When I wrote A New York Heartbeat I envisioned it as a mythic heroic journey of a young gang leader in the late 1950s, torn between his loyalty to his gang and his love for the sheltered young woman who saves him.
The story had its genesis with Big Didi’s character. The first draft focused on this exiled crime lord, someone who has sworn off the world and created a sanctuary for himself and his niece. It was loosely based on my own father who spent the last 20 years in virtual isolation in the north of Canada (of course, he was no crime lord). I would visit him there from time to time and realize he hadn’t seen or talked to anyone for weeks. I was interested in how his mind had turned inward. Through the writing process, I quickly realized I had to bring in the outside world to create conflict. Spider was the perfect foil: an ambitious punk to corrupt the old man’s one and only joy -- Tamara.
I wanted the audience to feel that this story could have happened to real people. To capture the time and place, I steeped myself in research, reading countless books and articles written in that period about the culture of street gangs and the important rites of passage in the life of a young man. These first-hand accounts helped me understand gang hierarchy as well as the vernacular.
As the director you set the bar for honesty. I wanted to give the cast ownership of their characters and allow them to tap into their own emotional reserve. The aim was always to create complete characters that existed outside the narrative and the dialogue, and then collide those characters with the script. It requires a tremendous leap of faith for the actors -- to be alright with whatever that truth ends up being.
Research also helped create the look of A New York Heartbeat. I feel the best thing a director can do for his cast is to create a fully elaborated world in which the actors can immerse themselves. The spirit lingers in places -- there’s life in the walls and the physical reality can talk to you. The story required scope and, budget aside, I didn’t want to be limited to shooting a narrow patch of brick wall because that was all we could afford to capture in the style of the period. So I spent three months scouting for locations in Pittsburgh, choosing places where you could stand on a corner and imagine: if I move all the cars out of here, this could be New York in 1959. With its soot-stained brick, industrial decay and spectacular rusted bridges, the city had much to offer in suggesting post-war New York.
We worked at a tremendous pace -- a 22-day shoot, all in. You can’t fly solo as a director and the quality of the people you hire is always reflected in the work. Producers Laura Davis and Hugh Aodh O’Brien, production designers Justine Seymour and Danielle Laubauch and director of photography Michal Dabal accepted the challenge with gusto. And the hard work paid off. We dove in, did our best, had fun and sharpened our skills. The process was its own reward -- there’s nothing like a filmmaking adventure full of hard work and enthusiasm.