Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home begins with a point worth making: Skid Row doesn't actually appear on any maps of Los Angeles. This in spite of being a 50-block neighborhood just east of downtown. Described in the film by one resident as “third world,” it's known to most as a refuge for the homeless and otherwise downtrodden.
Narrated by Catherine Keener — who, coincidentally or not, played a bleeding-heart Manhattanite who gives money to every homeless person she comes across in Please Give — the film details Skid Row's history, gets first-hand accounts from a number of current residents, and strikes a hopeful tone that doesn't come across as forced or manipulative.
L.A. Weekly recently spoke with director Thomas Napper about the project's origins, how the Brit's “outsider” status helped him grain his subjects' trust, and what can be done to help the marginalized neighborhood in the future.
One issue implicitly raised by the film is the idea that people are able to accept this sort of thing by writing it off as endemic to the area, as something that only affects “other people.” How do you alter this sort of passive attitude?
I think we always felt that if we armed people with the truth about life there, then they would feel the film was a call to action. The more time I spent on Skid Row, the more I interviewed people and heard their stories, the more I understood that the line between “us” and “them” is very slender.
A death in the family, an accident, a serious injury, a repossession and suddenly we can, any of us, be on a personal Skid Row, not just Downtown. Drug addiction and mental illness are factors in a lot of the stories in the film, but we interviewed people who arrived from all walks of life: former Ivy League lawyers and Olympic athletes, mothers and fathers, veterans and musicians who had all found themselves on Skid Row. They came to Skid Row to find shelter, food, medical attention and help.
I became very focused on telling the story through characters that we could all relate to in a real way. Linda Harris, Terri “Detroit” Hughes, Danny “The Olympian” Harris, Leanne “The Cat Lady,” KK and Bam Bam are all incredibly likable people — they just have a light in their eyes. We met OG at the church after a Sunday service and I met General Dogon through spending time in the offices of LACAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network). Both of them have a burning desire to help others and have a passion for their work that is completely infectious. At the end of the interview process I realized that I was only interested in these “others” — people that lived and worked and stayed on Skid Row.
The extraordinary thing about Skid Row is that there is a vibrant and tireless community of people trying to help the homeless, the mentally ill and the addicted. Many of these advocates came from the streets themselves and have returned or stayed to offer that service to others. Lamp Community, the Midnight Mission, The Church on the Corner, LACAN and others are filled with people who have faced the same problems themselves and now help others in need.
This was where the stories took me; I started to feel that we were on a crusade to show that the real story on Skid Row was not the random violence so often depicted on the news, but the deeper waters that are much more life-affirming. Fear, often generated by the media, prevents people from going there, from participating with a community that desperately needs funding and engagement from the wider community in L.A.
You interviewed a number of actual Skid Row residents. How did people react when you first approached them, especially in light of the fact that you're not a native of Los Angeles?
Always, every step of the way, I had KK (Kevin Cohen) at my side, spreading the word and helping me find interesting people and places. KK and I walked every street on Skid Row a hundred times, so much so that I got my own Skid Row name: London.
I was familiar to a lot of the residents of Lamp from my second unit work on The Soloist [about a homeless L.A. man who's a world-class violin player], and working with [that film's director and fellow Brit] Joe Wright opened the door to make Lost Angels in a very unique way. There was a bridge there because of the way Joe had included the community in the making of The Soloist.
I think the fact that I was English just bemused a lot of people. They used to make me say “tom-ah-to” and “pavement” a lot, but ultimately that same alien status worked in my favor because I just didn't know anything and had to have everything explained — spelled out, if you like. I needed the people of Skid Row to tell me everything, and they did.
I asked people what they wanted to talk about and nearly all of them said “Safer Cities,” “Broken Windows,” or just “LAPD”. It was clear that one of the burning issues for most people was the heavy over-policing of the area. So this led us to LACAN, Pete White and Becky Dennison, who are the civil rights watchdogs on Skid Row. They told me they had these boxes at their house just full of hundreds of tapes of the LAPD harassing the homeless. I offered to sort those boxes out, and so the members of LACAN shot quite a lot of the film on their phones and handy-cams.
Similarly, a few of the men and you women you profiled had some success in turning their lives around. Are you still in touch with any of your interviewees?
Yes, there were some pretty incredible turnarounds. Bam Bam really seemed to find his feet during the making of the film; he got an apartment and got sober while we were working on Lost Angels.
It wasn't all roses. Some people just disappeared. I'd interview them, fall in love with their stories and then next thing they'd be in L.A. County. Danny Harris went from staying at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, then he was a PA on The Soloist, then he was my first assistant director on Lost Angels. As we finished the film he got a job coaching athletics at Iowa State, and now he's helping Orlando Ward run the Midnight Mission. If that isn't a turnaround then I don't know what is.
Detroit is now training to be an advocate at Lamp, and I spoke to her a few weeks ago. It's just an extraordinary journey from being a client in a mental health facility to becoming a mentor and a guiding light for people coming off the streets. She is just so well when I speak to her, she is my hero.
That was an incredible part of the filmmaking process — to meet these people who are just beacons of hope. If they can do it, then any of us can turn the boat around. A man like OG “Manuel Compito” is just an incredible role model to everyone on Skid Row. He is literally cleaning up Skid Row with the volunteer street-cleaning brigade, and running the street basketball league from Gladys Park.
You must have grown pretty attached to them over the course of filming, yeah?
We did become very close during the making of the film and there was nothing I wouldn't do for them. They were my teachers from the beginning and the experience changed my life in so many ways.
When KK was murdered, it bound us together; it was such a horrendous loss just as his future seemed so bright. He was turning his life around and really starting to look at life in a new way.
We had recently been job-hunting on ranches and he was close to working on a therapeutic ranch that helped disabled and paraplegic children. And then wham, KK was gone.
It was totally devastating. I spent a lot of time with Linda, Bam Bam and Detroit afterwards. I think particularly on the night of the premiere we will sense that someone special is missing.
Going back to an earlier question, what was it that originally drew you — an “outsider” — to this very specific community?
I never felt like an outsider. I'm just so strangely at home on Skid Row, like I fitted in somehow. Meeting these people and working with them has helped me to subsequently face my own demons, and actually look at who I am in a real way. I cant really articulate it here but Skid Row saved me as well. I came to see how other people lived and in the most profound way it has helped me learn how to fulfill my human-ness, so I think it was fate that I ended up being The Other Englishman on Skid Row.
Lost Angels begins its one-week engagement at the Arclight Hollywood on December 7.