Adam Leon’s films look at New York City with a street-side view. His characters, through his first three features, wander the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, or the Bronx, or the West Village with little cash and minor control of their situation. From the SXSW Grand Jury Winner Gimme the Loot (2012) to Netflix’s hangout romantic dramedy Tramps (2016), Leon makes films depicting different parts of the city he grew up in, the interactions that go unnoticed and overlooked, the people that get passed and immediately forgotten.
Often, there’s an initial manic energy to Leon’s low-budget films, now commonly associated with another New Yorker directorial team, the Safdie brothers. A sense of confusion or difficulty overwhelms Leon’s characters, putting them in less-than-ideal positions. In his previous two films, Leon put together two younger lightweight criminals, people living on the periphery of most films about New York City, about crime, or about both.
In Italian Studies, the subject of crime doesn’t get discussed. Following Aline Reynolds, a writer with no memory of herself or her surroundings, the film meanders through the city, as she interacts with whoever crosses her path, most of which end up being high schoolers. She spends the night with a group of kids who hide weed from their parents, who pack apartments like sardines, hoping to have an older woman provide their food, their drinks, or their romances. And Aline is a willing participant, unknowing and warm to the idea of spending her hours being led by those 20 years her junior.
She becomes a child, lacking social and physical awareness, making rash decisions and acting on impulse. Kirby plays Reynolds with an assured sense of unassuredness, giving a central performance that lifts up a drifting narrative. Intercut with documentary-like interviews of the young actors as their characters, Italian Studies becomes an unsteady study of age, of memory, and of connection.
Leon and Kirby had been working on this story since early 2019, committing to collaborating together on his third feature, another under-90 minute romp through his hometown. On the eve of release, The Film Stage chatted with Leon about his third feature film, his view of intergenerational connection, and taking a chance on a different style of filmmaking.
The Film Stage: How do you see the city of New York? How would you describe it to someone else?
Adam Leon: To the tourists, for the description I’m selling [of] New York, I think about it a lot. And I talk a lot about how the world is in the zoo, on the streets. People from every place, people with every interest, whatever you’re into, you can find a community in New York, and that can be good and bad. You can be into, you know, 16th-century literature, or bondage, or Donald Trump. We do have it all, and so it just feels like it’s everything. That, to me, is the city. But also, it’s something since I grew up here, there’s just something where it feels so innate. And one of the things that I think has really been exciting and fun with this movie, in particular, as well as with Tramps more than Gimme the Loot is this idea of trying to see the city from eyes that aren’t from here.
If that’s the idea you’re selling, do you think it’s a true or accurate depiction?
I do think that it’s apt. I do think that’s what it is, in some ways, good and intimate. For me, when I was making the movie, when I was prepping the movie, when we were writing it and developing it, I tried to walk around the city. Seeing it with completely fresh eyes, which is difficult. And the sensory overload is pretty wild. And I don’t think that’s like some brilliant observation. I think we know that from cities and from New York City, in general, but as somebody who grew up with it, and grew up in the rhythm of it, I think just anybody who moves here feels it pretty quickly. The city floats over you and passes you by, which is cool. It allows us to dress how we want to dress and do what we want to do and walk where we want to walk and people kind of let you do what you want to do. And that’s beautiful. But when you sort of press pause on it, and you try to take it in, it can be really overwhelming. And it is a sensory overload. And there’s a lot of things that we choose not to see and choose not to look at. And when you really look at them, some of those things are very dark.
There are quite a few differences between your first two features and Italian Studies, starting with the idea of two people navigating the city versus a lone woman wandering with less of a partner to walk with. It’s really her story. Can you explain more about why you made this changed narrative choice?
Interesting. I think you’re right, and I think that I’m resistant to you being right. And so I think, for me, it’s about two people, it’s about the absence of him. But that absence is much smaller than the other movies. And it’s a bigger part of this. I do think it’s a lot about her connection [to Simon]. And I also think that he’s a character that we end up learning a lot more about than her, by the nature of what she’s going through. But I also have completely heard you. It’s a natural thing that came out of how the movie was developed. Vanessa and I wanted to work together, we started to develop the story, we started to develop the idea of what if we told this fully from her point of view, which would sort of unmoor us. It just felt like the right way to tell the story. And it really, it did come from Vanessa.
In Gimme the Loot and Tramps, the characters have a shared goal, an end in sight. How did you come to the lack of conclusion, or clear narrative end, that exists in this film?
The other two movies have, you know, for lack of a better term, a MacGuffin. Particularly Tramps, where we really looked at the structure of romantic adventures. And it really is trying to hit all of those beats and letting the audience know that we’re going to hit those beats. By the time the title shows up in Tramps, if you were to guess where these two people end up, you’re not going to be shocked, right? Like you’ve seen a movie before. And so in this we aren’t able to take care of you, of the audience as much. And again, we felt that was right for this story. It didn’t come from anything like “I want to do something more challenging,” or something like that. Just felt like this was the right way to tell this story. And then a lot of the challenge became how do we take care of our audience? How do we make them feel like they are having this experience? And it’s much more impressionistic, and emotional filmmaking than I’ve done on the other movies. And also, how do we give it a sense that this is going somewhere, stick around, stay with us, there’s a wave here, try to catch the wave? And doing that with the bookends in London and doing a lot of stuff with sound and music. Okay, we are adrift, but the movie itself is going somewhere.
And how was that process? How was working with Vanessa on this different kind of project?
I didn’t say, “Oh I can flex these muscles.” But once this project was very early in its development, it was like, “Oh, these are the muscles we should flex for this project.” And that’s cool. That’s interesting. That’ll be a challenge. It’ll be different. It was amazing [though]. And part of it becomes, I don’t want to sound like I’m giving the right answer or something, but we had an incredible team. We got an incredible team on day one of “Let’s make a move.” Because Vanessa calls me, she gives me her schedule. She says, “Let’s try to put something together immediately.” I call my producers from Tramps. They’re phenomenal. They’re in. I work in the same office as Brett Jutkiewicz who’s just an incredible cinematographer. We’ve been looking to do a feature together, like boom, are you available? Very, very quickly, within 24 hours, it just felt like there was a lot of things here to support this.
Part of it was the advantage of saying, “Look, this is going to happen this summer.” So that allowed people to get on this train or not get on this train, you know. But we had this team that just said to go make something unique. Go try. So having that support and encouragement, to try things and to try a new process was completely a gift. I don’t make improv movies so we had to prep this. Even if the script is 30 pages instead of 90 pages and has three scenes of dialogue and the rest is dialogue descriptions, we still need sort of guideposts. And then I just found the process thrilling. I think that during the making of it, the production was phenomenal. And during the making of it, I was like, “Oh, this is how I’m going to do every movie.” And now I do not think that because again, I think it was really right for this story.
How did you end up finding the teenagers? And were their interviews scripted or did you let them answer without much interruption?
I was working on this very goofy, live variety show that was super small and super silly. And a lot of the kids in the movie, a lot of the people in the cast of the movie were involved. It’s almost like the company from that show. So Annabel Hoffman, the girl who plays the song, was a regular cast member of the show. Maya Hawke did an episode with us. Simon [Brickner] did an episode with us. Sam [Soghor], who’s the guy at the motel, was the host, and Ray [Lipstein], who sort of runs into Alina and says you’re Alina Reynolds, they were a regular. And Fred Hechinger, who was in The White Lotus, he was in that show as well. He brought in a lot of his friends into this.
Then we brought in two great casting directors who did a lot of street casting and we met kids that way. Then we worked with them for three months and we would meet with them regularly and sort of put them in different groups together and hang out with them and talk to them and learn about them and be open with them. Both them being open with us and us being open with them and sort of creating intimate friendships. And that led us to the interviews where we knew these people, we knew them and they knew us and we knew some of their stories but those were done as documentary. We wanted their honest, open answers to everything and while we were doing it, we were working in some character work. We wanted their reactions to be genuine and not quite rehearsed, but still come from preparation.
What’re your thoughts on how generations interact with one another, in a city like New York, filled with people of all ages? Especially for this film, where Vanessa is with all of these high schoolers for the majority of the story.
I think that’s something we talked a lot about with the kids and just going to prep. The teenagers themselves don’t interact with an adult that is like this often, but as I sort of said, the world’s in the streets out in New York. So you are thrown together, and you are having interactions with people of all ages all the time. And I feel in terms of the generational question––it’s a big question, and I don’t want to sound pretentious or whatever––but I feel like I’m very wary of making declarative statements about how this generation is this or that generation is that because I do think that there were a lot of people in the late 60s who weren’t hippies. And I think that there’s a lot of people who are “millennials who don’t necessarily get,”… by the way, as a generation, I think it gets unfairly shat on a lot. And I just think they’re people. And there are people who it’s hard to wrap your arms around them and say, “Well, they’re a millennial, well, they’re Gen X so they behave this way.”
I do think there’s trends and history that influences things. And I think with this generation that we’re showing on camera, you look at the history that they’ve lived through, I mean, these are kids who were born right around 9/11. You know, they came of age, they’ve become very aware of the world around them, around Trump, the end of Obama. They’ve lived through different economic things, and now they’re living through COVID. And so I do think that has, obviously, a major impact on them generationally, but individually, some people are assholes, some people are beautiful and open. And so I think that that’s true. And I just think it’s something I’ve been really conscious of trying to be aware of in my life, to not dismiss someone because they’re younger or older. And yeah, I mean, I have friends who now say, and I get so angry at them, they say things like, “Man, hip hop’s bad now, it used to be good. There used to be good rappers. There’s no good rappers anymore.” And it’s like, what, just everyone forgot how to rap? Like, what are you talking about? You don’t like this music?
Italian Studies opens on January 14 in theaters and on VOD.