Getting the opportunity to shoot your first feature film in New York City is a dream come true—like being a swimmer selected to compete in the Olympics in your very first season. But you better be ready to hold on to your speedos: The most cinematic city in the world is also the biggest nightmare to shoot in.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally worth it. But although yes, you dream big, it turns out that no, you won’t be able to shoot in Times Square on an indie film budget. “Even on the side streets?,” I asked. No! “Even if we don’t block off the streets?” No! “Even if we don’t shoot all the screens, so we don’t have to pay the rights to Coca-Cola and all the other brands being advertised?” Nope, nope, and nope! Believe me, I tried it all, but with the options I had left in the end, I would’ve been better off if I’d tried shooting a desolate cave as Times Square rather than 42nd Street. Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe did it before us, but I was to have no such luck, so I had to move on. Besides, we didn’t want to shoot the “obvious” New York City.
Our film Here and Now is about a woman named Vivienne (played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who also served as producer), an established singer who we follow over the course of 24 hours as she navigates the busy streets of the city while trying to balance her upcoming music tour, family, and friends after receiving an earth-shattering diagnosis at the start of her day. So, to speak to her character’s experience, the New York we were looking to capture was a very personal New York, a very subjective New York, belonging to our character.
So, how did we do it? By coming at each of the many challenges thrown our way with a very particular approach, and by learning to embrace them. First, our two producers, Sarah and Alison Benson, are two real New Yorkers—the kind who make taxi drivers crazy because they know every corner, turn, and direction better than the Waze app. Second, we made sure to choose locations wisely, and as specifically as possible in terms of their relationship to our characters.
Since day one of development, we discussed the prospect of Vivienne living in Midtown East, and using her character to explore that less-traveled section of Manhattan, where nobody goes mainly because the subway so badly serves it. Setting Here and Now in this neighborhood made such midtown jazz clubs as Birdland and the Iridium easily accessible. This is a part of town that I’d consider to have “screen virginity”—an untouched quality in its distance far from the Village and the iconic images of Sex and the City that Sarah already knew so well.
Being French, I recognized the chance to bring a fresh eye to the city. My Director of Photography Javier Aguirresarobe is Spanish Basque, so together the two of us were strangers on-set. We came to town for some very early prep and often walked around those dead ends of Turtle Bay and Tudor City, between the Queensboro Bridge and the United Nations headquarters, my favorite building in town. (Oscar Niemeyer forever.) I also found the building where Greta Garbo used to live, and there were plenty of hospitals in the area—convenient when your character has to consider a hospital in her near and unfortunate future.
The best locations team you can have is one that’s young, fresh, and full of energy. Our locations crewmembers, Jason Kouzikas and Kir Jordan, were experienced enough to know the tricks of scouting, yet young enough to still believe that miracles do exist. And believe me, when shooting in New York City in 16 days on an indie budget, you have to pray for miracles.
Just a few of the issues we had to face:
Pricing: New York is by far the most expensive city in the world. I’ve shot commercials in Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, and London, to name a few, and New York definitely wins when it comes to the ticket price on rentals and locations… big time.
Blocking: If you think you can stop New Yorkers from walking down the street just because you’re with a film crew, you’re wrong! Nothing stops a New Yorker. (Even Hurricane Sandy couldn’t quite do it!) And if you try to stop bypassers and get in the way of where they’re going, you’re lucky if they don’t curse at you or shove a middle-finger straight into your camera lens in the process of ruining your shot. If you want to safeguard the streets for your shoot, you’ll need permits, cops, assistants, cars, security, and many extras to replace the real New Yorkers whom you’ve just blocked off…which brings you back to the first issue on any indie movie, the cost.
These rules also apply to driving. Driving involves so much security to deal with, since you can’t stop the traffic. You need the police, and even if your production can manage that requirement, you then have to accommodate the availability of the police, who clearly have much bigger fish to fry. (Just pure joy.)
Once you think you’ve tackled all of these issues, you may begin shooting a scene in front of a bar and you’ve forgotten about one key element: noise. New York is maybe the loudest city in the world, so, you best be smart about the placement of your dialogue. Or, you better be ready for some serious ADR.
Once you’ve survived all this—I should say, if you survive all this—New York will very much give back to you… as long as you open yourself up to it.
Enjoy the Life of the City
Don’t try to fight it. You have to embrace the crowd. You have to enjoy the traffic. When people start pulling out their mobile phones, (and believe me, when you put Sarah Jessica Parker on the sidewalk of New York City, they pull out their phones faster than any cowboy in any spaghetti western you’ve ever seen) use a long lens to lose the depth and trap the onlookers in the unfocused background of your shot. Think about it this way: If you were filming on a backlot in Southern California, you’d have to pay a fortune to recreate the same natural, urban mood, energy, beautiful mess of cars, bikes, pedestrians and dogs all together.
Take Advantage of Accidents and Imperfections
If you’re shooting in a car and the traffic is blocked, use that opportunity to play the moment of the scene where your actor exits the vehicle in a dramatic way. If it starts raining, jump on the chance to shoot your rain scene and save the money you would have spent on the rain towers to spend on something else. But also make sure to capture the little things: the imperfection of an old buildings’ walls, the cracks on a sidewalk, the poster of a missing cat. My documentarian background taught me to track and embrace all those signs of real life, being lived.
Make Use of the Architectural Richness of the City
Shooting in 16 days, you have no time to lose on big company moves, so be smart and strategic. We had many interior apartment scenes in Here and Now, so we chose several apartments all in the same building—rich, big, varied. We shot all the different entrances of the building to make the audience believe they were different locations. We changed light and other details in the corridors to make them each look distinct, and saved much precious time as a result. Make sure to react to the things that catch your eye. Walking through the city, I found a wall on the back side of the Museum of Modern Art with physical properties that I knew would create a beautiful visual effect, and what we shot there is now one of my favorite shots in the film.
New York City is much like a stereotypical New Yorker: a bit rude and aggressive when first approached, but brilliant, educated, and full of surprises if you pay attention and know how to look at and handle her. Yes, I say, “her,” because in French, a city is always a woman, and I have no doubt that New York is the most demanding, but also the most beautiful one of all.
Good luck, New York moviemakers. It’s so worth it. MM
Here and Now opened in theaters, On Demand, and digitally November 9, 2018, courtesy of AMBI Distribution. All images courtesy of AMBI Distribution.