Premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Concrete Cowboy has just made its Netflix premiere. The directorial debut of Ricky Staub, Concrete Cowboy tells the story of a rebellious teen who is sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, where he finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys. The film features a striking performance from Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin in his first leading role alongside none other than Idris Elba. However, this project could not have happened without a singular creative force driving it from start to finish: Ricky Staub.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Ricky Staub to dive into his journey as a filmmaker; from the short film that lead him to Concrete Cowboy, working with McLaughlin and Elba on his first major production, and exciting projects on the horizon.
What first inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Ricky Staub: Gosh, I think I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I can remember. Back to even when I played with my toys, it was always as if they were part of a film set. I don’t even know if there was a single moment that actually inspired me. I mean, I wrote my first full-length script at 10 years old. So I’ve been going at it for a while.
You first got your start in the director’s chair on the short film The Cage. What led you to tackle that as your first directorial project?
Ricky Staub: I run a film production company called ‘Neighborhood’, and at that point, we had just been primarily doing commercials. I had recently started directing some commercials, but had been writing for over a decade and wanted to see if I actually had what it took to direct a movie. I was trying to figure out what that could be when I had no access to actors and no money, so I filmed in the [Philadelphia] neighborhood that I lived in.
A good friend of mine, Andre, runs this nonprofit called Give And Go Athletics, which basically runs basketball camps for youth in the summer. He would always tell me stories about kids coming to his camp not being able to play because their parents were selling their jerseys for drug money, or they couldn’t make it because they had a gun at practice – all these hurdles that, growing up, weren’t things that I had to go through just to play a simple game of basketball.
So we originally started talking about making a promo for his nonprofit, which then evolved into me actually making it a short film. We still use it for the nonprofit, I’m on his board of directors, but it actually started with that relationship and the stories of just us sharing beers and sharing life together, and me realizing that we could use the film to make change in a lot of ways. So I also had access to that neighborhood which visually, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. So I just looked around at what I had access to and my relationships, and I thought that the folks that lived in that neighborhood would be best suited to tell the story.
After your debut short, you took on Concrete Cowboy as the first feature that you fully wrote and directed. What was your journey like getting your first feature from script to screen and to have it take off in such a way?
Ricky Staub: I think a lot of my momentum and relationships in the industry paid off. [The Cage] was really well-received at film festivals, but primarily, what helped it take off was just the relationships I had built. I started out as a production assistant, worked my way up to an assistant, and when I made the short, I pretty much sent it out to everyone that would watch it. I wouldn’t say millions of people saw it, but the right people saw it.
It was really a few of the producers (Jeff Waxman, Jen Matloff, and Tucker Tuley) who really were inspired by the short, and were interested in seeing what I had in terms of the feature. Jeff and Jen also introduced me to my now agent Rich Cook, and when Rich was at WME, he was able to get our script to Idris Elba. It was just one of those situations where one thing led to the other. I think my encouragement to any filmmaker is to make something really beautiful and then hope the right people see it, you know? I can’t [attribute] enough to the relationships and support around me that really led to that.
One of the other aspects of the film that was great was that of how you directed such powerful performances from Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin. What was your experience like collaborating with them, and what do you hope to see from McLaughlin’s growing career down the line?
Ricky Staub: Idris came on because, as I was saying, my agent Rich was able to get him the script. Like any filmmaker’s wildest dream, he actually read it and loved it. So he attached and then I knew that the character of Cole carries the weight of the whole movie. And at the time, Caleb actually self-taped for the role. It was not something where I offered it to him because I knew from the jump that I didn’t care if he was as famous and well-known as Caleb, or if he was just a kid from Philly who had never acted in his life.
I wanted the role to go to whoever was best for it, and Caleb showed up! I still remember watching his tape and being truly blown away. I was a fan of Stranger Things and he was completely transformative in his audition, almost unrecognizable. I would compare it against everyone else’s, and hundreds of people read and I watched them all because I knew how important it was, but Caleb’s audition really became the one that I kept coming back to every time
[Idris and Caleb] were tremendous. They dove very deeply into the world, with Idris working on his dialect to make sure that he sounded like he was from North Philly. I was constantly impressed with the amount of work they put in. The sheer level of talent was really impressive to watch on set every day. I have multiple memories of watching the monitor and thinking that this is one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed in my life, particularly from Caleb. We’re well into overtime on some of these days and he’s pulling off these hyper-emotional scenes with the energy of his first shot – so he’s impressive to me and I’m excited for people to see this movie. It will definitely make people realize that he’s here to stay for a long time
A wide range of styles and influences are definitely visible in Concrete Cowboy. Can you tell us more about your inspirations for the film?
