by Alex Shtaerman
For Adam Bhala Lough, what started as a class project at New York University’s film school in 2001 has in 2005 blossomed into one of the year’s most provocative and visually stunning independent feature films. The critics agree; Bomb The System has secured an incredible list of accolades appearing at dozens of film festivals around the world. Painting an unforgettable picture of a lifestyle that is too frequently misunderstood, Bhala Lough effectively explores many of the underlying themes driving graffiti culture.
Where past narratives have frequently attempted to embellish certain elements of the culture by painting a rosy and upbeat picture, Bhala Lough explores some of the darker paradigms inherent in what is essentially an illegal art form. In the director’s own words: “How can anyone judge something as art and as crime in the same breath?” At its core, Bomb The System attempts to illustrate the consequences of such a dichotomy. Featuring an all star cast including Mark Webber, Bonz Malone, Jade Yorker and world-renowned graffiti writer GANO, Bomb The System opens in Los Angeles and New York City on May 27th. The film is also scheduled to be released in Japan on September 3rd. Please visit www.BombTheSystem.com for more info.
BOMB THE SYSTEM AWARDS
- Winner Best Picture – San Francisco Independent Film Festival
- Winner Best Director – HBO Urbanworld Film Festival
- Winner Best First Feature – Independent Spirit Award Nomination
- Winner Audience Award – Athens Film Festival
- Winner Audience Award – Cinema Paradise Film Festival
- Winner Best Feature – Anchorage Film Festival
- Winner Best Music & Best Editing – Milan International Film Festival
Following the premier of Bomb The System in New York City we had a chance to catch up with Adam Bhala Lough and see what was on his mind.
RIOTSOUND.COM: How familiar were you with graffiti culture prior to when you started filming Bomb The System; how did the project come about and how did you come in contact with Mark Webber?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: I have always been a big fan of graffiti art. As a kid growing up in DC I got involved in the scene and I was kind of like a wannabe writer hanging out with a lot of the older kids and they were teaching me how to get up. I never really got to the level where I was runnin’ shit on the streets or anything – I was always just like bombing and doing a lot of tags. I never really got into the artistic side of graffiti so much, I was more into the thrill of just getting up; the artistic side to me just seemed like something foreign. And at the same time a friend of mine introduced me to the film Wild Style which really blew my mind on a number of levels just as a time capsule of New York City and Hip-Hop, the birth of Hip-Hop and also kind of a cool movie that everybody can sit down and watch and drink beers to and smoke herb to and chill out; and it was always on – everybody was always watching it and putting it on and whatnot.
So then when I moved to New York I had pretty much all but given up writing graffiti or any interest in it. But when I moved I was a freshman at NYU and my roommate was a graffiti writer and he was getting up around New York big time and he also had a lot of friends at NYU as well as outside of school and at Fordham who were graffiti writers. I started spending a lot of time with them and then I started trying my hand again, trying to get up around New York City – which was never really that successful but at the same time it was still just about the rush. [My roommate], he started introducing me to the world of graffiti art and the more artistic side of it; so I gained an interest in that and I was also in art school, so art was on my mind 24-7.
The way the movie came together is I wrote a script over the course of a year. The script actually came from a short film I had made at NYU and I developed the short film idea into a feature film. I took the script and sent it over to my friend Ben Rekhi who I had went to NYU with and he at the time had aspirations to become a producer so I figured why don’t I see what he thinks of this and maybe he would be down to try his hand at producing it – everyone involved at that point were first time filmmakers as it was – it would be good to get a first time producer and see what he could do with it.
Ben loved the script and he flew to New York like a week later and slept on my floor and we just started producing the movie and getting it together. It took up the entire summer of casting to find BLEST and we looked at thousands of kids. It wasn’t until we saw Mark Webber in a movie – ’cause we had cast Bonz Malone like three months earlier and we were watching some of his films – we were watching Whiteboyz and we saw Mark in Whiteboyz and we thought – damn this kid is a good actor and he kind of looks like what I imagined BLEST looking like. And then we found out he lived in New York and that he used to be a graffiti writer in Philly and he actually got expelled from his high school for writing graffiti; so we knew it was on.
We sent him the script and he read it in the same day, got back to us and came up to our production office and met with me. We went to a bar and I told him about the movie and my aspirations for it and my style of directing and we just gelled and from right there he was on board we’ve remained very close ever since. [After that] Mark took over some of the responsibilities as an executive producer as well as bringing a lot of connections to the table; not money wise but as far as connections to people in the industry and little things that helped smooth the way for us. In some ways it was a bumpy ride since none of us were established filmmakers and none of us had even come from a filmmaking family. We were all mostly New Yorkers and East Coasters whose parents were from regular working class families; we weren’t Hollywood people.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Since filming Bomb The System, how has your view of graffiti culture changed?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: Definitely after filming the movie I felt completely overwhelmed by graffiti culture and it reached a point where I had like no desire to even write graffiti or hear about graffiti or read anything about it, I just got completely sick of it. I immersed myself in the culture for a good solid year and found myself during production and during pre-production spending pretty much all my time with graffiti writers. I felt completely immersed in the culture; spending time with graffiti writers and interviewing them and hanging out with them constantly. I definitely had a new found appreciation for the art form on a deeper level but at the same time it’s been a long time that I have been working with the movie and I basically got it all out of my system now – I still love the art form but I am not as obsessed with graffiti culture as I used to be.
