A heart for New York, but a mind for Pittsburgh

By: Kaye Burnett | The Duquesne Duke

An independent film with a connection to Duquesne and Pittsburgh will have its second showing in the city this month.

A New York Heartbeat, written and directed by Tjardus Greidanus and produced by his wife, Pittsburgh native Laura Davis, was shot in and around Pittsburgh. Ryan Koch, who graduated with a degree in marketing from Duquesne in 2010, served as assistant producer for the project.

The film debuted in Pittsburgh at Regent Square Theater in July.

Davis explained why Pittsburgh was the natural choice for the world debut.

“So many people on the crew were from Pittsburgh. And the city itself was so welcoming and friendly. We felt like we owed it to them,” he said.

A New York Heartbeat will play on Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and again on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at The Oaks Theater, 310 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont.

The story takes place in rough and gritty 1959 Brooklyn. A young street kid nicknamed Spider (Escher Holloway) is the leader of a gang which breaks into an apartment to steal a machine gun but instead finds thousands of dollars in mobsters’ cash. They fill a suitcase with the money, but in trying to escape, Spider is seriously injured.

He is picked up by Tamara (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards), a sheltered young woman living with her uncle, a former gangster. As Tamara nurses him back to health, an unlikely but strong bond is formed between the two. Ultimately, Spider is forced to decide whether to stay with Tamara or continue his life as a gang leader.

According to Greidanus, Pittsburgh was a perfect shooting location.

“Pittsburgh has a lot to offer, with its brick walls and alleys. If you go to Brooklyn now, there’s modern graffiti everywhere. But in shooting a movie like this, you have to have everything just right. You can’t have modern slang in the background. With Pittsburgh, I had to do very little to it. [This] was good, because we had a very small budget,” he said.
Greidanus felt that Pittsburgh allowed him more freedom as a director.

“I didn’t want to be forced to only shoot [the movie] close up against the wall. I want depth in my shots, and Pittsburgh could offer that. It’s a spectacular city,” he said.

The film shied away from making Pittsburgh landmarks too noticeable, Davis explained.

However, there are still plenty of little things that viewers familiar with Pittsburgh will recognize. Close-up scenes were shot in the Strip District, McKees Rocks, Squirrel Hill and Downtown, using streets like Strawberry Alley and Coffee Way, according to Davis.

Duquesne graduate Ryan Koch served an important position in the film’s production. Davis and Greidanus contacted the Pittsburgh Film Office to list various positions and Koch applied and got the job. All of Koch’s work was as an unpaid volunteer.

“I loved his enthusiasm and commitment. Ryan did so much more than his title implies, and he did any job, big or small. He would drop everything and drive to Cincinnati for camera equipment on a moment’s notice. We’d ask, ‘Can you get a message to so-and-so?’ and other last minute things, and he always pulled through,” Davis said.

Countless hours of research went into producing the film, according to Greidanus. He spent many evenings studying classic movies to get a feel for the mobster world of the 1950’s, and was influenced by the masterpieces of actor Humphrey Boggart, who portrayed the quintessential American gangster. Inspiration also came from other archetypal noir pieces such as Sweet Smell of Success and Odds Against Tomorrow.

Greidanus also emphasized the importance of literary research.

“To really get a feel for the times, you have to look at what people wrote. For example, there was a New York Times reporter in the ‘50s who lived with those gang kids. He wrote about them, using the slang they used. I relied on his writings,” he said.

After the debut, Davis and Greidanus realized they missed an important demographic.

“Pittsburgh is such a college town, and none of the students had the chance to view it during the summer. We even got emails, asking where people could see the movie again. So we made an arrangement with The Oaks to bring it back for a short time,” Davis said.

The film is actually tailored to the tastes of college-age students, Davis explained. “Here in California, we previewed the movie at local colleges and had students take a survey afterwards. We used their comments to edit and improve the film.”

But Davis affirms that young adults aren’t the only ones who can enjoy the film.

“I think everybody, male or female, young or old, loves a good love story. We’re all romantics at heart.”