Drawing inspiration from their upbringings is often the most riveting way for filmmakers to create emotional, authentic stories. Up-and-coming filmmaker Aristotle Torres is doing just that with his new drama, ‘Story Ave,’ which marks his feature film directorial debut. The helmer, who also co-wrote the movie’s script with Bonsu Thompson, based the feature on his 2018 short of the same name. For both incarnations of the story, Torres also drew on his early life to contemplate grief in its many forms, as well the socioeconomic realities that defined him by the place where he lived.
Besides penning and directing the feature version of ‘Story Ave,’ Torres also served as one of its producers, alongside Lizzie Shapiro, Datari Turner and Jamie Foxx. The drama stars Asante Blackk, Luis Guzmán, Alex Hibbert, Melvin Gregg, Coral Peña, Cassandra Freeman and Hassan Johnson.
‘Story Ave’ follows South Bronx native Kadir Grayson (Blackk), a teen with artistic talent who’s on the brink of finding and losing himself at the same time. Blinded by the grief of losing his younger brother, Kadir runs away from home. He escapes via the beautifully dark and dangerous world of graffiti.
Kadir’s graf gang, Outside the Lines, consists of street kids with minds as criminal as they are artistic. Desperate to join the gang, Kadir attempts to rob Luis (Guzmán, who also served as an executive producer on the movie), an older Puerto Rican MTA conductor on the titular Story Ave subway platform in the Bronx. Luis offers Kadir the cash he needs if the latter agrees to have a meal with him. For the first time in his life, Kadir entertains the possibility of his artistic talent being a channel to helping him achieve a better life.
‘Story Ave’ had its World Premiere during the Narrative Feature Competition Screening Section of this year’s SXSW. In honor of the film’s premiere, Torres, Blackk, Guzmán and Gregg generously took the time the day before the drama’s premiere screening on March 11 to talk about scribing, helming, producing and starring in the feature during an exclusive interview over Zoom.
Film Factual (FF): Aristotle, you co-wrote the script for the new drama, ‘Story Ave,’ with Bonsu Thompson. The feature is based on the 2018 short you scribed, directed and produced. What inspired you to tell this story on screen, and adapt the short into the feature?
Aristotle Torres (AT): The inspiration for the story came from my upbringing, having grown up in the Bronx. I was surrounded by all of these different subcultures that blend together and create a really unique environment. That was so important in shaping me as an artist and filmmaker. So I took all of these little moments from my life that really inspired me to be the person I am today.
With the short, we shot it in 2018. It’s just the robbery part on the platform and the first conversation in the diner. With the support of Sundance, they helped me develop it into a feature, which is the film that we’re realsing.
FF: For the cast, what inspired you all to take on your roles and star in the movie?
Asante Blackk (AB): For me personally, whenever I get something new across my desk to read, or even a piece of IP that may be turned into something great in the future, I always connect to a piece of material that I can tell was created with a lot of passion. I’m a very passionate person and like to dive all in, so I can tell when the attention to detail is or isn’t there.
Right off the jump, I was all in, after seeing the way that Bonsu and Aristotle were able to create this magnificent literary work with the screenplay. I hopped on the phone with Aristotle a couple of times, and we connected over hip-hop and loving movies.
Those first couple of meetings were really exciting when it came to developing the story. It wasn’t like, oh, let me try this out. I could tell that Aristotle had been thinking about this for awhile and put a lot of himself into it. When you do that, it can either go one of two ways – it can either be really bad or something really phenomenal. So I decided to put all of my trust into this gang right here, and I think that we did make something phenomenal.
Melvin Gregg (MG): For me, I wanted to shoot an independent film in New York in the summertime. So when this project came along, it checked all of those boxes, first and foremost.
