About Nicolas Heller

Nicolas Heller is a born and bred New Yorker as well as a self-described street guru... when he’s not working he’s usually hanging out at Washington Square Park or Union Square shooting cellphone videos for his ongoing series The Greatest Show on Earth. Heller’s work encompasses two distinct influences; the low-fi, authenticity of life on the city’s streets as featured in his popular @newyorknico Instagram feed, and the curated sensibility from a lifelong exposure to design. His work caught the attention of Rolling Stone, which commissioned a series of six docs on street culture, and he was recently profiled by New Balance on its Made.Mondays series. His short form work includes a new campaign of :10 vignette Snapchat ads for Foursquare/Swarm as well as a recent campaign for shipping company Shyp.

Interview by
Bryan Grudowski
February 27th, 2017

Tell me a little bit about yourself and the journey that brought you to film making.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe what I do in one or two words. Because I do quite a bit. I guess you could say I'm a documentarian, street guru, talent scout, film maker, commercial director, and what I'm most known for at the moment is my Instagram account (@newyorknico) where I profile interesting New York city street characters.

Often when I'm not working on commercials, I am out and about in the city, recording video on my phone of these amazing unique characters who I feel embody the city. A lot of the characters are reoccurring. I've just made this little show of my Instagram (@newyorknico) with these street characters. Over the past few months, it's been getting noticed. I've cultivated this fan base, and it's really nice to see because I was told when I first started doing this that it wasn't mainstream enough. I tried to sell the idea of doing this as a documentary series, but I could never successfully do so.

Now I am proving the people who told me that wrong. A lot of people from all over are very intrigued by this world that I've shown off. The world that is New York city.

How I got into film making? I was in seventh grade and I became interested in creating my own casts for fake movies – as just a way to past the time when I was bored. That turned into me writing scenes for these fake movies. That turned into me creating short films in high school. That turned in to me doing music videos in college. That turned in to me doing commercials out of college. That turned in to... somewhere in between the music videos and commercials, I started getting interested in New York City and documenting it.

A lot of people from all over are very intrigued by this world that I’ve shown off. The world that is New York city. Nicolas Heller

How do you feel some of that early work influences your take on New York street culture today?

I was born and raised in New York City. Manhattan, Union Square to be specific. Because I was born and raised there, I didn't think there was anything too special about the city because it was all I really knew. The work that I was doing up until I started doing documentaries on these street characters didn't really have anything to do with New York City. Yes, New York City was the backdrop but it was never about a specific New York City character or a New York City landmark.

It was always just the backdrop. I never really through twice about New York City playing a central character. It wasn't until I did a road trip. I think it was right after college. I was 23. I did a road trip, ended in Los Angeles, got to experience all these other cities, including Los Angeles for a long period of time. Then, when I came back to New York, I realized that there really is nowhere like New York City.

I started becoming interested in finding things that make New York so unique. It was the characters that drew me in. Finding these characters that you can only really find in New York City. Like Ted Evan, the 6'7" free styling Jew or Larry, the Birdman of Washington Square Park. Or Wendell, the homeless fashion designer.

When I came back from Los Angeles, I had the idea to do a documentary series about these characters. That was called, No Your City. I did two seasons of that, 16 episodes total with one interesting New York City character per episode. That both got me fascinated with New York City, the street culture and this new form of film making documentary.

It sounds like you were intuitively capturing these characters and parts of the city before No Your City came to be. What motivated you to pursue it more seriously?

My junior and senior year of college, I was doing music videos. I graduated, continued doing music videos as a profession. Then, I moved out to Los Angeles after that road trip for six months to make it as a music video director. I failed. It was a really miserable experience. I moved out there without a driver's license, without a place to stay, with jobs lined up that fell through. It was six months of being miserable and not being sure about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career.

When I came back to New York City, I was living with my parents again and I was feeling really defeated. I didn't want to keep doing music videos. But, I didn't really know what else I could do.

