“Grand Street” (2014): Dreamily Melancholy New York City Romance Vastly Deserves NYC Premiere

Charlotte Riley and Tom Byam Shaw as not quite star-crossed lovers in Lex Sidon's
Charlotte Riley and Tom Byam Shaw as not quite star-crossed lovers in Lex Sidon’s “Grand Street.”

Amory (Tom Byam Shaw) is a failing screenwriter who rarely forgets the faces of his detractors–especially if the face in question is that of the strikingly beautiful, strikingly aloof Camilla (Charlotte Riley), a film exec. A year after she rejects his deeply personal script (“Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting,” she says), Charlotte finds herself sacked by the film agency and unceremoniously dumped by a long-time beau. Despondent, she heads to a trendy bar in New York City’s posh SoHo district, where the handsomely scruffy DJ turns out to be…Amory. Having met with hundreds of film pitchers, she has completely forgotten him. Yet, undeterred, he tries to woo her anyway–by making her pay for his drink.

Annoyed yet intrigued, and with little better to do–after all, she’s essentially homeless–Charlotte agrees to embark with Amory on a woozy, sleepless, drug-fueled evening through various bars, lofts and hotels–all of them curiously upscale given Amory’s penniless condition. At each locale, a little more of the mysterious Amory’s persona is revealed–his rich yet unstable upbringing, his addictions, his lack of a real family, his promiscuity–and the almost alarmingly stoic Camilla gradually lets her guard down. She even falls for him. A little. But her tenderness is tempered by pity, irritability and even disgust. Amory and Camilia are aimless souls in need of love, but–unlike the lead characters in last year’s similarly structured yet broader comedy/drama “Two Night Stand”–they are not exactly made for each other.

Lex Sidon, a former analyst turned music video director turned filmmaker, brings this romantic non-romance to effusive, bittersweet life in “Grand Street,” which was shot on location in SoHo in 2010 but just wrapped post-production last year. Despite recent well-received runs at Canada’s Scarborough Film Festival and The Palm Springs International Film Festival (the latter’s director, Darryl McDonald, named it one of the must-see eight films), and the movie’s sale to theatrical and digital distributors in Uruguay, Poland, Mexico and Italy earlier this year, “Grand Street” has yet to receive a screening in its–and Sidon’s–hometown.

This is criminal. Shot in lustrous 35mm, “Grand Street” is sumptuously lit, framed and edited, despite its modest $1 million budget. It’s somewhat of a throwback to such 1980s set-in-one-night capers as Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” yet without the frenetic or farcical or shrill tone that typically characterizes such outings. (In fact, Sidon originally wanted to set the film in the 1980s, having spent stretches of that decade as well as the 1990s in SoHo, when it was far more dangerous and exciting, but he chose to give it a more timeless feel). It is by turns kooky, elegiac and just plain devastating; anyone not distraught by the ending is simply inhuman. And despite its decidedly indie status, its cast isn’t exactly no-name: veteran actors Kelly McGillis and Michael Wincott turn up in key parts, and Riley herself has since caught the rising stardom wave, having appeared in Tom Cruise’s recent “Edge of Tomorrow.”

I am in the midst of trying to schedule a local showing of “Grand Street,” but in the meantime, here are excerpts from my two interviews with Sidon, one in-person at a downtown burger joint playing lots of Foreigner and Journey, and one over the phone, in January and May 2015, respectively.

Lex Sidon
Lex Sidon

Sam Weisberg: What was your job in the banking industry, exactly, before you became a filmmaker?

Lex Sidon: I was a financial analyst. I hated it. It wasn’t for me. I jumped ship, went to California, worked for a small boutique bank doing film deals, and I wanted to be on the other side of the table. While I was at the bank, I was setting up what was supposed to be a miniseries and it fell through ultimately, but I got the fever. My brother was a film school guy and all my friends were starting to move out to L.A.

Then I started PAing. I worked for a friend who was a video game creator. He created a platform that was basically the foundation of Guitar Hero. That was a really great experience. I ghost-wrote music videos and concepts. I did stuff with Moby, he acknowledged me. That was a great era to be involved in music video because the budgets were huge and on some deals I got percentages of the budget. It forced you to write visually. It was good practice. I started directing music videos, unfortunately at the wrong time, a couple of years after 9/11. The budgets were slashed and MTV just stopped showing videos.

SW: Which artists did you shoot?

LS: I did Handsome Boy Modeling School, I did Liz Phair.

SW: What happened after the music videos stopped?

LS: I wrote some scripts and finally got “Grand Street” up on its feet. We shot it midway through 2010. At the end of 2010 I was invited to a showcase called US in Progress, with seven directors, in Wroclaw, Poland. You show [your movie] to foreign sales agents and distributors. A couple of things happened to me there. I got a sense that people liked the film, but there were problems with editing. A very well-known editor [Krzysztof Szpetmanski] was in the audience and he came up and offered to help me edit it. He said, “I see the film you’re trying to make.” We re-edited it over the next year, over the internet.

I loved my first editor, too, Jamie Kirkpatrick. But there were some things that needed changing. We had to find the emotional core of the movie. It’s a weird story in that nothing much happens and yet [the characters] go to all these different—it’s kind of a Long Night’s Journey into Day. The couple never had a connection [before], they just grazed each other, but they change each other’s lives.

It was introduced [at last year’s] Palm Springs [International Film Festival]. The head of the festival loved it. He said it was very French New Wave, Antonioni.

SW: When did you start showing it at festivals?

LS: I had another year of post-production. I ran out of money three times. I raised money on Kickstarter. It took me two years to finish it, after Wroclaw. It’s done well at the festivals. We’ve sold out every show, and people stay afterwards for the Q&A.

SW: Where were the other festivals?

