SOUTH LOOP — The director of a short film wants to paint a more provocative picture of urban youth impacted by the constant threat of violence.
A story of a withdrawn boy tasked by police with painting white outlines around the bodies of young victims, the film is currently in production.
The boy is "really a metaphor for desensitized children who have seen too much violence," Cooper said. "And if that doesn't pull your heartstrings, I don't know what will."
"This [film] is my little voice in the choir," he added. "We're all a little to blame for allowing children to suffer in that way."
Cooper, best known for his work in the films "Secondhand Lions" and "I Heart Shakey," said he wrote "The Painter" last year in a single night — during the hot summer when gun violence in the city traditionally reaches its yearly peak.
It was a night when multiple shootings claimed the lives of several children — which got him thinking how, as an artist and filmmaker, he could make a difference.
By 4 a.m. the next morning, he had finished the script from his home in Wheaton.
The film's crew cast five boys for the role of "The Painter," each playing a different part of the boy's body over the course of the film.
One kid from Altgeld Gardens, Tavontay Loggins, plays the painter's hands in several scenes, for example. Ron Caldwell, 13, is the face of the painter.
Producers of the film said they chose 10-year-old Tavontay because of his distinct walk and hand gestures.
"They had me stand in certain places and do what I had to do to get it right," Tavontay said. "I've never seen Chicago [the way it's portrayed in the film], but I it's think it's sad that the boy lives in a neighborhood where a lot of people die everyday."
The 5th grader at Lloyd Bond Charter School enjoyed the acting experience.
"It was very fun," he said. "My mom was really happy and excited to see me on the set."
Caldwell, the main actor of "boy" in the film, lives in North Carolina and has been acting since he was 5 years old, most recently in the movie "Flight," starring Denzel Washington.
"I think about what's happening here," he said, regarding the violence plaguing Chicago's youth. "It hurts to see kids with no place to express themselves, so I'm glad to be a part of something that helps bring awareness."
"But who wouldn't be glad for that?" he added.
With the exception of Caldwell, the film's stars were handpicked through auditions of kids from UCAN, an Irving Park-based organization that works with 12,000 youth each year, many of whom are wards of the state.
Claude Robinson, UCAN's executive vice president, said "The Painter" fits in line with UCAN's mission to focus on the problem of urban violence while helping youth who've suffered trauma become future leaders.
"Everything we do is with the voice of young people," said Barbara West Stone, UCAN's Chief Development Officer. "We need awareness, and what better way than a powerful film like this?"
Aside from empowering the young teens through their roles in "The Painter," several kids were invited to shadow the film's crew during the three days of shooting.
"It's been a life-affirming experience," Cooper said as one young girl sat in his director's chair intently watching the filming process. "These kids are spilling over with potential — they've been inspiring and inspired."
An exact release date for the film hasn't been set, but according to DeAnna Cooper, the film's producer, "The Painter" will be shipped to as many festivals and premieres as possible upon completion.
"This is a passion project for us," she said of herself and her director husband. "He's my director of choice and this is the right time to get people engaged."