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LUV

About the Production
Growing up in inner city Baltimore, Sheldon Candis, director and co-writer of the tautly scripted urban drama LUV, recognized the allure of street life with its quick money and adrenaline-laced exploits at a very early age, finding himself drawn to the outsize characters who slipped across the line of respectability, including a relative rumored to be on the wrong side of the law.

"There were whispers that an older family member was a drug dealer," he says. "I sometimes rode shotgun with him, and even though I had heard the stories, I was a 9-year- old excited to be hanging out with my hero. During those rides, he would explain to me what it takes to be a man."

Candis managed to avoid the grip of the outlaw life and grow up to attend the prestigious University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, but he found the inspiration for a raw cautionary tale in those late night excursions. In LUV Woody, played by 11-year-old Michael Rainey Jr., goes on a harrowing 24-hour journey with his ex-con uncle and that single day becomes an emotional crossroads that will forever define him.

"Woody's Uncle Vincent is a convicted felon with a violent past and, for all his ambition and energy, very few real prospects for advancement," says Candis. "He is also the only role model Woody has for manhood. The boy is growing up and while he still wants the stability that his mother represents, he is under pressure to be tough and hip, a young man about his business."

Candis began developing the story of a boy seeking a father and a man searching for redemption soon after graduating from USC, eventually partnering with fellow grad Justin Wilson. They initially bonded at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival over a love of movies and sports, and a childhood spent on the Eastern Seaboard -- Candis in Baltimore and Wilson in Virginia. They bounced ideas for films off each other, and wrote several scripts together, including a biopic about college basketball star Len Bias, who died tragically just days after joining the Boston Celtics.

"We kept talking about a coming-of-age story involving a kid in Baltimore," Wilson says. "It started with the little boy, and then the father figure -- the wrong kind of father figure -- and explored their relationship." Wilson, like Candis, had memories of late-night conversations with an older, street- wise family member. "I was never allowed to drive the car or shoot a gun, like Vincent does with Woody," he says. "But unlike the rest of the men in my family, who are mostly lawyers and accountants, this man didn't have a steady job. I connected with him because he never sugarcoated things. He would take me to the racetrack and talk to me about girls and other things my parents were reluctant to talk to me about.

"One of the things he told me was, 'There are two kinds of people in the world -- owners and renters,'" Wilson remembers. "'You have to decide which one you are going to be.' He was talking about taking ownership of your life, growing from a boy to a man with your own identity as opposed to following someone else's path. We gave that line to Vincent in the film."

But while Vincent has become fluent in the language of success during his incarceration, once back home, he lacks the skills needed to surmount the overwhelming obstacles he faces. As he tries to navigate a system he barely understands himself, the lessons he can offer to Woody are superficial at best.

"Faced with adversity, Vincent reverts to his old behavior and drags his young nephew along with him," says Candis. "It turns the classic father-son dynamic on its head. Vincent starts the day by showing Woody what he believes are the ways of the world. But when his dream starts to unravel, he loses sight of what Woody needs from him and takes dangerous shortcuts.

"He begins speaks to a child in the same language he would use with an adult," the director continues. "He exposes the boy to brutal violence. He becomes more concerned with not letting himself down than he is with not letting Woody down. In a short time, the child is wise beyond his years. The tragedy is that a precocious young child is losing his innocence."

Under Vincent's upbeat facade lies a deep well of deceit, distrust and disappointment. The deck is stacked against him, undermining his rehabilitation and threatening to derail Woody's future as well. "Our goal was to always keep it as emotionally heartfelt and viscerally dramatic as possible," Candis says. "As a filmmaker, my primary concern is telling a compelling story that explores the human condition. This is both a 'what if' that is based on my childhood -- What if a trusted adult is engaged in illegal activity? What if a child is with him when these things happen? -- and an exploration of an ongoing issue within our communities: the wholesale disenfranchisement of large numbers of men of color."

As Vincent's optimism begins to waver, his new beginning starts to look an awful lot like his old life. "But as misguided as Vincent is, he still has good intentions, for the most part," says Wilson. "There are shades of gray in all of us and who's to say what any one of us would do in his place. When I look at Woody at the end of the movie, it makes me want to find a real-world solution for kids like him and men like Vincent."

Another USC grad, producer Jason Michael Berman, joined the team after meeting Wilson at the university and reading an early draft of the script. "I'm from Baltimore originally, just like Sheldon," he says. "That was certainly part of the decision to make this movie. It took seven years to get it done, because it was such a complex project. With an 11- year-old lead and an all-African-American cast, we had to find investors with an affinity toward the story and that took a long time."

But Candis and Wilson's dedication to the tough and truthful story kept Berman committed to bringing LUV to the screen. "Sheldon is one of the most detail-oriented and passionate directors I've ever worked with," says the producer. "He is always pushing the envelope to get what he wants. And Justin was doing rewrites all the way up until the last minute. He's one of those extremely talented writers who is very driven and aims for perfection in what he does."

The film's tension-filled plot twists, along with its gritty, clear-eyed examination of real-world issues give the film enormous emotional impact, Berman says. "On one level, it is about the importance of mentoring and family relationships to guide people in the right -- or wrong -- direction. It is full of complicated characters that have a lot of internal conflict. Vincent, especially, was extremely interesting to me, because he's caught in a situation that seems to have no solution, and it's a situation that is all too common."

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