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Pittsburgh shines as 1950s New York City for new gangster movie

| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Eric Roberts (“Casket Mike”) with director Tjardus Greidanus
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Eric Roberts as “Casket Mike”
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Escher Holloway as 'Spider'
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Rachel Brosnahan as “Tamara”
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Escher Holloway (“Spider”) and Rachel Brosnahan (“Tamara”)
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Director Tjardus Greidanus with Jack Donner (“Big Didi”).
A NEW YORK HEARTBEAT
Producer Laura Davis

It might seem a little odd to shoot a movie called “A New York Heartbeat” in Pittsburgh.

But from a certain angle, in a certain light, Pittsburgh looks more like New York than New York does — at least, the New York City of 1959.

“I looked around Brooklyn,” says writer/director Tjardus Greidanus, who shot the film in Pittsburgh in 2010. “Everything at eye-level is graffitied. (Back in the '50s) they used chalk. Pittsburgh has that ‘sooted' look, like a cloak. Because it was such a low-budget film, you can't dress everything.

“It's very expensive to make a period film. I wanted to find a location where you have to do as little as possible. In Pittsburgh, there are so many places where you can stand at an intersection, and if you moved all the cars out of there, it could be 1959.”

Filmmaking legend Jean-Luc Godard once said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and girl.”

“A New York Heartbeat” — which is opening at the Regent Square Theater on July 12 — seems to subscribe to that ethos. Made in Pittsburgh for less than $1 million, it's sort of an homage to the gangster and troubled-youth B-movies of the '40s and '50s. There's a gang of misfit youths, a simple robbery gone wrong, a menacing trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad “heavy,” and lots of witty, rapid-fire patter.

Yet, it's in color — though as dark, shadowy and desaturated as possible – and features a fresh young cast, some of whom are already on the cusp of stardom. Rachel Brosnahan, in particular, now co-stars in David Fincher's political-thriller series “House of Cards” on Netflix and just made her Broadway debut in Tony-winner Doug Hughes' “The Big Knife.” She was still a student at New York University when filming “A New York Heartbeat.”

There are some familiar faces in the film, too. Eric Roberts plays the gangster boss. His wife, Eliza Roberts, also has a major role. Jack Donner — a mainstay of the original “Star Trek” series and almost-uncountable television roles since — brings a chilling menace to another character with a hard-boiled history.

The story revolves around a heist gone bad, when a young, tough gang leader named Spider (Escher Holloway) hides from Casket Mike (Eric Roberts) and his goons with a suitcase full of stolen cash. Then he sees a beautiful girl about to be assaulted in an alley and intervenes. He's beaten badly, and the girl, Tamara (Brosnahan), nurses him back to health in the towering, seemingly abandoned hotel where she lives. However, she's not alone.

Greidanus, who is Dutch-Canadian, has had a lifelong fascination with American cinema, culture and language. His approximation of '50s Brooklyn street-kid slang is particularly interesting. Characters spit out lines like “We ain't got the muscle to shuffle with Casket Mike,” and it seems to work.

“I did a lot of research,” he says. “I limited a lot of my reading to things that were written about gangs back then, not current movies about gangs — and a lot of newspaper articles about juvenile delinquents in the '50s. It was its own culture. Because I'm not American, I feel like I'm missing part of American culture. But if I make it a very specific time and place, I can research it. I'm very proud of that slang.”

Amadeo Fusca, who played one of Spider's crew — a hot-headed punk named Ty — liked this aspect of “Heartbeat.”

“It's still with me a little bit,” says the Churchill native, 27, who's pursuing a stand-up comedy career in New York City. “The whole Brooklyn thing — I've always played around with this Italian/Brooklyn thing. That slang wasn't the hardest thing for me to pick up. We also had a voice coach to make sure we're all hitting the right changes.”

Fusca looked to one of his favorite movie characters to get in the right frame of mind.

“He's the guy who kind of gets them in trouble,” Fusca says. “I kind of looked for inspirations like (Robert DeNiro's) Johnny Boy in ‘Mean Streets' — really cool and slick, kind of degenerate.”

Though “A New York Heartbeat” was shot in 2010, it's only now ready for theaters — and there's still a lot of work left to get it past this short Pittsburgh run. That's a largely a function of its budget. As the credits roll, instead of a long series of names working on editing and post-production, that's all mostly done by Greidanus and his wife, Laura Davis. She's a Pittsburgh native and is producing the film.

Currently, they're doing a Kickstarter online fundraising campaign to obtain the last $50,000 needed to get the completed film into theaters. That, and details about the movie, can be found at www.anewyorkheartbeatmovie.com.

Previously, the pair made “The Shot Felt 'Round the World,” a documentary about Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine.

“I'm actually writing a screenplay for (a feature film of the Salk story) right now,” says Greidanus. “I'm surprised no one's done it. In 1955, they were talking about it, and it was going to star Marlon Brando. But Salk didn't want a film made during his lifetime.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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