This year, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors from director Sam Fleischner was my favorite narrative feature at Tribeca, where it had its World Premiere last week.
Sam Fleischner’s film, which was shot mostly in Rockaway Beach and on the New York City subway, tells the story of Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), an autistic boy who gets lost for several days in the subway system. His mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), a maid, and his older sister Carla (Azul Zorilla) search for Ricky with increasing urgency as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the city.
Director Sam Fleischner (whose first film, Wah Do Dem, co-directed with Ben Chace, was also about a lost boy of sorts) captures the subway system from Ricky’s perspective, offering a unique view of the New York City and its inhabitants. Fleischner deftly balances the narrative’s growing desperation with a sense of wonder.
I spoke to Sam Fleischner about his experiences creating this classic New York tale.
MovieMaker: It’s a great New York movie. It really captures something about the city and about riding the subway that I haven’t seen in other films. Could you talk about your connection to the city?
Sam Fleischner: I first moved to New York in 2006. That’s when I began riding the trains, and immediately started taking photographs, just because I was so enamored by not just the trains, but the stations and the intersection between public and private space. Like, you’re in a public space, but everybody’s also in their own private little bubble within these train cars, and also there’s a conflict moral about how much we should reach out and help one another. You’re in a small, intimate space with strangers. And sometimes strangers ask you for things, and sometimes people are just not in a good way. Usually people choose to turn away. They don’t feel responsible. It’s a strange place, and it’s always moving, and it’s so loud. It sounds like a creature. I’ve been drawn to the trains for a while as an interesting location and character.
MM: You really captured that atmosphere. I’m wondering how you shot it. As someone who’s lived here for a long time and has seen people try to shoot things on the train… It’s really amazingly true-to-life, and I was also wondering if it was all actors, how much of it was scripted. Was any of it just caught on the fly?
SF: There was a lot caught on the fly. There were days when we would go out shooting without the kid, and we would simply shoot what the kid was seeing, and then we would get a reverse with him looking at it. Which obviously involved time, especially with bigger name talent whose time is very limited. They get like one side at a time. In a similar approach to that, there were two or three days where we would just go out and try to get interesting moments. There were shots we would call Ricky’s point-of-view and then there were shots that were the narrator’s point-of-view, which aren’t necessarily through his eyes, but are just a document of something that’s occurring in a time and a place.
I think stylistically what differentiates some of this stuff from other movies is it’s the type of “real” that is actually real, and even the actors we brought in were, for the most part, “real” people. I ended up cutting most of the stuff with trained actors that I shot on the subway. It didn’t mix with the rest. There are a lot of scenes that didn’t make it into the movie because they felt too theatrical.
We were using a Cardellini clamp on the bars in the subway. Since you’re not allowed to use a tripod, I realized early on, well, we’ve got this armature that’s already part of the environment, so all we need to do is attach the camera to that, and we can get these shots that are more tableau-like and feel less “verite”. I think by locking off the camera, it does move it away from what you would expect a movie on the subway to be, like a lot of shaky handheld stuff, and it brings you into, I don’t know, maybe it’s a more cinematic place. But I think it’s more cinematic just because it’s not because you would expect. It fits better. Since we were pushing that kind of style in the Rockaway sections, it just made the whole movie more cohesive.
MM: Was the dialogue mostly improvised or scripted?
SF: It’s a mix. Some of it was not recorded on the subway at all because of the audio. Some of it we actually had a sound person go out for a couple of days and just record people talking on the train.
MM: Did you run into any problems dealing with the police?
SF: It’s not illegal to shoot on the train, as long as you’re not on a tripod. Sometimes there would be cops who didn’t know the rules, and they would be like, “Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing that.” and we’d say “Actually, we are” and we’d pull out the MTA’s rulebook where it says clearly that you’re allowed to shoot, so it was never an issue.
MM: How did you decide to turn this story into a feature? How did you work with the screenwriters?
I was reading articles about autistic kids running away, specifically on the train. It’s happened a bunch of times in New York, and there was a movie that I knew I could make, and I was just really interested in the story and the challenges of making a movie on the train. And I live out on Rockaway Beach, so I was really excited to do a movie there. I’ve never seen a movie do justice to that neighborhood. That’s how it started. First I brought on Rose Lichter-Marck to write with, and we wrote the screenplay together for over a year, and then I brought Micah Bloomberg on to help with a couple of structural things, and really the dialogue. He’s a great dialogue writer.
MM: You already had some knowledge about autism? Did you do a lot of research?
SF: Yeah, we did do a lot of research, and I spent some time sitting in on Special Ed classes with kids on the spectrum. I read some books, and I learned a lot from Jesus, too.
MM: Can you talk about casting Jesus in the film and working with him? I thought he was wonderful. He really draws you in.
