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Labor of LUV

Two USC alums have worked on the theatrical drama LUV for more than a decade.

Nearly one year after it premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, LUV, the first feature film of writer-director Sheldon Candis ’02 and co-writer Justin Wilson MFA ’98, will open in theaters on Jan. 18.

For the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) alumni, the loosely autobiographical film’s theatrical release is the culmination of a decade-long journey that began when Candis and Wilson met at the 2003 Utah film festival.

“We found that we had a mutual love of movies and sports, particularly ACC basketball,” said Wilson, senior director of alumni relations at SCA. “In fact, we both wanted to make a movie about Len Bias, the college basketball star who died two days after being selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft.”

Though the Bias project fell through, the two East Coast natives — Candis and Wilson grew up in Baltimore, Md., and Richmond, Va,, respectively — continued brainstorming ideas for an entertaining dramatic thriller, or “driller,” to use Candis’ term.

Eventually, Candis and Wilson drew inspiration from their own childhood experiences to write LUV, which depicts the coming-of-age of an 11-year-old African-American boy over the course of a day he spends with his uncle, an ex-convict trying to make a clean break with his past.

“Growing up in Baltimore, I sometimes rode shotgun with my uncle, who was rumored to be a drug dealer,” Candis said. “LUV is based on our relationship, as well as Justin’s stories about one of his own uncles.”

Three years and dozens of drafts later, they were ready to make the film with fellow Trojans Jason Michael Berman ’06, Mike Jenson ’05 and Joel Newton ’00 on board as producers; Gavin Kelly MFA ’04 as cinematographer; and Nuno Malo GCRT ’02 as composer. But it would still take another five years to secure financing and assemble a cast for the low-budget, character-driven film.

“There were a thousand no’s for every single yes,” Candis said.

“You have to find creative satisfaction in doing the work and in the process of storytelling to sustain your spirits,” Wilson added.

Once Tony Award-nominated actor and Baltimore native Charles S. Dutton committed to starring in the film, the filmmakers were able to put together a top-tier cast, including Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert and Grammy Award-winning rapper/actor Common in the role of Vincent, the boy’s uncle.

Finding the right child actor to play young Woody would prove to be far more challenging.

“We got video submissions from all over the country, but we couldn’t find the right kid. We were fully financed, the rest of the cast was in place and all my savings were gone,” Candis recalled. “I was headed back to LA defeated and unemployed.”

With the clock ticking down to the production start date, New York City photographer Johnny Nunez contacted the project’s co-producer Sean Banks about Michael Rainey Jr., a 10-year-old Staten Island boy who had only appeared in one prior film — speaking fluent Italian. Yet from the moment Candis met the talented Rainey, who also plays classical piano, he knew they had found their Woody.

“Even though he’s a young boy, you get the sense that he’s wise beyond his years,” Candis said.

While the film’s short shooting schedule (under 20 days) and tight budget didn’t allow much time for reshoots or extensive rewrites, Candis and Wilson welcomed creative input from cast members, who often brought unexpected nuances to their roles.

“We have such an amazing cast, it would have been foolish to not let them share their own ideas,” Wilson said. “I think LUV is better for what changed while we were in production.”

The film’s world premiere at Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition program was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking for Candis and Wilson, whose families and friends accompanied them to the festival.

Warmly received by festival audiences, LUV was subsequently acquired by Indomina Releasing for North American theatrical distribution; BET acquired domestic broadcast rights.

Nominated for a 2012 Humanitas Prize for their screenplay, Candis and Wilson attribute their success to lessons learned at SCA, where professors instilled in them the idea that all good scripts start with compelling characters.

Under their Cinephile Academy production company banner, they are currently developing several film and television projects.

As for LUV, what are the partners’ plans for opening day?

“Going around town, watching the film with different audiences,” Wilson said.

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