The Streets of San Francisco

Expanded for Web! Filmmaker points camera at citys unseen side and strikes a universal chord

The budgetarily challenged independent feature Quality of Life was shot in San Francisco with nary a cable car, crooked street or Golden Gate Bridge in frame. It focuses on a pair of Mission District graffiti artists who, confronted with hard time, choose widely divergent life paths. A street brawl that's captured in the opening credits is an actual street brawl that broke out as characters were being filmed walking past. Cops showed up during one all-nighter to make sure the crew was all right—and to advise them to vamoose from such a shady neighborhood. One lead actor was plucked from the graffiti subculture; the other had run-ins with the law as a youth and a kid who plays a stickup artist was, during shooting, facing 18 to 21 months in state prison for graffiti.

No one can accuse filmmaker Benjamin Morgan of not knowing his subject manner. A former at-risk youth, he went on to work with them for 12 years, from juvenile halls to children's mental-health facilities. He eventually founded a video production company aimed at these kids, and his "day job" remains running a teen court where youths cited for minor crimes are tried by juries of their peers.

Inspired by low budgeteers Woody Allen, "drama-verite" stylist Marc Levin and especially Robert Rodriguez, Morgan directed and co-wrote the screenplay (with Brian Burnam) for Quality of Life, which recently won the MySpace Film Users Choice award and, as it has toured film festivals around the world, has been embraced by a graffiti subculture whose size and scope shocks even the filmmaker.

Morgan: Look, Ma, no paint! Photo by Amy Morgan
Morgan: Look, Ma, no paint! Photo by Amy Morgan

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OC Weekly: So what makes a former at-risk youth turned at-risk youth counselor suddenly chuck the glamorous life for the rough and tumble existence of an indie

Benjamin Morgan: Ah yes, the glamour of social work. It may sound corny, but I really felt like I didn't have a choice. I knew I had something to say and film was the only medium that seemed accessible to me. I was actually exposed to filmmaking through my day job. One of the counselors I worked with, Steve Capasso, did some plays and video skits with the kids at juvenile hall. He involved them in the entire process, from writing to producing and even editing. I was totally inspired by this process; in addition to achieving his treatment goals, Steve was able to portray true-to-life stories of at-risk youth. Then I read Robert Rodriguez's inspirational book, Rebel Without a Crew, and it was on. And actually, I still am a working social worker; like most indie filmmakers I got to keep my day job.

Was it scary taking this on? Did you ever wonder what you'd gotten yourself
into, that you couldn't do it?

 Maybe I was just young and naÔve, but I always knew it was possible. And I was baffled when I encountered people who felt it wasn't. That isn't to say I never doubted. Independent filmmakers encounter far more obstacles than opportunities. And it is easy to get buried by the steady avalanche of failures. But [producer] Brant [Smith] and I always viewed failure as a necessary step in success. If we weren't failing a lot, we knew we weren't trying hard enough.

At what point did you realize you could pull this off?

About a month before production, we held an art auction to help kick things off. We had almost no money in the bank and people on the team were starting to doubt. So we organized a kick-off event to generate buzz and excitement and, hopefully, a little cash. Some of San Francisco's hottest artists donated pieces and the community came out to support our little film project. We ended up raising about one-fifth of our budget that night in art sales, and inspired fruitful conversations with multiple investors. It was at that moment when I realized we would be okay. We were on the right path.

The promotional materials I read refer to your raw "drama verite" style. Have you been influenced by any particular filmmakers?

Much like my taste in music, I draw my film inspiration from a pretty diverse pool. Robert Rodriguez inspired me to get on the horse in the first place. Marc Levin was certainly an inspiration, especially with the SLAM production model and his "drama verite" style. I love Woody Allen's approach, how he basically sets the camera down and lets the world unfold without multiple angles and takes. In general, I tend be drawn towards films that depict real-life people with natural, honest performances.

I've heard and read people referred to as "graffiti artists" but never "graffiti writers." I've also heard them referred to as thugs and vandals, but that's a different story. Is there a difference between graffiti artists and graffiti writers? Is it similar to the difference between graphic artists and portrait painters?

 It's just semantics, really. Graffiti writers refer to themselves as "writers." They write. They have something to say—even if it's just "I exist." There is definitely variation in motivation and purpose amongst writers. The culture is incredibly diverse—some are really into the art, and others are more devoted to vandalism. It's impossible to fit the entire movement under one umbrella. But one thing is clear: graffiti is more popular than ever. It has become a HUGE global phenomenon, with scenes in every major metro area on the planet. Graffiti has effectively become the last form of urban rebellion. Regardless of whether one approves of or even respects what these guys are doing, graffiti has unquestionably become the international language of youth.

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