When Steven Caple Jr. was growing up in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, his mom had a beat-up VCR camcorder that he would use to film his cousins in unofficial sequels to movies they liked such as “Scary Movie” and “Bad Boys.”
“It’s probably why I can work with non-actors right now because I had the worst actors to start with,” jokes Caple Jr., who would eventually graduate to a better camera to film his high school basketball days before`eventually making his way to Los Angeles to attend USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Although the filmmaker honed his craft on the west coast, able to bring out a sense of wonder in the everyday, his heart remained back east, a fusion of experience that comes together to make his feature debut “The Land” so powerful. Managing to be both fun and thoughtful, Caple Jr. returns to northeast Ohio to envision his hometown as the playground for a group of teens — Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Ravi Gavron) and Boobie (Ezri Walker) all looking for a way out. While the quartet has largely perfected a hustle of stopping traffic with their skateboards in order to steal cars to sell for parts at the local chop shop, they get in over their heads when they find a bag of MDMA in the trunk that its owners, primarily a major pusher named Momma (a fierce Linda Emond) want back far more than the car.
Their activities may be criminal, but Caple Jr. gives us a crew worth rooting for nonetheless by so vividly depicting the circumstances they come from, immersed in a cycle of violence and poverty that began long before they were born and that they fight mightily against to retain some of their innocence as they’re thrust into an adult world so their growing cynicism doesn’t entrench them in the same struggles of previous generations. Displaying a painterly eye, the writer/director, along with cinematographer Steven Holleran, is often able to capture the complexity of their situation within a single frame, employing a cast of actors all able to leave a strong impression, whether it’s Erykah Badu and Kim Coates as Cisco’s surrogate family that hangs out in the hot dog shop just below where he lives or Michael Kenneth Williams as his father. But Caple Jr. also has a desire to entertain, gliding at the same pace as the boys’ primary mode of transportation to give the film a crackling energy. As the film hits theaters this week after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Caple Jr. spoke about the film’s real life roots, shooting on the block he grew up on and showing a side of his hometown that has never been seen before on screen.
How did “The Land” come about?
When I was at USC, I had to write this thesis project and I wanted to do something that took place at home [in Cleveland]. I was playing with these personal elements that you see within the film, like [having] a single mom, the struggles and hardships of a certain area where I grew up and drugs, which played a major part in my life — not me, personally — but my family members. I wanted something to tie that all together, and I ran across these kids in Los Angeles who were selling drugs as a way of getting by. They were two skateboarders, and one got deep into the game of drug-dealing, and kind of disappeared, actually, and the other one got sponsored — he’s making pretty good money doing what he does now — and that’s what made up the story of “The Land.”
If you were in L.A. and returning to Cleveland to make this, was it interesting to fuse those two experiences together?
Very much. When I went back to Cleveland and saw that we’re building more skate parks to get kids off the streets — and I don’t think the city realizes that the streets is where the skaters want to be, that’s why it’s called street skating — you have to use the elements around you to actually do something cool. The skaters had a different mentality than the kids I’d seen out in L.A.. They were more hungry, and they don’t have indoor skate parks [like there are in L.A.], so what they started to do was talk about what they would do over the summer, which was skate in basements and they really had to struggle because that one summer that they had, they had to really put in all their efforts to try to get noticed if they wanted to [skate] professionally, so when I found out about that, it helped the story.
This film is so striking visually. Did you have strong ideas about how you’d shoot the city?
The biggest thing was I wanted to capture all sides of Cleveland and these boys had a vehicle to get through the city, which was skateboarding. They’re constantly moving, so they would go to the condos in downtown Cleveland and the suburbs, to the backwoods with Skatetopia and the east side [with] the markets. Having these locations, [I could] show how big and diverse Cleveland really is while at the same time, showing the east side of Cleveland, which is struggling and people try to neglect, even at home. I’m shooting a music video right now and the editor, who’s with me in the room, just literally thought that this video took place in Detroit when we just shot it in Cleveland, just to give you an idea of how the city is decaying, so I wanted to show that, the side that people didn’t know existed [even] at home.
One of my favorite things about the film is the hot dog shop, both as a location and a story element because I loved how Cisco’s visits to Uncle Steven and Turquoise say so much. Was that a real place?
It is really existed. We have a hot dog shop – this shabby, beat down place – that everyone goes to. There was another one actually called Steve’s Diner that we were going to shoot in, but it burned down, so we ended up shooting in this smaller one, which helped because we wanted it to feel really closed in, like a place that Cisco wanted to escape from. He had big dreams and he loves skateboarding, which you obviously need a lot of space [for], and we gave him the exact opposite at home.
How did Kim Coates’ character Uncle Steve come about?
