A must-see for any lover of New York City, The Last New Yorker revolves around lifelong friends (and Big Apple natives) Lenny (Dominic Chianese of “The Sopranos”) and Ruben (Tony Award winner Dick Latessa)—both in their 70s and wondering what happened to the Manhattan of their youth. After Lenny, a lone schemer all his life, gets in over his head, he decides to seek what he’s been missing all these years: True love. But to achieve it, he may have to abandon the only place he’s ever known. Directed by New York native Harvey Wang (an acclaimed documentarian and photographer), The Last New Yorker is a heartfelt ode to one of the world’s greatest cities.
MM recently caught up with Wang to discuss his much buzzed-about feature debut, which hits theaters February 19.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Although this is your first feature, you’ve had success as a renowned photographer for over 30 years, and have directed many commercials and short films. Why did you decide to make The Last New Yorker your feature debut?
Harvey Wang (HW): The simple answer is, I was given the script and invited to do it. But the subject of the film appealed to me, and the opportunity to bring to life these older New Yorkers and explore themes close to my heart was very attractive.
MM: What was it like shooting in NYC? Any notable challenges or difficulties? Any advice you’d give to independent moviemakers planning to shoot in the city?
HW: There are enormous challenges shooting in New York City. As a still photographer, I am used to shooting anywhere, but filmmaking requires large crews, permits and lock-ups. We had an indie film budget with a modest crew, so lock-ups were difficult, and we couldn’t fill our scenes with paid extras. Sound was always an issue. One important scene found our characters at an outdoor café in midtown. We shot on a Sunday morning, thinking that traffic would be quieter, but found a major street paving operation in full force on the block. We didn’t have much flexibility to move things around, so we shot the construction work in case we needed to inter-cut it with our scene. Some locations offered only one-time access, which meant long days, and sometimes, day would become night, and we’d have to figure out how to do coverage that would edit together. Passersby were always interested in what we were doing, and countless shots were ruined by people looking into the camera or at our actors. One of the biggest challenges was avoiding trademarks, store names and logos. They are everywhere you look and impacted what we could include in the frame. I was fortunate to be working with actors and a crew who had such a great attitude towards the project and took all the difficulties in stride, rising above them with a lot of class.
MM: You were able to shoot on-location in many New York City businesses, several of which have since closed. How important was it for you to capture the authentic flavor of NYC life? Do you think the fact that several of your locations closed after filming correlates with Lenny’s belief in the film that the world is changing too quickly around him?
HW: The film needed to showcase New York City as it exists today, but also portray the world of the main character Lenny Sugarman—a less garish place, where the air was dustier and the pace slower. We filmed in some great locations that themselves were holdouts threatened with extinction. In fact, at least three businesses that were part of Lenny’s world are now gone: Lismore Hosiery on Grand Street, Beny’s Fine Jewelry on Canal Street and the Blarney Stone on 33rd Street. Other key locations like Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, The Moulded Shoe Company and Tony’s Shoe Repairing are still going strong.
New York City is in a constant state of flux, even more so since the Giuliani years, and the real estate bubble made commercial space very expensive. In the script, Lenny is often noticing things like the proliferation of scaffolding around construction sites or the absence of places to buy newspapers. These are sub-themes, but it was important to show that Lenny’s feet were planted in shifting sands.
MM: If you could only choose one career path—photography or moviemaking—which would it be and why?
HW: Tough question. I love making still pictures—the solitude of it, the fact that it is a solo activity. By nature, I enjoy time in the darkroom. But I’ve always loved storytelling, and in our day and age, film offers tremendous opportunities for bringing image and story together. Collaboration is fun, and thinking about sequence and music and editing in addition to composition and picture makes moviemaking very appealing. But on the other hand, coming up with the dough is no fun, and film projects take forever. I think I’ll keep mixing it up.
MM: The Last New Yorker is obviously a love letter to NYC. Why do you think it’s considered one of the best cities in the world? How does your movie convey this sentiment?
HW: Excuse the hometown cheerleading and clichés, but New York has energy and diversity and is a true international city. It is no wonder that the United Nations is headquartered here and almost every language in the world is spoken here. The city attracts energized and motivated newcomers, people who want to be a part of the creative energy here. Even more than being a love letter to the New York City however, The Last New Yorker is about the friendship shared by two older gentlemen and one man’s lifetime of yearning for a love never realized.
The Last New Yorker opens theatrically in New York City at the Quad Cinema on Friday, February 19, with a national release to follow. For further information: www.lastnewyorker.com.