SF: Yeah, he did such a good job. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in working with a child actor, and telling him how he should act like he has autism, just because, I don’t know, who the hell am I to say what it’s like to have autism? So I knew I wanted to work with a kid on the spectrum. We found him through a blog. A casting director put a post on a blog, specifically looking for someone with Asperger’s. His mom was very quick to respond. Slowly but surely we developed that relationship, and decided that was right for the film.
Jesus was great. He’s a pretty tough kid. He’s a trouper. He doesn’t complain so much. He’s just very sweet and compassionate. He’s also very curious. The hardest thing was probably –and it’s probably the case with most kids his age — was the amount that they interrupt you when you’re trying to figure something out and think. Or if you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone trying to figure out a shot. Like me and the cinematographer would be talking, and we’d have these moments where Jesus would just be chiming in. He would constantly do that. [laughs] I think that has less to do with his autism than it has to do with just his age.
MM: Another thing I really appreciated about the movie was how the actors that you cast really you get a real sense of their being a family. Can you talk about how you achieved that?
SF: Well, it was really important to me that it feel like a real family. When we first started shooting, I had them spend a couple of nights sleeping in the set, just so that they could learn how to move in the space, and know how things actually functioned in the space, so that it wasn’t just like a surface thing. They knew where they liked to sit on the couch, and they knew how the faucets worked. It’s nice to hear you say that. I think this movie is about family, more than anything. That was really important to get them communicating in a real way, and they did, on and off set. There was like a crazy mother-daughter tension that was building between Andrea and Azul which was actually really interesting to see, and I think ultimately helped them really get into the nitty-gritty.
MM: You deal with these big issues in the film like autism and illegal immigration, but it’s all sort of seamless. It never feels like it’s hitting you over the head. It feels very real and naturalistic. I think in a way that was also true of Wah Do Dem. I was wondering if you could talk about that. Is this the kind of material that you’re drawn to, dealing with these bigger themes, but weaving them into the narrative?
SF: I like subversive art, and I hope that I can learn as I make more work to do stuff that can resonate on a level that can work toward a more progressive society. [laughs] I mean, that’s ridiculous to say, but deep down I think that’s one of the things that initially drew me to making movies. Who knows if my movies will ever reach a bigger audience, but I think movies are the medium that has the most influence in terms of how people feel about the world. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re not total idiots. I just like subtlety in general in life. I think things are more powerful when they’re subtle.
In the case of this movie, I was telling a story about an undocumented family without really getting into that. Just having these little pieces make up the backbone of the story, without actually shining a light on them, is a good thing to do. Because ultimately these people don’t have stories being told about them. Most of the movies are about white people that have money. One, I don’t think it’s that interesting, and two, we need to consider different peoples’ stories more often. Especially the people that we share the city with.
MM: Could you talk about Hurricane Sandy, and how that impacted filming, and your decision to integrate that into the story?
SF: Yeah, the hurricane came about three weeks into our shoot, and it made the ending, as it was written, impossible because the train stopped running. I had him coming home, and I just couldn’t ever get it.
More than that, it’s just something that I’d talked about. There were a few people that I articulated this metaphor of the wave to, last summer, in preproduction. The single breath that a wave takes, when it’s building up and building up and then crashing down, and then it recedes back into the ocean. I like to think of the movie as that one cycle, and I was speaking about it in those terms. That was kind of amazing. It was very tightly aligned with the themes of the movie and there’s that dragon symbol that appears again and again, the Ouroboros eating its own tail, and that is all about the cycle of creation and destruction. And I always wanted Jesus to enter complete darkness and emerge in the light, which that symbol also encompasses.
But the storm happened and it became so solidified, on this deep level. It was something that we all experienced. Everyone who worked on the movie. Everyone who lives in Rockaway, and a lot of other parts of New York. It wasn’t that hard to integrate it into the movie. I had a couple of weeks to rewrite the ending and think about how to do it.
MM: The film is a really great fit for Tribeca. Could you talk about what it was like to have the premiere there?
SF: It was a perfect fit for Tribeca, and that’s the only reason I rushed it. Going into the movie, I said I’m not gonna rush making the movie for a film festival. Movies are more important than film festivals. [laughs] But Tribeca was such a good fit for this movie that I said, Oh man, we have to rush and finish this in time so that we can play it in New York right now, because I never even had a wrap party. The storm disbanded everybody to the extent where there were people I hadn’t seen until the premiere. It was incredible to be able to bring everyone back together to watch the movie in a New York environment, and be able to share that experience with everyone. Had it not played at Tribeca, it probably would have played at some other festival, where only like five of us, at most, got to go and participate.
It was amazing. It was so wonderful to do it in Tribeca. The festival was founded after the 9/11 attacks, so I think they were really excited to have a movie that was about New Yorkers coming together after a challenge.
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photo of Jesus Sanchez-Velez courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival
photo of Sam Fleischner courtesy of the New York Daily News