Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work before its premiere on Netflix.
Shortly before the crew of “Tramps” headed into Grand Central Station to film the climactic scene of the film, a meeting was convened at lunch to discuss the particulars. For one of New York City’s most highly trafficked locales, a permit to shut down the place for filming was out of the question, even for a production that was able to secure Port Authority for an evening, and this being a heist flick, it was fitting (if mildly illicit) that the crew would need to steal a shot. Cinematographer Ashley Connor, who had attempted to film there before, knew from experience how quickly pulling out a camera could get you kicked out, and between the producers and the crew, a plan was forged after scouting the location extensively to create a bit of a cocoon around their lead actress Grace Van Patten as she approached a ticket window. When it came time for someone to lead the crew into the breach, the responsibility fell to Jamund Washington.
“When you read that scene, it’s like you’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to make that happen,” says Washington, both a co-writer and producer on “Tramps.” “We needed to figure out a way to get that shot, so I led the team in a few steps ahead, determining when was a good time to go and when was a bad time. But they were behind me and they knew if I turned around, they were all supposed to turn around and go back.”
But as Connor recalls, the shot went off without a hitch.
“It [was] the last thing that we did and we were all really anxious and jumpy,” Connor says. “We had all these crazy plans in store if the cops come, [but] Jamund was going to walk in, and I was going to be rolling the camera the entire time and shoot the characters walking up to the window. When we entered, we crossed by a ton of officers who were just walking around and we hid around a corner, and then we emerged [to get the shot] and eventually when no one came and stopped us, it was like, “I guess we can keep doing it? Let’s just do it again.” Nobody paid any attention to us. I shot them through the window ordering tickets and then I ran up to the balcony [where the Apple Store is] and shot them just walking around [the main lobby] and it just turned into the most pleasurable Grand Central experience.”
That Washington was picked the leader was no accident. Having worked as an assistant director and producer on Adam Leon’s previous film “Gimme the Loot,” Washington had become accustomed to enabling the director’s seemingly impossible demands when it came to filming in New York City, jumping on and off of subways to get a shot and clearing out time and space for the filmmaker’s signature long-lensed, long-take scenes to unfold without hazard. Uniquely suited to such a production after working in both narrative films and nonfiction, serving as an assistant director on James Marsh’s “Project Nim” and a co-producer on James Spione’s documentary “Silenced,” he might be regarded as the key man in the heist scenario of “Tramps,” in charge of seeing to the bigger picture while having a laser-like focus on the small details of it that occur on the day of shooting. While seasoned producers Joshua Astrachan, David Kaplan and Andrea Roa helped elevate Leon’s sophomore feature to a larger scale, it was Washington who could ensure a smooth transition and keep things rooted in the principles that brought the two so much success before in capturing the energy in the city where anything can happen, even though they’ve been scrupulously planned for.
“Jamund was next to me for the whole time we were shooting “Loot” and besides having great ideas, he has this great sense of knowing what the movie is,” says Leon, who recruited him Washington early to work with him on the story for “Tramps.” “We’d have conversations like, ‘This idea might be a fun idea but that doesn’t feel right for ‘Loot,’” and we have a lot of freedom to throw out ideas with each other and it leads to good stuff. I really admire him and feel comfortable with and I’m also comfortable also saying no to, which is really important as well. It’s that kind of relationship where you feel very safe saying [something’s a] terrible idea because most of them are.”
Thanks to that collaboration, the terrible ideas in “Tramps” are limited to those of its main characters Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Van Patten) that have put them at the mercy of low-level gangsters after a planned drop at a train platform goes awry, and although the film feels electric because of how much they throw caution to the wind, both in attempting to get the suitcase they’re carrying back to its rightful owner and in opening themselves up to the possibility of a romance, it’s in no small part due to Washington leaving nothing up to change, having the director’s ear on whether a scene might not be reaching its full potential during the script stage or on the set and having the wherewithal to do what’s necessary to make it work, whether it’s the practical work of corralling background actors at Port Authority or day playing in a small supporting role (seen above), or suggesting staying on a scene a beat longer creatively. In the midst of working towards his own feature directorial debut, Washington spoke to us about what it was like being Leon’s right-hand man on “Tramps” and how it became more important to steal your heart with Danny and Ellie than for them to get away with their briefcase.
What is the role of a producer on an Adam Leon film?
