When Justin Tipping was growing up in Oakland, California, he was approached by a group of thugs who took notice of his shoes, a sterling pair of Nikes.
“He’s got the Prestos!” Tipping can still recall the gang yelling at him before extracting them from him, saying as much at the premiere of his debut feature, “Kicks,” adding that when he went home, bruised from the beating that ensued, his older brother told him, “It’s okay, you’re a man now.”
At the time, Tipping didn’t understand how his brush with violence was synonymous with maturity – and still shakes his head thinking about it – yet in picking up a camera, he’s onto something pretty profound with “Kicks,” which takes his personal experience and transcends it in telling the story of a young man named Brandon (Jahking Guillory), who seeks revenge after being jumped for a prized pair of Air Jordans and enlists his friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him during a day spent on the streets in the Bay Area. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film evokes the spirit of neo-realist classics such as “The Bicycle Thieves” in its simple, pure power, showing a part of America every bit as devastated by poverty and the violence that emerges from it as post-WWII Italy. Yet Tipping also adds a touch of magical realism that reminds that his protagonists are not yet adults, still seeing the world in fantastical terms with small rites of passage treated as monumental achievements and the sense that anything – such as being an astronaut – is still possible.
It’s an auspicious feature debut for the director, who not only boasts a strong, distinctive visual style and a rare ability to land big metaphors, but within a limited time-frame, conveys a multigenerational story about the vicious cycle that has come to imprison those America has left behind long before they actually end up incarcerated. The morning after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Tipping spoke of working with actors and non-actors alike to give the film authenticity, how autobiographical the film actually is and the beauty he captured of growing up in spite of the ugliness of the situation the story grows out of.
Because you’re from the Bay Area yourself, was a lot of this inspired from your own life?
Yeah, my life, my family, my cousins, and my peers – just stories that they had. Almost every location we shot at, someone from the neighborhood was asking, “What’s the film about?” [I’d tell them] It’s about a kid who gets jumpers – shoes. Neighbors would come out and be like, “Yeah, that happened outside right here on this corner.” Everyone had a similar story to share. Even the cast that I found who were locals – from the youth groups in Oakland and Richmond – were sharing stories with me about how they lost their brothers to gun violence. [This film is] part me and part someone I know.
Was Jay, the youngest character in the film, there from the start? He’s primarily an observer, too young to process much of what’s going on, but clearly picking up something – and that character is a beautiful throughline to get the sense of how this vicious cycle repeats itself.
He was always in my mind when we were developing [the script], because he represents the cycle and what happens when we ignore the youth and the kids that are isolated socially and economically from the rest of the world. These communities have little and it’s a dangerous path. Life is harder.
Because it’s a mix of actors and non-actors, how did you want to work with them and allow them to bring some of themselves to the film versus what you wanted?
I had this experience on my short film [“Nani”], working with a non-actor kid. I just found him in Highland Park in LA, and I knew I was going to apply the same approach to working with these kids. I had the script and you have the scene and the intent, but we had more a discussion of it. [I’d say], here’s your objective – you’re trying to do this [or say this]. How would you do it? Then they would riff back and forth. If I was hearing it out loud and it wasn’t authentic enough, I would say, “Just say it how you want to say it. You’re 15, I’m not. You’re from here, so just convey this sentiment however you want to.” I had a lot of battles with the script supervisor for like the first three days, where he was like, “They’re getting these lines wrong.” I’m like, “No, they’re not. You’re just going to have to understand that most of this is going to be ad-libbed, but always to the point of the scene.”
There are a lot of great moments that feel stolen, capturing the atmosphere or some small gesture. Was any of that planned or was it catch as catch can?
We were on such a tight schedule that everywhere we went, myself, the cinematographer and the [assistant cameraperson] would be waiting on actors, and I’d say, “Okay, roll on anything beautiful you see.” There’s a transition where, right before he gets jumped, there’s a shot of a street lamp without a light on it. That was just stuff that we were picking off as we were going location to location because we knew going in, we need to save ourselves and have this ready to go.
There is this bleak beauty the film has, both visually and in the story itself, which has a real innocent quality despite the rough subject matter. Was that a difficult tone to achieve?
Yeah, often in talking about it, and while making it, we’d refer to it as a fable, given the astronaut and [the way Brandon] stumbles upon this guy who sells shoes out of a car, which also came from real life – a guy in Richmond. It’s like “The Sword and the Stone” and [when Brandon] has brief misdirect of meeting girls and having his first kiss, it was like part of that hero’s journey in “The Odyssey.” I was always keeping in mind that I wanted them to be just naïve teenagers that are going to experience something that’s going to change their life at the end of the day.
At the same time, you looked palpably relieved at the premiere when somebody said that they felt uncomfortable – in a way they liked – because of it?
That’s a good thing. I was hoping to start off with, “Let’s fall in love with these kids so that when shit hits the fan, you really feel for them” and I wanted everyone to be anticipating something terrible, because that’s what you expect and it plays into those tropes, but doesn’t give it to you at the end, essentially. For a lot of kids, living with that kind of violence around them all the time, even myself, going to school every day, I was in a constant state of anxiety. There’s constantly fights going on. And I [wondered if I could] get everyone to that level of anxiety, never knowing where violence is going to come from, or what’s going to happen to who throughout the movie.
If nothing else, that anxiety’s probably good preparation for the demands of filmmaking. There’s one scene involving cars whirling around and a bunch of extras for a sideshow. Was that stress-inducing?
That was a very, very crazy day, just because of the cars, we had car rigs and stunt players keeping the crowd safe and underage kids around it all. We only had two days to shoot this huge, transitional story point, and we were dealing with the stunts and had to block and shoot all of those mini-scenes [happening within the larger one]. Essentially, we only half a day with as many people as we could to get the wide [shots], and for everything else, we would just shift people over one way to shoot in that direction, and reorganize them, give some depth, and move 10 people to the other side of the frame.
I was very nervous. It was actually originally written for night at an intersection of neighborhood streets in Oakland, which is usually how it goes down, but because of the age [of the actors], and because of the nature of sideshows, the Oakland PD, nobody was like, “You can just throw a sideshow in the streets.” You have to be in a closed-off space. I think we were able to shoot it in a way where you felt like it was still out in the open.
Speaking of nervous, were those actually real Air Ones Brandon wears? There’s a great scene in the film where he has to manuever his way around a urinal to avoid getting them dirty, which seemed like it might’ve been the case in real life.
Was that like having a Porsche on set?
Yeah, we had to have two of every shoe, just in case. Those were actually both my pairs – I just got them because I’m like, “We have to have these.” They release the Ones every couple years, and I think they’re the 2011 release. [It’s like in the film how] Rico’s like “That’s like a grand on the internet. How did you get those?” And it was like, “No one touch the shoes” because we had to shoot over weeks, and they were supposed to be untouched over the course of a day. We were precious about them.
What’s it like to put your first feature out into the world?
It’s surreal actually to work for so long – years – and all of a sudden, it’s out. It’s actually a relief almost, because you have no idea of what people are going to think. You have no perspective anymore. So I’m happy that people can react. This was the story I wanted to tell – it’s personal to me, but at the same time, I think it’s something that was speaking to bigger issues that we have in society. I didn’t want to preach, but I was hoping to at least start a discussion.