Oscar-Contending Animated Charmer ‘The Originals’ Dials Clock Back to ‘70s Brooklyn When Kids Played In The Street And Neighbors Knew Each Other

If you happened to grow up in a particular section of Brooklyn in the ‘70s and played a game called Hot Peas and Butter with neighborhood kids, you might still have the welts to show for it.

As the Oscar-contending animated short The Originals reveals, that old time-y outdoor game involved the “winner” getting to smack other kids with a belt.

“Most of our games came with pain,” one of the characters in the true story remembers, with a certain fondness. The audio for the film comes from the reminiscences of a group of pals who have known each other “from when we were infants” in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn: Matteo Ruggiero, Carmine Ruggiero, Anthony DeMaio, Sal Alioto and Matteo Alioto. The short was directed by Cristina Costantini and Alfie Koetter, a young couple who used to live in a building in Carroll Gardens owned by Matty “Square” Ruggiero.

“We got to know our landlord the day he returned from prison,” Costantini said at a recent Q&A for the film at XTR Studios in Los Angeles. “We were captivated by [Matty] and the stories he would tell us. He was one of the best storytellers we ever met. He would make us just laugh every day when we sat on that stoop with him and would tell these incredible stories. And we wanted to figure out how we could capture that and how we could bring them to life.”

XTR/Muck Media/Two Beans

When the pandemic hit, Costantini, a filmmaker known for Mucho Mucho Amor and Science Fair, and her husband Alfie, an architect, decided to “combine their powers and their weaknesses” to transform the audio into a short. The title The Originals comes from what Matty Square and his buddies used to call themselves back in the 1970s in their Italian American enclave.

“One of the difficult things to overcome was that there was no archival footage to back up any of Matty’s stories. And as Christina said, Matty is a great storyteller who is prone to exaggeration,” Koetter said. “And even if we had had footage of those times in his life that he was telling us about, I don’t think they could live up to the way he told the stories. And so animation and model building gave us an opportunity to stretch the truth, to change proportions and make things better than they actually were in a way that I think was, in retrospect, the only way to pay respect to the ways in which he and his friends told stories.”

The film begins with Cristina and Alfie building a model of the street where they lived in Carroll Gardens, realistic down to tufts of grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. Then the animated story itself unfolds, featuring the guys conversing about how things used to be.

Mothers and grandmothers on the street in the animated film 'The Originals'

‘The Originals’

XTR/Muck Media/Two Beans

“Imagine a whole block where 75-80 percent of the kids spoke Italian,” one of them says, describing a kind of communal life where everyone knew each other. Says another, “It was an open concept where, in the evening, mothers and grandmothers would take their chairs, sit outside while we’re playing in the street.” “It was tight-knit.”

They remember the endless games they played outdoors—stoop ball, crack-top, Ringolevio, Old Mother Witch, slap ball and something called Skelsies. And, of course, Hot Peas and Butter.

“Alfie drew every single frame himself,” Costantini tells Deadline of the visuals. He also did the character and set design and the art direction, with Alex Booth serving as animation director and Jason Kirchner credited with additional animation. Costantini wrote the film. The film is a production of XTR, Muck Media, Two Beans, Test Pattern Media and Shy Kids.

'The Originals' poster

XTR/Muck Media/Two Beans

The Originals is filled with humor—one of the guys notes about their group, “We basically look the same but in different shapes.” Barrel-shaped Matteo Alioto jokes, “I got the fat gene.” Beneath the surface, for viewers who want to go there, it’s also a sociological exploration of a time and a way of life that have disappeared. Matty Square got out of prison to find the old neighborhood “changed dramatically.” Now, the Originals guys say, Carroll Gardens is populated by yuppies who don’t acknowledge each other on the street.

“I don’t know who lives on my block,” Matty says, “other than my next-door neighbors. But other than that, I don’t know these people.”

There’s a certain amount of nostalgia behind their reflections, but the men also acknowledge that a lot of neighborhood kids back in the day turned to a life of crime—especially the ones who used to hang in the streets instead of remaining indoors studying.

“The neighborhood was good—it was good in a way, but I look back and I would say it was bad in other ways,” Matty Square says. “There was a lot of murders in the neighborhood, a lot of murders… But that’s how those days were.” Organized crime sucked in a lot of kids, many of whom wound up doing time behind bars. 

The Originals wish, somehow, the neighborhood could return to something like what it was (the good parts anyway), where everyone knows each other and hangs out in that communal fashion. Being around the guys had an impact on Koetter, who grew up in Boston, and Costantini, who comes from Milwaukee, and how they view social relations.

“I was not raised with an understanding of being neighborly,” Koetter confessed, describing Boston as “the hot spring of belief in witchcraft and that your neighbors might be up to no good… Saying hello terrified me at first, but by way of Matty, I came to understand the importance of not just saying hi to your neighbor, but in building community and understanding that community is made up not just of people who’ve been there forever, but people who are willing to participate and willing to engage.”

Her husband has turned over a new leaf, Costantini says, after he saw the example of Matty and the Originals. 

“Alfie has changed quite a bit from when I first met him,” she said. “Now he walks around — I think he’s running for mayor of nothing in particular — he says hi to everybody.”

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