FLATBUSH – If you watch the credits roll at the close of Flatbush Luck, you’ll see actors Tanner Novlan and Robby Stahl listed in the leading roles. But anyone who has seen the film can tell you that the Brooklyn neighborhood that lends its name to the 2016 Coney Island Film Festival’s best-picture winner is one of the stars of the independent romantic comedy.
Executive producer and co-writer James Balletto is the source of the Brooklyn connection, and he explains that the borough was his inspiration for the movie. A film buff who had invested in several films by director Casper Andreas, he initially had no plans for making a movie of his own.
“But then I started getting involved in my old high school, Erasmus Hall, started going to the high school football games,” he said. “And it just hit me—what if I was to somehow weave the school into a script, and that’s really when I got excited about making Flatbush Luck.”
The story finds laid-off Wall Street hotshot Jimmy joining his cousin Max making a meager living repairing phones, struggling to meet the demands of the increasing yuppie clientele in their native Brooklyn. When Jimmy overhears illegal insider trading during a routine house call, he sees an opportunity to profit from his discovery and reclaim his former wealthy lifestyle.
Balletto approached Andreas with the script. The prolific director—Flatbush Luck is his eighth feature—agreed to take on the project. “But he wanted to make changes,” Balleto said. Noting that film is an exception to the cliche that you can’t make art by committee, he explained that they recruited an additional writer, Jed Seidel, to give the story its final form.
“I thought Casper would just tweak it a little, but he made some changes. And then Jed reorganized it. I think we really hit on something, and we didn’t plan it this way. All three of us had a hand in the script, and it really worked out well.”
Brooklyn provides the visual grounding for the movie, with location shooting in Grand Army Plaza, Industry City, Brooklyn Bridge Park as well as Flatbush. And like a difficult star fuming in his trailer on the day of a crucial shoot, the borough created some challenges for the film crew.
“It was a very tight budget, and I asked people to volunteer locations. ‘Can I film on your rooftop? Can I film in your factory?’ And one of the most difficult things about the movie was that people kept dropping out,” said Balletto.
“We had a warehouse that was a food company, and they agreed originally—we were going to put their products in a couple of scenes. Literally a few days before the shoot, they cancel[ed]. I was rushing around like a maniac trying to find a site. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face,” Balletto said.
Brooklyn is more than the setting for Flatbush Luck. In a real sense, it’s the heart of the movie. Characters and their relationships to the neighborhoods illustrate the moral arc of the story. Jimmy’s ethical nadir is his decision to spend the profits from his crime caper on a high-priced condo in gentrifying Williamsburg. And when the wealthy woman he’s pursuing can’t see the beauty of Jimmy’s old high school, Erasmus Hall, he returns to his Flatbush roots for refuge.
“There’s one scene in particular when Jimmy was being dumped by his ex-girlfriend,” Balletto recalled. “It was behind the graveyard of the Dutch Reformed Church on 21st Street and Church Avenue. He turns, he’s so heartbroken, and in the background you see Erasmus Hall High School. Our cinematographer captured it really well. The tall grey headstone you see was actually the grave of a soldier from the Civil War, a native of Flatbush. He was killed in Virginia in 1863 and his body was returned to be buried there and that’s where he remains to this day. It’s a beautifully iconic shot.”
The movie also includes scenes filmed inside Erasmus Hall, one of Brooklyn’s most enduring institutions. It was founded in 1786 as Erasmus Hall Academy. The original wooden building still sits on the campus and is visible in the film. A new series of buildings, designed in 1904 by architect C.B.J. Snyder, is home to such magnificent stained glass windows and sumptuous wood panelling that it’s hard to believe they are in a public school.
Another of the school’s signature features that makes it into the movie is the statue Erasmus cast from a 1622 original and donated to the school in the 1930s. Jimmy pitches pennies into the theologian’s open book, hoping for good luck.
“That is a real practice,” Balletto said, “Students used to throw pennies into the book, and I assume they still do, for good luck. I threw many a penny in the book, before a test, before the Regents.”
Although Erasmus Hall plays a large role in both the plot and setting of Flatbush Luck, you never hear the school’s name in the movie.
“The City of New York on the one hand was very helpful,” said Balletto. “But I had to get permission from the Department of Education to film in the school. They had to approve the script. There were certain prohibitions that I had to adhere to. For example, I couldn’t mention Erasmus. I couldn’t say the name Erasmus, and if you notice, when we showed the school, we were on the steps of the Dutch Reformed Church. I couldn’t do it from the front because it says Erasmus Hall High School over the archway. But if you shoot if from the side, you can’t see it. That’s the rule and I had to adhere to it.”