The Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) bridges Queens and Brooklyn, stretching parallel to Manhattan, elevated some 50 feet off the ground in places. As you drive Brooklyn bound, the BQE offers some breath-taking views of Manhattan rising in the distance, the skyscrapers echoing the tombstones of a huge cemetary in the foreground. I explored this startling visual in my short film Kalipolis (2004). When we were shooting Kalipolis there I noticed the incredible sound of cars rumbling past at speed overhead. They would trundle by emanating repetitive thumps as though the whole expressway could not bear their velocity or weight. It seemed like a perfect setting for an ambience of doom. I loved it.
In Shutterbug, Alex the hallucinating photographer journeys in search of the apparition that keeps appearing only to him. He is led by her into the dark underbelly of NYC, meeting characters along the way as he spirals down through the various 'circles' of the city by night. Beneath the BQE he meets many such characters, each trapped in their own circle of hell.
Shooting under the BQE would start at around 4pm when it was dark enough to simulate night. Very often we shot late - very late - wrapping at dawn. We shot a scene with a group of fantastic Capoeira dancers who came on board at the very last moment, organized by Sujey De Coo "Rosa". We shot a scene with Frank Cadillac, a unique character actor whom Nando and I loved working with on Kalipolis. And, amongst others, we shot a scene with Mary Round, an wonderful actor who played the difficult role of a homeless vagabond. In all it was many late nights under the BQE in desolate parts of Brooklyn. Despite our fatigue, things ran smoothly, the exception being a run-in with a pipe wielding crack-head (a metal pipe). While the guys in the crew prepared for a fight - myself included (we had a machete you see) - our DP, Rossana Rizzo, calmly dispatched the wide-eyed assailant with a smile and a laugh!
At this point we were joined by Kat Rohrer of GreenKat Films who camera assisted Rossana on many of the GCC shoots, apartment shoots and BQE scenes.
With most of the night exteriors behind us, I was glad that we had managed to shoot everything by winter. Well, almost everything - there still remained a few transitional scenes that I was unsure of how to handle, that I kept pushing back... All through the film we were dropping shots because of missing locations or props or time constraints. One such missing prop was a dead rat. I needed a close-up of a dead rat under the BQE. I had walked by that location on my way home and had seen dead rats COUNTLESS times there. No dead rats that week. When you need a dead rat in this city you can't find one. So we had to drop the shot and pick it up when we could find a dead rat some time in the future (there was no way I was using a fake one).
In any case we moved on to larger set pieces and day interiors. A chaotic and complex scene of a fashion photo shoot was shot in Context Studios, a great indie-friendly space in Brooklyn. This was one of the most expensive days of the shoot and I figured I would need more crew to stay on budget. Unfortunately the gaffer I hired - whose name I will not mention - a friend no less - did not show up. And my AD was acting in the scene. The scene was also not scripted entirely. There were two streams of action happening: two groups of people interacting simultaneously and very little of the dialogue was scripted. So I sat down with the cast and we spent a good half an hour discussing their characters and their goals. We ran through some of the things they might be saying, and I left them to improvise in front of the camera. It worked. I think it was a combination of good casting, smart actors and the right environment for them to work in. I actually did very little but choreograph the camera with Rossana. I don't remember directing them much! We got the scene and came in on time and under budget, avoiding a costly overtime fee.
The other location that I used as a studio was The Greek Cultural Centre. The GCC had been supportive of my work in the past: I had shot a big segment of my short film Judith (2003) there. Despite the fact that they had a play running at the time - and geek dance lessons! - we were allowed to come in and build sets, use the rooms, set up a greenscreen cyc, and do as we wished! Without the GCC large parts of the film would not be as successful as they are. We even faked the place to look like a hospital waiting room one day - an executive office the next - and a thrift shop the next! We really moved in and set up the kitchen the way we wanted: Nando had bought me a crock pot for my birthday (I love cooking) and I would throw in raw vegetables, garlic, spices and olive oil at the beginning of the day, turn it on, and by lunch time we had a meal ready!
We also shot the opening of the movie at the GCC. An intimate scene where Alex takes a self portrait photograph of himself in a mirror before he goes to work. This scene was a pleasure to shoot. I am always most comfortable when I'm alone with my actors: just them, the camera and I. The immediacy is stimulating. Nando and I already had a relationship spanning back five years to the first short we made in 2002 and we were not only on the same wavelength, but surfing it. The scene is relaxed, natural and exactly how I imagined it...
We converted many locations to seem like something else. A friends' lounge bar became a psychic's parlor. The rooftop of a skyscraper was shot on the roof of a two-storey high building. A bar became a photographer's darkroom.
Other locations I didn't want to cheat for production value. We shot in a seedy gay bar; a very nice east village apartment ; Cinema Village movie theater ; an opthalmologists office ; Vin Noir - a cozy wine bar that used to be on Mott Street ; and my favorite, the beautiful plush restaurant The Strip House on East 12th street in Manhattan. All establishments supported the film and did not exploit us with high rental fees. For this they are portrayed beautifully in the film.
Production was taking a toll on us all. By week 4 we were all exhausted, anxious to wrap and our nerves were showing. Nando and I had a few small fights regarding timeliness (he was always on time - whereas I ran late every now and then by a few minutes)... And I would take out my frustration on Brett and Rossana when there were technical difficulties... We 'lost' a great dolly shot that we did in 14 takes to get perfect, probably due to a technical mistake on my part due to fatigue... not to mention the fact that we were all investing time and giving up paying work to accomplish the shoot.
I began to realize that we would not get everything shot in the 5 and a half weeks Rossana and I had allocated. It was a very difficult decision to stop shooting before everything was achieved. But I had no choice. We were almost at the edge of the world, but like Alexander, we had to turn back at the last minute.
Fortunately, it was only a film shoot. I knew we would be able to pick up a lot of the remaining scenes later. So I prioritized and shot the remaining main scenes. On our 'last' day of shooting, the champagne came out and we drank with zest.
I went home and amassed the hours of material we had shot, despite the gaping blanks. But, inevitably, the best thing to do after shooting a film is to forget about it. So Rossana and I went to Italy: Campania, Rome, Florence. During the trip I felt that I had accomplished a huge feat, and could say I had shot a feature film by 29.
Now whether it was a good feature film...