DOWN FOR LIFE was inspired by a true story about a 15-year-old student at Locke High School in Watts who wrote an essay describing a day in her life. At the time, Lesly Castillo was running a girl clique of a major Latino gang. A day in her life was a little different than that of my teenage son living in Encino, though they were students in the same school district, separated by only 15 miles as the crow flies. Yet it was as if they lived in different countries.
I secured Lesly Castillo's life rights. Though I had written and directed several films, I didn't feel that I should write this one alone. The Writer's Guild recommended Trina Calderon, a talented young writer who grew up in a tough neighborhood. She and Lesly bonded immediately and the stories started flowing. With all that rich clay on the wheel, Trina and I began to shape the story into a screenplay about a fateful day in the life of a girl gang leader in South Central.
As we worked through the various drafts and brought actors in to read them to us, Trina and I realized two things: that this story hasn't been told in quite this way before, certainly not from the female perspective and that what makes it unique is its authenticity. Authenticity became my mantra. When it came time to produce the film, I hired Suspect Entertainment, comprised of former Latino gang members, to consult. I also chose to shoot the film mostly in South Central in a rough, cinéma vérité style.
The most important creative choice, however, was by far the most risky. After looking at a few "trained" actresses, I felt the only way to insure the authenticity of the film would be to cast real kids in the lead roles. I'm a big fan of Italian neo-realist cinema and I knew that amateur actors had carried such classics as The Bicycle Thief, and Open City. Still, the thought of pinning the fate of a film on an untrained, gang-related, 15-year-old girl was rather daunting.
We spent three months canvassing the worst schools in Los Angeles, starting with Locke High School, Fremont, and Manual Arts. We also visited Garfield in East L.A. and reached out to at-risk youth programs such as Art Share. At first, we made announcements for an open casting call after school. Nobody showed up. Either it was general apathy or a suspicion that this was a set up. We scrapped the casting call idea and instead, with the school's permission, scouted students at lunchtime. We focused on 14- and 15 year-old Latinas, whom we would ask a few questions on tape.
We interviewed about 300 girls in this way. Several of them were pregnant and said that depending on when we film, they might be available. We always asked the same few questions: whether they'd ever been in a fight, how it started, who won, and whether there are gangs around school. For the most part, we received the same answers. Yes, there were gangs, but they didn't get involved. Most of them had been in fights. It's just part of life. Amazingly, none of the girls we chose to speak with had ever lost a fight, and it was invariably the other girl who started it. The only girl who actually admitted to starting her last fight was Jessica Romero, who we cast in the lead.
Jessica is a 15-year-old whose gang connection stretches back three generations. Her grandmother was a gang member. We pulled Jessica from the lunch line at Manual Arts as she was buying a blue Gatorade. She thought for sure we were from the police. Against her better judgment, though, she opened up on tape about her life. It was clear from the first frame that this young woman was blessed with that rare quality known as screen presence. The other interviews average about sixty seconds; Jessica's went on for twenty minutes. The next day, we brought our gang consultant, Manny Jimenez, to meet Jessica at her group home in South Central. His response was immediate and identical to mine: "As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one."
I should mention that there was another Jessica as well– a teenager at Locke High who showed tremendous promise and was well on her way to landing a lead role. The other Jessica attended two callbacks and a rehearsal, expressed great enthusiasm for the project, but then suddenly stopped coming. The school said she'd been absent for weeks. We drove by her house and found no sign of life. Finally, through a police contact, we learned that Jessica's uncle was busted for drug dealing. Since he was illegal, and Jessica's parents were illegal, they were all deported. Jessica was born here, but since parents and children cannot be separated in a deportation, she was put in a van with her relatives and dropped off in Tijuana.
Once the five girls were cast, we put them through a fairly rigorous series of rehearsals and training at the Avery Schreiber Theatre in North Hollywood. The Black-Brown fight sequence was choreographed in great detail by our fight coordinator, Julius Lefleur. I told Julius to watch the girl fights on YouTube for inspiration. This wasn't going to be a Jackie Chan ballet; this was a street fight. The girls loved the training. They already knew how to hit. Most of the training was about how not to actually make contact with your opponent.
We also hired Mary McCusker, an acting coach, to work with the girls. Mary had the delicate task of making the girls feel free in front of the camera while still preserving their raw honesty. For the most part, she worked from the outside in, playing games and keeping it light. After a few weeks of "warm ups," I began rehearsing actual scenes. The girls were extremely disciplined and well prepared. More importantly, they continually made corrections to the dialogue and behaviors based on their own experience. In one scene, the original dialogue was "BFF." In the movie, the line is "You're my dog, fool."
In the meantime, we had assembled a terrific cast around the girls, including Danny Glover, Kate Del Castillo, Emily Rios, Laz Alonso, and Elizabeth Peña. They all loved the idea of working with "real" girls in the gang roles. I think they all intuitively understood that this was a unique challenge. In a film like this, honesty trumps experience – so in a strange way, the girls were raising the bar for these seasoned actors.
As the first day of production approached, I was genuinely excited about what Jessica and her co-stars were bringing. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm. The night before our first day of filming, I received an email marked "Letter from the Producers." I assumed this was to wish us all well tomorrow. Not exactly. The letter, signed by several producers, basically said: "Your decision to cast untrained, at risk-youth in the lead roles is reckless and puts the entire production in jeopardy, both creatively and from a security perspective (since they may bring gangsters onto the set). We take no responsibility for this decision."
Yes, I did lose some sleep that night, but it wasn't over my casting choices. The next morning, we started filming and the rush of excitement carried us all away. Soon Jessica was in the midst of her first scene ever before a film camera, with no less an actor than Danny Glover. Danny plays the teacher who challenges Jessica's character ("Rascal") to stop the chola-girl act and do something with her writing talent. It's a complicated scene, at times awkward, at times heated. Jessica faced Danny toe-to-toe, and never backed down. Afterwards, Danny pulled me aside and whispered, "She's magic."
Flash forward to two weeks ago. After a screening of a rough cut at Benjamin Franklin High School in Highland Park, there is stunned silence when the film ends. It's clear these students never expected to see their world honestly portrayed on screen. The real star, though, is right there beside us. When the Q&A ends, the students line up with their notebooks open asking Jessica for an autograph. Jessica fights back tears because just a year earlier, she was standing where they were – if she was even in school that day.