Adam Leon on his New York graffiti 'epic' Gimme the Loot

I Love New York

Gimme the Loot, says its writer-director Adam Leon, is an "epic".

And that is accurate enough if you allow for one or two transgressions. The film pays tribute to an imperial city – New York – rather than an empire or nation state, and its hero and heroine, teenage graffiti writers Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), wear baggy T-shirts and travel by subway, not ship. But their quest is a grand one: to tag the giant plastic apple that rises from the ground at Citi Field whenever the Mets hit a home run. Great publicity, and a coup in their ongoing graffiti civil war; Bronx writers putting their stamp on a Queens landmark.

Although Leon's script – full of New York nuance and know-how – pits the two boroughs against each other, much of the action takes place in Greenwich Village, where Malcolm sells weed and Leon and I meet for coffee. "I grew up right round the corner from here," says Leon, a giddy talker in black-rimmed spectacles. "All those exterior shots are of the building I grew up in. It's that kind of movie." Many of the actors were acquaintances and friends. That includes Meeko, who plays a much-tattooed crook called Champion, and whose help the main characters enlist for a burglary that doesn't quite come off. "He's playing a goofier role than what he really is," Leon says. "Meeko is part of the Latin Kings, a big gang. He's had a very vivid, interesting life. And I didn't know him through acting – he's never acted before. I knew him from New York."

Gimme the Loot was filmed over 30 days on a budget of $65,000 (the actors, mostly non-professionals, got "paid-ish"). Was it fun? "Yes, it was a lot of fun." Was it some other things? "It was everything." He describes a day on which things were going badly. "I remember thinking: 'If I didn't want to be here more than anything else, this would be the worst thing in the world.'" But despite the challenges, Leon remains convinced that the "guerrilla-style, low-budget, take-to-the-streets-and-run-all-over-the-city type of thing" suited the story he wanted to tell. The result is a laidback, uplifting comedy, enlivened by a bouncy soundtrack that resembles a collaboration between Vittorio De Sica and John Hughes – or Quentin Tarantino and Walt Disney.

But it was work by film-makers of his own generation that encouraged Leon to keep trying. Watching Daddy Long Legs, a small-scale New York comedy, he admired the way that the directors, Ben and Joshua Safdie, didn't "take 'no' for an answer. They had a vision and they just pounded it home." He also thought: "Fuck you – you went to Cannes and Sundance."

Beyond film-making, Leon points to his mother's "late success" as an estate agent as another source of inspiration, proof that "you can try to do the thing you really want to do". Though his own route to success didn't prove especially long – he is 31 – there were "lean years" during which he worked as an assistant to Woody Allen, and as a film programmer. But after completing his own process of refusing take no for an answer, Leon had an 80-minute film – and went to South by Southwest (where he won top prize) and then on to Cannes.

After coffee, we take a stroll around the old neighbourhood and compare and contrast it with times gone by. New York has not had the life gentrified out of it, he thinks – and he made Gimme the Loot partly to show that "the energy of the streets is still here". Details such as the Mets moving from Shea Stadium to the corporate-sponsored Citi Field, or one character's claim that all he sees is "guys wearing flip-flops", acknowledge the counter-argument, though Leon believes that people can overrate the grittiness of the old days. "There was this homeless guy who used to throw bottles," he says. "My mom was shot at."

We stop outside a delicatessen. "This is a fancy market that used to be a not-fancy market. But it isn't a Walmart; it's still native to New York." A cosmetics shop tells another story. "This used to be a really smelly old dirty butcher's shop. Now it sells extremely expensive bullshit fucking oils and hair products and moisturiser things. I understand that people look at this and say: 'New York is a mall. New York's over.'"

For Leon, things have changed, but not that much, and not only for the worse. There are more bullshit oils than he would like, but you don't have bottles thrown at you. "I'll take that trade," he says.

Powered by article was written by Leo Robson, for The Guardian on Thursday 2nd May 2013 17.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010