A filmmaker with Rockville Centre roots will debut his first feature film, “Groove,” which chronicles New York City subway musicians and the unique lives they lead, at the Long Island International Film Expo on Monday.
Ryan McDonough, 22, grew up in the village and attended St. Agnes Cathedral School before graduating from Chaminade in 2012. During his time at the University of Michigan, where he double majored in English and screenwriting, he realized his love for storytelling, and by joining the school’s student television station and the film school, he searched for where that passion might lead.
“Those kind of big stories that can bring people together was really what brought me to decide to pursue movies,” McDonough said.
While taking acting classes in Manhattan one summer, McDonough said he would frequently see musicians playing tunes in various subway stations. One night in particular, he remembered being with friends waiting for a train at 3 a.m., and watching a man — who was not in search of money — simply play a song. The seed was planted.
“I was inspired by the kind of indie film makers…who have the attitude of, ‘Don’t wait for someone to let you do something. Just go make it happen,’” he said.
With that in mind, and the idea to tell the story of musicians such as the ones he had seen underground while commuting, McDonough, who wrote and directed the 82-minute film, spoke with dozens of subway musicians, and wrote a script before his senior year of college.
“It was interesting to see why they did it,” McDonough said about discovering the reasons that musicians play in the subway stations, “and depending on where they were performing in the city, you would get a different answer.” Many people in most areas of Manhattan did it for financial reasons, he added, while many of those playing downtown and in places like Brooklyn said they were trying to get their music to the masses.
He perfected the script with the help of one of his Michigan professors, and received a grant from Panavision, a motion picture equipment company, which provided McDonough and his team with cameras to shoot the film.
With the grant, as well as money from a crowdfunding campaign, what was once a crew of about five had grown to 30 or so. Billy Offer and Zach Bruch served as executive producers for the project.
McDonough sent out casting calls to colleges and acting groups in New York City, and flew home during his spring break last year to conduct auditions at a warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn. He and his team were able to find local musicians, like Sydney Shepherd, to play the lead roles, which he said helped make the film more authentic.
Shepherd, who plays one of the main characters, Melanie Matthews, is, in real life, in a band called Bandits on the Run that jams on the subway and has performed on Broadway, making her a perfect fit, McDonough said. Other leads include Samuel Forrest, who spent years as the lead singer and guitarist of the British rock band Nine Black Alps, and Sha James Beamon, a musician born and raised in New York that performs at comedy clubs around the city.
In the film, the three main characters meet and try to advance their music careers with the opportunity to get out of the Subway and perform on a bigger stage: Groove, the coveted music competition held in Brooklyn at the end of the summer.
The film was mistaken by some as a documentary, McDonough said, after he and his team released the original promo. “The world we created was inspired by these real people and their experiences, but the actual story and the characters were all made up.”
In addition to original music performed by the characters in the film, McDonough hunted down New York City indie bands to make up the soundtrack, he said, including the “Post Nobles,” a group from Rockville Centre.
McDonough moved from New York to Los Angeles in March, and is currently working at a talent agency. He hopes this film will help jumpstart his career to make more films, and is excited to begin another project soon.
“It seems like everyone out here for the most part is pursuing some goal in entertainment — even if it’s not necessarily movies — whether it’s music, or art, or whatever,” he said of Los Angeles, “so I think it is kind of cool to be surrounded by other people who are also pursuing another artistic goal.”
“Groove” will be shown to the public for the first time at Bellmore Movies — 222 Pettit Ave. — at 3:45 p.m. on Monday.
“Really I hope people…learn something else about New York [and] this little subculture,” McDonough said, “but also just have a fun time watching it.”