Justin Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden daydream about making things easier on themselves with their next feature.
The first-time feature team (with Tipping as writer/director and Beirne-Golden as writer/producer) definitely didn’t set themselves up for the path of least resistance when making Kicks, which opens in 36 cities on Friday. The independent feature stars 13-year-old and 6-year-old leads, and features car stunts, guns, and action sequences—not the sort of thing that a movie being made on a tight budget and a tight schedule usually affords.
"We joke about next time, no more kids, no cars, none of that stuff—all just adults in a room," Beirne-Golden says.
"Just doing one character alone with a mirror and making a psychological thriller," Tipping laughs. But the story in Kicks is one that requires actors who don’t just look young but are young, and the setting—the East Bay city of Richmond, California—needed the cars and weapons to convey the culture that Tipping (who grew up in the area) and Beirne-Golden say are vital to the film’s authenticity.
"Those things typically aren’t in a smaller-scale movie—you just kind of have to sacrifice, because it’s the nature of the beast on an independent film," Beirne-Golden says. "But this story is so much about this specific time in young adolescence that it was one of things that we were never willing to compromise on. It’s about a very specific time and place in their lives, and the degree of difficulty became really high."
Kicks tells the story of Brandon, a 15-year-old eagerly awaiting the onset of puberty. (Jahking Guillory, who plays the part, was cast as a 13-year-old.) To make himself feel a little cooler, he finds a way to score the pair of Jordans of his dreams—only to find himself robbed for them while walking home. It was a story that was close to Tipping’s heart.
"The impetus for the idea came from the time I was jumped when I was 16 by like 10 kids, because I got sought out for wearing a pair of flashy Nikes," Tipping says. "From there, it kind of branched out—it was all inspired by either my friends and family, or people I know. The East Bay area is very diverse, and for my first feature as a director, it was important to me to go back to what I knew and what I can do authentically."
Kicks is a coming-of-age story that stars actual teens in situations that are decidedly more adult than what we often see young people get into on film these days—its antecedents are more Stand by Me with a little bit of Boyz n the Hood than The Fault in Our Stars or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—with life-or-death stakes and situations complicated enough to make it tough to root for anyone for the entire film. After Brandon’s Nikes are stolen, he goes on a quest into the violent world that took his sneakers, and what happens when he gets there challenges himself and his friends in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.
"Even from our introduction, we talked about Stand by Me and The Goonies," Tipping says. "For us, thematically, it was about boys who were not yet ready to be, or who were being forced to be men. It was kind of like, ‘How can we tell that kind of universal coming-of-age story, but set it in Oakland, where I was from?"
Casting those boys was even more of a challenge than simply coordinating the schedules of young actors or the technical difficulties of car stunts. "It took a very long time," Tipping says. "We were trying to find the right balance of kids that had some experience, but who were also just really hungry to be actors." Working with casting director Kim Hardin—who worked on Hustle and Flow and with John Singleton—they met Guillory, who was 12 when he auditioned and 13 when they shot the film. "His only claim to fame at that time was that he was on Snoop Dogg’s football team, and he was obviously proud of that, but he was still young enough for a story that called for a prepubescent."
During the casting process, Tipping and Beirne-Golden, who met in grad school, moved into Tipping's parents’ house for four months before beginning preproduction to save money and collaborate more directly. Between the actors that Hardin set them up with and the ones they met while living together in the East Bay, they auditioned hundreds of kids for the part. And after they found Guillory to play Brandon, they had to cast his friends Albert and Rico.
Casting those parts allowed Tipping and Beirne-Golden to go older, to contrast with Guillory. And they found unique actors for the parts: C.J. Wallace, the son of the Notorious B.I.G., stars as the wannabe ladies’ man Albert, while Wayward Pines’ Christopher Meyer plays stoner Rico. That made for some interesting moments—Tipping says that they didn’t know who Wallace was at the time, even though they’d written Biggie lyrics into the script—but that the trio quickly found the rhythm that they needed to play their parts authentically.
"They just sort of naturally fell into that dynamic," Beirne-Golden says of the actors on set. "Jahking is sort of in the spot age-wise where you’re such a kid still, but wanting to be an adult, which is very much what the movie is about. It’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders, but when we saw that dynamic that he had with them, and he kind of naturally fell into that role of trying to keep up with them, everyone was very confident that he was going to be great. The movie is very much on Jahking’s shoulders, so it’s kind of amazing to see what he could do with it."
The challenges presented by casting kids in Kicks go beyond just finding actors who are capable of pulling off the performances, but the practical challenges of a scheduling the shooting of a film with a 13-year-old and a 6-year-old in every scene. "We had initially planned on a 20-day shoot, but after we looked at it, it turned into 30," Tipping says. On top of the fact that there are limits to how many hours a day that kids are allowed to shoot, there are also things that come up simply by having actors that young on set. They’re often not going to be experienced, they’re not necessarily going to know how to hit their marks and keep up with more intricate blocking, and they’re not always where they want to be for hours at a time when they’re not in school.
"Jahking, sometimes he would get tired, or he’d have to go to school while all the other kids were playing football waiting for him to get out of school," Tipping says. "He was 13 and he didn’t want to be doing that. It was really hard for him because he was in every single scene, and he’s just a kid—he just wants to play football sometimes, and balancing that with, ‘Okay, we have 15 minutes to shoot this scene out’? It was really impressive to see his work ethic around that."
If all of that—the demands of the shoot, the scheduling of school and work, learning to be a professional actor, and carrying an entire feature—sounds like a lot to put on a kid, well, it is. But the rewards, for Beirne-Golden and Tipping, were real, and the chance to engage with the themes of the film offered unique rewards for the actors, too.
"In terms of having young actors deal with the harsh elements of the movie, they were issues that the kids were very much aware of to begin with, and had either dealt with in their own lives, or knew people who had dealt with them," Beirne-Golden says. "It was kind of a natural transition for them."
Even for actors so young, the chance to engage with that kind of culture was an opportunity that the cast of Kicks didn't want to miss. "In the casting process, we had been talking to Chris, and C.J., and Jahking and his mom," Tipping says. "Everyone made sure to talk about the content, and everyone was on the same page—they're aware of the culture, and what was happening, and that this is an important story to tell. The cast all felt that way as much as we did."