A new deal for Brooklyn

People used to tamper with Boaz Yakin's scripts. So he directed his own, Fresh, an acclaimed new take on life in the 'hood. He talks to Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture
Boaz Yakin leans forward, focuses his sleepy eyes and lowers his voice to a murmur.

"I think it got out fairly early that I wasn't black," he confides. And he's right. He isn't black. Not even a little bit. Some people might be happier if he were, given that Fresh, the first film that he has directed, is set in Brooklyn and follows a 12-year-old black kid and his run-ins with the local dealers. It is the milieu of Spike Lee and John Singleton, of drive-by shootings and race riots, of father/ son bonding and families ruined by drugs and crime.

The film has some of these things - there are touching scenes between young Fresh (Sean Nelson) and his estranged father (Pulp Fiction's Samuel L Jackson). But hearing that Yakin was influenced by The 400 Blows, Yojimbo and Miller's Crossing when he was writing the movie makes you realise just how different it is.

The plot is an opaque revenge story: Fresh is an after-school drugs runner disturbed by the plight of his junkie sister and horrified when a young friend is shot dead. His father urges him to take control of his life, so Fresh plots to stitch up his bosses, turning them against each other one by one until Brooklyn threatens to implode.

Yakin has Quentin bloody Tarantino to thank, albeit indirectly, for the fact that the film ever got made. "I had gone to Paris after five years in Los Angeles. And while I was away, an old friend, Lawrence Bender, had produced this big hit Reservoir Dogs. That gave him enough clout to call me and say 'Boaz, if you have a script that you can write for me and we can make for a small enough budget, I think I can raise the money.' So I wrote Fresh."

It has certainly brought a touch of class to his CV. Yakin had already seen two of his scripts ravaged by compromise. The first, The Punisher, became a vehicle for Dolph Lundgren, and was extensively re-written by the film's producer without recourse to Yakin. The Rookie, meanwhile, was a cop thriller directed by Clint Eastwood and starring him and Charlie Sheen. It's kindest just to say that it was no Dirty Harry.

"The Rookie was a great experience because Eastwood let me watch him direct, but I don't like the film. He stuck fairly closely to my script but it's the little things that count, and when enough little things pile up... It's still your script and your characters but without your feeling or energy. There wasn't a great difference between what I wrote and the finished film, at least not in the context of how great differences usually are in Hollywood." Fresh gave him a chance to examine what he'd been doing so far. "I had been writing action screenplays, writing about these powerful, invincible people, and it occurred to me that I'd like to write a film about the most powerless person in the world - a kid."

The most unusual things about the film are that it has an introverted 12-year-old as its hero, chess games in place of shoot-outs, orchestral flourishes replacing thumping rap music. And a general absence of violence. "I wanted to capture that yucky post-violence feeling. Most films are based on waiting two hours for a violent climax, but with this film I wanted the violence to come suddenly, and for the audience to be left with the aftermath.

"I grew up loving action films, Straw Dogs had an immense effect on me. Everyone should be allowed to make whatever they want, but I'm personally sick of violence. I think Natural Born Killers will push 10 serial killers who wouldn't have been serial killers into being serial killers. But I still think Stone should be able to make it if he wants." When I tell him about the debate over films like The Exorcist and Straw Dogs, his jaw drops. "You can't see those?"

Not at home. "Wow," he ponders. "You can see Naked and not Straw Dogs? As an artist, that would just send me insane. But, who knows, maybe you guys are the healthier country. I mean, you don't go around blowing each other up in the street, do you?"

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