How They Did It: Feature Film Stuck is a Musical Set Entirely in an NYC Subway Train

Stuck is an original musical film about a New York City subway train that stops in a tunnel beneath the city, with six complete strangers stuck inside the rear car.

The strangers are a cross section of New Yorkers, of different races, cultural backgrounds and ages. The emotions of the trapped, frustrated strangers explode as the subway car becomes a kind of magical, musical conduit cell—a place where strangers reveal, through song, more of themselves than any of them ever could have imagined.

The movie is based on the musical stage play by Riley Thomas, which I got to direct for the New York Music Theater Festival (NYMF). The whole time we were rehearsing the stage version, I kept thinking how cinematic it was and what an interesting film it would make. Turned out my producer agreed, and a year later we were building a subway set in Brooklyn, courting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the use of a real subway train and track for two days of a 22-day shoot.

How did we pull off a low-budget musical feature?

The Search for a Car

At first, it seemed wise to get a subway car and just use it as a practical set—but the problem is, a subway car has limited space in every way imaginable. Also, it’s shiny, with windows on both sides, so reflections of crew in shots could be a nightmare. Think about it: narrow space with little or no access to camera movement, permanent pipes that limit dolly moves to about three feet on a rig. While we could make specialty dollies for the narrow sides, we didn’t have time or budget for that. Steadicam works pretty well, but again, depending on the rig, it is limited on space, poles, etc. And after a while, you may want to see some other types of shots to mix up the look of a film that takes place mostly in one subway car.

We scouted a bunch of options, old subway cars first. We couldn’t get a match for the cars that are running now. The shuttle apparently gets regularly used for films and TV, but it was wrong for what we were doing. I was willing to change my mind on which train we were on, but none of the options made any sense—not to mention, the cost of rental was surprisingly high for what we were getting and the time that we needed.

So DP Luke Geissbuhler, line producer Billy Mulligan, production designer Maggie Ruder and I discussed the option that I had initially resisted: building a single interior subway car set. I initially didn’t want to do the build because I was sure the cost would be prohibitive to our budget, and I wasn’t sure we could build a good enough set that would match up and dove-tail with a real subway car (which we would be spending two short but very expensive days on, late in the shoot).

DP Luke Geissbuhler

Fact is, I have spent the majority of my career working in live theater where, much like indie film, there are always limitations with budget and space. In theater, sets are generally more conceptual; they only need to give the audience an idea of a time and place, rather than look practical. Most of the time, this budget-focused perspective has worked to my advantage in films. I think in minimalist terms and have learned the art of framing only whatever is necessary of a location set to tell the audience where they are in the story. The downside to unlimited funding is that it can sometimes inhibit your creativity in the search of workarounds, since you can just buy your way out of everything. (This is how I imagine it feels, anyway!) Everyone on the Stuck team had a healthy dose of experience and confidence about what we could execute with the limited funds.

Everyone went to work on the math and getting bids for what it would take for the set build.

The Pfizer Building

We figured out that we needed to build a subway car where we could remove parts of the roof and pull every vertical bar to allow for dolly and other camera movement. We also wanted to pop its windows, and we needed to run a series of flashing lights outside the interior set, along the sides of the subway car, to simulate movement when the car was supposed to be passing through the tunnel. Billy got a great deal on a large space for the build, as well as space to set up offices and department sections, in the bowels of the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn.

The section of the Pfizer building we were in was cavernous with a cement floor, metal cages and girders everywhere. It was reminiscent of a high-ceiling subway tunnel, and though not glamorous in any way, it suited the production like a glove. Maggie set up shop and began her study of every detail, down to the smallest insignia of the modern Local 1 subway train that we had decided was our subway for the movie. It was a specific number and type, with four doors and she gathered her crew to build the beast.

Working at the Pfizer building was both a blessing and a curse. The great thing about it was that there were a lot of different kinds of spacesI wandered around the entire building and stuck my head into empty rooms and various sections. We could frame out these places for additional interior locations. Avoiding a company move saves you time, money and headaches, especially in NYC. So we milked that one building for as many spaces as we possibly could: a kitchen, a dance studio, a stairwell location, a flophouse, a green-screen area, a big wide shot of Ramon mopping in a warehouse, etc. We saved a ton of money and time by doing this, as it was far easier to roll stuff into a different room that we had dressed than to load up the trucks, get permits and park in NYC.

The tough part about working at the Pfizer building was that it was hot, dark and cavernous. No windows where we were. It was perfect for the production because it felt like we were underground the whole time, but tough on the cast and crew.

Stuck‘s crew prepare the subway set

While the work was happening on the set, Billy got us a series of meetings with the MTA. First it was with four reps who came out and walked through the Church Street station with Billy, Luke, Maggie, 1st AD Scott Lazar and me. While we moved to the various areas that I had scouted earlier on my own, I told them what I was planning to do. The reps listened and kept mostly silent as we walked through, nodding with tight smiles. Every once in awhile, one of them would say, “It’s OK with me, but you gotta ask Alberteen.”

Queen of the MTA

Alberteen was the woman in charge of all things film in the MTA subway system. Alberteen, it seemed, was legendary in the eyes of the other MTA people. They all appeared to have a history with her, and looked to her with a strange cocktail of emotions: a combination of fear, awe and a splash of anxiety. Billy had met Alberteen the previous day. I could tell by the way he spoke of her that he was kind of scared of Alberteen. Ged Dickerson, our legendary unit production manager, seemed kind of intimidated as well. Alberteen clearly called the shots. Whatever she said was how it would be.

