The photograph montage at the beginning of Apostles of Park Slope puts us in a sentimental mood. The pictures are of Mary, an all-around fabulous woman who loves football, cooking, church, and the kids, in her Park Slope neighborhood. The kids are all adults now, but that doesn’t stop her son, Mike (Edward Heegan) from going into shock and depression when she dies. Mike’s sister, who lives in Florida and has her own family as well as a head on her shoulders, takes charge of the funeral arrangements while Mike stands by mute and paralyzed. In addition to trying to mourn her mother in a composed fashion, Mike’s sister worries about her brother, who hasn’t left the house since their mother died.
Apostles of Park Slope
Fortunately, Mike has a myriad of neighborhood buddies waiting to step in and cheer him up, and when they enter the scene, sentimental time is over. It is not immediately obvious why these people would be of any comfort to anyone. After the funeral, they hang out together in a room. They make obscene jokes and insult each other mercilessly. They do not come across as the kind of friends most of us would like to depend on, but in Apostles of Park Slope, director and co-screenwriter Jason Cusato demonstrates how truly valuable they are.
Cusato says Apostles isabout friendship, but it is more specifically a movie about friendship in Brooklyn. The film is based on a true story and all the characters are modeled after people in Cusato’s life. He told me that he wanted to make a movie about them for sometime, but was waiting for the right opportunity. The inspiration for this project was a specific dinner after the real-life Mike’s mother had died. His buddies decided to take him out to dinner, and also invited Father Paul, a priest at the local church. Cusato said, he knew it was material for a screenplay.
He wrote that screenplay, but when production started, he took an unconventional approach. He brought his actors together for hours of pre-shooting improvisation rehearsal. They sat down to “dinner” together, and became friends. They had the opportunity to meet Cusato’s real friends for character study, and two of his old buddies volunteered to appear in the film despite never having acted. During rehearsals, the actors themselves wrote most of the film’s dialogue.
The method worked out. The longest scene in the movie takes place at the dinner table at an Italian restaurant, and the flow, as well as the dynamic between the characters, is flawless. The boys are vulgar, goading, drink a lot and show absolutely no respect for Father Paul (Nick Freni), who earnestly hopes that if he plays along, the men at the table will turn into church-goers. There are some genuinely funny moments, but for the most part, I felt like I was at the restaurant, eavesdropping on the table next to me. From the outset, the film is loaded with plot points: a man can’t recover from the death of his mother, there’s a priest getting wasted, and a few men having marital problems. However, during the dinner, nothing happens in the sense of character development or narrative arc. The only thing I was really invested in was the arrival time of the main course.
The most compelling part of the dinner scene is a side story about the restaurant’s owner, played by Joe Corrao, whose Old World father (also on staff at the restaurant) won’t speak to him because he re-married, to a non-Italian. This story was also developed during rehearsal by Corrao, who was dynamic and memorable in his supporting role. Corrao was able to be a character actor and play a strong intention, and his interactions with the men at the table help to move the movie along at times when it runs the risk of dragging.
The film’s authentic charm also provides another source of momentum. A woman in the screening audience put it perfectly when she raised her hand and said: “Thank you for bringing back Brooklyn.” This production company, Park Slope Films, has made a commitment to doing neighborhood movies. In Apostles, we’re drawn in to a world largely drowned out by Mommy bloggers and posh 20-somethings. Eavesdropping on this table of friends was enthralling, and Cusato clearly has a talent for portraying friendships in a way that is part voyeuristic, part anthropological.
It is also part social experiment. The bond he fostered between his cast helped them endure the long filming process for which they were unpaid. Cusato could only shoot on the weekends when the restaurant they used as a set was closed. The dichotomy is unusual: one long scene with no breaks, shot over months and months with long breaks. Set designers had to be fastidious in making sure nothing on the table ever moved and film editors had to ensure that shots matched up.
And the actors had to make sure that their relationships with each other didn’t change. The bond created during the improvisational rehearsals clearly stuck. Not only did the movie itself feel natural, but when they got up on stools for a post-screening Q&A, the connection between them continued to radiate. They were comfortable with each other, invested in the project, and seemed proud, not bitter about the grueling rehearsal and shooting process. And unlike me, they didn’t seem bothered by the fact that the main course takes forever to arrive.