Ricky Staub: When I was putting the script together with the [real-life inspiration for] the character of Paris – the real gentlemen’s name is Mils – he and another cowboy, Eric, were two of my closest collaborators when I was putting the script together with my writing partner Dan [Walser]. We first talked about what they wanted [the film] to be, and they kept echoing to me that when they were growing up riding, they didn’t actually have Westerns with Black cowboys in them, and so they wanted to leave a film for a younger generation of riders to have a Western, with all the parts of Westerns they loved.
So myself and my DP Minka [Farthing-Kohl], we watched a lot of Westerns, and we looked at the tropes; how characters are introduced and such. We wanted the film to have a nostalgic feel so we used very old glass in terms of the lenses that we used. We very intentionally made it feel warm and hot. I wanted the lighting to feel very documentary-like and gritty like the film grain a lot of old Westerns had. We shot anamorphic to emulate that as well, so there’s a lot of thought going into just the look and tone – making a film that a younger generation of cowboys would want to watch over and over again.
So what was it that first drew you to the story behind Concrete Cowboy for your first feature?
Ricky Staub: What drew me to the story is that relationship with Eric and Mill, to be honest. In my production company, we hire adults returning home from incarceration. So every year, I speak in court talking about our company with candidates who are newly paroled, and I met Eric there. He had been out of prison for a week and had already purchased a horse, which I found fascinating, and I was familiar with Fletcher Street because their stables are less than a mile from my office in Philly.
So we struck up a conversation! He told me the history of Fletcher Street; how the stables were facing gentrification and how he wanted to build a sustainable future for all Black cowboys in Philadelphia. At the time, he had seen the short film I made. I had always been fascinated from like a visual standpoint – cowboys riding through the hood of North Philly is a majestic visual. Immediately from that place I was hooked, but to know that this film could actually have impact in their real lives was a huge interest to me. I love the city, I now love the cowboys. That’s really what drew me to it. There’s a part of it that is an incredibly interesting and unique world that I had not seen yet. So there are a lot of beautiful aspects to it that checked all the boxes for me.
What’s next for your career? Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Ricky Staub: Gosh, I feel like if I tell you, they’ll change by the next week (laughs). We’re definitely doing a lot of writing. Off TIFF, we were tapped by John Wick‘s Chad Stahelski and we did a pass on a draft for John Wick 4 which was a lot of fun. Dan and I, we love writing. That’s our first love. So we’re definitely taking on a lot of writing projects. We have an original script that the financiers of Concrete Cowboy just purchased, so we’re working on that right now. There’s obviously a lot of really wonderful opportunities being offered to us, but we’re also trying to be patient to make sure that we’re thoughtful about what’s next.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who are trying to get a start in such a unique time in the industry?
Ricky Staub: I think any good artist, myself included, always tries to find an excuse to why it might be too hard or unattainable. But I can attest that. When I look back almost four years to the date when the film comes out, it was the first time I met Eric. When we first started on the journey to make Concrete Cowboy, no one had even seen my short, I didn’t have an agent, Idris Elba didn’t know who I was, and we didn’t have a script. It’s constantly about putting one foot in front of the other and doing it well. Doing it with a lot of empathy and care, no matter whether you’re telling a true story with a community or just even the way that you treat your crew and cast.
To me, there’s no way to be successful as like some solo genius. No one likes to work with those people anyway. And so, I’m constantly trying to surround myself with people who are more talented than me. Making a film is definitely pushing a boulder up a hill, but you just got to do it one step at a time, and eventually you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve really traveled. You know, I can look back now and go, “I can’t believe we actually made a movie. That’s crazy.” So that would be my advice, you just have to be diligent in the small moments, in the small tasks, and do them all well.