BOMB THE SYSTEM DIRECTOR: ADAM BHALA LOUGH INTERVIEW
©2005 @149st Do not republish without permission.
Why did you feel the New York City graffiti culture would make for an Interesting film?
I found the few films that were made about graffiti in the '80s - Beat Street, Wild Style - to be extremely interesting. Both were set in New York City.
New York City is the epicenter of graffiti art, and though graffiti as we know it today began in Philadelphia the true sprit and origins are in New York City. So there was never any doubt of where we were going to shoot.
How did the plot and title develop; was there a particular statement you were trying to make?
The plot (or lack thereof) developed out of the characters, not out of 'making a story' in the classic Hollywood sense. I'm not really interested in plot heavy filmmaking and typical three-act structure. I created a few realistic characters that reflected people that had come into my cipher at some time in my life and placed them into a world and the characters dictated what was going to happen, plot-wise. I wanted the film to have the beat of every day life and not much happens in every day life. You might rack a little spray paint, puff a couple els and make out with some chick at a party and that's your day.
As for the title it specifically references a moment in (the film) Style Wars when a young writer refers to 'bombing the system' literally the subway system, but on a greater metaphorical level, the system we live in.
I'm discussing the role anarchy or rebellion has in the teenager's life. At that period in our lives we are all extremely na•ve and think that writing graffiti or putting up snipes is going to change the world, and change the way people think. I think that sentiment is apparent in most of the characters in Bomb the System as well as in the vibe of the whole film. And recently I've been criticized for it - by people who have obviously forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.
What measures did you undertake to ensure that the film would have appeal beyond the graffiti community?
We tried to tone down a lot of the slang and streamline the script so that it wasn't all painting scenes. The original draft included twice as many painting scenes and the producers pointed out that no one wants to watch kids paint for half a movie, so I chopped a lot of these scenes out. There was a whole subplot where BLEST was painting a massive mural in a subway tunnel that no one would ever see (a la REVS writing his bio on the walls of the tunnels). There was this big tough Italian transit worker that was secretly into fine art and snuck BLEST into the tunnels every week. Scenes like this got chopped off like dead limbs in favor of a more streamlined script with less art and more character interaction. I sort of regret that. But when you have to answer to investors you have to make sacrifices.
New York City's graffiti subculture can be secretive and somewhat difficult to penetrate. How did you gain access to it?
I had access to it the day I moved here. It's weird; all my life graffiti writers have kind of gravitated into my cipher in some inexplicable way. Starting when I was 15 - I got my first job at Blockbuster Video and this older kid I worked with just happened to be one of the illest writers in Virginia. We became best friends very quickly; he put me on to Black Moon and Boot Camp Click, which was still underground even in NYC at that time. He taught me how to paint and how to rack cans. I moved to NYC when I turned 18 and the kid I was randomly dormed up with - KAST was doing his thing with his friend ONE TIME and FUEL (RIP) who went to Fordham Lincoln Center and FUEL happened to be friends with a couple of my friends up there including CESL FOG from Los Angeles who plays Noble in the film. So it all comes full circle. It's really a small world. ONE TIME introduced me to SEMZ who I became friends with and eventually cast in the film as KNIFE and by the way SEMZ if you're reading this, holler at me I lost your phone number and we got a lot of shit to talk about.
Did you know much about it before making the film?
I became obsessed with graff when I was 15 (like I said through an older friend) and I went on a few missions in Virginia but I've always been a terrible drawer and I think graffiti really stems from being able to draw and sketch well. There's a region in the brain that really dictates how well you can draw and that part of my brain is retarded. So I stopped writing after a while and concentrated on WRITING - meaning writing stories and scripts. I shot a bunch of short films on my boy's old VHS camcorder and one of them got me accepted to NYU on partial scholarship. But to answer your question, yes I knew about as much as any 15-year-old graffiti writer in the US knew about graffiti at that time. I had all the magazines (back then there was not much on the web about graff). I painted just as much as the average writer did, I just gave up early on and concentrated on other arts such as filmmaking and photography and what not. When I moved to NYC I caught a lot of marker tags just for fun and just wrecked shit on the lower east side drunk as fu*k coming out of Max Fish in '98 you know? I moved to South Williamsburg during the shoot and afterwards I had a shit load of unused Molotov Burner Chrome cans, those tall cans, so me and CESL we'd get tanked and go bombing down in the Hasid neighborhood down there but then I moved back to the city and I'm definitely not trying to take that penitentiary chance again. It's too hot to bomb downtown Manhattan these days. Plus, I'm old.
But now I truly believe I know more about graffiti history than most graffiti writers, and certainly more than 99% of filmmakers out there. I studied, I did my homework. I had a binder that was about 5 or 6 inches thick with copies of magazines, interviews, articles, and general information about graffiti from all the years. I fucking lost it, but it was a goldmine about graffiti history and had interviews with some of the greatest writers from here to Australia. And through this movie I gained access to nearly all the 'kings' of the old and new school. I probably have your favorite writer's phone number in my cell.
Graffiti artists are sticklers for authenticity and may be the harshest critics of your film. Did you feel a great deal of pressure in this respect?
