3rd Street Blackout takes a unique approach to the romantic comedy genre, flipping the script on the formulaic nature of the genre. The film presents realistic characters that are easy to relate with chemistry that doesn’t feel manufactured. I recently talked with co-directors Negin Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf to talk about their influences in nerd culture and the process behind the film.
How did both of you get involved with filmmaking?
[JR]: I started acting in my teens and twenties just as internet video was becoming a thing. While waiting for the phone to ring, I started expressing myself through web content and of the first things I did was a Sarah Palin parody that kind of blew up. From there, I was hooked on the possibility of connecting with massive amounts of people through media.
[NF]: 3rd Street Blackout is actually my fourth film. I got involved in filmmaking through a strange route because I actually started out as a policy advisor for the city of New York. I got a Masters degree in African American studies and another Masters degree in Public Policy. I ended up working for the city as a Policy Analyst, but I was doing stand-up the entire time. I primarily consider myself a stand-up comedian, and then I sort of made these four films on the side of being a stand-up comedian. So yes, I have like a strange background coming into the filmmaking world.
Where did the inspiration for the idea of the film come from?
[JR]: We’ve both had really interesting experiences during the blackout of Hurricane Sandy. For me, it was the first time I met neighbors. Turns out, they’re awesome! New York can be an isolating city and the blackout momentarily showed us another way. It was like time-travel to before we had technological distractions. In making this movie, we wanted to share that feeling with the outside world.
[NF]: I actually live on 3rd Street, So, spoiler alert. A lot of the stuff is just real. I'm actually also a TED fellow. I play a TED fellow in the movie. Although the TED fellow in the movie is a neuroscientist, not a comedian. So that part is fake. I had relationship shenanigans during the blackout after Hurricane Sandy living in the very same apartment that is featured in the movie on 3rd Street. I thought that we would write songs on the piano together, we sort of enjoyed the blackout and made eye contact, and had meaningful discussions, and met all of our neighbors. It was so wonderful and had a kind of heightening of our romance, though the reality is that the relationship with that guy did not work. But, I have moved onto greener pastures since then though I do think he did give me a great premise for a romantic comedy. We left notes on buildings, we were always trying to figure out a way to find each other. I actually know and love a lot of my neighbors. The guy across the street, The Chillmaster's a real character and a real person in my life. He lives across the street, he plays a lot of music outside of his window. The bodega guy appears in the movie is actually the bodega guy from around the corner. A lot of what you see is just real.
You seem to be playing and subverting the normal cliches of the romantic comedy, what led you to this genre and is it something that held a special place in your heart before the film?
[JR]: We started with a story that came organically from our experiences… but as we formalized the script, it became clear that there was a lot of fun to be had and mileage to be gained by playing with the romantic comedy template. At the same time, It feels like there's been a move in comedy away from sincerity and we definitely wanted to honor the rom coms of our youth that weren't afraid to have that genuine tenderness.
[NF]: I feel like I grew up on romantic comedies, so I definitely love them and I also can feel like I can spot the cheese in a romantic comedy from a mile away. So, we wanted to give you the feeling of uplift and you know that gooey feeling of romance, but we also wanted to make sure we stayed away from anything overtly cheesy. I think also, I didn't want to see a female character that was perfect in any way or precious, or just beautiful, instead of being three dimensional. I feel like you see that in sometimes in romantic comedies, and it was important for me to play the lead as a person that I know, as a person that I am. That can be raunchy and ridiculous and silly, but also smart and really accomplished. I feel like it's important to see a woman portrayed that way.
Finding intimacy in a technology obsessed world is a major theme of the film where it takes a literal blackout to get a couple to open up and actually explore their relationship. Do you think technology can be a hindrance in relationships and is there any advice you have for jumping over that potential hurdle?
[JR]: It can go either way. You can send funny snapchats to your boo and also have a healthy, honest relationship. Or you can use your phone to hide in a plethora of ways. To me, it’s about being mindful and making agreements that work for you. For my lady and I, it's agreeing to not have difficult conversations on digital devices, nudging each other if someone isn't present and setting aside analogue time to connect.
[NF]: I actually think it can be a hindrance in relationships. There have definitely been times in my relationships where my boyfriend feels like I'm not paying attention because I'm checking my phone or I feel like he's not paying attention because he keeps checking his phone. I think having rules about putting the phone away and actually having quality time that isn't interrupted is so important in keeping a relationship normal and central. Because the continual interruption of the phone makes it seem like the relationship is secondary and the phone is primary. That's actually something that we've had to work on. We're like "Oh, it's a Saturday that we have together" and we're putting our phone on airplane mode. It's liberating and awesome not to look at it for 24 hours. So I recommend that, for sure.
Some people may be surprised at the inclusion of “rap battles” and reference to Hip-Hop culture in the film, Negin in particularly famously directed the acclaimed documentary about the Nerdcore subgenre Nerdcore Rising. Has Hip-Hop always had a strong influence on your careers?
