Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire Hits NY Streets--and U.S. Theaters--With "Asphalt City"
Tye Sheridan (l) and Sean Penn in a scene from "Asphalt City" (photo courtesy of Vertical/Roadside Attractions)
Feature immerses itself in the world of paramedics; cast headed by Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan; filmmaker reunites with cinematographer David Ungaro

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire immersed himself in New York and the world of paramedics--spending nearly a year in the back of ambulances as part of extensive first-hand research--so that he could create a similarly immersive experience for the viewers of his film, Asphalt City (Vertical/Roadside Attractions), which goes wide with its U.S. release today (3/29). The film bowed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival under the title Black Flies, adapted from Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel of the same title which depicted what a young paramedic experienced in Harlem in the 1990s. The coming-of-age story introduces us to Ollie Cross, who must deal and cope with the daily violence of NYC as he hopes to save lives. The work takes its toll on him in varied ways.

Sauvaire, who also served as a producer on the film, sought out Tye Sheridan to portray Cross, deeming the actor pivotal to the narrative. The director also enlisted two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn who plays seasoned, hardened paramedic Gene Rutkovsky. Cross is assigned to the NYC night shift with Rutkovsky as his partner. They acclimate to each other with Cross having the additional task of orienting himself to a daunting job that runs the emotional gamut from harrowing to inspiring and even at times heartfelt. Rutkovsky becomes a quasi-mentor while he too grapples with the complexities of his own life. It’s a story that is marked by both ethical ambiguity and at times clarity in the midst of a job that is unrelentingly chaotic.

Sauvaire was drawn to the story in part as “a way to get inside the city,” noting that “you don’t call 9-1-1 if everything’s fine,” meaning that through the film he could connect with a part of NYC life that most “can’t really see.”  Riding in those ambulances, he gained access to diverse families, ethnicities and languages--and the at times brutal reality of EMTs. “I wanted to translate all this into a movie. I love translating life experiences into movies.” For Asphalt City, that entailed “the reality of the patients,” many with no insurance, no way to go to the hospital until the last moment--as well as the lives of paramedics who are brought into these people’s worlds at a crucial juncture.

Maintaining some semblance of decent mental health is difficult for paramedics, continued Sauvaire, pointing out the impact of “the lives you can’t save, seeing someone die in front of you.” It’s difficult to navigate such a road and survive. For Sauvaire, the question emerged of “how do you film secondary trauma?” How do you do justice to what paramedics endure?

Sauvaire said the performances of Sheridan and Penn--who both spent extended time with actual EMTs on duty--went a long way in terms of conveying that human experience along with the inhumanity they confront. Sauvaire also credited, among others, cinematographer David Ungaro, AFC. Sauvaire described himself as “a French guy shooting in the streets of the U.S.,” citing Ungaro as making that a creatively fulfilling experience with his acumen helping the director realize his goal of “capturing the reality of the scene and the streets” along with the “movement and energy” of New York.

Attesting to their collaborative success was Asphalt City garnering a 2023 Camerimage Golden Frog nomination, shared by Sauvaire and Ungaro. It’s the second such nod from Camerimage for the director and DP, the first coming in 2018 for A Prayer Before Dawn, which also earned Ungaro a British Independent Film Award nomination for Best Cinematography.

Sauvaire said he was also blessed with a great cast on Asphalt City. Additional cast members included Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston, Mike Tyson and Kali Reis.

Sauvaire also found the Cannes Film Festival experience gratifying, relating that no matter whether people like or don’t like a film, thought and conversation are generated through the live audience dynamic. Sauvaire loves that aspect of the fest as a film can shine a light “on institutions you don’t want to see.” In the case of Asphalt City, that includes the healthcare system in the U.S., patients and families from marginalized communities, and first responders who sacrifice even more than we know as evidenced, for example, by an inordinately high suicide rate among paramedics.

Asphalt City adds to a feature filmography for Sauvaire which began with the 2004 documentary Carlitos Medellin. It told the story of a young Colombian boy who sets out to save his neighborhood from war and violence. The film garnered critical acclaim, was selected to screen in a number of international film festivals and won Best Film for Children’s Rights at the Human Rights International Film Festival.

Four years later, Sauvaire wrote and directed Johnny Mad Dog, his first narrative feature which he co-produced with Mathieu Kassovitz. The film was an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongola, which follows the journey of a small militia of child soldiers during a civil war in Africa. It was presented in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and it was awarded the Prix de l’Espoir.

In 2012, Sauvaire directed Punk, a television movie for French/German channel Arte. Based on Boris Bergmann’s best-seller, with Béatrice Dalle, Paul Bartel and Marie-Ange Casta, Punk was selected to screen at the international film festivals of London, Montréal, Zurich and La Rochelle with the latter presenting Sauvaire with its Best Director Award.

In 2017 Sauvaire directed the aforementioned A Prayer Before Dawn based on Billy Moore’s eponymous memoir. Joe Cole played the lead character, fighting for his life in one of Thailand’s most ruthless prisons. The film was an official selection for the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Cole won Best actor at the British Independent Film Award for his performance. 

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