A lonely adolescent holds flashy parties in his mansion to impress an unobtainable girl in Kevin Asch's latest film, "Affluenza." It's a teen version of "The Great Gatsby," the oft-adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, but this may be the first version that is both set and filmed in the Long Island towns that inspired the book.
Fitzgerald's novel divided the North Shore into the fictional East and West Egg neighborhoods, but you won't see them in "Affluenza." Instead, you'll see teenagers driving down Middle Neck Road, yachting near Kings Point Park and partying at the Chelsea Estate in Muttontown while the 2008 financial crash looms ahead. It's all familiar territory for Asch, who has wanted to make "Affluenza" since he first read "The Great Gatsby" as a student at Great Neck North High School.
" 'The Great Gatsby' was written about the same place that I was living in. I knew where Fitzgerald lived, because you know when you're growing up there," Asch says. "It didn't feel like a book that was written so far away. It felt like it was happening right here, right now."
Fast work on a small budget
"Affluenza," which both opens at Manhattan's Cinema Village and premieres via video-on-demand today, is the second feature by Asch, 38, a director who is beginning to distinguish himself in two ways. One is his ability to work fast on a small budget: "Affluenza" was shot in 18 days during August 2012 for less than $1 million. Another is his eye for talent: For his 2010 debut film, "Holy Rollers," Asch cast Jesse Eisenberg, whose career-making turn in "The Social Network" wouldn't be seen until later that year. For "Affluenza," Asch nabbed Nicola Peltz (now starring in the blockbuster "Transformers: Age of Extinction"), Ben Rosenfield (before he became Willie Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") and Gregg Sulkin (now of MTV's new series "Faking It").
"This was the second thing I got cast in," says Rosenfield, 21, who was performing in the 2011 Off-Broadway play "Through a Glass Darkly" (starring Carey Mulligan) when he auditioned for Asch. "It just immediately felt like the right fit," Rosenfield says. "I like 'The Great Gatsby' as a piece of literature, but I think it's hard to adapt to the screen perfectly. And I liked the fact that this film wasn't being too religious about the text."
"Affluenza," conceived by Asch and written by his longtime collaborator, Antonio Macia, focuses on a college kid, Fisher Miller (Rosenfield), who stumbles into a love triangle between his cousin Kate (Peltz), the respectable Todd Goodman (Grant Gustin, of Fox's "Glee") and the mysterious Dylan Carson (Sulkin). The grown-up cast includes Massapequa native Steve Guttenberg, Samantha Mathis and British character-actor Roger Rees (CBS' "Elementary").
Feeling like an outsider
In this version of "Gatsby," the main characters are not WASPs but, like Asch, Jewish. Asch describes his own family as part of a very wealthy world -- his late grandfather founded the placement firm Robert Half International, today an S&P 500 company with yearly revenue in the billions -- but Asch also grew up feeling like an outsider, an artistic kid surrounded by money-obsessed grade-schoolers. ("They're all in finance," he says of his now-grown peers. "All.") After the crash of 2008, many of their castles crumbled, just as they do in "Affluenza."
"It was important for me to have the environment reflect the story," Asch says of his decision to shoot at real locations, from the Great Neck railroad station to Falaise (the mansion of Newsday founder Alicia Patterson and her husband, Harry Guggenheim) in Sands Point. "This should feel like a life of leisure, a life that's vast and lush and warm," he says. "I didn't want it to feel like a set. I wanted it to feel like something that's here, and that's going to be gone."