The Streets of San Francisco

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


I think the big question that's going to be on everyone's mind who sees the
film is: How did you get all those places to let you paint on their walls?

As much as we wanted to be authentic, it's just not wise to film yourself breaking the law. So we played by the rules. And there are actually a handful of legal spots in San Francisco. For instance, there is a curated alley way in the Mission District where we were able to paint. We also approached local businesses and asked permission. In most cases, the community was very supportive of the project and often bent over backwards to help us get the shot. In one case, the owner of a local clothing store actually spent the night sleeping on the floor of his shop so we could shoot all night on his roof. The community support was incredibly inspirational.


Did the real-life cops ever hassle you during filming?

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

The only time we made contact with the police was when they rolled up on us at 2 a.m. to ask if we were okay. They were concerned that we were shooting in a shady neighborhood at the wrong time of day. And they were right! A fight broke out right around the corner in the middle of shooting minutes after they left. But we just swung the camera around and had our actors walk by the brawl. That scene made it into the opening credit sequence.

How about just the average folks who live in the Mission District? How did
they react to filming down there? Any challenges?

 The entire community was really supportive. We were committed to showing a different side of San Francisco. There are no shots of the Golden Gate Bridge in this film. We show a side of San Francisco that has never been seen on film—the gritty underbelly of the Mission District, which is at the epicenter of the graffiti and street art movement. And locals were very supportive of that.

It appears you've shown this at many festivals. Besides the accolades, what
kind of comments have you been receiving? Any "universal" themes you've
heard in different countries?

The response from the subculture has been consistently and overwhelmingly positive. We've had graffiti writers from all over the globe tell us, "I feel like you made a movie about my life." There is no higher praise. But we have been really surprised by the reaction from viewers outside of our core youth audience who are really feeling the universal themes of impermanence and self-expression. The film has a much wider appeal than we expected.

How'd you get the rights to the diverse music on the soundtrack?

That was no easy task. This was an ultra-low budget production—we barely had enough money for film stock and food. So we obviously weren't able to offer the artists and labels on the soundtrack what they are used to getting. Our entire music budget was less than what Napoleon Dynamite paid for one song. But, through the tenacity of our music supervisor, and the goodwill of the artists, who were down with the project, we were able to secure tracks that were well beyond our means. We get hit up about the soundtrack at every screening. We're currently working on getting the soundtrack out there. Should be available this summer, when the DVD comes out.

Something that struck me: this is the first film I can remember where the
"positive" authority-type figures—I'm thinking of the bouncer and the artist
who opens a club and the head of the ad agency—are African-Americans, while
the at-risk street kids seem invariably to be white. Was this just the luck
of the draw in casting or a conscious decision? Is that the reality of San
Francisco?

It was a combination of all three, really. San Francisco is incredibly diverse. And many of the characters were based on real people. There is a common misconception that graffiti writers are all poor, urban, people of color. However, the truth of the matter is that most writers are skinny white kids, many of whom did not grow up in the hood. Although we were open to diversity here (and originally cast a Latino actor to play Curtis (aka "Vain"), what we ended up with was true to life.

And yes, some of it was luck of the draw, where the best actor got the part, and some was a conscious decision. For instance, I was committed to not casting a person of color as the stick-up kid. African American and Latino males usually have two choices in Hollywood: criminals or comedians. I really wanted to think outside of that box and show people of color in normal, everyday roles. It's interesting how that shakes people up. Really goes to show how potent Hollywood stereotypes can be.

Speaking of casting, I read in the bios that your two lead actors have real-life experience on the wrong side of the law and/or graffiti writing. Is there anyone else we see on screen who actually comes from the streets?

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