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Film Crew in NYC

November 30, 2010

On Columbus Day weekend (I know it was last month, but I didn’t have a blog then), I was in Manhattan to help out my good friend Brant Smith–a DIY filmmaker who writes, directs, and blogs under the pseudonym DJ Bad Vegan (why the nom de plume?  Well, if you had a DJ, would you want him to be a good vegan?  Of course not.)  Brant has produced and co-written another feature, which makes him by far the most accomplished filmmaker I know.  So when he said he would be filming some of his new movie in New York, I volunteered to help.  Not foolish enough to turn down free labor, Brant accepted my help and I was hired as a script supervisor/gopher.  I was thrilled to do it–not only because I consider Brant to be a close friend but I felt I could learn a lot from watching him work.

We filmed at two locations that day–one at a downtown mosque (no, not Park 51) and another at a midtown  Turkish restaurant.  This was another reason I wanted to help–having read Brant’s script, I knew that one of his themes was islamophobia.  This is also a theme in one of my scripts, “Season of Mists” (nine contest wins and a Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist–just sayin’), so I was looking forward to working on these scenes, having spent much of the last three years studying and exploring Islamic, Middle Eastern, and South Asian culture.

For those of you who don’t know what a script supervisor does, s/he usually is present on the set if the actors or director need to be prompted for lines, or to make sure that if the actor decides to alter a line, the director is comfortable with the improvisation.  In, short, to remind everyone what the script says.  Brant, being a true leader, did not confine my role to simply this:  after each take, he asked my opinion, and if I had any suggestions.  He also gave me the responsibility of giving a visual cue to an actor. This is what makes Brant so good at what he does: he makes everyone feel like collaborators. I don’t know much about directing films, but I would think that would be an essential skill.

Also making the midtown shoot interesting  was the fact that there was a huge march for Kenyan independence that passed right by the restaurant–not enough to interrupt the shot, but enough to give us a fuller cultural experience.  The police presence and barricades nearby made it appear that the cops were there for us, thus giving our presence a gravity I’m not sure we warranted.  It’s a funny thing about New York:  you stand on a street corner filming, and people will come up to you and want to know what is you are doing.  Wild.

I’d have to say the most bizarre experiences I had that day came at a Madina Masjid mosque when I was in my “gopher” role.  We were preparing to shoot and were unloading equipment from the van, when a mid twenties African-American man strolled up to me with a question.  I noticed that he was walking a very cute little mutt, trailed shortly behind by his impatient wife pushing a stroller.   His wife, child, and dog served to undercut the tough guy persona he was desperately trying to cultivate.  No matter; he pressed on with his inquiry:

“Hey, buddy.  You know where I can get any replica guns?”

Excuse me?

“You know. Fake guns!”

Yeah, I can’t really help you with that, and we’re not making that kind of movie…

Later, I was asked to stand in front of the mosque, and make sure no one entered through the main door–Brant and the cast and crew were filming right inside, and anyone who walked in would have found themselves making a rather surprising cameo in Brant’s opus.

Guarding the door to the mosque was not a problem–although I felt a bit strange being a white non-Muslim American telling people they couldn’t enter their house of worship through the front door (although Asra Nomani might consider it to be a sort of karma).  The only real problem was a handful of tourists from Middle America desperate for directions to Chinatown, and rejecting my frequent admonitions to move out of the shot.

Nope.  We want directions, and were not moving until we get them.  The sudden appearance of Brant and a most impatient director of photography (the excellent Dane Brehm) convinced them otherwise.

However, when I wasn’t redirecting worshippers and arguing with tourists,  some really powerful moments unfolded before me.  One young woman, perhaps twenty, walked very slowly and deliberately past the mosque, looking askance at it as she passed.  As she went by, I spotted the insignia on her t-shirt:  the Israeli Defense Forces.

And right behind her?  Another woman, about her age, guitar strapped over her shoulder, wearing a t-shirt…with a peace sign.  I don’t think they were together, but the irony was not lost on me.

A bit later, another gentleman slowed down and gazed at the Arabic writing on the side of the building.  He cocked his head slightly, reminding me of how a dog might stare at a fan.  He then began twisting his face in all variety of expressions, as if by contorting his features into the shape of an Arabic character, he might understand the writing.   He finally gave up, but not before announcing to no one in particular: “You can’t read that shit!”

I pointed out that it was in another language, and the translation appeared in English just to the right of the Arabic, but he muttered away, seemingly ungrateful.

My favorite moment, though, occurred near the end of the shoot.  A South Asian man was passing the mosque when he stopped to ask another pedestrian to light his cigarette.  The pedestrian was a Latino hiding under his hoodie, pants riding low. I assumed the South Asian gentleman was new in town  or never watched the evening news, for he seemed blissfully unaware of the fact that he was supposed to fear this young man.  The young man agreed to light the cigarette, but the wind was not being cooperative, and they seemed to be having some trouble.

The South Asian man began to joke  about the wind, which prompted the Latino man to smile–a beautiful, wide, kind smile that seemed to light up his entire face. His whole body appeared  to rise out of his  “street posture” as he continued to joke with the man as they struggled with the lighter.  Finally, they succeeded, and after two very polite nods, proceeded on their way.

I could see they were both still smiling as they headed off.  Even though it was over a cigarette, it made me feel strangely hopeful: these two vastly different individuals could share this moment, and make each other laugh.  And, apparently, make each other’s day.

Gotta love New York.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Chloe Duhaime permalink
    November 30, 2010 1:21 am

    The cigarette story brought tears to my eyes. How fun that you got to help out with the film!

  2. November 30, 2010 3:27 pm

    Glad you liked it so much–it was a blast to be there. Thanks for being a loyal follower of the blog!

  3. Shelley permalink
    December 1, 2010 4:24 pm

    It’s like Jon Stewart points out. When two lanes of car traffic merge, everyone takes their turn. Its the little everyday acts, free from demographic influences except that of living in NYC that form the mechanism of action of the melting pot. Yes, smoking has a social culture, but so do going to school, shopping, and giving up your seat on the subway to the pregnant lady. The mundane can be sublime in it’s implicit lack of note worthiness

  4. December 1, 2010 4:48 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Michael Barnett permalink
    December 30, 2010 2:51 am

    ACK! it would appear that my news feed hasnt kept me posted and i am behind on ur blog! o_O nice opportunity there. definitely in the top 3 of the coolest things ive heard about happening to people i know. reading this made me wish that i had been brought up in a more diversified area so i could have seen such cultural interactions. Hmm maybe the “people watching club” at UCONN has a potential to be interesting…if a bit creepy. XD

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