Asphalt City – Exploring the grueling lives of emergency medical technicians

Sauvaire concocts a visceral and immersive thriller out of the complex and grueling lives of grueling lives of emergency medical technicians and the everyday people they live to save and the everyday people they live to save in Asphalt City (originally titled Black Flies) is a 2023 American thriller drama film directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and written by Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown, based on the 2008 novel Black Flies by Shannon Burke.

Ryan King is a New York-based screenwriter, playwright, and actor who grew up in Austin and Round Rock, TX. His screenplay Black Flies, about a paramedic’s first grueling year on the job, was selected for the 2018 Black List of most popular unproduced screenplays. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and the Yale Drama School.

In Asphalt City Upstart paramedic Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) courses through adrenaline-fueled nights in an ambulance for the New York City Fire Department in Brownsville, Brooklyn while spending days studying for med-school exams in a Chinatown hovel. Working alongside seasoned first responder Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), Cross discovers firsthand the chaos and awe of a job that careens from harrowing to heartfelt, and occasionally stretches into ethical ambiguity.


You’re a Frenchman based in New York City. How did you come to settle in Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn fourteen years ago. I’ve always been fascinated by the city, and visited a few times
as a tourist, but after my first feature, Johnny Mad Dog, played in Cannes in 2007, I had American agents
reach out to me and thought it would be wise to move to New York, and shoot a movie there. I knew the
city mostly from movies—Scorsese, Ferrara, Friedkin, Schlesinger, Lumet, Cassavetes, and their cinematic depictions of subways, bridges and sirens, which we wove into ASPHALT CITY. I wound up buying an abandoned house in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn and tried to make an English-language experimental film based on Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles set inside my damaged house. I couldn’t find the money to make that movie, but from the moment I moved into the neighborhood, I wanted to capture what I felt to be the real New York, with its incredible diversity, vivid texture, and incredible soundscapes. And also its relationship to both violence and hope.

How did Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel ASPHALT CITY come your way?

After A Prayer Before Dawn was released, producers sent me this book set in 1990s Harlem, based on the
experiences of an ambulance paramedic working the night shift. I read it and thought it would be a great
way to go deeper into New York City. I was intrigued that it was based on the author’s real experiences as
a paramedic, and I connected quickly with the protagonist. But the novel is different from the film we
made – it’s set in Harlem in the ‘90s that was more about the so-called crack epidemic. I didn’t want to do
a period piece and recreate the past. In my films, I like to capture the world and the reality as it is now.

Talk about shooting in Brooklyn.

My neighborhood in Bushwick hasn’t changed much, especially underneath the elevated train tracks,
which still looks like the New York City of The French Connection. In fact the Chinese takeout restaurant
in ASPHALT CITY was previously the bar that Friedkin filmed in back in the early ‘70s. We filmed around New Utrecht Avenue in South Brooklyn, where the chase scenes in The French Connection were filmed. In a way we’re paying homage to that movie, and the New York of that movie.

How did you update Shannon’s story to make it your own?

The central dynamic between upstart paramedic Ollie Cross and his more seasoned superior Gene
Rutkovsky was already there, and I liked their relationship; it’s faithful to the book. What we changed
besides the New York City borough and the time period in which it’s set was the origin of Rutkovsky’s
trauma; in the book it was the Vietnam War and in the movie it’s 9/11. This made sense in the context of
our story because so many emergency workers in New York City were affected by 9/11, directly or
tangentially. I thought it would be interesting to build a character out of that trauma. Also, in the book the ‘enemy’ was crack cocaine. In this film, the ‘enemy’ is a broken healthcare system. I wanted to explore
how the American healthcare system is a form of social violence perpetrated on the many of these same
communities.

How did you come to cast Tye Sheridan in the lead role?

The first actor that came to my mind after I read the book was Tye Sheridan, so I met with him and we
started working on the project—he’s also a producer on the movie. Then in 2018 I called Shannon Burke
and he came to New York so that Tye, the screenwriter and I could follow him around Harlem where he
worked. Tye thought it was good to have a sense of Shannon’s routine—the steps he took and the life he
led when he was a paramedic. He was very committed to the part. By experiencing this story through
Tye’s character eyes, we begin to understand how can resist the violence that, initially, hits him full-on.
How not to lose faith in humanity and be tempted by violence. But rather how to fight it, and as his sworn
oath, to try to heal it. To be there to accompany souls to the other side if needed, and sometimes to have
the privilege of saving them.

Describe your own research process for this movie.

