What do you consider a quintessential New York movie? Woody Allen's Manhattan? Scorsese's Taxi Driver? For 2014, it could be Stand Clear of the Closing Doors -- a unique film that follows an autistic boy as he gets lost on the New York Subway. Not only does it feature Hurricane Sandy (which hit during production), but half of subway-riding New York are cast as extras on this film set. In the interview below, Director Sam Fleischner sat down with No Film School to talk about anything from the rewards of working with an actor with Asperger's to filming underground with Sony-F3s and a covert crew.
Before you read the interview, check out the trailer for Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, which Variety calls "terrifically conceived and executed -- consistently fascinating and suspenseful." It also opens in New York today!
NFS: The first thing I'd like to ask you about is casting. The main character Ricky is played by this amazing kid -- Jesus Sanchez-Velez -- who, in real life, is on the autistic spectrum himself. What motivated you to cast Jesus?
Sam Fleischner: Early on I was pretty certain that I wanted to work with a kid who was on the spectrum, and mainly because I'm not an expert myself on the condition. I didn't want to direct a kid how to behave a way I didn't understand myself. I thought it would potentially ring false. I'm usually pretty amazed by the kids I've met who are on the spectrum, and I thought that instead of me trying to teach a kid how to act a certain way, the kid could teach me about himself, and the way Jesus views the world. We could collaborate on figuring out how he could bring out parts of himself, the way he is, as well as other parts that are typical film structure.
NFS: Were there things Jesus would point out to you as being something he would or wouldn't say? Did he come up with any of his own dialogue?
SF: He came up with some stuff. Like the shoe monologue was something that I was prodding him to riff on shoes. I would give him starting points and end points. I felt like I was interviewing him, and encouraging him to riff. That scene went like that, straight from him, and I really love it. There are things like the "evil drink" -- that's Jesus' name for his medicine -- he would tell me about, so I would write that into the movie. For pretty much all the dialogue, I would let him put it into his words. He has a really cool way of speaking, so I didn't want to interfere with that.
NFS: A lot of the film is about seeing New York, or the world, through Ricky's eyes. How did you come up with that concept and visualize it?
SF: Originally I didn't plan on making such a subjective story. The way that I was planning on using the camera was with more wide, observational shots, which there are a lot of. The more I started doing it, the more I realized that it's actually more engaging for the story to go inside of [Ricky's] head, and see the world through his eyes. It wasn't my initial stylistic choice, but it was something that through the process of making the movie I sort of went more towards that direction. I did always know the sound would be very subjective. That was the plan for the beginning, but as far as imagery, that evolved.
NFS: How did you communicate to your sound designer what you wanted for the subjective sound?
SF: I am very involved in sound design, it's one of my favorite parts of making movies. I worked really closely with Eli Cohn, who I worked with on my first feature as well, and we have a really intuitive way of working. We experiment a lot. We're constantly coming up with ideas in the process, and trying things, and tweaking things. That was really fun.
NFS: Let me ask you about shooting on the Subway. I know you have a philosophy about shooting where you don't have full control over the environment. Was shooting on the Subway an environment that you had control over?
SF: No, we had no control over the Subway! It was really challenging. But it forced us to remain really open-minded about what was going to happen, and what could happen. We got a lot of great accidents, or unplanned moments that we were able to record on the train, just because we had kind of thrown up our hands early on and recognized that we were never going to be able to get exactly what we set out to get. It's tough! It's so easy to think that you are not getting what you need, but then, in the case of this film, when we sat down with the footage we realized that we had gotten other stuff that was good.
NFS: When you plan for this part of the production, in the subway, what exactly was your "set" like? I'm sure this was not a typical looking production.
SF: We had a different crew on the subway than we did for the rest of the film for that reason. We needed to be as unimposing as possible for the commuters. So we had a stripped down crew. At times it was just myself. Or just me and one of the DP's. It was always pretty contained except for the Halloween sequences when we were really a sizable group. So it was a pretty different crew than the rest of the film. But the whole movie was without any film lights, so we were used to working with available light.
NFS: Filming without lights, smaller crews, what is it about filming in that way that appeals to you?
SF: As far as crews go, I've always been frustrated when I'm on a set and there's extraneous personnel around. I think it can drain from the creative force that making a movie can be. I try to keep things to what's essential. It depends on the story you are telling. Most of the movies that I've made are more on the realist tilt and so I don't like things to look like they are lit -- which is good because I rarely have money or time to do that. I think lighting is good for certain things. I'm not against lighting overall, but for these kinds of stories, the ones I've been telling recently -- It's less people, less money, less time going into something that I didn't actually want anyways. It's kind of a no-brainer. A lot of people making a movie will think you need these things because that's what studios do, or something. I don't come at it from that angle.
NFS: Was there any camera you chose to fit that style of shooting?
SF: I don't really care about cameras. We shot on the cameras that were available. There were two production companies that co-produced the movie, and coincidentally, they both owned Sony-F3's. Which is nice, I like the way the image looks. We just had it, so it was a big cost saving factor. They've come out with new models more recently, but I don't really care about it. People get so into the gear, but I don't think it really matters. It's probably one of the least important parts of the movie, ultimately.
NFS: Speaking of environments that you aren't able to control, Hurricane Sandy hit during your production, and you incorporated it into the film. How did that process go?
SF: My process has a lot to do with adapting to circumstances. Obviously in the case of this movie, the storm was a big vehicle of this. We were about three quarters of the way into the shoot, when the storm came and really changed the whole landscape in Rockaway, where I live, and where we were shooting most of the film. It shut down the subway for awhile. It put a halt to the production. Over time, I realized it presented a new direction for the film to take which ended up helping the overall story. It really turned it into an allegory, which was something I was interested in. It further serves as a document of this time in New York.
NFS: Accounting for different variables, like a hurricane and improvised dialogue -- are these aspects you embrace when you write your scripts?
SF: My first feature was entirely improvised. I was working from an outline of scenes that I knew I wanted. I knew what I wanted to happen more or less, so I could give the actors ins and outs, and let them sort of figure out how to get from one place to another on their own. Through trying different takes you would build up the way we wanted to do it, what felt right in the moment.
NFS: This is your third feature?
SF: It's my second narrative feature, but I've made some long form documentaries as well.
NFS: Having made two features and long form docs now, what's your advice on making good films?
SF: It doesn't have to be good as long as you are depending on as few people as possible. I think if someone really wants to direct a film, they should just do it. They should shoot it themselves, and edit it themselves, and find people they want to work with. Don't turn it into a big thing. There's so many aspects to filmmaking, like design, sets, costumes. It's endless! So, I think starting with something that's just about a very simple story, and shooting it, and putting it together, and learning from that is important.
I've made a few movies, but I'm still just scratching the surface of what I'm sensitive to and what I can understand artistically. I think starting small is the best thing you can do. I've made a bunch of short films that are literally just me, recording sound of the camera, shooting it myself, editing it, and I learned a lot. I still make movies that way, too. And that's sometimes my favorite way to work, because you're not beholden to anybody else, and it's fun and liberating. I think not putting too much pressure on yourself is important, starting out.
Thank you, Sam!
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is opening today at Cinema Village, New York, NY. Check out the official site to request a screening near you and, if enough New Yorkers go out to see the film, it might make it out to the rest of us. Check it out -- and if you take the New York Subway -- you may just keep an eye out for your own cameo!
What do you think about the quintessential New York movies of the past and of today?