’s like, “Now, we just have to find two movie stars.” [laughs]
Jamund and I dealt with this on “Loot” too where we’re very prepared to not make the movie where we [said] if we do not find the cast, we won’t do it. So we knew that was an option and we knew that it was going to be tricky to find these kids and it was. Danny’s a very hard role to cast because you have to believe that he’s somebody who lives with his mother, but at the same time that he can get the girl and not just because it’s a movie. That’s a hard balance to find and if people read the script, you may have thought he’s a bit geekier. We kept referencing character actors that became leading men, like young Al Pacino, young Sean Penn, young Daniel Day Lewis, where if you look at them when they’re in their twenties, they’re obviously gorgeous and captivating, but they have an awkwardness to them. They haven’t grown into themselves. There’s a man inside there.
Ellie is also a very hard character to cast because we really wanted to go more the movie star route. This was not supposed to be a neorealist film. This is supposed to embrace being a romance, but you still have to buy into Ellie and her backstory and Ellie’s life, so that’s a tricky balance. [Our casting director] Susan Shopmaker showed us some amazing actors – people I’d love to work with and hope to work with. She had seen Grace and I think she auditioned her for something very different, so Susan did this sort of like… “There’s this girl, she’s going to be a movie star, but…ummm, no, I don’t think so.” And then I’m like, of course, “What?!? Come on! Susan?” She’s like I don’t know, should I? And Grace came in, we saw her read and she was really dynamic and special. I remember she walked out of the room and Susan turned to me and said, “Well, we’re going to make the movie.”
Mike Birbiglia is a particularly inspired choice to play the heavy on Danny and Ellie’s tail, to some degree. How was he cast?
I wrote the role for him. Not all of those types of guys are that stock toughie — some are dudes from the suburbs that are simply fuck-ups who get caught up in this world. Mike’s one of my best friends — although he would say I’m not one of his best friends — and I thought it’d be a really cool role for him to take on. He was like, “Do you want me to be sleazy or tough?” and I said “No! This guy is just this guy, play it straight, but if it’s straight and he’s saying these things, it’ll work.” I think people didn’t get it, including him, but at the table read everyone was like, “Oh! Yeah, that’s who that guy is. He’s not a creep on the make, he’s sad and vulnerable and desperate.” And Birbiglia is such a fantastic actor, I compare him to Jack Lemmon — he gives Scott this depth and fragility that is beautiful and sympathetic. He’s a wonderful, wonderful talent and of course so great on set.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
It’s a testament to my producers that things were handled very smoothly and smartly. Things go wrong all the time. That’s what it is. You prep so much – I do a lot of rehearsal – and you come to set and producers will just tell you whatever the first thing that’s gone wrong is. On the day that we shot with the bus, the bus broke down on its way to get to us and it ended up being four hours late. There’s a scene that we shot where the camera broke and we basically lost half a day on that. I don’t know if it’s the most crazy day, but the most New- York-so-many-things-going-on-day [was when] there’s this really long shot after Danny gives the briefcase to the wrong woman and he runs back into Ellie and he’s trying to convince Ellie to help him. It’s this big long shot that’s on a [train] platform and it’s almost two minutes. It involves this huge zoom and [Danny and Ellie] walking through this throng of people in the city. It was a very difficult scene to coordinate and a very difficult scene to get going and it’s a life and death situation [for Danny], so [Callum’s] freaking out in the middle of the street. People [not in the film] would interact [with the actors] – someone called the cops and said, “This guy is harassing a woman on the street.” [laughs] Some people would try to intervene and were like, “Are you okay, miss?” [to Grace] as he’s yelling about this, so there’s just so many different factors at play. We ended up doing 40 takes of that scene and it not only took a long time in the take, but such a long time to reset, so that was a long and crazy shot to do.
There’s such variety in the music you use for the soundtrack, but was there a central sound that you held onto to build it on?
In terms of the songs that are used in the movie, while I was writing, I created a really huge playlist of the songs and the songs were very eclectic in genre, which ended up being what we embraced in the edit, but they all shared this sense of movement, rhythm, warmth and then what some might call dirt on the track – they had a grit to them. And that could be a bluegrass song from 1970, a Junior Wells song from the ‘50s or a Marvin Gaye-infused hip hop song from a few years ago, but they all had that quality to them. That’s a quality I wanted “Tramps” to have – to feel like it had tons of movement and feel fast and up and full of heart, but also have a little grit and genuineness to it.
Nick [Britell, the composer] did two types of score pieces for the film. He created some songs for the movie, which we did a lot on “Loot,” where we said create a hip-hop song that Danny’s listening to while he’s cooking or a funky R & B song that’s playing in the background of the bar – a lot of these diegetic songs. And Nick and I would come up with the band names, the song names, the history of the band and where they recorded and then in studio, Nick would create those songs. Then in terms of the proper score, what Nick and I talked a lot about is making the score feel very emotional and internalized by the characters.
There’s a very big difference in terms of “Loot” and “Tramps” – “Loot” was really meant as an observational work in terms of its filmmaking approach and “Tramps,” we really wanted to employ more emotional filmmaking, so Nick created some really, really beautiful work that feels very organic and very integrated into the movie and puts you in the headspace of the characters. But I told all the key collaborators that we have permission to do that. Ashley and the production designer, and Sara [Shaw] and Morgan [Faust] the editors, and Nick – we should really be feeling things. You have permission to be artists. You have permission to act in an emotional way towards the piece.
It also sounds like your collaborators aren’t necessarily secluded to one section of the film.
As much as possible. Some people come in and out and have to go back to where they live. I think my job is defining the vision of this story, articulating that vision to collaborators who are talented and are engaged by that and once you create that environment, I want people to be able to be open expressing any of the ideas that they have. So the editors are looking at the script and giving notes, Ashley [Connor]’s giving me dialogue notes – I don’t remember the line, but I remember Ashley and Andrea Roa, the producer, and Lucy, the script supervisor coming up to me and saying, “You know we think you think this line is reading this way, but it’s actually coming off that way.” And I’m like, “No way, what are you talking about?” And I asked a couple of people, and [I realized I was] totally wrong, so it’s having people feel comfortable sharing ideas in a bunch of different ways.
I also remember we were having a hard time editing a certain scene in the movie and I was hanging out with Nick [Brittell] and I showed it to him. He was like “What if you try some music here?” He played some music first, which wasn’t quite right, but thn he’s like, “What if you brought back this sound cue” – that wasn’t his – “from this other part of the movie and put it in subtly here?” And it was amazing. It totally solved this scene. So it wasn’t necessarily his music, but just how his brain worked that was able to solve problems. Jamund and I were able to identify what “Tramps” was at its core – it was always going to be embracing the idea of a classic romance, but telling it in a way that felt modern and genuine and honest. But once you have that core, you can be open to any ideas, being open to different perspectives and it’s only going to make your project better and I love working with these incredibly talented people.
“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.