bomb.bmp26 year-old Adam Bhala Lough has achieved critical acclaim with his feature debut, Bomb the System, a gritty portrayal of NYC’s underground graffiti culture, now playing at the Cinema Village. Shot entirely in the streets of NYC, the film follows Blest – a talented, sensitive, and rebellious graffiti artist emotionally haunted by his dead brother’s graffiti legacy – and his frustrated friends as they struggle to express themselves through tagging while battling corrupt policemen. You don't have to know anything about graffiti writers or their lifestyle to appreciate the film’s sincere and poignant depiction of their lives; the characters offer plenty of insightful explanations and commentary, portraying New York like a scarred, torn battlefield where urban kids are determined yet conflicted in performing their criminal art.

Gothamist sat down with Lough, who explained his long-time appreciation for graffiti, avoiding New York’s standard You’ve Got Mail film locations, and why he prefers style over substance.

What was it that fascinated you about graffiti as an art and culture that led you to this film project?
A lot of it had to do with the illegality of the art and the fact that it’s an art crime. I always found it interesting that something can be considered an art and a crime in the same breath. And I think a lot of it has to do with my love for hip-hop music and culture, as graffiti is one of the facets of hip hop (although it's not completely tied to hip hop culture, for a lot of kids write graffiti and don’t have any interest in hip-hop). But my initial interest stemmed from hip hop and from writing graffiti when I was a kid.

NYC plays a significant role in the film. How did you decide on the different location areas and graffiti spots?
Locations are all about footwork, just going out and pounding the pavement and I did that with my cinematographer. We spent many nights just traversing the city and looking for beautiful spots that have never been shot before. That was one of our stipulations, with the exception of the Brooklyn Bridge; we didn’t want to shoot anywhere that was shot, so we tried as best we could to do that.

One of the last scenes includes an amazing shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. How did you pull that scene off?
I can’t discuss. My lawyers have advised me not to discuss the scene. But you can go watch for yourself and try to figure it out.

The Mayor's Office shut down production for 8 days, rumor has it you temporarily changed the film’s title to “The System” to appease the Mayor’s office, the crew was threatened with arrests numerous times, the producer was arrested during the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, and you’ve admitted to a nervous breakdown mid-production. Was there any one moment you thought you were about to abandon the film? Or curse Bloomberg?
I don’t have any problems with Bloomberg becaue he had nothing to do with it. It was the Film and Television Division of the Mayor’s Office that shut it down for numerous violations. I have no issue with Bloomberg although I wouldn’t vote for him and didn’t vote for him, but I don’t think he’s done a terrible job as a mayor.

But we didn’t change the title to appease the Mayor’s office; we did it more as a precaution because we were shooting exactly one year after 9-11. We were shooting September 12th or 13th 2002, and so we were worried about anything with the word “bomb” in it. It would throw an unnecessary red flag and then it would cause people to start digging into what we were doing a little closer and then find out we were doing a crazy graffiti movie and then all hell would’ve broken loose.

Police corruption, criminal behavior, and the erosion of justice play a significant role in the film. What were you trying to capture? Why was that such a large issue in the film?
I was interested in police brutality, specifically regarding graffiti writers because many that I had spoken to had been beaten by the cops, by the vandal squads - a lot of current writers and old school writers, but specifically current writers that I consider my friends have been beaten by the cops, so that worked its way into the script. Some people take umbrage with it. People have claimed that [the cop characters] are out of control and yeah, maybe some of it is over-dramatized. However, there are cops out there who are like that. I can say that as a fact after speaking to a lot of these graffiti writers and doing research on the NYPD, about these vigilante cops, because there are always going to be bad apples in a bunch. So I think hearing those stories made me want to discuss that. Also, I’ve always been into cop movies since I was a kid. I’m really into independent filmmaking and art cinema but I've also really been into cop movies so that worked its way in as well.