In order to make a film as authentic and realistic as possible I needed to immerse myself in the world of
New York City paramedics, I needed to get inside those ambulances and ride along with the first responders. But it was difficult because the FDNY is very bureaucratic. I was lucky because Oscar Boyson, who produced Good Time, put me in touch with Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, where I met Eric Cardamone, chief of emergency services. He was enthusiastic about our project because nobody has made a paramedic movie set in New York City since Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead in 1999. He told me his story, described his routine and allowed me to sit in the back of the ambulance and observe. The hours were typically 7pm to 7am and I rode along for two years. I was determined to pay tribute to their bravery, dedication, and passion for their profession in the face of a completely broken American healthcare system.

What was interesting to you about the paramedic’s life in New York City?

It was the rhythm of life, and their world. Cinema for me is based on rhythm, the way you shoot, edit, and
use music—this is how you find your movie. I wanted to capture the frenetic stop-start rhythm of
paramedic’s lives, the rush of adrenaline, then the unpredictable downtime, the experience of losing all
sense of temporality, slipping out of comfort zones, not knowing what day it is. Every night on the job is
dangerous and stressful—you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you enter into these intimate
situations with vulnerable people from every conceivable background. They are guardian angels of the
city, who put their lives on the line every day to help others. I found myself casting and scouting along
the way, meeting people, hearing different languages, and experiencing new cultures. The New York City
I discovered through my research was like the Tower of Babel with its diversity.

Where is your story set, specifically?

The story plays out in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, which Wyckoff
Heights Medical Center serves for emergency calls. Most of the calls depicted in the movie were based on
actual experiences around Brooklyn, including the shooting victim in the opening scene. These
neighborhoods for me feel like a fast vanishing side of New York. Bushwick and nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant have become gentrified, but East New York and Brownsville have remained working-class
and predominantly Black and Latino.

Many of the actors in this movie are non-professionals. How did you find them?

I’ve always tried to cast as many non-professionals as possible, and for ASPHALT CITY I wanted to cast
people from my neighborhood. To also give them a voice and the possibility of sharing their own
experince of life. I used to own a cabaret in Bushwick that attracted artists, performers, and just regular
neighborhood people. Lori Eastside, our casting director, has worked on Darren Aronofsky and Abel
Ferrara movies—she knows New York City in and out. So we did casting around my Bushwick
neighborhood, holding auditions in my bar and in my home. Karine Nuris, who was an acting coach on
Johnny Mad Dog and A Prayer Before Dawn, working with former prisoners on that movie, came aboard
to help the non-professionals get comfortable talking and appearing on camera and workshopping their
scenes.

How did you persuade Sean Penn to return to acting for this role?

Sean was always my first choice for the character of Gene Rutkovsky, and we had been in contact because the French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos had convinced him to watch Johnny Mad Dog while they were making his feature The Last Face. He loved it and we started swapping emails. When ASPHALT CITY was coming together in 2018, I called him and asked him to consider the role of Rutkovsky, but he was preparing to direct his next feature and said he wasn’t acting anymore. He said he would meet with me regardless if I came to Los Angeles, he invited me to stay in his house for a week, which was surreal. But it shows how generous Sean is—he’s not just an actor or movie star, he’s a human being who’s had an incredible experience of life. I couldn’t convince him during that week to take the part, but he wanted to help me cast the movie. Then COVID happened, and Sean started organizing vaccinations with the L.A. fire department. Since he’d had some experience with paramedics, I reached out again and said maybe it’s time to do this movie.

How did Sean prepare for the role?

He did research with the L.A. fire department but he also did intense training and ride-alongs with paramedics affiliated with Wyckoff Heights Medical Center—he was in the back of the ambulance
wearing a hat and mask so nobody recognized him. He took the project very seriously, like Tye Sheridan,
and became immersed in the role, making sure every gesture was authentic to the character. Because he’s
also a producer on the film, he became involved in every step of the production. We shot for 23 days with
a small crew, at times it was chaos, but Sean had this can-do attitude, shooting day and night without any
of the comforts you might expect for a star of his stature.

Tye and Sean have great chemistry on screen together…

They complimented each other both as actors and characters. I like the idea that they almost look like
each other, and I always saw Tye/Ollie as a younger version of Sean’s character, with Rutkovsky being a
version, grizzled and worn after years on the job.

Michael Pitt returns to acting as the volatile paramedic Lafontaine. How did you come to cast him?

