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

The Streets of San Francisco

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.

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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 nave, 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.

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?

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

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?

I, of course, was well aware of [co-writer/actor who plays "Vain"] Brian [Burnam]'s background in the graffiti subculture, since we basically grew up together. But I was moved by [co-lead actor] Lane [Garrison]'s performance before I learned of his run-ins with the law. There were several other actors who were cast for their talent first, before I discovered the real life experiences that effectively qualified them for their respective roles. And our friend Dave Lieberman, who plays the stick-up kid in the film, was facing 18-21 months in state prison for graffiti while we were shooting. His experience was well-publicized in the local media. Actors' personas have a way of creeping into their performances. I love that.

What most surprised you about this project?

We were most surprised by the sheer enormity of the graffiti subculture and how tight the community is internationally. When we went to Berlin, the writers in our crew were immediately connected with the Kings over there. These cats are linking up all over the world and painting together. It's phenomenal. And beyond the elite crews, there are kids involved with graffiti on some level or another in every corner of the globe. We get dozens of emails every day from writers all over the world who are touched by the film and want to help get the word out. We knew we would get support from SF and NYC. But we had no idea we'd have people in Berlin, Stockholm, and Indiana offering to help promote. Graffiti has become a truly global phenomenon.

Can you tell me a little more about your decade as a government social worker?

I have worked in a variety of settings, from juvenile hall to children's mental health. I also founded Live & Learn Productions, which is a video production company for at-risk youth. Live & Learn produced public service announcements and a teen talk show for community television. I currently run a teen court program, where youth are tried by a jury of their peers for minor crimes. My goal in working with youth is to give them access to healthy, constructive outlets and provide them with skill-building opportunities that will help them succeed in future endeavors. These are both things that are severely lacking in the lives of most at-risk youth.

Any other films in the works?

Yes, we actually have several projects in the pipeline. We founded Relentless Co. to produce, acquire, and distribute independent films. However, we are putting all of our energy into Quality of Life right now. This is an incredibly exciting time for independent filmmaking. The tools that are available for production—video cameras, digital editing—and distribution—the internet, low-cost DVD replication—have made it possible for anyone to create something and have it seen by an audience. For example, what's happening on MySpace right now is phenomenal. Just this week, we won the MySpace Film Users Choice award – thanks to the votes from thousands of people on MySpace who would have never heard about the film otherwise. We have been able to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers for free! The democratization of the filmmaking process is definitely upon us. And we're psyched to be in the middle of it. 



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