colin tunstall: Can you tell us a little about your new film, “Big Mike Takes Lunch,” and how it all came about?
nicolas heller: Well I’ve been going to Astor Place ever since I was like eight or nine years old to get my haircut, but I never really made friends with any of the staff there. It’s a very intimidating place. It’s very New York. Everyone there is grinding and trying to make their money. So I never became friendly with anybody.
ct: In your video you seem pretty friendly, but maybe that’s because you’ve developed that relationship?
nh: Totally. It’s what you make of it. When I was a kid, I would get my hair cut there and just be on my way, so I never spoke to anybody. But about three years ago, I reached out to them on Instagram and just told them that I’d been getting my haircut there forever and I appreciated their business. So they were like, “Oh come in, we’ll give you a behind the scenes tour of the spot” (laughs).
ct: And that was Mike?
nh: No, this was my current barber, Jeff, who was not my barber at the time. So I went in, Jeff gave me a tour and introduced me to everybody, and sure enough, everyone was super friendly, very funny, and vivacious. He introduced me to Mike, who I just remember as being the grumpy man who greets you when you walk in.
ct: And is the idea of kind of the end result of what you did? Or is it kind of something that slowly matured over a long period of time?
nh: So I met Mike, and we weren’t friends or anything, and one day I was getting my hair cut—this was like a year and a half ago—and on the walk into the bathroom after I got my haircut, I see the storage area is open. I poked my head in and I saw Big Mike there with an undershirt on painting a Van Gogh-inspired Notorious BIG piece. I was fascinated, because I just knew this guy as the grumpy dude who greets you. So I started talking to him, and he was super friendly and open about his art. It turned out that he had just started painting. He was painting a lot when he was in high school, but then he had a family, had other distractions along the way and picked it back up a year and a half ago and decided to just do it on his lunch break. When I saw him painting the Biggie he had just been doing it for like a couple weeks. It was really good, so I decided to come back and check on him every now and then. I like going to Astor Place a lot especially during the winter when it’s cold. It’s like a museum in there. I love the people. I just sit and hang out and get warm. Every time I went I’d just check up on Mike and his progress was insane, both in terms of skill and quantity. Because like I said he only paints on his lunch break for 45 minutes a day. It gives him something to look forward to. But over the course of like a year and a half, fast forward to today, he has like 60 to 70 paintings and he’s still working out of the storage area. He’s turned it into a little gallery.
ct: Was his purpose to sell them?
nh: No not at all. He’s 56 or 57, and he’s always wanted to paint but he just thought that he didn’t have the time because he works at Astor Place like six days a week, 10 hours a day, and then he commutes four hours total every day because he lives in Pennsylvania. Then one day he found a canvas on the street and took it as a sign. He brought the canvas in and he had a photo of his wife that he really liked, so he just started painting. The rest is kind of history. About a month and a half ago, you know what—It’s funny because, I didn’t even realize this until just now, but I kind of did exactly what his whole message was. For a living I make branded content and commercials, and the reason why I’ve never really done a passion project is that I use the excuse that I don’t have time.
ct: That’s a great message. A lot of people in New York could take a cue from that. Nobody has time here.
nh: Exaclty, but the fact of the matter is, you make time. And that’s what I did. I made time to make this documentary, and I couldn’t be happier. I do my Instagram stuff and that’s like my creative outlet, but there’s only so much I can do with Instagram posts. The Instagram account has a life of its own, but the posts themselves are telling you what I think are pretty grabbing stories of people, in like 60 seconds, but they don’t live beyond when I post them. Maybe a day or two, but I feel like a legitimate film has a longer shelf life. So we made the film and put out. It all happened pretty quickly, probably within a month.
ct: And you got a painting of yourself!
nh: Yeah, Big Mike painted me.
ct: (Laughs) I mean I didn’t cry, but I felt that part. It felt good. It felt real.
nh: (Laughs) Well I’ll try to make you cry in the next one.
ct: So going back to your Instagram account, which is how I found out about this obviously, can you walk me through how that started and how that’s led up until now. Do you feel like there’s pressure to keep that going now that it’s becoming something bigger?
nh: Well the Instagram started a few years ago. I was making these short documentaries about New York City street characters. I was doing a series called “No Your City.” My first season was with Gothamist, the second season I think I put out on my own. But they were these five-minute documentaries that are similar to what I did with Big Mike. Just not as fleshed out. Each episode profiled a different New York City street person, like Larry the Bird Man or Wendall the homeless fashion designer. I put this series out and no one was really watching them. I was bummed because I was really stoked on the people and the stories.
ct: No one was watching?
nh: I mean not as many people as I would like. So I was trying to find more ways to get eyeballs on them. I had the idea to create an Instagram where I would feature the same people, but it would only be in 15-second increments. I assumed it would be more palatable than sitting down at your computer or watching a five-minute-long piece on YouTube. And sure enough, I was right. People took to it.
ct: Now with the growth of these views, was it all organic or was it coming in big chunks from certain people calling out certain things?
nh: It was pretty organic and fairly gradual. There are some videos that kind of went viral and grew a pretty big following, but other than that it’s been a pretty gradual climb.
