What to Know
Nick Heller, NYC native, has amassed 138,000 Instagram followers showcasing the people of New York on his account New York Nico
His first long-form film features Big Mike, manager of Astor Place Hairstylist, who has a knack for painting in the storage closet
The film will be screening at Astor Place in Manhattan and can also be seen on Vimeo
New York filmmaker Nick Heller doesn’t want to hear the story of some small town girl who made it big on Broadway. What he wants to hear is the story of the guy who cuddles pigeons in Central Park, or the story of the guy who raps in rollerblades while wearing a wedding dress on a street corner.
Or -- like in his new film -- the story of a burly New York barbershop manager who paints delicate portraits on his lunch break.
Dubbing himself the “unofficial talent scout of New York City”, Heller showcases the real people that make this city so unique through his wildly popular Instagram handle New York Nico, which has amassed around 138,000 followers.
From subway dancers, musicians, artists, comedians and simply iconic personalities like Larry the Birdman, followers get to see the New York City that Heller sees through his eyes, and get to feel like they know these people just as well as he does.
“I make films for a living, but the Instagram was something I just did for fun, something I could do quickly on my phone, just pull it out and shoot a quick clip,” Heller said. “And I decided to sort of cross over, and take my skills as a filmmaker and create something that I’m very passionate about out of the characters that I met through my Instagram.”
He finds stories everywhere. On the street, in parks, in convenience stories, even in a barbershop he had been frequenting for years. What started out as a regular hair cut at Astor Place Hairstylists, a place he had been going to since he was eight years old, turned into inspiration for his first long-form film -- the story of Michael "Big Mike" Saviello, which debuted this past Monday.
“Astor Place is just an iconic New York establishment. I’ve been getting my hair cut there since I was eight or nine, and I’ve always known who Big Mike is, since he’s been the manager there for about 40 years,” Heller said.
“One day, I go to use the restroom, and I stumbled upon this storage room full of art work, and who do I see but Big Mike, in an undershirt, painting a Van Gogh-inspired painting, and I just thought it was the craziest thing ever.”
The unlikely discovery was to become the subject of Heller's new film.
Over the course of two years, Big Mike and Heller became close friends as the filmmaker learned more about how Mike picked up his high school hobby of painting, and started creating heavily textured, 3-D portraits of everything from his wife -- who is the muse of a majority of his paintings -- to other icons like Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, and even Nick himself.
Big Mike takes an hour lunch break every day, where he grabs a bottle of red wine and a sandwich, and heads to the storage room. He then always changes into his “painting shirt,” a camouflaged sleeveless undershirt, and paints for the hour. In Heller’s 12 minute film, we get to see an intimate part of Big Mike’s life -- refreshing and sometimes unexpected.
“I wanted to make this film because it has three super attractive elements. One, you have character, you have Bike Mike. Once you put a camera on him, you get this vivacious, bubbly, charming guy,” Heller said. “Two, location. It’s Astor Place, a classic spot. Everyone knows it. And three, is story. You have this inspiring story where Bike Mike starts painting so much later in life and its something he commits to. He’s New York’s bet kept story.
Although Heller’s film debuted on Monday, a screening of “Big Mike Takes Lunch” will be screened at Astor Place come November 17th, with Mike’s first major art show set to take place directly after. For Heller, this is just the start of more long form films that highlight the unique stories he’s been able to witness as he’s grown up in New York City.
“I think this is definitely going to be the first of many,” Heller said, “because I had such a fun time doing it, because the Instagram stuff and videos are cool, but it doesn’t really have a life of its own off the platform. This is something that I feel like can live on its own, and continue telling a story for more than just a moment of time.”
Click here to check out Heller’s film “Big Mike Takes Lunch”.