I think, a week after I came home, I was sitting in Union Square park, the neighborhood where I was born. I was super down in the dumps, just trying to figure out my next move. That's when I saw, Ted Evan, the 6'7" Free styling Jew who I had seen in the neighborhood for the past 15 years. But was too shy to ever speak to him. I considered him a New York City street celebrity.

I used this low point in my life to say, "Fuck it!" I'm gonna go talk to this guy. I went and talked to him and he was super approachable. We talked for two hours while we walked around the city. At the end, I asked him if he was willing to make a documentary about him. To my surprise, he was down. I made that documentary and realized that I could do this with a plethora of New York City street characters.

It was like a water-shed moment.

Exactly. Yeah.

Prior to that, I had never documented street characters or anything serious. Like I said, I would see them, and I would be fascinated by them. I would go so far as to consider them celebrities, but it was never something that I was interested in documenting.

One of the people that you profiled talks about how people use the camera as a way to objectify characters and experiences in New York City. As a way to say, "I was here." and that's it. I notice you see it as a way to engage people.

Sometimes. Sometimes I do exactly what he was saying. Where I don't feel comfortable talking to somebody ... Not that I don't feel comfortable, at this point, I do feel very comfortable approaching people. But there are times where I don't feel like speaking to somebody. Whether it be because it looks like they might talk my ear off. Or because I just won't be interested in what they have to say. Or I am just not in the mood.

In that case, I'll shoot it from afar. Do I think that that's wrong? Not really. I prefer to be able to speak to the people that I'm filming and have them know that I'm filming them. But there's sometimes where that's just not possible.

On the other hand, I do engage with a lot of the people that I film. It's just because I have a genuine interest in what they have to say and I really like showing them off to the rest of the world. Because that's who follows me now, it's people from all over.

I was in Union Square the other day and I had these two people from Madrid come up to me. They were big fans of the account. I knew that I had a fan base outside of New York, outside of America, but it was really cool to have people who were visiting come to Union Square just to find me. Just so that they could talk to me and potentially meet a lot of the characters that I put on my page.

I took them around and they met some of the characters. It was a really cool experience for both of us.

On that note, what would hope the biggest understanding or take-away to be from someone who follows your Instagram and is familiar with your work?

I feel like a lot of the characters that I film are generally people who you might see and not want to pay any attention to or go interact with. That’s because either they're scary looking or they just look like they don't have anything to offer. I love being able to find these characters. That's why I call myself an unofficial talent scout. Because I feel like I'm finding this talent, and I'm responsible for showing them off to the world.

Like, Too Much Swag, for example. People are obsessed with this guy. I'm so happy that I was able to expose him to the rest of the world.

Tell me about Too Much Swag. What's he all about?

I've known Too Much Swag for about two and a half years. The person who actually found Too Much Swag was a great documentarian named Normal Bob Smith. He was the Union Square documentarian for 13 years. He would just come out to the park every day with his camera and shoot video, photos of the park and the street life there.

Unfortunately, he couldn't afford to live in New York anymore so he left two years ago. I've been holding it down for him since. But he was the one who found Too Much Swag. Too Much Swag would walk around the park and do his “swag walk.” For those of you who don't know, Too Much Swag… you kind of just have to see a video of his to understand what he's all about.

He's this dude who, on the surface, you might see and laugh at because it's so outrageous what he's doing with his swag walk. He's walking around flailing his arms and he never stops doing that. But he's always very focused. You begin to realize how determined this kid is, how he comes out every single day and does this because he believes it's gonna get him somewhere. There's something to be said there, and I love people like that – people who are determined and confident and do something that's out of the ordinary. People who shake shit up.

You don't see anyone else in the world doing something like that. Just walking around, swagging out. He calls it dancing, but he also he knows that it's a swag walk.

