“I’m a very unenthusiastic person,” insisted Boaz Yakin, the 29-year-old first-time director of Fresh, one of the year’s most enthusiastically received independent feature films. “Your magazine is for enthusiasts. So I’m not sure what to say.”
In barely 10 precocious years in the business, Yakin has done an admirable job of overcoming his lack of enthusiasm. He dropped out of New York University film school in his sophomore year when he sold his first screenplay, and spent the next five years in Hollywood developing scripts for United Artists, Warner Brothers and White Eagle Productions, Sylvester Stallone’s production company. Two films were produced from his screenplays: The Punisher (1989), directed by Mark Goldblatt, starring Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., and Jeroen Krabbe, and The Rookie (1990), directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Eastwood and Charlie Sheen. Both movies revolve around cynical cops; both were critical disasters.
But Yakin must have learned something from his early screen skirmishes as a writer, because Fresh is a knockout of a first film. Well-crafted and poetically paced, it is a movie so simple and straightforward in storyline that it feels like a completely “fresh” approach to moviemaking. Fresh is the story of a smart 12-year-old kid who has to survive in a Brooklyn neighborhood controlled by two rival drug dealers, and how, when the terror and violence reach an intolerable level, he risks everything to outsmart the two kingpins and save himself and his sister. The title role is played by Sean Nelson, who won a special award at the Sundance Film Festival for his performance.
So how did Yakin, the unenthusiast, do it? Where did it all begin?
“I was in Paris, working on my novel, when Lawrence [Bender] called me and said that if I was ready to direct, he could get my movie produced,” recounted Yakin. “So I took this character idea that I’d had for years and started writing the screenplay.” Bender, an old friend who, “Wasn’t a great connection when I first knew him in L.A.,” was flush from the success of producing Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Bender also produced Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Bender found financing for the movie with the French production, financing and distribution company Lumiere. Fresh was shot in the summer of 1993 in New York City, on time (40 days) and under budget ($3.3 million). “I had no choice,” Yakin said. “There just wasn’t any more money.”
Yakin gave credit to director of photography Adam Holender (best known for Midnight Cowboy), for getting the movie done on schedule. “Anybody can direct a movie. It’s the DP who really has to know what he’s doing. He was amazing,” Yakin said, explaining that Holender could take an “ambitious, unrealistic” shot list and find ways to realistically get it done without compromising his young director’s vision. Holender, age 53 at the time of Fresh‘s release, was 28 when he shot Midnight Cowboy, a movie Yakin lists among his favorites, along with The French Connection, the French New Wave films and other classics of the ’60s and ’70s.
Proof that Yakin didn’t “do it for the dough” is in the soundtrack. If Stewart Copeland’s moody score gets any air play at all, it will be on classical stations. It’s a daring choice to make a movie set in an African-American and Hispanic neighborhood without a single riff of rap or salsa. A lot of viewers won’t like it. Other will find that Copeland’s music gives Fresh a feeling of timelessness, a haunting sense that the story of this 12-year-old Brooklyn child has its antecedents in the tragedies of ancient Greece: His mother is dead, he is forbidden to see his fallen–from-grace father and only he can save his sister from the forces of evil.