I then looked at the script, and the thing that attracted me most to the Skemes character was the fact that I guess you can say he’s the antagonist or anti-hero, but he’s nuanced. He’s not the bad guy barking and yelling. You get an understanding of who and what he is. I can see how in his story and from his perspective, he’s the protagonist. That spoke to how flushed out all of the characters were, and that attracted me to Skemes.
I also found the rest of the film to have an attractive story. It’s an authentic telling of this inner city, coming-of-age tale.
Then I met with Aristotle, and like Asante said, saw how passionate he was about the project. I trusted that he would put his all into telling it, so I wanted to be a part of it.
Luis Guzmán (LG): For me, when I finally got the opportunity to read the script, I thought it was so well-written, passionate and heartfelt. I loved the character of Luis Torres. This is the type of character I love to do.
This young man, Aristotle, was very passionate. We engaged in great conversations about the story. Also knowing that I would be working alongside Asante did it for me.
I’m one of the guys from the ’hood, and I’ve come across these stories in real life. I thought this story was beautifully laid out. I really wanted to be a part of it because it was special. People want to see these kinds of stories coming out of the neighborhood.
I know we have a very dynamic cast and passionate director. We also have that character of New York City. That’s pretty much what drew me in. I thought it was a very beautiful collaboration
FF: Speaking about the fact that ‘Story Ave’ is set and was shot in the Bronx, what was your experience of being able to make this New York City-driven feature?
AB: I think me being in L.A. for the past four years really made me forget how humid it gets on the East Coast! (Blackk laughs.) I also don’t think I could ever anticipate how much we were going to be putting each other through because we were all hot, wearing big jackets, filming a winter-time movie in the summer.
Also adding the intensity of the city to the environment, and being able to go throughout the Bronx and submerge ourselves into the culture, was amazing. Also, me myself not being from New York, but having East Coast roots, I understood how to operate and get deeper into it. That laid a foreground for us to give our best performances and really trust each other.
There’s a difference filming something on a stage for six months (like when he films his television series, including ‘This Is Us’ and the 2019 Netflix crime drama miniseries, ‘When They See Us,’ for which he was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie alongside his co-stars, John Leguizamo and the late Michael K. Williams) and on the grounds with each other. I remember there were times when we would just go to the corner store during the middle of filming just to get a grape soda, which was my thing, or some chicken wings.
Those were things that really made us feel as though we were growing up and able to have a good time in the neighborhood together. For me, it felt less like a movie and more like a family reunion.
FF: Aristotle, as the director and one of the producers on the film, who did you decide where you would shoot the feature? What was your experience of filming the project on location?
AT: Being from the Bronx, it was an honor and a privilege to be able to go back to the place that actually inspired a lot of these moments that are in the film. The train station where Kadir tried to rob Luis is the train station that I took to high school every day. The high school we shot in is actually the high school I went to. I’ve eaten in the restaurant we shot in a bunch of times.
So for me, it was inspiring and nostalgic. It really just reminded me not only why it’s important to tell these kinds of authentic stories, but also reminded me why I wanted to tell it in the first place. Making movies is a very demanding and difficult process, and it takes a lot of self-fortitude. So to be able to go home and see the people that I’m making this movie for really kept me going through the process. It was really inspiring.
LG: Yes, we ran into the real people from the ’hood while we were shooting. So just that element alone was really helpful. But sometimes we even had to go up to certain people and say, “Yo, you have to tone it down. Let’s me nice and do the right thing.” (Torres laughs.)
One day I was up in the Bronx messing around with my friend. Then I looked up and said, “Oh sh*t, we’re on Story Ave!” So I said, “Let’s drive around the neighborhood.” Having that truthful element made me realize, we’ve got this.
That added to my inspiration as my character. Again, we see the real people working in that environment, and it was a wonderful formula to have that.
FF: Once production on ‘Story Ave’ began, were you all able to have rehearsal time together on the locations?
AT: At least from my end, in terms of rehearsals, we didn’t necessarily do rehearsals, per say, but we talked through all the scenes in great detail. We broke down lines and beats, and discussed why I broke down scenes in the way that I did.
