Director Josh Leong “Inside these detention centre’s, putting up a mask of bravery and masculinity is common among the children. There’s a reluctance to show fear, weakness, or anything that would label you a ‘chicken'”

Director Josh Leong‘s CHICKEN was inspired by true stories of real children Josh first met while volunteering in an NYC juvenile detention centre in the summer of 2021. This topical film will screen in competition at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

Firstly congratulations on getting into Tribeca Film Festival, what a phenomenal achievement. 

Thank you! It’s an incredible honour and I’m grateful for our wonderful team that made this all possible. 

This is quite an interesting topic, I would love to get to know a bit more about your time at the Juvenile Detention centre, and what lead to the making of this film? 

Yeah, of course – back in June 2021, I first volunteered at a juvenile detention centre in the Bronx, with my church. My first visit preceded Father’s Day, a particularly difficult time for many residents who were young parents – some merely 16 years old. Having grown up with difficult and sometimes traumatic home lives, many believe they don’t have what it takes to become a parent. Residents believe they’re programmed to repeat the actions of their own flawed fathers, and there’s no hope for their future. 

I first volunteered at a juvenile detention centre in the Bronx, with my church

Over the next months, I got to speak with and mentor several boys in the facilities, learning that the prison also ran a chicken hatching program with Sprout by Design. It’s primarily used as a gentling activity and to teach responsibility, but I also saw it as a metaphor for raising children. I eventually understood that many residents develop strong attachments to their chicks – treating them as surrogate children. I was so impacted by that experience that I decided to write a script inspired by the lives of those kids. At the end of the day, my intention with CHICKEN was to remind these children that they can still turn a new leaf – as fathers, working professionals, and dreamers in this world.

I was so impacted by that experience that I decided to write a script inspired by the lives of those kids

Is the story about the chicken something you saw at the detention centre? Can you tell us a bit more about the meaning behind the use of the chicken? 

The title of the film has a double meaning: firstly, as a literal reference to those real chicks that residents raise inside the facilities – but secondly, as a metaphor for a coward. Inside these detention centre’s, putting up a mask of bravery and masculinity is common among the children. There’s a reluctance to show fear, weakness, or anything that would label you a “chicken” – and as a result, it produces a kind of fatigue from pretending to be someone that you’re not. 

Can you tell us a bit about the cast? 

Jordan C. Biggs and Biorkys Acosta are two incredibly talented first-time actors, and it was such an honor to watch them both grow in their understanding of being an actor while also learning about where these real residents come from. I think a lot of the maturity in their performance came from playing off the calming and encouraging presence of Opal Besson. Off camera, the three of them have really bonded better than I could have ever imagined, and it was so fun to explore and build these characters together. Jordan and Biorkys actually befriended each other in the hallway outside our audition rooms, before either of them had even gotten the parts. All three roles were the result of a really comprehensive casting search by Sophia Hiller across schools, online databases, and neighborhoods nearby the real facilities in NYC.  

Jordan C. Biggs and Biorkys Acosta are two incredibly talented first-time actors, and it was such an honor to watch them both grow in their understanding of being an actor while also learning about where these real residents come from

Was there anything that was particularly difficult to film? 

I think the hardest scene to shoot was Shrue’s rap. We did it in one, long take – but the most difficult part was getting the actors into the right headspace. We’d spent weeks prior to set practicing and talking through the scene, but I also didn’t want to over-rehearse such an emotional moment. So a lot of it came down to what Jordan and Bior brought, on the day. We were filming under time pressure on an already busy shooting schedule – but the two of them were able to lock-in as our crew setup the shot. I know they were both encouraging each other in the hallway; helping each other get into the zone – and without that camaraderie, I doubt it would have turned out as beautiful as it did!

Where was this film shot? 

Understandably, our team wasn’t given access to film inside active detention centres – but from my experience, the facilities actually look eerily similar to schools. Aside from residents in handcuffs and constant security, one might forgive you for thinking you were standing inside an old middle school. So we actually ended up filming CHICKEN in a series of middle and high schools across Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Aside from residents in handcuffs and constant security, one might forgive you for thinking you were standing inside an old middle school

How did you get into filmmaking? 

Film was something I picked up after learning iMovie at an Apple Store summer camp in 2009 – a backyard hobby with friends that turned into a career after discovering that the films I made could transcend borders and share untold stories from around the world. I used to go on missions trips with my church in high school, where I’d film trip recaps – but it also gave me huge exposure to cultures and communities different from my own. I encountered the lives and journeys of people that were so convicting, I couldn’t help but want to do something about it. And so film became my outlet to reflect those stories to world – to raise awareness for important issues and provide exposure for people written out of history. That’s who these residents are – mere children who’ve already been written off by society. But we can change that, and film is an incredible way to help others hear their voice. 

Is there any chance this masterpiece of a film could become a feature one day? 

Who knows! It’s not on the cards right at this moment, as I feel the story feels self-contained in a short. I think I’d need more time in those facilities to really feel like I was the one to bring a longer story to the screen. But my previous short in Ethiopia, THE OTHER SIDE, is actually being developed as a feature, LOST BOYS, with Sundance and Berlinale-winning producers, A51 Pictures. It’s a story inspired by the life of boys I met in an orphanage in Addis Ababa in 2018 – and that’s a personal project really dear to my heart. 

What is next for you? 

Just trying to enjoy the festival. You never know when you’ll get into Tribeca again, and this has been a dream for so long… But if I’d have all the time in the world, my focus would be on getting that debut feature, LOST BOYS, financed and off the ground. THE OTHER SIDE (the short it’s based on) will actually be available to stream on Peacock on May 24th, and I’ll be speaking on the TODAY Show about the film on the 25th. It’s been a long, winding journey – and I’m really excited to see where it leads next. But CHICKEN is a film that I really think represents the kinds of stories I want to tell. Hopefully Tribeca can be a time to share that with the world, maybe find representation, and at least shed some light on things going on in our own backyard. 

Just trying to enjoy the festival. You never know when you’ll get into Tribeca again, and this has been a dream for so long… But if I’d have all the time in the world, my focus would be on getting that debut feature, LOST BOYS, financed and off the ground

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