ct: It’s cool that you get to kind of circle back to that starting point of those initial videos and kind of see results that you hoped for, just that they came in a different way.
nh: Totally. I mean I’ve also grown a lot as a filmmaker since then so I think my work is a lot better. The stuff I was putting out then was super rushed. I was more into the idea of quantity. I would put out like eight episodes a season so I’d really just like to get through it. With this, I took a little bit more time on it and also tried to refine my craft, so just the fact that it’s a better product and the fact that I have a built-in following helped a great deal.
ct: For me personally it’s great because having grown up outside of the city and coming in my whole life, there’s just this feeling that the city’s changed so much. And you get nostalgic about certain things and become jaded or whatever. It’s good to see those things still alive, and there’s still some beauty in it going unnoticed. But sometimes those things just need to be highlighted. You seem to be doing a good job at that.
nh: Yeah, I mean another reason why I started the Instagram is that I wanted to like keep an archive of what’s going down.
ct: So you’re a born and raised New Yorker right?
ct: And apparently one of our designers had one your parents as a teacher?
nh: (Laughs) Yeah, I have two lovely artistic parents. They’re both graphic designers. So I kind of went on a different route. But just growing up in New York with two artistic parents, I had an interesting upbringing. Having family dinners with other well-known New York City artists—I mean everyone you can think of. My Dad was the art director for The New York Times for 35 years, so he got the careers of a lot of household names started. I grew up with those people, and I didn’t realize they were like superheroes in the design and art communities until I grew up. But I think that obviously had, whether I know it or not, a lasting impression on me.
ct: Yeah, just curious because, do you appreciate that? I mean you clearly have invested your time and energy and your thought process to highlighting parts of your upbringing. But the conversation could easily be the opposite. You could take it for granted.
nh: Totally. I took it for granted probably up until senior year of college. Then people started saying, “Oh your parents are so and so? Oh that’s awesome. They’re big in the art community.” So I thought Oh, OK…cool.
nh: If so and so thinks you’re cool then you must be cool. So just having creative parents gave me a license to experiment creativity like this. There was a period in high school where tagging was really big.
ct: I think that’s still a thing (laughs).
nh: I mean it was BIG at the time. So I would go out and tag the city and my parents knew about it and they were fine because it was artistic.
ct: Also seeing people like Kaws or JR transition their craft into businesses…
nh: Yeah totally! They were thinking, “OK, maybe it’ll turn into something that will make him money.” In my film classes I made some very fucked up films. Stuff that really concerned people. But they let me get away with it in the name of art.
ct: That’s awesome. Any ideas of what’s next?
nh: I never really knew how to answer that question. But I think I know now. That was a question that I would get during every interview I’ve ever done, and I never really knew how to answer it because Instagram was always for fun. You asked me something earlier and I didn’t answer the question, but you asked if there was any pressure. I try not to feel any pressure because I’m doing it for fun. I’m going to take it one step at a time and I might keep it going or I might decide on something else. I think the most important thing is just to keep it organic, keep it fun. Right now I’m exploring the hybrid of characters from my Instagram and documentary filmmaking. I’m really intrigued by that. Just based on like response that the film is getting, I’m really excited to do more stuff like that.
ct: Did you put the film out and just let it live on its own? Or did you have to kind of manually massage it and take it places and fill out entry forms and get it into festivals?
nh: I don’t know man I’m new to this (laughs). I put it out there and expected that people would watch it because of my following. I knew that I would send it around to some outlets, but I didn’t know if anyone would actually post about it. In the first two days I was getting some positive feedback here and there from my Instagram followers. But it wasn’t getting a lot of views for the most part. It was a little discouraging, but within the past two days NBC Today did a piece about and tomorrow Vice is doing a piece about it. It got a Vimeo Staff Pick and it’s gotten a ton of views. People are covering it now and we haven’t even had a screening of it yet. That’s crazy because I was very discouraged. I was like, “OK, no one’s gonna fuckin care.” This is just another piece of content that people are going to forget about. But people really love it and it just keeps growing. So we’ll see what happens. I feel like this particular film has an interesting character at an amazing location and a great story that ties those two things together. The location is Astor Place and you can meet all of the other characters at Astor Place and you learn about its history and then his story. Then the fact that this amazing character has his lunch break and paints late in life is very inspiring. Stuff I’ve done in the past has only had one of those three things.
ct: Those are three obviously very integral parts, but I also say that it seems like your storytelling. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot since you started that project and how to tell a story. So it is a great story and a great location and a great guy, but to take that package in the right direction is an art form in itself. So you have to have that as well.
nh: I felt like I’ve never included myself or my voice in my documentary before. But I came to realize that like the whole fly on the wall thing is supposed to be more natural, but in reality it’s unnatural. Because if someone knows the camera’s there, they’re going to act a certain way. But the fact that I included myself and all the outtakes, I feel like it makes it more natural. You can learn more about the character that way. Also it’s a very personal story. Our relationship is very genuine, so I figured him giving me the painting was something that I should’ve included in that.■