Normal Bob filmed him this one time, put him on YouTube and got a ton of views. I saw him sometime last summer, this was after Normal Bob left. I went up to him and we just started chatting. I posted a video of him free styling and dancing and doing his swag walk. People instantly fell in love with him. I didn't see him for the rest of the summer. People would hit me up all the time, “Hey where's Too Much Swag? How can we see more of him?” Unfortunately, I didn't have his number so I had no way of contacting him.Then one day in the fall, I was in Union Square and I saw him out of the corner of my eye and I just started filming. I filmed the whole entire interaction which is on my YouTube page.It's basically me catching up with Too Much Swag. I posted that video in six, one minute increments. People went nuts over it, “Too Much Swag is back!”

I love this guy. We just became buddies, and I've been helping him out. He's been helping me out, so I'm just helping him out with opportunities. The night that I gave the DSVC talk, he opened up for David Cho and his band.

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico) on

What it is like using Instagram as your primary medium to promote film and video work? Do you feel like you have to fight the platform, or does it lend itself to this kind of work?

Like I mentioned before, it was really hard for me to sell these ideas as web series. I did No Your City for two seasons, but we didn't make any money off it. It was just a passion project.

It started to get really depressing that no one was interested in buying these ideas from me and that the videos I put out weren't really getting any eyeballs. No one was sharing them.

Rather than putting all this time and effort into just doing a third season of this series, that no one was really watching. I just decided to take the concept of interviewing interesting people on the street and just doing that through my phone. I would upload it in anywhere from 30 to 60 second intervals, and was uploading it in real time with no cuts. People responded to that.

I did this for a few reasons. It's way easier to come across something like that on Instagram as opposed to if it lived on a website that no one went to. And also people have really short attention spans. If they see that something is 30 to 60 seconds, then chances are they'll watch that rather than watching the five to six minute documentary.

It helped me immensely with this line of work and this area of interest.

In some ways it's closer to someone would actually interact with someone on the street in NYC. You see them for 30 seconds and then they disappear back into the city.

Exactly. It's from a POV. For the people who watch it, it's meant to feel like they're there with me or they're behind the camera.

I also noticed you have quite a bit of NYC street photography on your Instagram. You have subjects that aren't necessarily performers or characters. Is that in tandem with the work that you do in trying to capture New York pedestrian culture as a whole?

My Instagram is basically New York City in a nutshell from my perspective. If I see a Chinese chef on his smoke break squatting with his buddies, with a long cigarette dangling from his mouth, to me, that's very Chinatown. “The Chinatown squat.” I also have an Instagram account called Chinatown Smoke Break where I take a lot of photos of people in Chinatown on their smoke breaks.

Even super-touristy people in Times Square. You see people decked out in stuff that they just bought from the gift shop. To me, that's New York. Even though you're from bumble-fuck wherever. You're in New York, and that just feels like New York to me. For the most part, everybody I film or photograph are people that I have a lot of respect for. It's very rare that I will post somebody who I don't like. Unless it's someone decked out in Trump attire and it's just ridiculous looking.

But for the most part, if you're on my Instagram, it's because I think you have great style or you really embody the spirit of the city or something like that.

As you're doing this work, do you feel your relationship with New York, the city, has it changed?

I'll post a photo of someone who I've seen around for years and then somehow it'll get tracked back to them. They'll see that it got all this attention , and when they find out it was me because someone told them (or I tell them), then it creates this new relationship. The have respect for me.

A good example is; I was taking the subway the other day and there were these subway dancers. I've always been really fascinated by subway dancers. I was filming one of them. And if I was just some random person filming them, they would probably harass me for money at the end. But they recognized me; they knew who I was. They knew that by me filming them and tagging them then they could get more followers, . The one dude who recognized me told the rest of the crew and they started going crazy

Now, we're gonna link up, and I'm just gonna follow them around for a day. This is something that I wouldn't have the clout if I didn't have my Instagram. I wouldn't have the clout to be able to follow them around for a day or get the shots that I wanted if I didn't have this platform to expose them.