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How a £100,000 film set in New York won fans around the world

FROM On the Town and On the Waterfront to Annie Hall and Mean Streets, film-makers have been drawn to New York like tides to the moon.

Having grown up there, Adam Leon knew of no better place to set his debut feature, Gimme the Loot.

The tale of two graffiti artists who want to stage a stunt that will have everyone talking has shown it can travel well, being a hit at festivals outside as well as inside America. This Monday it is showing as part of the Glasgow Youth Film Festival.

"It's this little movie that we made on our streets, and the fact we've got this international reaction is almost surreal, a real blast," says Leon, 31, speaking from New York.

Gimme the Loot, besides being a blast in itself, could almost be a masterclass for young filmmakers in how to put a feature together with little loot and a lot of sweat.

Going from script to shoot took almost two years, with casting being the first of many hurdles to cross. Leon wanted to use non-professionals to give the film a freshness and a certain vibe, but finding them was not so easy.

He knew Ty Hickson from a short film they had made together, and wrote the role of Malcolm, a pot dealing graffiti writer, for him. Casting someone to play Malcolm's friend, the tough as a New York rivet but tender on the inside Sofia, was more difficult. Till Tashiana Washington came along, that is.

"We would find somebody who had the right look but they wouldn't be able to act, or they had the right experience but they didn't have the right look. Finding that balance was really tricky. We were very lucky when Tashiana came in," he says.

Leon's aim was to make a road trip/adventure movie, but with the two leads travelling around New York on foot rather than in a car. Inspiration came from various sources, including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's "road" movies. From them, Leon learned how to place characters in a situation quickly and get the adventure going.

What is striking about the film, besides the confidence with which it is put together, is the relaxed way it exposes the sharp division of wealth in the city. For example, the gap between Malcolm and the arty uptown types who buy his wares.

That's New York, says Leon, the city where lives collide. Though the film touches on how tough life is for some in the city, Leon didn't want it to be a "social awareness piece". It had to be fun, funny, and feel authentic.

Leon, whose father was in the music business and whose mother works in estate agency, went to a state school in Greenwich Village where many paths crossed.

He says: "Because of the way the city works you are thrown together with all of these different people.

"It's not like LA where everybody is in a car. Everybody is on the subway together, and on the subway you will find a homeless person, a supermodel, a tourist and a businessman.

"That vibe is there to begin with, but it's even greater when you are a kid growing up here."

The movie was shot in the Bronx, with the benign indifference of the locals working to Leon's advantage. With so many films made in the city, native New Yorkers are not fazed by cameras.

"People here have this great mixture of being supportive and not caring," says Leon. "If you are going to take it seriously and try to do your thing here, people aren't going to go out of their way to help you, but they are not going to go out of their way to prevent you."

The production budget was $85,000 (£54,000). Add in music clearances and legal fees and the total spend was double that. Leon put in his wages from a job he had been doing, and did not take a salary.

With the help of a team of producers, the rest of the money came in from one main "angel" investor, a few others, and crowd sourcing via Kickstarter. Having a clearly thought out business plan was vital in attracting investment.

Even with the casting done and the money raised, there were still tough moments. Leon recalls one day on set when things were going wrong.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'If I didn't want to do this more than anything in the world this would be crazy, why would anybody do this? But I do want to do this.' You need that because it's a very long, arduous process, you have to expect that."

Leon didn't train as a film-maker, doing a liberal arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania instead, but he did work on a couple of Woody Allen movies, on one occasion as an editing intern.

"It was an amazing experience watching him work over the course of a couple of years. He's just this real master craftsman. I learned a tremendous amount from just observing," he says.

Now that the film is over and out there, Leon, his cast and crew can see the benefit in the way people are winning work on the back of it. Even simply securing meetings with people is easier, he says. On screen and off, New York works its filmmaking magic again.

Glasgow Film Theatre, February 11, 8.45pm

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