RIOTSOUND.COM: GANO is a well known graffiti artist; how did he contribute his perspective to the film aside from playing the role of BUK 50?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: When GANO came on board, he really brought a lot of his life into the movie; he brought a lot of his connections into the movie, he put us in touch with a lot of graffiti writers and he hustled for us and he did a lot of work on that level like getting people from the community and subculture involved with the film and he made a big difference. Having him as an actor who was also a graffiti writer on the set at all times – he was able to do the quality control of the pieces that were done, so he was an elemental part of the film process.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Bomb The System has won so many awards; was this something you could have expected?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: It was completely unexpected that we would have gotten to this point with the movie. It was such a small scale project when it first started out; we had no idea that it was even going to be a feature that anyone would want to come see. So when we started winning the awards we were definitely humbled and we were surprised at the same time. But it’s been a terrific ride and we are just humbled and glad that we got it to this point and that we sold the film and that it will be out there for the public real soon.
RIOTSOUND.COM: The film is visually stunning; how did you approach the filmmaking process with regard to how everything would look and feel visually?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: We specifically wanted the visual aspects of the film to mirror the art itself and to mirror the art form. So we wanted the movie to literally look like a piece of graffiti and have that flare and style to it. So every sequence was created and almost painted like that – every sequence and every shot – everything we did was very specific and we took a lot of chances and did a lot of visual effects too. Almost a quarter of the movie has visual effects in it, stuff that was done in post production; and it was all scripted and thought out beforehand and meant to be like that.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Were there any problems initially as far as securing funding to actually shoot the movie?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: There are always problems with funding. It’s impossible to get people to give you their money to make a movie. We spent the better part of a year trying to get that money and when we were finished shooting we didn’t even have any budget left to finish the movie so we went back out to some more investors and secured some more money. All along the way it was like we were just collecting bits and pieces to get to a certain point. First to try and get the movie done, then to get the movie edited, then to get the digital effects done, then to get the music licensing cleared; every step along the way we were having to get more money because there was just such a small budget and it was so difficult to secure one or two investors who would put down the majority of the money, so it was more spread around to like eight of nine investors – a little bit here and a little bit there.
RIOTSOUND.COM: This is your directorial debut, after the success Bomb The System has achieved, you must have high expectations for the future; what is next for you?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: I just went to the Sundance Lab in January with my new script which I’ve been developing for the past six months and I am very deep into the process. I am being mentored by Guillermo Arriaga who wrote 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Also [I have been working with] David Benioff who wrote 25th Hour, a Spike Lee film and also a couple of other mentors that have been helping me and guiding me through this process. I’ve learned a lot from Bomb The System and I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes that I made, especially in the writing process. I feel like amongst movies and filmmakers what’s sorely lacking today is good writing so I have been really concentrating on that and trying to make up for the mistakes I made on Bomb and craft a much deeper, denser and more complex script; and I am hoping to start shooting that sometime this year.
RIOTSOUND.COM: What advice would you give to a young up and coming director who wants to break into the industry?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: The best advice I would give is – you know there is the old phrase – the squeaky wheel gets the grease – I find that true everyday; as long as you keep speaking your voice and speaking your mind and trying hard to get things done you’ll eventually achieve your goals. And as long as you do it yourself and not really have to rely on anyone else, you’ll achieve your goals. It’s a really tough industry to get into and sometimes I think I am fucking insane for even wanting to do this but when I wake up in the morning I feel like I have to make movies so I can’t really fight that.
But if you want to make movies, my best advice is to just try, try and try again. And also staying humble and staying real and not dicking over people [is very important] and is a big part of it. People respond to honesty in this industry. For some reason some people think you have to lie, cheat and steal to get ahead but I find that to be total bullshit. As long as you keep it real and be straight up and honest with people about your motivations – certain people will disappear immediately but the real people will stick around and help you and be with you forever and that’s what I’ve found.
People that I have surrounded myself with – they stuck around even though this movie has made no money for them – because they are down for the cause and they are real people and we seek each other out. And as far as people for who it was about money or fame or whatever or just trying to get on the band wagon, they fell off like a dead limb a long time ago. So as long as you stay honest and stay real and stay true to yourself I think you will succeed in pretty much any industry.
RIOTSOUND.COM: At the end does BLEST die or does he live on to paint the RIP BUCK mural?
ADAM BHALA LOUGH: The end of the film is very metaphorical and it can be taken literally that BLEST died or it could be taken as just a metaphor that he just moved on with his life into a different stage of his life. But the RIP BUCK mural that we see at the end is very real – that’s what he painted and that’s his last piece of artwork that will live on in infamy.
IMAGES FROM BOMB THE SYSTEM:
GANO UP IN NEW YORK CITY: