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DVD Talk Interview - Gang Tapes Director Adam Ripp
by Phillip Duncan

DVD Talk Interview - Gang Tapes Director Adam Ripp
dvd coverDirector Adam Ripp’s powerful directorial debut polarized critics and audiences alike—those that got the see the film in its limited release, that is. His unflinching look at life in South Central LA’s gang lifestyle disturbed many with its all-too-real look and style. This was achieved by shooting all the film on digital video and made to look like the confessional and day-in-the-life of potential gang member Trivell. Using real gang members and filming on location in South Central, Ripp has produced a shockingly real film that all should see in order to better grasp what life is really like in those areas.

DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan had a chance to talk with Ripp and ask him about his experiences making Gang Tapes and what he hoped to accomplish with the film and why he thinks DVD is the perfect medium for film.

You had said you wanted a “Goodfellas” like look at gang life, do you think you succeeded?

Yes, absolutely. I really proud of the film and given all the challenges we were presented with and what we were dealing with, the film really lived up to what I had envisioned in the beginning. Really exploring not only the coming of age story, but as in “Goodfellas” or “Mean Streets” really detailing the intricacies and details of gang life. Listen to Adam's response...

It was nice to get a look at the details that you don’t get in movies like “Boys in the Hood” and others.

I want people to walk away really understanding maybe some of the reasons why these kids make the choices they do and the circumstances they are faced with, but also the daily life of gang members and what does a gangster deal with. Listen to Adam's response...

For the most part, people really don’t have an idea of that and of they do it’s likely the media’s version of that.

Absolutely. That’s the truth. It’s either the media’s version by way of newscast or the media’s version by way of Hollywoodized fiction that you are seeing portrayed in movies. Listen to Adam's response...

Right. Where you only get the violent aspects or the aspect that they are doing for the money. You don’t get the family and belonging that you show.

From the beginning what I said to everybody was what’s important to me is to show the juxtaposition of the horror and the happiness of this world, the extremities of both. That you can live in a home of love, care and family but once you step out of your front door there’s danger lurking around every corner. That just by stepping out your front door that could be your last day on earth because of the war zone that awaits a lot of these kids in their front yard or the street they live on. Listen to Adam's response...

Director Adam Ripp

Was it difficult for you to get that inside look?

It was definitely a challenge to have the communities, the gang members and the families inside the South Central / Watts community trust me and trust what I was trying to do because the question I was most often asked—aside for why does a white filmmaker want to tell this story—has this story already been told several times. Why do you want to make a film about gang life again? When I explained to them my reasons for doing it, what I thought had been done and what hadn’t been done, and once they saw how passionate I was about the subject matter and about showing the truth and showing the reality most everybody came on board. They became a part of this tightly knit group of collaborators that I put together. Some people decided not to be a part of the project, whether that was through a lack of trust or they didn’t believe in me for whatever reason, or believe in the project, but the vast majority of people that I met with and wanted to work with, they came on board. Listen to Adam's response...

Did using actual gang members in the film cause in problems during shooting?

Not at all. No it didn’t. Everybody that came aboard believed in the project. Even if there were gang rivalries, once we got on set everybody was there to fulfill a focused vision that we all had. There were never any problems. The only challenges, as it pertains to gangs, was shooting a film demanded that if we’re going to shoot this film we’re going to shoot in the neighborhoods and communities that the film actually takes place in—that being Watts and South Central LA—and if you’re shooting in a war zone, there’s gang war raging daily, then you’re going to have to deal with some of the circumstances a gang war creates. That meant sometimes moving locations if the area got a little hot. Aside from that, it was a wonderful experience and everybody was really supportive and everybody was really excited after we premiered the film at the Pan-African film festival at the Magic Johnson theaters in South Central. They were excited about being involved in the project for the fact that the end result fulfilled the vision that we all had going in. Listen to Adam's response...

I noticed in the documentary on the DVD you mentioned your plans to use the color red and it is noticeably absent from the film. Did you run into trouble with that?

Yes. I’m glad you had the chance to check out the documentary because those are the little things that came up. As I say in the documentary I really wanted to use the color red because I wanted to make it a Blood gang, but because of the areas we were being allowed to film in, they were primarily Cripp neighborhoods. Which obviously Cripps use the color blue. Listen to Adam's response...


I also noticed there is a little bit of blue in the film, but most of the characters wear plain white T-shirts.

That’s the reality. Again if you look at a lot of gang films made in the last several years, a lot of them really show a lot of blue and a lot of red. Part of my research, what I found was that the physical wearing of colors is not what’s really going on anymore. You know what I mean. A lot of Bloods will wear—there’s one scene where you see a Blood and he’s dressed head to toe in red—I got that when I drove into a Blood neighborhood and so many people were dressed down that way. For the most part people aren’t wearing the colors. They’re not trying to put themselves out there. Listen to Adam's response...