[NF]: Yeah, as you know I directed the movie Nerdcore Rising and kind of fell in love of different forms of Hip Hop and the ability of Hip Hop to balloon and include so many subgenres and so many voices. I don't know, there's just something about Hip Hop that reminds me of - this is gonna sound ridiculous - the poetry that Iranians live with and grow up with. If you talk to an Iranian, they can liken any situation to a poem written by Rumi or Hafez or somebody from the ancient times. They memorize these poems, they can recite these poems. There's something so Hip Hop about that. When my dad can bust out a poem from Rumi, I'm sort of like that's almost like me busting out a lyric from whoever - Notorious B.I.G or something like that. I feel like I'm naturally drawn to it. Like if Iranians were to reinvent poetry, it would be Hip Hop. That's kind of what I feel like, which again I feel sounds totally ridiculous. But you know, it's a feeling. So yeah, I love the form, I grew up on it and so I feel like it means a lot to also show characters in New York that are surrounded by the birthplace of Hip Hop and what that means to live in New York.
Nerd culture, specifically tech geeks, is a topic not many films have realistically explored especially not romantic comedies, how did you conduct your research for these roles and have you got any feedback from the nerd community so far?
[JR]: My plastic rims aren’t a prop! I dabble in the tech geek world; I’ve worked with startups and have been to a hackathon or two in my day. A lot of my friends have startups and I definitely ran some of the nitty gritty by them. As far as I know, we’ve passed the nerd community test! We’ve shown the movie at a bunch of tech companies and haven’t heard boos! Some folks from the NYC Twitter office came out to the theatrical run and then tweeted about it. If that’s not endorsement, what is?!
[NF]: I think the research that I conducted for myself is twofold. One was making the movie Nerdcore Rising, where I followed a bunch of nerds who rap. I went to stuff like Pax, various kind of nerd conventions. I was around people who were severely into gaming, really into Star Wars figurines, could really tell you the various law behind all of their games and stuff they're obsessed with. That was one of my entree's into the 'Nerd World'. Being a TED fellow gave me access to a ridiculous number of nerds as well. Which is why the main character (of 3rd Street) is a neuroscientist. I've been around so many neuroscientists, and I feel like there's something very excitable about it. I've met geologists, and neuroscientists and bio-tech inventors and just various tech gurus in the TED world and they're really obsessed with what they do. They light up when they talk about it. They can spend years really figuring out what that thing is so I feel like that's been the point of research for being a nerd. Another thing that the TED community has taught me is that they can be really funny, and they're not necessarily the 'anti-social nerds' that we think they are. Some of them are cosmologists, and astrophysicists but that doesn't mean that they can't be funny and ridiculous and get wasted. I found that also to be really interesting from the nerds in the TED Fellows community.
Were there any scenes from the film that you shot but ultimately had to cut from the film that you wish you could have left in?
[JR]: Probably the cell phone orgy? Or maybe the 60-minute long musical number?…Nah, just a ton of funny moments that didn’t work for one reason or another.
[NF]: For me, I feel like I come from the background of doing three documentary features and my goal has always been to take 300 hours of footage and make 80 minutes of movie. Nerdcore Rising came out around 83, and I think The Muslims Are Coming! also came to 83. So I'm sort of like, let's cut it down, let's make it tight, let's make it move. I really love using music and making sure the thing feels paced and dynamic. So, anything we cut, I was ultimately very happy that it was gone. There are a couple of scenes that were fun and a had lot of jokes. We riffed on a thousand different things. Especially the comedians in the movie would just take a moment and give it to you 800 ways, and I wish we could just replay the scene each of those 800 ways. Comedians can be so funny and ridiculous, and it always ends up in a world where monkeys are on space - that's kind of where comedians take everything to which is leads to hilarity. So, there are some of those jokes I wish we could've left in. But at the end of the day, gotta keep it tight!
With an unlimited budget and resources, what project would you tackle?
[JR]: Oooh man. Probably something at the scale of “Boyhood” but times ten.
[NF]: That's a really good question. I have no idea. There's a part of me that want's to do a post-apocalyptic film and that feels like something that's a very big budget movie. I don't know what the premise of my post-apocalyptic film is. Has everyone been wiped out by a virus? Has an asteroid hit the earth or what? I don't know what's it's gonna be but like I feel like I have a post-apocalyptic movie in me and it's probably gonna be on the pricier side.
Finally, can you tell us about what you have lined up next?
[JR]: I’m developing a bunch of new projects on different platforms and getting ready to direct a feature for Radar Pictures.
[NF]: I have a bunch of things lined up concurrently. I just released a book called "How to Make White People Laugh". It's a memoir meet's social comedy manifesto and I've been on the road doing a book tour and doing stand-up around the country in support of the book. It's been fun and exciting as I've never written a book before. Writing a book I liken to a year-long rectal exam, it can be real tough but ultimately gratifying. The other thing that I just launched is a podcast on the Earwolf network called "Fake the Nation". "Fake the Nation" is a political comedy roundtable. It's me and a rotating cast of comedians. We just talk mad shit about the news every week and of course, being in this completely insane election cycle has made the podcast timing very interesting. We have a lot to talk about and a lot of crazy pants shit to investigate. So that's also been fun. In terms of what I have coming next-next, I basically have a show in development so we'll see how that goes. It's safe to say that I'll probably be making another movie because I seem to keep doing that. Otherwise, I'm just doing stand-up. I'm around town and around the country doing stand-up. Which is where this whole thing started.