The reps told me they were doubtful that Alberteen would allow for any of my ideas, as they seemed to have been down this road before. They were nice enough toward me, even sympathetic, but also made me feel like I was fooling myself that we’d actually do any of the stuff I was planning. 

The MTA has rules about holding the doors, jumping on the train, running down the stairs, standing too close to the track and even carrying a stroller up or down the steps. All the simple stuff that people do every day is really against MTA rules, but everyone in New York breaks them all the time with little consequence. It’s part of the culture down there. Yet I was told that Alberteen would not allow us to break a single MTA rule, as this might shed a poor light on the MTA. And Alberteen would not have that.

I was to meet her the following day. When we heard on the radio that Alberteen had arrived, the tallest MTA guy looked at me, sympathetically, and said, “The queen’s on her way.” I felt a wave of fear and excitement as a small, elegant woman approached. I could tell in the instant our eyes met that there was no charm or BS in the world that would get me anywhere with this woman: She’d clearly not only worked with far more seasoned directors than me, but also taken them down quite easily. I moved toward her respectfully, introduced myself and started the negotiation that would continue on throughout the filming process.

Alberteen turned out to be a tough but surprisingly fair collaborator. I was completely honest with her the entire time, as I was scared to get caught in any kind of lie. I believe this was my saving graceshe seemed to appreciate it. As the shoot went on, she became more willing to at least bend things a bit our way. I still remember the other MTA supervisors’ surprise when Alberteen allowed us an extra hour to execute one last subway train sequence that I hadn’t gotten yet.

Rehearsals

The cast for Stuck were Giancarlo Esposito as Lloyd, Amy Madigan as Sue, Ashanti as Eve, Arden Cho as Alicia, Omar Chaparro as Ramon and Gerard Canonico as Caleb. I had originally asked for two weeks of rehearsal with the cast—which, to me, sounded modest, given that for a stage musical, you generally get between four and 10 weeks. We had to settle for a one-week rehearsal. To make up for this, Tim Young—our music supervisor and one of the composers—spent lots of time with the actors via Skype and phone beforehand, teaching and working on songs. In many cases, he changed key and even the style of the song to suit the actors’ sensibilities, so that they would be as ready as possible when shooting.

Actress Reyna de Courcy and director Michael Berry on the set of Stuck

Once the actors arrived on site, we rehearsed for a week with chairs configured like the benches on a subway. We did scenes with a keyboard, so the actors could move through the songs. As things progressed, I pencil-marked movement and a seating chart into the script. We also printed out a bird’s eye view of the interior of the subway car on the blank side back of my script, so Luke could see what the movement plan was for where everyone would land during every scene. Arden Cho grabbed necessary moments with our choreographer Shannon Lewis whenever possible to learn the dancing that she was to do in the film. We also recorded voice tracks for the songs for production syncs that we used as playbacks during the shoot.

While all this was happening, the carpenters and art department raced to finish the build of the subway car down in the other room of the building. Maggie by now had become a subway car aficionado, and knew the ins and outs of the various subway cars of the MTA. Her design was nearly an exact replica, with the one exception, (which I only point out because she would’ve): the vertical and horizontal bar hand-holds, which were a quarter inch wider on our set than on the real subway car.

The Illusion of Movement

The majority of our movie happened inside that subway car, and we executed a lot using relatively simple methods. We set up exterior strings of lights designed to flash like chasers along a grid—when combined with sound of a train moving, it looks like the car is racing through the tunnel. We used camera movements and shakes and had the actors sell the movement of the train the old-school Star Trek way: with their bodies. For the stops and starts, we used a three count, and the actors pretended to lurch a little bit off balance. We added a bit of motion in post as well as added the sound of the train. I venture to say that even though we pulled center poles here and there on the set, we were pretty seamless with our shots between the subway set and the actual subway.

Before the first day of shooting, we went back and forth on whether to shoot on the actual subway or the set first. 1st AD Scott lobbied hard for us to shoot on the set, as he felt that the interior of the stopped subway was where the movie really lived the most. I ended up agreeing with him, and his advice turned out to be a godsend. The subway set was built to the exact specifications of a real subway, so by the time the crew got to the real subway, we were all experts on how everything fit and where all the angles and tough spots were. We had a 14-day education about the geography of the interior of a subway before we even got to the real one.

Because we’d perfected the illusion of movement on the set, we were able to shoot more footage than anticipated on set, so our days on the real subway were much less stressful. This gave us a bit of extra time to focus on outside shots of moving trains, which added immensely to the production value of the entire film.

We shot with two Arri Alexa cameras nearly the whole time. We shot through doors, through windows, from above, down the middle and even from a seated camera, for POVs. Luke and others learned as they went, and they took great measures to avoid crew reflections in windows and on poles on a set that was basically a house of mirrors. I am still amazed that, when we got to post, there weren’t far more reflections that needed VFX removal of crew and boom mics in our shots.

Stuck cast members Giancarlo Esposito and Tim Young with Berry

Pro Tip for Audio

One last bit of advice I learned the hard way: Always use Earwigs when anyone is singing. Earwigs are the little speakers that look like hearing aids, and these go in an actor’s ear so he or she can hear the music and sing in the clear. It helps sound record a clear take of the music, and it will help you tremendously in post: You may find that you want to use the production sound of the singing later. We got to use a ton of ours, but in a few spots we had not made the right preparations, so I had fewer choices in some places. And, always, always, do your best to track and put the Earwig in the off-camera ear of the actor! It will save you a tremendous amount of VFX removal time and money later. MM

Stuck will screen at the Raindance Festival, followed by appearances at Breckenridge, Woodstock and Heartland, Edmonton, Naples and Napa Valley, courtesy of Highland Film Group. Photographs by Phillip Caruso.

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