Well, the police now know what to look for…

You’re absolutely correct. Whether it came out of several things like, if you wear blue, the cops are going to know you’re a gang member and a Cripp. Also, as fashion and style changes in anything, how gangs present their allegiance to a certain set or certain gang changes. What happened over a certain number of years is that a lot of gangs went to wearing college sports team hats and jerseys to represent the gangs. Which is interesting.

Again, the Hollywoodizing of everything and showing it as red or blue, I said no. I’ve been driving around and I’ve been meeting gang members and this is not how they dress. I really wanted to portray the reality of how these guys dress right now. Listen to Adam's response...

I know you chose to shoot on video to heighten the realistic look of the film, did that pose any special problems.

No, it was actually liberating if anything because I didn’t have to cut to save our stock. It allowed for a much more organic process in working with the actors. When you’re dealing with a 35mm camera in a traditional narrative sense a lot of times the camera is on some kind of device, track, dolly, or crane or something. With the little video camera being handheld, my actors who had never acted before—who were all gang members and former gang members—having a small video camera that they were used to seeing in family movies, around the house and in social settings made it a lot less intimidating. They felt a lot more natural. Again being able to keep the camera rolling and instead of yelling cut and direct them and not really be concerned with how much film we were shooting and just let tape roll. I was able to pull out a lot of very realistic and natural performances for them. Listen to Adam's response...

It must have helped as well to let the actors rewrite their dialog?

Basically it was a traditional and non-traditional script. There was scripted dialog but after I cast the film I went into rehearsal with my cast for about 3 to 4 weeks where they took the dialog we had written and translated it to their own words. Beyond that, we rehearsed each scene and they also improvised. We had somebody writing down all the bits of dialog and all the major beats and points I liked in the dialog they had translated from the script. They had to stick to a script and stick to major points that were being said and stick to a certain kind of cadence or timing, because a scene can’t run on forever. Again, that led to the improvisation feel of the film and a sense of what you are seeing is reality. Listen to Adam's response...

Were you active in the production in the DVD at all?

In a sense of all the elements that were on the DVD, I was very active. In speaking with the company that put together the DVD, I was active in talking to them. They were incredible in terms of creativity and what they bought to the design menu. I really knew from the beginning that I wanted to pack this DVD with as many special features as possible and Lions Gate was very supportive of that. Even in making the film I knew on the DVD we had to have a making of documentary so I brought on a cameraperson to document every stage of production. It was important to have a commentary, which Lions Gate was so supportive of. All the materials, I basically sat down with my editor and put everything together. Whether it was the documentary, pulling the deleted scenes, creating with my storyboard artists—I had all these storyboards—bring those in and digitize them and present to the DVD company. So absolutely, to answer your question, I was very active. I wanted to produce the greatest amount of special features we could to put on this thing to give it the greatest value. Listen to Adam's response...

So you went into the film thinking about DVD?

Another thing that was important to me was the music. I wanted to include as much music on the DVD as possible, so there are tracks where you can listen to music that was in the film or pieces from the soundtrack that’s out right now. I think most filmmakers for the most part right now they’re thinking about the DVD when they go in to production because the reality is DVD is where the great majority of your audience is going to experience the film. A film is out for several months, six months at the most, but really a few weeks to a few months. But the major audience is going to be by way of DVD; today, tomorrow and 10-years from now. I think filmmakers are looking to the ultimate presentation of not necessarily how this is going to look on the big screen—although I think everyone is concerned with that—but with how it is going to look and sound on DVD. Listen to Adam's response...

In half the homes, the DVD is going to look better than the theater presentation does.

You’re right. Part of the thing I talk to independent filmmakers and they talk about wanting to mix their film on a huge stage and they’re making an independent film, that if they’re lucky will play in Lemley or the small movie theaters. You don’t need to mix on a huge stage. You have to know where your film is ultimately going to play and where the life of the film is going to be. Ultimately that’s going to be in DVD. What’s wonderful about DVD is you can control the presentation of your film, for the very first time, 100 percent. You can control the audio quality. You can control the aspect ratio and the way it’s presented. So it’s wonderful. Filmmakers still run around across the country from theater to theater to watch the presentation of the film and yelling at projectionists. So it’s impossible to control it. Listen to Adam's response...

One last question, what do you hope people come away with from this film?

Aside from just being involved in the film and engaged and having the kind of experience and being compelled by what they see and moved by what they experience in the film itself, I want people to come away seeing a story told they haven’t seen before. Being aware of a world, a life and a community that they thought knew, but they really didn’t know, to understand what’s going on in the inner city. But first and foremost I wanted to make a film that engaged audiences and bottom line, was an experience. Beyond that, it’s a film to inform people. Let people know what’s going on in the back yards in our inner cities all across America. I think very few people know that more people have died in South Central Los Angeles in the gang conflict than have died in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There’re things going that people aren’t aware of, if the film can act as a catalyst for awareness, then that’s great as well. Listen to Adam's response...

DVDTalk would like to thank Adam Ripp and Lions Gate for taking the time to talk with us.

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