Aristotle Torres on Shaking Up a Narrative with “Story Ave”

“I know stick up kids, and you’re not one of them,” Luis Torres (Luis Guzman) tells Kadir Grayson (Asante Blackk) when he’s confronted by the teen waving a gun around in his face late at night on a subway platform in the Bronx in “Story Ave,” asking for his wallet but clearly having a lot bigger questions weighing on his mind. The subway worker who just wants to get home after clocking out lets him have the wallet, but offers something greater than the cash when he invites him out for a late night meal where the prospect of a Cuban sandwich — “the best in New York” Torres touts — may be what gets Kadir to put down the gun, but the side of friendly advice that comes with it is the real nutrition.

Somehow that’s the easy part in Aristotle Torres’ tender debut feature in which Kadir, who recently lost his brother, forms a friendship with Luis, who is not too far removed from losing his wife, but while they find unlikely companions in one another, they aren’t necessarily equipped to take on the full extent of the pain that’s unique to them individually. Torres exhibits wisdom well beyond his years, both in the graceful way “Story Ave” tells of its complicated characters through the environments they inhabit and in seeing Luis, knowing how he has less days in front of him than behind him, open up the young man in front of him to seeing all the possibilities for his life, gently encouraging a passion for art that he currently thinks of as just tagging buildings and getting out of his own head to start understanding he’s not the only one out there struggling.

When a title card is thrown up “A Film By the Bronx,” it doesn’t seem like an overstatement to suggest “Story Ave” was the work of an entire community while Torres’ own distinctive voice shines through, and as the film looks at one unexpected connection being made, it suggests a number of others that could be possible not only between strangers, but within families that have grown estranged when they’ve lost a common thread and resentments have taken hold. Observing the comfort of sharing intimate details with the people who don’t know enough to judge, as well as those who have been too close to one another to have a proper perspective when the past gets in the way of seeing who they’re evolving into, the film mirrors one of Kadir’s sketches that gradually gets filled in by the end, making one appreciate every stroke of the pencil it took to get there.

After becoming a sensation at SXSW where the film won both a Grand Jury Prize for narrative feature and a Special Jury Award for Eric Branco’s robust cinematography, “Story Ave” is arriving in theaters and Torres kindly took the time to talk about how a kick in the pants from the Sundance Labs led to him taking the leap from a successful commercial career into features, creating the space for collaboration and how much care went into developing a visual language for the film that could be pulled off in the time he had to film.

How did this initially take shape as a story? As I understand it, there might’ve been some loosely autobiographical elements.

I definitely pulled a lot of inspiration from personal experiences. I’ve never robbed anyone and I’m not a graffiti artist, but I do know what it’s like to grow up in the Bronx, and I know what it’s like to feel alone and feel like you’re meant for something greater, but don’t necessarily know where to begin, so those were the elements that I was able to kind of pull from my personal experience and add those kind of layers of nuance to the story.

It started off as a short that I made in 2017. At the time, I didn’t think I could make a feature more [because] of self-doubt than anything, and I really wanted to turn it into a play that was a derivative of the short, which is just the robbery on the platform and the conversation at the diner. Through the grace of a higher power, Sundance reached out to me, and they believed in the story and believed in me, embarrassingly to say probably more so than I did, and really encouraged me to take the risk on myself to develop this into a feature. So now I’m sitting here talking to you.

That idea of doing this for the stage surprised me when you use the locations in this so well. Did you have some in mind after starting to think about it cinematically?

Yeah, as someone who’s from New York City and who grew up in the Bronx, I understand that there are certain depictions and negative stereotypes of the Bronx that I just vehemently disagree with. There’s going to be tough parts of any part of New York City, and I think the Bronx is a really beautiful place and really diverse and eclectic, so it was a privilege to be able to shoot the, you know, the neighborhood that raised me in a way where people can now appreciate that layer of texture that’s out there.

The diner in particular is one of those ordinary locations that becomes extraordinary because of the way you envision it, but I have to imagine with the entire side wall as a mirror, was it tricky to shoot?

No, honestly, I liked the mirror because I thought it added a layer of duality to the characters, similar to when you meet Qadir in the bathroom [of his apartment]. He’s split in half [in that scene] bcause he’s [feeling] half [of himself] and I’m just a big advocate of utilizing reflections in films to help with pathos, and as long as you put the lens lower than the line, you’re good. [laughs]

It looked wonderful, and there’s a scene where you go into Gloria’s workshop, for instance, and you’re able to see the work of a number of artists. Were you actually engaged with the community to bring that into the film?

Yeah, props and art direction add so much to your film, especially when you’re an indie low-budget film. Utilizing those elements can really help shape the frame, and like I said, I’m not a graffiti artist, but I am an artist, so a lot of the people that are depicted in this film are people that I’ve met or a derivative of people that I’ve met. I’ve definitely been that kid from the Bronx who like went to a weird art studio in Dumbo and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on? This is so creepy and weird.” Those experiences shaped me to look beyond what was in front of me, not only within myself, but within my art, so it was just so exciting to be able to depict those moments on the big screen.

I know Asante had actually just come off of doing “Landscape with Invisible Hand” where he was also an artist. Do you think the art was a way of getting into the character?

Yeah, totally. I hadn’t seen that film when we cast him, but graffiti in itself is such a niche subculture within the art umbrella that comes with its own rules and its own structure that even though he played an artist in both movies, this was just a different layer of school because there’s a layer of criminality and mischief and that also plays in a hand with the actual art that he creates. It was really interesting to introduce him to real graffiti artists and he embraced it. He and Alex [Hibbert] still do graffiti in their notebooks, so it’s cool.

I’ve heard this amazing phrase that you had about working with actors called “free real estate,” giving space to them to create their performance versus how much you want to impose on them. How did that approach come about?

Free real estate is just a theory that I apply in all aspects of my life. In any collaboration or any relationship, you want to meet someone at the 50-yard line and for me, the 50-yard line is free real estate. Like I shouldn’t have to pay for that. That’s the bare minimum. And when you work with actors at the caliber of this movie, specifically Luis Guzman and Asante Blackk, those guys come in every day prepared, and it really helps me not only as a first-time filmmaker, but [with] the realities and the parameters and limitations of time and budget. I can’t imagine what this movie would have been if we were still crafting performance on the day. That’s not what we were doing, and it’s a testament to their work ethic and how they’ve honed their craft.

Once you see the dynamic between Asante and Luis, was there anything that you didn’t expect that you could get excited about?

Sure, I’m the kind of director that I definitely want to get what was written and then once we get that down, if there’s any opportunity, I got it from a very inspiring filmmaker named Robert Townsend, who goes by a theory of “a take for love.” So before we start the scene, I’ll ask my actors, do you want “a take for love” on this one? because I think it’s important to keep any collaborator you’re working with not only engaged, but excited to do the work with you. And I’m not naive to the fact that this is my baby, but I want it to feel like everyone’s baby and I never want to put my ego in front of the movie. I always say, I don’t want make the movie in my head. If I did that, then I failed. I want to work with my actors and that’s why I cast them because they’re going to bring something unique and elevate the words that I wrote on that paper. And they both did that every day.

The camerawork in the film is so tender – you clearly love engaging with the actors in that sense as well. What was it like creating that relationship?

Of course, I love the Scorseses and the Tarantinos and the Finchers and the Nolans, but a lot of my inspiration comes from Kurosawa and Fellini and Ozu and the way that they utilize the camera and the lens as a tool to enforce where we are emotionally with the characters, and working with my DP, Eric Branco, we were so meticulous in our grammar and we never wanted to spray and pray, where it’s like, “Oh, let’s get a wide [shot], let’s get a over, let’s get a close- up, and we’ll figure it out in the edit.” A lot of the angles you’re seeing, I only got that line on that angle and I think it’s really important when you are limited with time and money to be very conscious with your choices and let a lot of the exploration happen within the performances versus the grammar. These were just things that Eric and I challenged [each other to think about] in prep — we’re in the diner seven times. How do we keep that feeling fresh and new every time we’re in there?

The film really breathes as well – when it’s your first feature, was pacing it something that felt a bit different?

Yeah, I mean, you know, whenever you set out to make a movie, you make three movies — the movie you wrote, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit. But the most important one is the one you edit because that’s the one that the world sees. And I was really fortunate enough to work with Jasmine Way, who’s just a phenomenal editor, and one of my mentors through Sundance, Teri Shropshire, just an iconic editor [behind “Eve’s Bayou” and “Love and Basketball”] was able to come in for a few days at the end. [Between] my DP and my production designer and my producers and my actors, I was just really blessed — even if I was on my 10th movie, having this team of people would have been a blessing, so I was really creatively protected and all those elements were able to come together to create the movie you saw.

What’s it been like getting out into the world, particularly the screening this summer out in the Bronx?

Super. Movies are miracles. They are really difficult to make. I’ll never say a movie is bad again. I’ll just say “It’s not for me.” They’re just too hard to make, and there was definitely a lot of rejection and trial and tribulations in making this movie. So to share the movie at Van Cortlandt, with a bunch of people from the Bronx and hearing their reactions to the movie…you’re always going to get a different reaction when someone understands all of the nuances of the world because they’re from there, and to screen it in the Bronx was a life’s dream. It’s all surreal, but that really took the cake because the conversations I had after the screening, those are the things that keep me going.

“Story Ave” opens on September 29th in New York at the Quad Cinema and October 5th at the Maysles Documentary Center and in Los Angeles on October 13th at the Laemmle Royal.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.