He is based off my father. My dad used to be with me and my mother when we were kids, but he had a crazy drug addiction and they got a divorce, so I had this resentment towards my dad because we were always struggling and I felt like it was because my mom was trying to raise us on her own. That’s kind of where Cisco and Uncle Steve’s relationship comes from. [My father]’s been trying to recover for a few years now and he’s relapsed here and there, so Uncle Steve’s character is really based off the internal battles of feeling guilt and [other] certain elements around him that were personal to me, but I put them in different forms so they could serve the story that we’re trying to tell.
Was Momma based on anyone? It’s amazing character, played brilliantly by Linda Emond.
There was this woman who would always come by in this Lexus [to see] my Uncle Chico, who used to be on the block. He was a street peddler and a hustler, and this woman would give out candy and fireworks to us and small dollars. I never knew why she would always come around, and her name wasn’t Momma [in real life] — that was fictional for the purpose of the story — but that’s where he was getting his supply from. I didn’t know that until later in my teen years. Linda [Emond] was wonderful, and after she read the script, I wrote her a personal letter saying, “I know [you] can bring something different to the table,” and she accepted the role.
It seems hugely ambitious to shoot at places like the West Side Market, where Momma’s based, and the carnival. Did you have to fight for those things?
The West Side Market was relatively easy, actually. They were stoked about wanting to shoot a movie here. We didn’t really have much money, but they were down as long as it was on their day off and it was more so the outside stuff [that was difficult]. These kids are always outside and I wanted it to have a festive vibe because it was summer. When we shot at the Puerto Rican Festival, it’s summer. People get wild and rowdy, so we had to deal with gun shots going off and somebody was actually shot while we were [filming] it — not on our set but a civilian who was attending the festival. Fights [also] broke out at a certain park. It got to the point where we had to use our family, our relatives to play security guards because our actual security guards weren’t really helping the situation. That was a tough one. But then you also had the pluses of shooting at home with people surrounding the film truck, trying to get a peek at the movie, and feeling the excitement and the energy they had.
Did knowing the violence going on around you actually reinforce what you were trying to do in telling this story?
Yeah, definitely. For example, when one of our producers read the script, she was like, “There aren’t any cops in the film. When are you going to put the cops in there?” And I [said], “Well, some cops don’t come into these certain neighborhoods.” She’d never been in that environment before. We had a fight break out on a scene one day during our shoot — it was with some locals because we were shooting in a park where they actually sold drugs and we were in their territory — and she called the cops and the cops didn’t show up until two-and-half hours later. We did our own little stat report and wrapped our truck and she was still upset. “Why you guys didn’t show up?” And the cop literally asked, “You’re shooting at this park? Do you know the neighborhood you’re in?” Reminding her. It definitely was one of those testaments to what I wrote on paper definitely existing. At the same time, it was better for the actors because they were in a real environment. Erykah Badu was really in an apartment that was busted up that people actually lived in, so it felt real and brought a different vibe, a different energy.
You hired mostly locally?
There were only a few people that weren’t from the community. At the time, bigger movies were coming to Cleveland to take advantage of the tax incentive, so we were spread out to grab production designers and stuff like that, but for the most part, a lot of people were from Cleveland. We had eight stunt bikers in the film that weren’t stunt men before, but since we went union, they became stunt drivers and in a way, it was like I was giving back so now they could go on sets and do commercials and other stuff. They were excited. We also had the actual skate community — the Skate Devils, the best skaters in Cleveland, Ohio — so we implemented a lot of people and things around.
Was making a feature different than a short?
It’s tougher, man. There’s ways you have to train your mind to get into a feature, I realized, and not think about your next [thing]. Physically, you have to be in shape in a way and get your rest — stuff that you really don’t consider doing a short. A short you can do in three or four days, maybe split it up among a couple of weekends, but a feature is non-stop. The days off, I had to prep for the following week, especially with all the adjustments that would happen with a low-budget project where you could lose the location at anytime because it was free or actors fall out or whatever it may be. You had to be submissive. I felt like I had more control over the short films, but when you’re doing a feature, you just never know what’s going to bring on that day and you have to adjust quickly.
Was it surreal filming this in your old neighborhood?
Very much. There were nights where we were shooting at four o’clock in the morning and people would surround the trucks and the set. Some people I knew, some people I didn’t, but I fed off the energy and you get emotional coming out there. They’re like, “Oh man, you’re shooting a movie? Man, it’s not about Cleveland.” I was like, “Yeah, it’s about Cleveland.” Like, “What?” You see the spark in their eye. it was just an amazing feeling just to be at home shooting literally on the block I was raised on and get that kind of response. It felt good. It felt like you were inspiring people, [by] saying, “I lived right there. I’m from here, but now I’m back and we’re making a movie.”
“The Land” opens on July 29th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and in New York at the IFC Center and will be available on VOD on August 4th.