If you were living downtown in 2013, you probably remember the strange suspended week of superstorm Sandy. Maybe you lined up at a pay phone, or held up your iPad at that weird 3G oasis on Houston Street, or scooped up half-melted ice cream at the deli, or drank warm beer with your neighbors on Halloween. The storm wreaked havoc downtown (and caused much more destruction in other areas of the city), but for many people in secure locations, it was also a respite from the constant stream of tweets, emails and phone calls, and a chance to reflect, reconnect, and maybe even hook up (just think of the many kids named “Sandy” nine months later).
Now, a budget indie film by Negin Farsad (a comedian also known for The Muslims are Coming, a documentary and hilarious MTA ad campaign) and Jeremy Redleaf (a filmmaker and creative consultant), uses that week as the backdrop for a couple facing a major relationship hurdle. 3rd Street Blackout, which opens tonight at Village East Cinemas and plays through May 5, captures the unique floating feeling of having to navigate an electricity desert during that week and brings to life the enduring neighborliness of the East Village and New York.
The characters in the film, hacker Rudy and tech-geek neuroscientist Mina, have been living together for a year. They seem comfortably secure, but when Mina visits California for a TED talk, she gets liquored up by a charming VC (Jeremy from The Mindy Project). When Rudy finds out during the blackout, he questions the relationship and takes off for Brooklyn. Without any electricity, Mina must track him down the old-fashioned way– and convince him of her love.
With their film set to release tonight, we called up Farsad and Redleaf for a chat– and learned about their memories of blackout week, what it’s like to be “maybe the first Muslim lead in a rom-com not affiliated with terrorism,” and more.
Jeremy Redleaf: I was on 39th Street, literally the last block without power, so when I looked right uptown, I saw this bustling metropolis. And then to my left was this strange wasteland. And 40th Street was also where people would come to charge their phones, so I was in the lobby of the Westin Hotel charging up all day. And it was just sort of a tale of two cities, it was really interesting. And it was the first time I met my neighbors. I had all these awesome neighbors that I didn’t know existed, and then when we were forced to talk to each other it turns out we actually became friends and to this day still hang out.
Negin Farsad: I actually live on 3rd Street and I had a boyfriend at the time and we had like these romantic shenangins and we were housing two evacuees from Avenue D. The four of us were hanging out and the lights go out and we didn’t know what to do, because we were all planning to binge watch. (You know, that’s what you do.) We didn’t know what to do with ourselves and literally started making up dumb songs on the piano. And that’s why you hear us making up dumb raps in the movie on the piano, because that’s sort of literally what happened.
JF: We both had these interesting experiences and we started writing just after that. It seemed like, someone is going to make a movie during such a weird time, and we wanted to be the ones to do it. And lights-off/lights-on seemed like a really interesting structure for a romantic comedy.
NF: You’re in suspended reality when the lights are off. What happens? What kinds of chaos ensues—or magic? And then the lights kind of come on and you’re like, okay, we lived through that, now here we are.
There were also hundreds of think pieces at that time, about people being like: “I lived in the blackout with the kids and their iPads stopped working and I actually had to play with them, oh my god.” You had to experience what it was like to be in your family without the digital crutch and what that meant.
JR: In both movie and real life I did not shower. It was actually kind of freeing…and I really enjoyed that.
NF: I was that the Library Bar on that Halloween night. And this was one of the things that didn’t come in the movie, was Halloween night blackout– all the bars were just candle operated, serving warm beers. The funny thing is, people showed up wearing Halloween costumes and it was one of those totally “this is perfect” things, where it was like, crazy Halloween costumes in a blackout, in a candlelit space.
NF: That’s kind of what’s extra wonderful, I think, about the blackout, is that it was such a great opportunity for looting, it was such great opportunity for murder, it was such a great opportunity for all sorts of real terrible things to go down. And what we saw, were people bonding together and not doing horrible things and instead helping their neighbors and that was something that was unexpected for a lot of people. I remember that first day in the East Village, musicians just came and dotted the entire area, playing the banjo and the guitar and whatever– because the East Village was quiet, I guess, and it just needed some music and they are like I’m just going to do my civic duty and play music.
NF: There’s so much sadness about New York right now, that the millionaires are taking over and it’s so expensive to live here. And all those things are true, and we feel the pinch as low-life filmmakers and comedians. It is, it’s really hard. But at the same time like, I live in the East Village and I see weird, fucking batshit, cool, crazy, quirky, nutty shit every day. What I want to do is preserve that cool, weird stuff so the millionaires don’t take that away from us.
JR: Seeing this move is the best thing you can do to stop gentrification…political action!
NF: Unlike my character, I actually love my neighbors…there’s [many] of my neighbors actually in the movie because I harass them constantly. And one of the neighbors wrote a song in the movie, he’s in the movie playing in that band in the bar. The chill master across the street is an actual person, he plays music out of his window all summer long, everybody loves it, everybody expects it, he’s real. He makes a cameo in the movie with the actor who plays him. The bodega guy is real, the dry-cleaner guy is in the movie…all these characters are really near and dear to me, so we just wanted to show this quirky, diverse East Village fantasia.
Like you said, in the movie, the main character, Mina, doesn’t seem very comfortable with the neighbors at first–it’s more her boyfriend Rudy who seems to know everyone and she is kind of the awkward interloper.
JR: Part of Mina’s arc is about realizing that her attention is in the wrong place and she’s not really present in her life and relationship and we wanted to show Rudy was connected with his community. Mina didn’t get that experience until the blackout, and that’s what she gets from the blackout…realizing the value of relationships not all about ambition, it’s also about the mushy, gushy stuff.
NF: I think from a larger social standpoint, it’s harder to hate people once you know them. I think a lot of fringe ideology that is developed—maybe some Trump supporters talking about hating Muslims, hating Mexicans, is because they don’t know any Muslims, they don’t know any Mexicans and it’s easy for them to develop this kind of hate for people they don’t know. And I’m a Muslim, it’s important for people to see I’m a mainstream Muslim figure, being human, because they are not presented in that way. This is maybe the first Muslim lead in a rom com who is not affiliated with terrorism in any way. It’s trying to normalize the presence of this ethnic person in a mainstream format.
NF: Oh my god, there’s so much begging involved. Every time you raise money, like a small piece of your soul dies because it is humiliating. You can’t worry about it, you just have to know that your cup of humiliation is gonna be worn down by the end. You’re going to have to build yourself up back from dust once the process is over because it’s really about just going out and trying to raise money.
And the the funny thing is it just sort of never ends. Because once your film is out, or your tweet is out, or your Instagram photo is out, people will take absolutely any excuse to hate you. It doesn’t event matter who you are, you know, you’re just going to get vile internet YouTube comments, vile hate mail and vile death threats and rape threats— especially if you’re a woman in the field. But I think after all of it I learned personally to be like…andddd that person is having a bad day or they’re crazy or they get off on it. Like, they are literally masturbating because they made you feel bad, so don’t let them make you feel bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed.