LOS ANGELES (AP) — Director Steven Caple Jr. was mentoring some elementary school students at an inner-city park in Los Angeles when he spotted two stray kids hopping a fence with their skateboards. He went to go kick them out of the park and ended up talking with them instead. They spilled that they were selling marijuana to fund their entry into skateboarding competitions and new equipment. It was their ticket out.
That seed of an idea eventually became "The Land ," Caple's feature debut about a group of kids, Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Junior (Moises Arias), Boobie (Ezri Walker) and Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron), who do just that, but with a sack of Ecstasy they find. The film is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles.
Caple stayed in touch with those kids from the park during his time at USC's film school. Later, he found out that one ended up getting a sponsorship. The other disappeared.
"I started writing it about the kid who made it out, but I switched gears to make it about the kid who didn't because we don't see that too often," Caple said in an interview. "I wanted to tell it from his perspective."
Instead of Los Angeles, the movie is set in Caple's hometown of Cleveland, where he explores a grittier side of a city that rarely gets the Hollywood treatment.
"There's Cleveland and there's 'the land,'" he said during the Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its premiere. IFC Films later came on to distribute.
Caple secured some high-profile talent for a first film right out of grad school, including Michael Kenneth Williams of "The Wire" and executive producers like Nas and Erykah Badu, who also collaborated on one of the film's songs, "The Bitter Land." Badu and rapper Machine Gun Kelly appear in the film, and the soundtrack features songs from Kanye West, Pusha T and French Montana.
While skateboarding is the hook, it also becomes a backdrop as the boys get in over their heads bumping up against more hardened criminals.
"The core of it is these boys just trying to get out," he said.
Most of the different characters are taken from Caple's own life and experiences in Cleveland. They filmed in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods and often heard gunshots and sirens.
"There were times when we were scared, but (the actors) got a real sense of what 'the land' was," he said.
Caple didn't want to make the boys angels, and actually introduces them committing a crime. It was a big point of contention with some of the financiers and advisers who were shown the film in its early stages. They wanted to see them as good kids first before the fall.
"That's not the way that people see these kids. The first perception is they are criminals, that they are thugs," Caple said. "I wanted to introduce you to these criminals first and then later let you fall in love with who they are and see that the people who we call criminals at the end of the day are still just kids."
Some also told Caple that he should have made a film that falls more easily into a specific genre, like "'Fast & Furious' on skateboards," he said.
"It has this grit to it. It wasn't like this movie they could sell overseas and play in China. It wasn't a big film," he said.
But Caple stuck to his premise: a more complicated, nuanced and bleak portrait of these lives. It took a year, but he eventually found support and funding for his vision.
"You have filmmakers like myself and ('Creed' and 'Fruitvale Station' director) Ryan Coogler who are like, 'I'm going to go out and get it somehow,' whether it be a Kickstarter campaign or finding the right crazy people just like myself who believe in a project."
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr