Disappearing Acts: Talking Storytelling, Spanish Harlem, and Prep School Suspensions with Author Greg Takoudes

To get out. To start fresh someplace new, someplace purportedly better. This dream has driven migration for centuries. Whether we're escaping the fields, the factory, or the family basement--no matter. We'll jump into the abyss at the chance to make our lives better.

So you don't have to be an East Harlem teen to relate to Francisco, the protagonist of Greg Takoudes's compelling debut novel When We Wuz Famous (Henry Holt). A star scholar-athlete at his NYC public school, Francisco wins a full scholarship to a prestigious upstate prep school for his senior year. He loves his home and his friends, but he wants a life beyond the projects. And now he's a hero, the boy done good, the one that will bring glory to his Puerto Rican family and community. The fancy school is the promise of all they don't have, of all they've ever dreamt for him.

Francisco may have a new, albeit isolated life, but there's problems back home with his circle of friends. In well-drawn scenes brimming with life and poignancy, Takoudes shows us that departure itself doesn't sever the cords of love, and how those loved ones tethered to you by the heart still hold sway, even when that sway is for the worse not the better.

I really enjoyed When We Wuz Famous. Takoudes told this story first as a film (Up With Me), working with non-professional actors in East Harlem locations. Each scene in the novel is screenplay tight, and moves the story forward with impressive momentum. Each character is well-drawn and pops off the page. There's no waste here, just whip-smart storytelling. And best of all, for every action, there are real world consequences. This may be a young adult (YA) novel, but the realism and authenticity feels strong. A recommended read.

After finishing, I asked Takoudes to answer a few questions about When We Wuz Famous and the life experience that informs it so powerfully.

You were once a boarding school kid on scholarship. How did that experience inform your desire to create the film Up With Me and the novel When We Wuz Famous?

Yup, I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. I was a white scholarship student, and while being a scholarship kid isn't a ready-made situation for feeling "in the club," I think I felt lucky to be there at all. What shaped my experiences more was seeing some of my friends get kicked out. They'd disappear off campus so fast that you rarely even had a chance to say goodbye. I became interested in what happened to these kids who kind of dropped off the map; I wondered where they went next. What the rest of their lives held.

Well, as it turns out, I got suspended for my senior year, and so I became that kid. The one who fell off the map. And the answer to my question was, nothing happens to you. You go home and your life just stops. It was a surreal, unsettling, boring time in my life. I was 17 and lost and living with my parents again. I laid around in bed a lot. I played golf on a local par-3 course, wondering if my life was over. I coached gymnastics. I embarked on one of those baseball park road trips. It was a year of random experiences, but it spurred some creative juices in me which would take years to realize as the film, and then the book.

How did you end up finishing high school?

One year after my suspension, I went back to school and was allowed to try my senior year a second time. A do-over, essentially. I came back to school feeling sort of tamed and calm. I don't know how else to explain it. Returning had put me in a rather unusual position on campus, but by that point, I had grown fairly comfortable being on the road less traveled. And then I discovered something new: the road less traveled was actually packed with people. See, by that time, I'd decided to go to a Big Ten state school where I eventually found tons of people like me, people who didn't know exactly where they were headed in life but all wanted to be in this sprawling, interesting place together. It was what I needed at the time. It helped me continue moving forward to the next stage of my life, working in Hollywood, and then to New York.

You worked with local Harlem kids to make the film Up with Me. Tell us about the rewards and challenges of casting local, amateur talent for your movie, and tell us about local response to the film itself.

Working with nonprofessional actors was one of the great joys of making Up With Me. Before I started making the film, I knew how I wanted to work, more than I knew what the film was going to be. I knew I wanted the film to be raw and true to a specific place, and when you think about those qualities, casting non-professionals can be an interesting way to go.

When I started auditioning kids in East Harlem, I was astonished by the talent I found. People say that everyone has some type of genius inside of them, and I agree. I also think that adulthood can kill that genius if you're not careful. Or at least bury it deep. So working with local kids was great. They felt comfortable in the shooting locations (the locations were their apartments and blocks, after all), and my actors lacked all preciousness about their craft. One moment, they'd be chilling with their friends, and the next moment I'd pull them into the scene and they just start giving this performance that was absolutely heartbreaking. What a thrill it was to see that.

