They say to write what you know, but that’s not always easy. Sometimes it means taking a long hard look at people and situations in your past. That’s what
Sheldon Candis, the writer/director of LUV had to do. The reward was getting to work with Common, Danny Glover, Michael K. Williams, Dennis Haysbert, and Charles S. Dutton—and premiering his first film at Sundance.
“LUV is a fictional story,” Candis says, “but it was inspired by the true relationship that I had with my uncle when I was growing in Baltimore as a young kid. It was just this boy and his uncle. It was taken from a lot of the emotion that I had in my relationship with my own uncle growing up. My uncle who, to this day, is still in Trinity State Prison.”
Candis attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he was learning to write screenplays. The more he learned about the structure of story in film, the more he became convinced that his childhood relationship with a drug-dealing uncle was ideal for a script. But it took an encounter with a more well-known screenwriter to really set things in motion.
“We knew it was something special when this really serendipitous moment happened,” Candis recalls. “It was when David Simon, one of the co-creators of The Wire, came to USC, and Justin (Wilson, Candis’ writing partner) and I went. He showed an episode of the show and during the Q&A I raised my hand and said, ‘Hey David, I’m from Baltimore.’ He said, ‘Really, what part?’ and I said ‘I’m from Northwest. I’m from Park Heights.’ And he said, ‘Okay, you and me, we’re gonna talk afterwards.’ As the two went through neighborhood landmarks, Candis mentioned his uncle, and Burns asked who he was. “I said ‘Well, my uncle’s name was Ronnie Collins,’” says Candis, “and he says ‘Wow, I wrote many articles in The Baltimore Sun about Ronnie. I’m going to tell you some stuff you don’t know.’”
Simon set up a call the next day with his writing partner, former Baltimore cop Ed Burns, who was able to fill Candis in on a lot of details about his uncle’s life and career. “And basically what he said to me,” Candis remembers, “was, ‘Listen, your uncle is a great manipulator. He could use anything or anyone to get what he wanted. So the fact that you’re telling me that you were a kid in a car with him, and that he was transporting drugs, that makes sense, because if a police officer passed the two of you at three or four in the morning, he wouldn’t look suspicious. The two of you would just look like a father and a son in a car.’”
As might be expected, the conversation had a profound effect on Candis. He says: ”You know when people say ‘I went numb’? I’ve never experienced that until that moment. Because me and my mother, we left the city in 1987. My parents separated and we moved to North Carolina with my grandparents. We never knew. I would say this, everyone has criminals or individuals in their families who deal in and exist in illegal worlds. Very seldom do any of us know the specificity of those individual lives. For me, to be a child and this is my hero, I had an idea. I was nine years old. I had an idea that my uncle was a drug dealer. He had a very nice house, a nice car, he always had money. You had an idea. But you don’t know the specificity.”
That specificity turned out to be a key factor in LUV. “For me to be a filmmaker making the story and to hear from the actual detective who did surveillance in the investigation of my uncle, are you kidding? What are the chances of that? I called two people immediately when we heard the story. I called my mom and told her and then I called Justin and I said, ‘This is it. People always say, ‘What is the film about?’ And it really is a boy’s quest to find his mother. But it’s all about how a child looks up to an adult as their hero and reveres them, but what happens when you see the adult showing their flaws. What does that do to a kid?”
Candis had to do some surviving of his own in the long journey to making LUV a reality. “You say, ‘I’ll never be that guy in L.A. who’s got this screenplay,’” he says, “and then five years go by, six years go by, eight years go by, 10 years go by, and you’re just that guy talking about that same screenplay. But to be honest with you, I was just all in. I just always felt that it was really special. I always felt that this movie was The Pursuit Of Happiness punched in the face with Training Day.”
Candis found film-set jobs when he could get them. When he couldn’t get them, he did any job he could find—anything to bring in a little money and bring the dream a little closer to reality. “I worked on set as a production assistant,” he remembers. “I was a personal assistant, I was a grip, I did wardrobe, I was an office assistant, I set up Christmas lights, I worked in the mall, painted houses. I went through all those years of struggling, but I’m so thankful for my education on set after I graduated from film school, because I watched some of the best directors do it, and I watched some of the worst ones do it. And I learned a long time ago, if somebody reads only one thing in this interview and they’re a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter if a bomb explodes on set, the only thing that matters to you as the director and filmmaker is telling the story. Nothing else matters.”
Candis’ hard work was rewarded when it came to casting the film. He’s got a host of top-notch acting talent in the film including Common in the lead role. “Justin has an early draft of the script,” he says, “and jotted on the title page are the five actors that we felt could play Vincent. And Common was right on that top of that list. He’s not only within the top five, he’s literally the top of the list. … I feel like he’s an individual with so much ability and so much talent, but the roles that we’ve seen him in haven’t really given him any opportunity to really explore a complexity or what it’s like to be a emotionally conflicted character. And I just always felt and believed that he was the guy.”
Candis also wanted to cast another unfairly pigeonholed actor—Michael K. Williams. “Mike is such a talented actor,” he gushes. “Certain actors have these faces. They have so much in their face in terms of their eyes. There’s a life that’s within their eyes. And Michael has so much range as an actor. The things that people love him for, Omar from The Wire, Chalky from Boardwalk Empire he can do that. But there’s so much more to him. Listen, I’ll be a little selfish. I’ll be the film nerd. I wanted to be the guy that literally did something different with him. I wanted to give him that role that basically—he’s that boy’s bridge. He’s Woody’s bridge, over the pursuit of his life. He’s really, if you think about it, Michael K. Williams as Detective Holloway, he’s Woody’s only positive role model. And it’s interesting, the things that people say to you in your life… as a child, I can touch on certain things and certain moments where people, as they say, spoke into my life. And Detective Holloway, he is basically Woody’s angel, speaking into his life. At that moment.”
After a triumphant debut at Sundance and nearly a year on the festival circuit, Candis is now bringing LUV to theaters. But he remains philosophical about the process. “Here’s the thing,” he muses. “You should never get too high or too low on anything. And, don’t get me wrong—I always wanted to define myself as an independent filmmaker first, more than anything. And the Sundance Film Festival is the ultimate place to do that. And I’m truly thankful for that experience. My entire existence in L.A. has been all about that. For my path, I didn’t want go make studio movies. I literally wanted to be a filmmaker with a voice. You know, in film school, the auteur theory. I wanted to be an auteur. I wanted to be like my heroes, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson and Spike Lee and all these guys—the Cohen brothers—all these people that have a voice in them. So, considering all of that, for me, I’m so thankful that we went to Sundance, that we sold our movie, that all our investors made their money back plus a profit. And for me, if the film only screened on one screen in one city, I would be thankful. But we find ourselves literally a week and a half away—I mean, we got 16 cities, man! Over 50 theaters. I mean…. thank you, you know! I’m fortunate, I really am.”
They say to write what you know. In Sheldon Candis’ case, “they” turned out to be right.