While walking along St. Nicholas Avenue in the heart of Washington Heights, Jonathan Ullman, who moved to New York City from Los Angeles 14 years ago, began tinkering with an idea.
Ullman, a Chicago native who had spent years working in Hollywood talent agencies, studios, and the film industry saw a story as he walked the streets of northern Manhattan. The question was, how would he tell it?
Throughout the last two years, Ullman began writing a script for a film that took shape as he penned each character’s lines, their stories, and the setting in which their story would unfold.
“GWB” was born. The result of Ullman’s original story is now a full-length feature film from the neighborhood, about the neighborhood, by local neighborhood talent. It has been accepted into the HBO International Latino Film Festival, bringing the Heights into full focus with a story that begins and ends under the George Washington Bridge, an iconic sight that resonates with Northern Manhattanites, and serves as a primary focal point in the plot.
“The bridge is like a guardian angel in this community. It’s a gateway to our city, and it symbolizes a number of ideas. It had to be a major part of the script,” said Ullman.
A still from the film “GWB,” shot in and based in Washington Heights.Pictured actors Raul Esparza and Gabriel Lopez. The movie will premiere at the New York International Latino Film Festival on Fri., Aug. 19th at 10:30 pm.PHOTO:Greg Baker
The film opens as Young Javy, played by Antonio Ortiz, and his friend Robbie, played by Cruz Santiago, bury a bag stuffed with drug money under the Bridge.
That sets the story in motion, as Javy’s older brother Diego, played by Rayniel Rufino, faces those who want their money back. Diego, a young man playing the father figure to his brother while figuring out his own destiny, must protect his small family from danger. As the day turns into night, Diego turns to his neighborhood network to help him, making decisions that will change not just his life, but also that of his loved ones.
Washington Heights native Rayniel Rufino, 25, grew up on Sickles Street. To him, the struggle portrayed in the movie is nothing short of his own reality while growing up in the 90’s.
Today, the actor and musician, who still resides in the neighborhood, said that the changes are very clear. “My block has certainly changed. Washington Heights is a beautiful place…Our people are humble and we’ve worked very hard. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Rufino, a believer that the individual must either choose to “make his own environment, or be made by the environment.”
“Diego’s character shows a very different kind of hero. He gets to make very difficult decisions,” explained Rufino. “At the end, he’s just a guy living in the concrete jungle.”
During approximately three weeks of filming in settings that included neighborhood favorites from El Malecon Restaurant to scenic Haven Avenue, Ullman was careful to try to keep the film accurate. With the help of his cast, Ullman feels he achieved that.
“I really wanted to make sure that we got it right. We wanted the film to have authenticity. Washington Heights’s negative reputation has lingered for too long, and I wanted to…show the other side of things,” said Ullman.
“GWB” will premiere at the 2011 New York International Latino Film Festival on Fri., Aug 19th at 10:30 pm at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square.
Ullman is now working on selling distribution rights for the film hoping to show it in other theaters across the country.