I knew Michael from my Bushwick neighborhood, and he used to play music with his band in my bar. We
became friends, and I thought he would be amazing as the Lafontaine character; he agreed to do it. He has a different way of approaching a character than Sean or Tye, staying in the craziness of his character at all times. He was always pumped up, and it came alive during editing and made perfect sense—you could see how faithful he was to the character. With Lafontaine, we didn’t want to create a purely villainous character; we wanted to give him some humanity, to try and understand why someone like him could slip so far into darkness. He’s like a fallen angel

How did Mike Tyson enter the picture?

I thought it would be amazing to have him in the film because he’s from Brownsville, and his father used
to live at Sumner Houses in Bushwick, close by my house, where we shot the stabbing scene. I thought
Mike would be a great person to play the fire department chief because he had experienced violence as a
youngster but got through those circumstances to become a famous boxer. I loved the arc of his journey,
and how he came to find peace after his struggles. I called him and explained we were going to shoot in
his old stomping grounds and he signed on.

The sound design stands out because it accentuates the chaos of this story. How did it come about?

Nicolas Becker is a French composer and sound designer who I met on a movie I did in France called
Punk. Then we did A Prayer Before Dawn before he went on to win the Oscar for Sound of Metal.
Recently he worked on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo. I like him because he was a Foley artist
early in his career, so he understands working with sound and image at the same time. He went on to
become a sound designer and composer, grasping the importance of making the sound in a movie relevant to the emotions of the characters. Our sound supervisor Ken Yasumoto worked on most of Gaspar Noe’s films, using an immersive approach to sound, making it part of the character of the movie as opposed to a conventional score.

Most of the camerawork is handheld, also in keeping with the chaos of the story.

David Ungaro, my close friend who shot A Prayer Before Dawn, did the cinematography, which was mostly handheld camerawork using a stabilizer, allowing David to move with the camera as if he were
operating a dolly. I wanted him back for this one because I knew it would be a difficult production, and he
understands the way I like to shoot, which is in long shots that often last for up to ten minutes. It’s a lot of
work but he’s a great operator and D.P., always working closely with me on organizing the choreography
of a scene from beginning to end. When you film a scene like this without interruption, you have this
built-in tension, which worked very well with the emergency calls in ASPHALT CITY.

What’s your perception of the American health-care system after making this movie?

It’s hard to believe the U.S. healthcare system could be such a failure. Coming from Europe, where
healthcare is free, it’s difficult to witness. Medical care is very expensive and if you don’t have money,
you can’t be treated. From my ride-alongs with Brooklyn paramedics it was easy to see that people in
low-income neighborhoods simply can’t afford to go to the hospital—they wait until the last minute to
call 911, and without insurance the cost is exorbitant for the ambulance ride, hospital stay, and follow-up
care.

I’m shocked how people manage to survive inside this system, and not just the patients, but the EMS
workers, whose salaries are low and whose mental health is affected by the long hours and traumatic
experiences. My greatest satisfaction once the film was completed was to hear from the EMTs, who helped us and were consultants on the shoot, that the film depicts their daily lives in an honest and extremely realistic way.

Your last three features have depicted and examined violence in various capacities. What is your
interest in the subject?

Filmmaking has always been a kind of therapy to me, and my next movie is called Addicted to Violence,
about my personal relationship with violence. So I’m going to try through that movie to answer that
question. Violence is also fundamental to our experience as humans. ASPHALT CITY takes a different
approach to violence; it’s not about committing it, but healing it.


Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire – Director
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire started out as assistant director in 1992 on Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights) by
Cyril Collard. He worked on feature films with directors such as Gaspar Noé, Bernie Bonvoisin, Karim Dridi, Siegfried and Laetitia Masson.
In 2000, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire began his career as a director. Following three short films, Jean-Stéphane directed Carlitos Medellin in 2004 which is a feature length documentary filmed in Medellin Colombia during the civil war. 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 Human Rights International Film Festival.
Four years later, he wrote and directed Johnny Mad Dog, his first feature film 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.
Johnny Mad Dog went on to screen in approximately fifty festivals throughout the world and won
multiple awards.
In 2012, he 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 in the international film festivals of London, Montréal, Zurich and La Rochelle where Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire received the Best Director Award.
In 2017 Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire directed A Prayer Before Dawn based on Billy Moore’s eponymous
memoir. Joe Cole plays the lead character, fighting for his life in one of Thailand’s most ruthless prisons.
The film has been chosen for the Official Selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Joe Cole won Best
actor at the British Independent Film Award for his performance. A24 released the film in the US in 2018