LS: In Korea [the JeonJu International Film Festival, May 2014], and there was a tiny one in Toronto [Scarborough Film Festival, June 2014].

SW: When is your movie getting a theatrical release?

LS: You tell me. I’ll put it out myself if I have to. I didn’t realize that “romantic drama” was such a curse word with distributors. They really want genre films. Unless you do a romantic drama with some names. Maybe Charlotte [Riley] will become a name this year. She has “In the Heart of the Sea” coming out, by Ron Howard [in December]. She was supposed to have a big part in Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow.” She worked for seven months on it, and then they just cut the whole thing about everyone else in the platoon. She had a big part in the original script. When [her boyfriend, now husband, actor] Tom Hardy saw “Grand Street,” I don’t think he ever knew Charlotte was as good as she is. She told me he was talking to her about it all the way home, for four hours. Any conversation about “Grand Street” usually involves Charlotte.

You have to decide in the first five minutes whether you want to stick with these characters or not. In typical movies, people want to know in five minutes, “Do I like this person or not?” In Antonioni’s films, like “La notte,” you sort of think the people are whiny at first. I really wanted Lars Von Trier’s sales rep, Nordisc Trust, to rep the film. And [this woman] wrote me a long letter saying she really liked the film but the plot was a little thin. But she said if she could take one American film she’d take that one.

The film is really an homage to the ‘80s. I wanted to do a period piece but didn’t have the money. I was more inspired by that Louis Malle movie, “The Fire Within.” It turns out it was remade last year by Joachim Trier as “Oslo, August 31.”

SW: So it’s set in present day?

LS: Yes, although Amory is dressed kind of ‘80s. But I didn’t want to hit that note too heavily because then it starts to become retro. I liked the idea that everything changes yet stays the same, that idea about New York. Nothing really changes except cellphones. I was going out, doing research, and they were playing ’80s music [at the clubs] anyhow.

I saw that movie “The Myth of the American Sleepover.” It was incredibly low-budget but adored. What I love about it is I have no idea when it’s set. They made it weirdly timeless and ambiguous and I liked that quality. I wanted to try and do that.
Kelly McGillis plays a sort of den mother of male prostitutes, in
Kelly McGillis plays a sort of den mother of male prostitutes, in “Grand Street.”

SW: You told me on the phone that you initially wanted Debbie Harry for Kelly McGillis’ role.

LS: She was on my short list. Kelly was too, but there’s something so New York-y about Debbie Harry. But Kelly was cool, too. She brought something to it.

SW: What was the budget of “Grand Street”?

LS: It came in around $1 million. It’s not small. We did go over [budget] a little. Running out of money ends up costing you more money. I think it could have been made more cheaply. But I shot it in 35mm.

SW: I think the movie really captures the excitement being an overzealous, down-on-your-luck guy trying to romance someone kind of aloof.
LS: I wanted to write a love story that wasn’t a romance. Yes, there’s sexual tension between them, but they are both looking for love. The thing is, when you’re a creative writer, you just want your work to be loved, and the only one that can give you that sort of unchecked love is your Mom. [laughs]. The funny thing about New York is that when two people just graze each other it can almost have more impact than a head-on collision. I think it’s a sort of magical quality of New York, where you go somewhere with a plan and then you go off-script and go where the night takes you.

SW: When you were writing the part about Amory being kind of a hustler, even a bit of a gigolo, was it hard to come up with a way for Camilla to accept that side of him?

LS: I wanted to show that underneath her sort-of stuffy, debutante-y–she’s kind of a snob. And then [suddenly] she’s doing coke and says “Hold my hair.” She’s a seasoned veteran, she’s got a darker side to her. They’re more kindred spirits than she’d ever want to admit.
SW: Were there scenes you had to cut that were hard?
LS: There was a scene–it was just as well that I cut it–but it was right in the middle of the movie. I had to also cut every scene that somehow had a thread to that scene. It was a domino effect of scenes that I lost. But then I realized that less is more. Krzysztof cut all these scenes that I thought I couldn’t live without, and then I didn’t miss them. It became very musical. It seems like nothing is really happening but then it’s substantial.
SW: Was there a specific incident that inspired the story, like Amory’s initial script pitch?
LS: Well, I definitely felt like I pitched scripts and it seemed as if the person had not read them, when I came to talk about it. They had a very cursory, bullet-point recall. Whether they [read them] or not, I just took that idea. Then there was that line, “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting,” I don’t know who I can attribute that to, maybe Harold Pinter or David Mamet. But I thought, “Wow, what a horrible thing to say to a young writer.” Writers who are young really write what they know, and if they get dissed on that level then it really becomes existential. Writing personal screenplays is as deep and intensive an experience as writing a personal novel.
Sometimes you write something really personal and people use the word “cliche.” And that makes you feel anonymous. Amory is very young, he doesn’t have the thickest skin, he’s a little bit unstable. He’s a little wild, parentless and rudderless, and I had grown up with a family that moved around a lot and traveled, so I drew on that experience.
SW: Did you have any magical all-nighters in the ’80s that inspired this?
LS: Yeah, I was a night kid. I had tons of encounters and head-on collisions. I tweaked accordingly.

SW: Are you working on a script right now?

LS: Yes. I’m formulating a new project called “Draggers” with Charlotte, who I think gave an amazing performance in “Grand Street.” I’m working with Orian Williams, the producer who did “Control,” which I really loved. It’s an ensemble piece. It hasn’t been shopped yet, it’s still coalescing. It’s a pretty dark story. It’s very non-commercial. These movies are hard to get going and you really need talent attached.
SW: Do you have a PR rep for that, or “Grand Street”?
LS: I don’t have one at the moment. I want to get “Grand Street” shown in New York. New York is such a character in the movie.

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