‘Black Flies’ Star Tye Sheridan and Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire on Capturing the Chaos, Gore and Heroism of Being a NYC Medic
Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire spent more than a year in the back of ambulances, shuttling from one gruesome trauma to the next, as he shadowed EMTs in New York City to prepare for his new movie “Black Flies.”
“This immersive approach is crucial,” Sauvaire tells Variety over Zoom, a week before he travels to the South of France to premiere “Black Flies” in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “If you don’t really know the reality of this job, it’s difficult to recreate it.”
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Adapted from Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel, the story follows Tye Sheridan as young paramedic Ollie Cross, who dreams of going to medical school. But he struggles to study as he is thrust into the intense and mentally taxing work of responding to emergency calls in Brooklyn. Sean Penn plays a hardened veteran, who teaches Ollie the ropes as they drive through New York City.
Sauvaire didn’t have to travel far to find EMTs who were willing to work with him. He convinced the employees at Wyckoff Hospital, near where the director lives in Brooklyn, to let him observe their line of work. “I was lucky,” Sauvaire said. “They agreed and they were excited by the movie as a way of sharing their own stories.”
The constant sense of adrenaline stood out to Sauvaire, who found the days “super stressful and active.” But it wasn’t constantly go-go-go, he adds. “You have to wait for two hours in the back of the ambulance for the next call. So, we had time to discuss their experience and life in general.”
Sheridan and Penn, too, were deeply immersed in the research process. The actors spent time riding along in emergency vehicles on Friday and Saturday nights for two and a half months before cameras rolled. The front-row seat was crucial to tap into the volatility of Ollie’s line of work, Sheridan says while on the Zoom call with Sauvaire. “You never know what you are going to walk into. Who’s the patient? What’s the case? They’re around violence all the time. They become kind of numb to it.”
Almost all of the harrowing situations in the movie, from blood-soaked gunshot wounds to disturbing scenes of domestic violence and life-threatening pregnancies, were drawn directly from those days in the back of that ambulance. As was the escalating feeling of sensory overload. If their eardrums weren’t being bombarded by blaring sirens, it was the screaming people or barking dogs that are all too familiar to anyone who has walked the streets of New York City.
The reality, Sauvaire found, is that paramedics can too easily become desensitized, not only to the wailing of ambulances, but also to the sickening situations they regularly witness. All that access to hospitals, though essential in making a movie, left Sauvaire feeling despondent about the “failure of health care in the U.S.”
“French people always say, ‘Oh, the siren in the background is so New York, and so cool. But they have to understand that the siren is because people are waiting until the last moment to go to the hospital. In France or Europe, you don’t have to pay, so you don’t wait to the last moment.”
Sauvaire, who was born in Paris, moved to New York around 14 years ago. Captivated by the charms of the city, he’d been longing to make a movie that captures a side of the Big Apple that’s not often depicted on screen. In 2018, a producer gave him Burke’s book and gauged his interest in adapting it.
“I thought it was a great opportunity,” the director says. “I liked the character of Ollie, and I thought it was a realistic book. The main point for me to start a movie is to feel connected to the project.”
But he wasn’t willing to make the film without the 26-year-old Sheridan. He’d seen some of the actor’s onscreen work, a repertoire that includes the “X-Men” reboot, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi adventure “Ready Player One” and Jeff Nicols’ coming-of-age story “Mud,” which first brought him to Cannes in 2012 when Sheridan was a teenager.
“I said, ‘I can only do this movie if it’s with Tye,’” Sauvaire recalls. So he flew to Utah, where Sheridan was in production on another movie, to pitch him on the project. “It worked,” he says.
Not that Sheridan needed convincing. “The visceral nature of your films,” he says, referring to the war story “Johnny Mad Dog” and violent prison drama “A Prayer Before Dawn,” “is what really hooked me. I knew through Jean-Stéphane’s vision, we would see a side of New York that we never really see on film.”
Sheridan also jumped at the opportunity to work alongside a seasoned actor like Penn. “We both got very into being medics,” he says. “By the time we started shooting, we had a shorthand with each other. It was always fun and collaborative.”
“Black Flies” is grim, thrilling and, at times, hard to watch. With the help of real paramedics, Sauvaire says he aimed to strike a balance of capturing the authenticity of truly scary situations without sensationalizing the experience. But, the director adds, “the film is less intense than reality.”
Given the compact shooting schedule of 23 days in New York City, there wasn’t a lot of time to decompress. “Every day, we filmed two or three scenes,” Sauvaire says. “I don’t remember a relaxed moment.”
But the cast and crew did have a preferred way to wind down after a long day on set, Sheridan says. “We would eat at the Thai restaurant by Jean-Stéphane’s house.”
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