That was great, because by the time we were all together, we had all done our individual homework. So it was nice to be able to combine all of that force and find overlap. They would also suggest things to each other. It was great to see the characters and the world evolve in real time when we finally got together in person.
In terms of on the day, we would quickly run through things. But these guys are so talented, we wouldn’t need to do too much of that. Overall, it was a really nice balance of including things that I wrote in the script and having room for spontaneity. They added a lot of great bits, and it all came from that prep work.
FF: Speaking about the improvisation on the set, what was the experience like for the cast to bring your own ideas to the story?
AB: I think there were many moments that were so well developed in the script that it didn’t really feel like improv in the moment, which is why it’s really hard to think of just one instance. I think Aristotle did such a great job creating room for us to just be and live in these spaces together as ourselves.
But then as we come into these characters, it’s a whole other world. We’re able to push the boundaries of what the script is saying because there’s this comfortability and understanding that we built these relationships for a few months before we even went to New York to start prep.
There were so many instances in the movie that were improvised. One that does come to mind, when all of the elements were coming together, is when (the characters of) Moe and Kadir were working on the mural. Two members of the VHS crew roll up on them and start disrespecting them. They were talking about the loss of Kadir’s younger brother.
I remember in that moment, everything on set was kind of chaotic. I’m not going to lie – since it was such an emotional scene, it was a little bit frustrating. But I was able to use that frustration out in the scene.
There’s a moment where I go over to the dumpster and kick it down after they leave. I collapse to the ground and really just start crying. I felt like if there was any moment that could encapsulate all the intensity and the passion that we put into this film, that it would be that one.
Once they called “Cut,” I didn’t stop crying for about 15 minutes. It was just that type of environment where Aristotle was able to come over and console me and make sure I was good.
But it didn’t feel like, oh, I’m about to try this. But in that moment, we were so immersed in the context of this story, and the emotions were already there, so all I had to do was lean in. I’m so grateful that we were able to build an environment that allowed us to do that.
FF: Aristotle, besides directing the dram, you also served as a producer. Why did decide to also produce the movie, and how did you balance your helming and producing duties on the set?
AT: It was very difficult, but I had such an amazing team of support with our production team, which was amazing. So I was put in a position to solely be the director in the moments when we were filming the scenes, and I was able to put all of my attention into that.
It was difficult to do both jobs, but I felt that in order to protect the authenticity of the story, it would be good for me to have a voice at the table besides being the director. I learned a lot from it. Getting to work with these guys also made my life very easy.
FF: ‘Story Ave’ (had) its World Premiere at this year’s SXSW. What did it mean to you all that the film (premiered) at the festival?
AB: I (was) so nervous! But when you really care about something, especially when you’re with a group of people that you have the same shared experience with, especially with the hard work that we put into this movie, it’s so rewarding.
It’s one of those things that I love because I come from a theater background. I don’t come from Broadway or anything, but I did middle and high school theater growing up. That’s all I knew until about three years ago when I graduated high school.
That’s the type of work that I love – the days that are so frustrating, but you know it’s all for a greater purpose. I feel like we’re walking in our greater purpose right now.
LG: Also, there was so much of an emotional investment in this movie. That was the biggest thing for me. My character, especially his relationship with Asante’s character, was so emotional. It showed they really cared about someone and their well-being, based on what they went through in their life.
When you get that kind of emotional attachment and investment, it makes the process, at least for me, so much more beautiful and organic because you really care.
They call it acting, but I call it caring. It’s a real love that we showed up with to do this.
AB: That caring and frustration go hand-in-hand…But I love all these guys. To be able to show up to work and receive lessons from somebody you admire and has been a maestro in this industry, in my opinion, from the jump, isn’t something that you take lightly. It also isn’t something that happens every day. So to not only show up, but also do the work and share those experiences, and know that we’re here now and still going strong, is amazing.