When 20-something transplants arrive in New York City, they usually settle in affordable, up-and-coming neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.
Not Sébastien Pilley, a Parisian who came to the Big Apple to pursue an acting career at age 20 — and moved directly into his mother's old room located inside his grandmother's apartment at 203 W. 90th St. on the Upper West Side.
Now 25, Pilley is directing a cinematic homage to the five years he spent living in the neighborhood with a spirited septuagenarian as his roommate. (The New School drama student recently found his own place in Williamsburg.)
"Upper West Side Blues" will tell a fictionalized version of Pilley's story, with the auteur and his real-life grandmother in the lead roles.
Sébastien Pilley and his grandmother, Diana Levy, star in "Upper West Side Blues." (Credit: Sebastien Pilley)
“She’s a character on her own," Pilley said of Diana Levy, a former dancer and dance director at the Metropolitan Opera (who bears no relation to the author of this article). "Not even Woody Allen has as many good one-liners as my grandmother."
When approached with her grandson's request, she replied, "We can drink prosseco before and then we can act," he said.
The short film serving as Pilley's senior thesis project, which he started filming this week, will not only star his grandmother, but his grandmother's actual apartment, where she's lived for more than 50 years.
"I love it, really I do, but it is a banana republic," the writer and director said. "The plumbing doesn’t work at times, we’ve had rooftops falling over… It was difficult, but we laughed about it.”
Pilley is also filming on location at Cibo e Vino and Marlow Bistro, two Upper West Side restaurants owned by a Macedonian friend, Elena Ristovski.
”A big part of the film is bringing in the melting pot of New York," he said, listing English, French, German and Italian as featured languages.
Contributions from France and the United Kingdom came in when the filmmaker launched a online fundraiser for his project on Indiegogo, ultimately raising $1,280 to supplement the $250 his school supplied.
Many of his grandmother's old dancer friends also made donations, he said.
But how does Levy, the wise, bawdy matriarch, feel about the project as a whole?
"She’s my biggest supporter — she’s so thrilled," Pilley said. "She’s the one who told me, 'You are an artist, never forget it.'"
They may not live together anymore, but "I come visit all the time," he noted.
"And I bring a laundry bag."