Down for Life (2009/2010)

Down for Life

JESSICA ROMERO as Rascal (center left) leads the Varrio Central Locos in DOWN FOR LIFE.

Opened: 10/07/2010 Limited

Screenings10/07/2010
Carmike 20 Tex...10/07/2010 - 10/14/20108 days
DVD02/08/2011

Trailer: Click for trailer

Genre: Drama

Rated: R for violence, pervasive language, some sexual content and drug use.

Summary

Based on a New York Times article, DOWN FOR LIFE depicts a single, fateful day in the life of a 15-year-old Latina gang leader. Leaving the gang, she discovers, is more difficult than joining. The film was shot on location in South-Central Los Angeles and stars local youths in the lead roles.

Storyline

On August 10, 2005, The New York Times published an article by reporter Michael Winerip entitled "Essays in Search of Happy Endings," about a class at Locke High School in the Watts neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles. The students were assigned to write about a day in their lives. The article featured the essay of one student, Lesly Castillo, who at age 15 was running the girl clique of a major Latino gang and dating the 24-year-old gang leader.

After the article appeared, filmmaker Alan Jacobs (AMERICAN GUN, NINA TAKES A LOVER) acquired the film rights from The New York Times, secured the life rights from Lesly Castillo, and developed a screenplay inspired by the real-life events. Like the essay, DOWN FOR LIFE takes place all in one day--the day that the 15-year-old girl, Rascal, decides to leave the gang. Leaving, she discovers, is a good deal harder than joining.

Rascal's story is further complicated by racial tensions between her Latina gang and a rival black girl gang, a frequent problem today in South-Central Los Angeles schools. The screenplay to DOWN FOR LIFE presents a raw, authentic look at a young teenager's life in the ghetto. It presents an unflinching view into a world most of us know little about, a view Mr. Jacobs instinctively knew, as he developed the script, would demand an authentic, unknown face to portray Rascal. To deliver the powerful story of Rascal to the audience would require discovering someone new.

Committed to casting actual at-risk Latina teens from South-Central to play the lead roles of Rascal and her gang, in March of 2007 Mr. Jacobs, DOWN FOR LIFE producers Erika Armin and Scott William Alvarez, and casting director Rosalinda Morales (LA MISMA LUNA), who specializes in casting Latinos began their exhaustive search of L.A.-area high schools and at-risk youth programs. They began at Locke High School in Watts, the lowest-performing high school in all of Los Angeles. A few candidates surfaced, but unfortunately the most promising soon was deported back to El Salvador via Mexico after a member of her family was arrested on drug charges. After looking at nearly all of the eligible Latinas at Locke and interviewing nearly a hundred of them on video, the filmmakers realized the magnitude of their task--like finding a needle in a haystack.

To expand their search, they brought in co-producers and actors Peter Holden and Robert Dolan, both of whom had extensive casting experience as well as experience with at-risk youth. The producers also brought in noted casting director Ronnie Yeskel (Pulp Fiction) who, in addition to helping cast Rascal, began looking for a major 'star' actor to play the adult lead role of Rascal's teacher. Finally, gang consultant Manny Jimenez of Suspect Entertainment was hired. Manny's inspirational rise from the gangs to a career in motion pictures has been a front-page Los Angeles Times story, and his company offers at-risk youth and ex-gang members an opportunity for positive change by working in the motion picture industry. He began scouring his client roster and contacts as the filmmakers widened their search for Rascal into the San Fernando Valley and East L.A.

After looking at thousands of faces and interviewing close to 400 viable candidates, the filmmakers discovered Rascal, 14-year-old Jessica Romero, at Manual Arts High School in South-Central L.A. near the campus of U.S.C. A dedicated drama teacher at the school had set up interviews with the filmmakers for about 40 potential Rascals, and although a few of her friends were chosen, Jessica was not. She was in line to buy a Gatorade from a vending machine when the casting director spotted her and pulled her into an interview.

Once on camera, the filmmakers knew immediately that Jessica was special. She was captivating onscreen, witty and intelligent, full of life, yet with the requisite toughness and attitude the role of Rascal requires. The story of her family's history of gang involvement was tragic, yet she opened up immediately. Her interview session was like a confessional and continued far longer than any of the other 400 candidates who had been put on tape up to that point. The filmmakers knew Jessica was their Rascal.

To prepare for the rigors of production, Jessica trained with noted acting coach Mary McCusker ("Malcolm in the Middle"), and then she delivered a worthy performance that will carry DOWN FOR LIFE into the hearts and minds of viewers worldwide. Through her eyes, the film presents a raw, authentic look at a teenager's life in the ghetto. The film captures the brutal honesty of life in South-Central and co-stars other at-risk girls from Watts who with Jessica deliver powerful performances in their first time in front of the camera. DOWN FOR LIFE was filmed entirely on location in Los Angeles, including at Locke High where the original article and real-life story took place.