Some might say Bomb the System depicts graffiti writers as artist revolutionaries rightfully fighting against the stereotyped “bad” police & government forces, almost romanticizing the art without dealing with its obvious illegal aspects.
I was definitely trying to humanize graffiti writers. I would rather have people who hate graffiti still hate graffiti but maybe come away with a little bit of understanding of why the writers do what they do, and if I can achieve that then I am successful. At one particular screening, a 50-year-old, white, upper-class gentleman came up to me and told me that he hated graffiti and had total disdain for people who do it but felt I opened his eyes to why these kids do it and he commended me for doing that. He was being objective too, he wasn’t trying to pull any of his emotions into it or his like/dislike for graffiti writers and I appreciate that. I hope everyone would take that viewpoint when watching the movie but its impossible to do that because, for instance, anyone who’s walked up to their apartment in NY and saw a fresh tag on their door, literally dripping because it just went up, and got pissed off, they’re going to bring that hatred to the movie. A lot of people even asked me, “why did you even bother making a movie about graffiti writers? They’re horrible people.”

The characters in your film come across as addicted to tagging, expressing their art as means to fame and legacy. At the same time, however, graffiti, in essence, is a temporary art and often destroyed or painted over. Is somewhat seems like a contradiction.
It’s definitely a contradiction. I think that it’s a thorn in [main character] Blest’s side. It’s invariably why he considers tagging the Brooklyn Bridge because he knows it would live on in infamy. That’s also why he starts to get disillusioned with the lifestyle of a graffiti writer. And that part of the script is what I’m particularly proud of. A lot of people during the editing process asked me to take it out because they thought it was an inane conversation, but I thought, no one’s ever had a conversation like this in a movie before, where they’re discussing graffiti and how their pieces keep getting painted over faster as they become more famous. I really felt like no one’s ever done that before -written this conversation before - in a movie. I thought it’s kinda cool and so I wanted to leave it in. I’m proud of that even though it has nothing to do with the plot really. It’s more of a character thing. It’s more of them just ruminating on their futile graffiti existence.

How involved was the graffiti community in contributing to this film?
They were extremely involved. A lot of graffiti writers are in the movie as actors, graffiti writers like Cope2 and Keo did pieces specifically for the movie, and then Chino BYI was a strong supporter of the film and sponsored the movie through the spray painting company he runs in N. America.

You employed many different film methods and shots, from freeze frames to overlapped time cuts. Was there a certain style you were trying to achieve?
I wanted to achieve with the visuals and cinematography what graffiti writers achieve with their spray can: a blend of styles. That in your-face style, yet at the same time raw and gritty, not polished. And I think that’s the most successful aspect of the film to me. I experimented and I tried to do something different. Whether people are going to appreciate that or not is kind of up to their own personal opinion. A lot of people are put off with someone who tries to experiment, or they immediately think “style over substance.” But you know what? My taste falls in line with style over substance. I’m more interested in movies like David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels - movies that are visually striking.

Your biggest film influences?
Darren Aronofsky, Wong Kar Wai, David Lynch, and Jim Jarmusch.

The soundtrack to the movie of your life would consist primarily of:
Right now, primarily anything by Lee Perry, early 90’s New York underground hip-hop, hardcore electronic synth music like M83, and the White Stripes.

Your dream cast would include?
Mark Webber, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Tera Patrick and Old Dirty Bastard - may he rest in peace. I wrote a part for [ODB] in a movie and then he died. It sucks. It was a really pivotal role.

If you were penned to adapt Paris Hilton’s Confessions of a Heiress, would your film be a comedy, tragedy, heavily edited music video, or sensual porno?
It would be a tragic porno film. It would be a hardcore porno, but really sad. It would really f*** people up.

Fill in the blanks: The movie industry is like_______________
A tick that you suck.

What’s next for you?
I adapted a terrific book called Angry Black White Boy that just came out last month. I wrote a script for another movie that I had the honor of being accepted into the Sundance lab this past January, and I was mentored by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams, an idol of mine. It was as a blessing. I’m not done with that script; it’s been 5 months and it’s still in development and I’m trying to make it the best script I can. But I think it’s going to be a terrific project and once I’m done with it, since it’s a low budget film, I’m confident I’ll be able to find funding for it and hopefully shoot it in the summer.

Adam Bhala Lough was named Filmmaker Magazine’s Top 25 Independent Filmmakers to Watch of 2003, named “Best Director” at HBO’s Urbanworld Film Festival, and Bomb the System won “Best Feature” at both the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and the Anchorage Film Festival. Check Moviefone for showtimes. And to see more of NYC's graffiti, visit Jake's graffiti archives.