No, the only pressure is to myself to make something I'm proud of and something 'permanent' meaning not disposable. Movies now a day are so disposable. You ever walk out of a theater and you already forgot what you just watched? Happens to me way too often. I wanted to make a film that would stick with the viewer forever. They might not like it, but will always remember it.
Graffiti writers are haters by nature. And I dare any real writer to disagree with that statement. I'm not na•ve. I knew going into this that certain writers would hate it (pretty much anyone who wasn't in it). And hate it before even seeing it. LEE warned me of that too. He told me how a lot of heads hated on Wild Style when it first came out and talked shit about him and complained that DONDI or whoever else should have played the lead, but now that film is consider a classic in every sense of the word! So I was more than prepared for a backlash, the surprising thing is there has been very little backlash. TRACY 168 called me the other day to tell me how much he loved the film. COPE 2 wants me to do a bio-pic on his life. Most of our heroes from the old school have love for it. And the little baby gangster writers love it too. It's mainly kids my age who have been throwing hate, but go figure.
How do you maintain the culture's authenticity or present the illusion of it in fiction with out breaking the law? (Was all the painting in the film legal?)
Frankly, the film is an act of graffiti. That's the way I always wanted it. Imagine shooting this movie on sound stages in Hollywood. It would suck ass. We hit the streets of New York and took back our city. We got up all over. BLEST - a fictional character that doesn't even exist in real life - got up more in downtown NYC than most graffiti writers operating today! Writers need to recognize what we did here on a street level. Cause more than half these motherfu*kers hating out there don't have the balls to do what we did. And the fact that we did it AND got the movie out to the world got a distribution deal and pimped the system means we won.
Did any graffiti writers serve as consultants for the film?
GANO and SEMZ in particular. SEMZ's help was invaluable to me during the production of this film. For example there's this one little piece of voice over where BLEST says 'writers who buy their own cans are fake - bitch made pussies with no heart.' Originally that read '...with no balls.' But SEMZ made me change it to 'no heart' because he felt that would be more authentic. Little things like that make all the difference. Also during the initial script stage KAST and my boy FELCH from Virginia were invaluable.
Did the nature of the film's subject matter pose any unique problems for casting?
Most definitely. Especially for BLEST. We wanted to cast someone who could act AND write. That's about three people in this world. We were lucky to find Mark. Granted he's not the illest writer and he writes with a Philly style, but he held it down. He did his thing. And everyone involved is proud.
Many real life writers appear in the film. How did you gain their confidence?
Just by sitting down with them for a few minutes and explaining what I wanted to do and why. After meeting me you quickly realize I'm not doing this to get pussy or make money or get fame, I'm doing this because I wake up in the morning and am driven to do this. I'm a genuine person. I have no ulterior motives. And I am a good communicator that is why I am a director. So I sat down with CHINO BYI for example and explained why I wanted him to be a part of this and though he (and many others) had doubts at first, he saw truth in me and my work and jumped on board.
You have been criticized for your less than positive depiction of law enforcement. How would you defend that?
Some of the most disgusting acts of injustice and violence have been carried out by our own police force, and by police forces around the world. I based Bobby Cox on Tom and Jerry, two legendary Vandal Squad officers from the '80s. I'm not going to get into what these guys did - if you don't know you better ask somebody.
Particularly what happens to BUK 50 in the film is based on the tragedy of Michael Stewart, the writer that was killed by NYPD in 1983, a crime that went unpunished. I don't think I need to defend my depiction of law enforcement. It is what it is. We all know there are problems in law enforcement that need to be rectified. Discussing these problems - police brutality being the key one - is the first step to changing things.
Graffiti in NYC is an extremely difficult under normal circumstances. You chose a subject that is illegal and extremely unpopular with the mayor's office. What types of problems did you encounter?
We were shut down by the Mayor's Office for numerous violations and threatened with arrest if we continued to film so we regrouped for a week and then moved to quiet parts of Brooklyn and finished the film incognito.
Was it difficult to get financial backing for the film?
Hell yeah. That's the first big hurdle. Luckily we had people with money who believed in us enough to take a chance. And I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Was distribution an issue?
Probably the biggest issue. It took us 1 1/2 years from the premier of the film to secure distribution. Everyone gave up at one point and moved on to other projects, except for me. It's funny; a movie begins with one person and ends with one person. And along the way hundreds of strangers are involved in some capacity, some you never even meet!
After being rejected by everyone and their mother I finally managed to secure distribution through PALM pictures. It was an old case of right place at right time basically.
If you would like to make a general statement about your film and or the graffiti community please do so.
This film is in no way the 'definitive' story of modern day graffiti art. I didn't set out to do that. Frankly, I don't think anyone can possibly do that. Bomb the System is just a simple story of one graffiti writer living in New York City and dealing with all the shit everyone deals with as they try to find their place in this world. I'm glad this film has managed to stir up some heated discussion and controversy among writers but honestly fellas, it ain't that deep.
Back to Adam Bhala Lough page
| Home | Artists | Crews | History | Links | E mail | Glossary |