I wish there was a definition. It changes based on whatever needs to happen on that day. I produced and [was a first assistant director] on “Gimme the Loot,” so some of the things we were doing [on “Tramps”], I had some experiences that some other crew members didn’t, so I was able to step in and help – things like shooting at Grand Central and being involved in the development of [“Tramps”], it allows me to get into Adam’s head a little better, knowing what he was going for and what he wanted. But a lot of that stuff that happens at Grand Central and those [public places], I try to block out as soon as it happens. [laughs]
How did you and Adam first come to collaborate?
Adam and I first worked together on a short film called “Killer,” that Adam co-directed in 2009. I was one of the producers and he and I just really hit it off. He had one of the early versions of the script for “Gimme the Loot,” and he came to me and asked if I wanted to be involved. I loved the script and we developed a creative synergy [when we were] working on it together, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time, and when “Tramps” [came along], we started developing it together.
When Adam came to you, what appealed to you about “Tramps”?
It was the characters that really came to life first – the ideas for those characters Adam had before he ever came to me and that was what jumped off the page. It was very clear who those people were and the story morphed and developed a little bit from the time we started working on it together, but once we knew who those characters were, the story told itself. At one point, the crime element was bigger and it was a little less about the relationship of these two characters. We always talked about it as this romance that’s based in reality, so from very early on, one of the ways I described it was that it was two people who find each other, come together and develop a relationship and instead of walking off into the sunset, they walk off into the smog. That was the tone from a very early stage and we worked towards that for much of the time.
Structurally, there are similarities between this and “Gimme the Loot,” did that experience help you figure out how to figure out the logistics of this?
This was a bigger project than “Gimme the Loot,” but as far as the elements of production, there were a lot of similarities. Both of them from Adam’s standpoint are love letters to New York and Adam has a real [sense] for finding that New York feel, so the locations and the movement of the production was very similar. We had a bigger crew, we had more equipment, but it was a very similar project production-wise.
On “Gimme the Loot,” we [also] didn’t have much [time for] reshooting or additional photography, but Adam and I understood going into this that there was a very specific tone that this thing needed to find in order to work, and if we weren’t quite there after the first shoot, we would need either an additional scene or some additional photography to make that work. So going in, we wanted to set aside more than is usually set aside for that, so if we were having trouble with that tone, we could find that. We ended up having less problems with the tone than we thought. We added a scene that we shot as additional photography that I think helped quite a bit, so we were right about needing those resources, but wrong about why we needed them.
What wasn’t quite working?
Elements of the heist situation were a little confusing in our first cut. Normally, when you shoot some additional photography, it’s to add, but we were actually simplifying the elements of the crime. There’s actually a couple scenes that didn’t make the film that we replaced with one scene [because] was a little more convoluted as to where things needed to happen. We were losing the relationship between Danny and Ellie and I think people were focusing on the crime a little more than we wanted, so we were taking some of the focus off of the crime element.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Port Authority was probably the craziest of the days we shot, just because that’s it’s own thing. For almost all of the shoot, New York was just the background, but the nature of Port Authority, we had to actually bring in our own background and we were really pressed for time. [We got out of there] by the skin of our teeth. But every day had its challenges.The way we shot this, we were embracing the difficulties of the day and bringing them in as elements of the film. With Port Authority, we were really time-pressed there and I think it made the nature of that very different.
What was this experience like for you?
Really great. Adam and I were really, really lucky to have a producing partner [in Animal Kingdom] that came on pretty early and quickly understood what the film was and what we wanted it to be. That made all the difference in the world, just having them behind us, not just supporting us, but fully understanding what the film we were trying to make. We never had a creative conflict and that’s rare. It was really an amazing experience. All of the cooks in the kitchen were trying to make the exact same movie and it’s a difficult kind of film to shoot with all the locations and the way we were shooting it, but it makes it so enjoyable when you know everybody’s trying to make the same thing. When you can have that experience making a film, that’s really what it’s all about. And that first screening [at the Toronto Film Festival] it was such a great experience to go in there and see that people were receiving the film the way that we intended them to. It was sold out, and they were laughing at the right moments and responding to everything in the exact way it was intended. You’re in the editing room for hours and hours and hours and we had a couple test screenings and you think you know what you have, but it’s not until you get in front of a crowd that you really know. That was such a beautiful experience.
“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.