The local reception to Up With Me occurred a year later, after we'd won a Special Jury Award at South-by-Southwest (an acting award, actually), when we held our New York premiere with Rooftop Films on the roof of El Museo del Barrio, in East Harlem. Over five hundred people came to see the film, and for me it was a coming home. The process coming full circle. I could show the folks in whose streets we shot: here's what we did. Here's what we were working on for all those long months.

After you finished your film, you decided to create a YA novel out of the same story. What was it like to put what was on screen between the covers of a book?

I started writing the book based on the original script (which was really just a series of notes for scenes I had written down). But rather quickly, the book took off and became its own thing. You write a movie script based on the budget you have, and the budget for my film was small - like, piggy-bank small. For the book, I created scenes that I could never afford to shoot, so I was able to unleash my imagination, which was a thrill. Of course, the experience cuts both ways because the hardest chapters in the book to write ended up being the ones that were inspired by the most quiet, simple scenes in the movie. Writing simply is, simply put, awfully hard.

There's one scene in particular where this came up. It's the scene where Francisco returns home for the first time from boarding school. In the movie, the scene is set in a tiny park in East Harlem - this little bucolic patch of fake streams and flowers. On our set (if you can even call it that), it was just the two actors, myself, and cinematographer Matt Timms. The mood was very intimate, very chill; we took our time but didn't languish; and the actors took off with these wonderfully natural, moving performances. It's a simple, poetic scene, and one of my favorites in the film. It was a dream scenario for a director because everyone just knew what to do with almost no direction. But when it came to writing the scene in the book, it became very challenging for me to recreate that magic. I ended up having to go a different direction for that scene in the book, and make it a scene that's somewhat more confrontational and dramatic. For the movie, the poetry was enough; for the book, it needed to serve as a launching pad for growing tensions between the friends.

What's better: screenwriting or novel-writing?

Depends what I'm in the mood for. Screenwriting is a top-down process; you begin with a premise, and then develop everything from there. Character, themes, conflicts, grow out of the central premise. This is true even for a largely improvised movie like mine. Screenwriting is closely structured for reasons that I sort of understand, and yet still mystify me. I suspect part of the reason is there's so little room in a script to get your story across. Let's say your script is 100 pages, that's not a lot of room. Screenwriting naturally compresses the story and relies on the actors' performances to open up all that great depth of the characters.

Books, of course, can just go on and on - so long as you're not boring the reader. There's no budget running through your head while you're writing a book, no invisible producer telling you that such-and-such a scene is going to be too expensive to shoot, or that we'll need to hire a pigeon-wrangler just to get a pigeon to fly off at just the right moment in a scene - and avoiding that hassle is really nice.

Tell us about your love for Spanish Harlem.

The love I have for Spanish Harlem came fast. I had been looking for a location in New York to shoot and I didn't have anything specific in mind other than this: I wanted to be inspired. I wanted the location to feel like it kept coming alive for me. As soon as I got off the 6 train and started walking up into the neighborhood, Spanish Harlem gave me what I needed - grit and beauty, charm and surprises. And, of course, amazing people, including six extremely talented cast members who either lived or worked there. I kept looking over my shoulder while I was shooting, wondering why I wasn't seeing more filmmakers making their films up in Spanish Harlem.

I've never really understood what people mean when they say that a location is a character in a film, but I do know that Spanish Harlem has a lot of character. I never once found myself struggling to come up with a place to shoot the next scene; turn the corner, and something new would pop out.

What's the next project?

A few things. I'm working on another YA novel that takes place in the New York culinary world, and I'm also looking to shoot a new movie in Alaska. I also recently directed a movie in Florida, which we're still editing. A friend of mine once observed that I seemed to be setting my movies and books at the corners of the country, so maybe after the Alaska movie, my next one will take place in Hawaii. Wouldn't that be nice?