Sunnyside filmmakers use Queens as backdrop for a short film about comedian

Tallie Medel as Mel in MUCK – outside
Photos courtesy of Sean Price Williams

Emilie McDonald and Bruce Smolanoff have called Sunnyside home for 14 years and are now using the borough as the setting for “Muck,” a short film about a Queens comedian.

The fictional narrative, which clocks in at 15 minutes, follows Mel, a 20-year-old aspiring comedian who lives with her loving but pessimistic mother after being abandoned by her father. Mel begins to seek out validation from a group of misogynistic male comics as she tries to navigate the comedy scene.

Though the film never directly makes mention of which part of Queens Mel hails from, the backdrop features Sunnyside, Long Island City and Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Smolanoff, who grew up in Flushing, said he always pictured Mel living in one of the “furthest fringes of Queens” and used snapshots of residential areas, forgotten industrial spaces and a beloved local venue to tell her story.

“I’ve lived in Queens my whole life so it’s a very, very Queens story,” Smolanoff said. “Our main character lives in  Queens, she comes from Queens and what can I say, she’s deeply, inherently Queens-ish.”

The husband-and-wife duo began collaborating on the script after Smolanoff had an initial idea four years ago. McDonald, an award-winning filmmaker, would give Smolanoff notes and eventually became a co-writer on the film.

Filming began in March 2014 and the crew used The Creek and the Cave, a comedy club in Long Island City to shoot Mel’s stand-up scenes. Portions of the film were also shot on 48th Street in Sunnyside near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the intersection of Greenpoint Avenue and 45th Street and the 7 train station at 40th Street.

Though Mel, portrayed by Tallie Medel, is a fictional character, both Smolanoff and McDonald noted that the struggling comic is a combination of people they know. Smolanoff spent a lot of his time at Surf Reality, a comedy club on the Lower East Side, where he observed talented but lesser-known comedians trying to establish themselves.

The film explores the obstacles that keep people from achieving their goals, a problem that the duo encountered while trying to make the short.

“The story is called ‘Muck’ and it’s about rising above the things that get in our way,” McDonald said. “And the character has a lot of things to overcome and that’s something we needed to get through as well.”

Smolanoff credits McDonald for encouraging him to complete the short film. The duo tried several times to start production but could not find the right cast. The story, which took two to three years to write, captures Mel while she is deciding whether to keep pursing comedy. In many ways, the story mirrors the struggle McDonald and Smolanoff experienced.

“I need to give credit to Emilie here because I was almost ready to give up on it after the first two times and say this is not going to work,” Smolanoff said. “Emilie just kept pushing through saying ‘no, lets get back to it.’ That’s really why it actually got made, because the first two or three rounds were just too difficult.”

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the short film was completed and screened at festivals across the country and in Europe. It was the runner-up at the Hammer to Nail Short Film Contest in 2015 and won best narrative short at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

On March 17, the film will screen as part of the Queens World Film Festival. The screening will begin at 6 p.m. at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City.

Since the short film was well received, the writing partners are now working on a full-length version. The film was a “labor of love,” according to Smolanoff and the cast and crew worked for little compensation – another aspect they share with the lead character.

“Mel doesn’t have a lot of resources and her opportunities are limited and we wanted to show that somebody who’s kind of coming from very humble, minimal resources is able to persevere,” Smolanoff said. “It’s about perseverance over her family, her environment, her surroundings and that spirit to try to advance ones self in life. I thought, ‘she’s perfect, shes like a lot of people. We can identify with her.'”

Watch the trailer below: