PORTLAND, Maine — It’s a familiar gripe, intoned by just about everyone who’s lived in the city more than a couple of years: Portland ain’t what it used to be.
Back in my 20s, you’ll hear them say, no matter how old they are, there used to be gritty artist studios everywhere, the rents were cheap and a pint in the Old Port only cost three bucks. Now, they go on, I hardly recognize the place with all the luxury condos, yuppies from Massachusetts and high-falutin restaurants where they don’t even have a decent cheeseburger on the menu.
They’re not wrong.
While it’s true, no city, by nature, is ever what it used to be, Portland has undergone a particularly head spinning transformation in the last 30 years, going from semi-derelict seaport to upscale tourist destination. The changes have priced most artists out of downtown and eating out is rapidly becoming cost prohibitive for anyone without a six-figure salary.
That’s why late 30s Maine filmmakers Jeff Griecci and Ian Carlsen’s new feature film is set in the Portland they remember from their 20s, back when it was cool. Using local alleys, dive bars and fading factories as backdrops, populating scenes with familiar neighborhood faces, Griecci and Carlsen said the movie is their love letter to a city neither one can afford to live in anymore.
Griecci now lives in Biddeford while Carlsen has moved out to Pownal.
Their film, an anthology of five interconnected short stories called “Nice People,” has its Portland premiere at SPACE Gallery in November.
We sat down with Greicci and Carlsen inside their tiny Portland office, which they share with three other filmmakers, to talk about the movie.
BDN: I don’t want to give the wrong impression. This film, which was shot between 2017 and 2019, is not a screed and doesn’t whine. It’s darkly funny with a hint of sweet nostalgia. Tell us about one of the stories.
Carlsen: One of the main characters in the first story hits a cat on the street with his car. He decides he has to find the owner and apologize. It’s late summer, early fall but, as a New Englander, he still has a snow scraper in the back of his car. So he scrapes the cat into a paper bag and then proceeds to knock on doors — and, you know, hilarity ensues.
BDN: Well, maybe not for the cat.
Carlsen: Then that story then intersects with another and you get to see these people trying to do a good deed which becomes a short but Odyssean quest.
Griecci: All the interconnected stories are about people trying to do the right thing and then paying a price.
BDN: Did you know from the start, way back before the pandemic, that Portland, itself, would be a sort of character in the film?
Carlsen: The film did not start out as a love letter to Portland, but in those two years, as the changes to our city started accumulating, there was this sense of something slipping away. Now, two years after the pandemic, there is this real feeling of having captured a moment. This film is an accumulation of all the connections and of the community we made here.
Griecci: There was a time, when we were in our 20s, when we really connected into the film scene and the theater scene, the art scene here. That was just about when housing prices started to take off. Writing these stories as that shift was happening, it became a sort of a love letter to that specific moment, which would have been about 2014 to 2019.
BDN: It’s funny to hear you say that because I think of Portland as being at its best when I was in my 20s, in the late ’90s. I guess it’s all just perspective.
Carlsen: The last short that we wrote, in 2019, features two friends whose friendship basically dissolves around trying to find an apartment as they keep getting outpriced every time. But the numbers we have in the script already feel kind of quaint.
Griecci: Three years later, I don’t even know if that story even lands.
Carlsen: We’re like, what would ever make them think they could get an apartment in Portland for $1,800?
BDN: That would be a bargain now. That number already feels like a time capsule.
Carlsen: If we were making a movie about Portland now, most of the conversation and the stories would be around that scramble. That’s the thing-of-the-now moment. Where do you live? How do you make work happen? But most of the stories in our film take place just before that.
BDN: I know you two are already working on another film but what’s next for “Nice People” after the SPACE premiere?
Griecci: The big thing for someone in our shoes is to do their best at hitting the festival circuit, which is a whole job in its own right. You research the heck out of all these festivals that happen all over the globe, and you do your best to pick and choose and select and submit to festivals that you hopefully have some chance at getting selected for. Right now, we’re really hoping we can get into conversations with some potential distributors.
“Nice People” was written by Ian Carlsen, directed by Jeff Griecci and is a Mint Films production. It stars William Paul Steele, Grace Bauer, Tadin Jeongshin Brego, Michael Thomas Toth and Titi de Baccarat, among others. Music is by Jimmy Dority. Phil Cormier handled cinematography. The film plays at SPACE Gallery on Nov. 16 and 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale now.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.