Boulevard of Dreams
New York City. What makes a person come here, changing the course of their destiny and forgoing a life of security in a place of familiarity? What callings and urges compel somebody to move to a place where the expectations for excellence are coldly brutal and unforgiving to mediocrity. You see this with shuttered restaurants, closed for business while indifferent steps of foot traffic plod along, looking two blocks ahead. Average doesn’t fare well here. To that we say sayonara and better luck next time.
This city has birthed artists and artists have come here to be birthed. Some move on, some stay, some quit only to become something else entirely, some watch from the sidelines always wondering “what-if”, some reject their original dreams and stop believing and spend their lives believing in someone else’s. But some continue down their boulevard of dreams, the dream sometimes changing and morphing and other dreams stay rigid and fixed, incorruptible and uncompromising . A dream is like a person, vast and indefinable, a personal vision projected onto this world.
The dream is the beginning of a journey. It is the ticket punched for a destination unknown. Kurtz found himself in the jungle, his true calling revealed to him as civilization slowly peeled away and from this he found his heart of darkness. To be an artist in New York City is, in a sense, a journey replete with much anguish, passion, and madness. It is also a journey of intense discovery. So once again I ask you, what makes it all worth it? Is it the glory? For some yes, recognition and fame are important. It is validation for excellence. Sometimes the excellence goes unrewarded, sometimes the artist isn’t appreciated until they are gone. But one thing is for certain, the artist has made New York just as much as New York has made the artist. They are part of the tapestry of this city just as much as rats and bars, museums and honking cars. Many times these artists are pushing the boundaries of the art world, reinvigorating neighborhoods and bringing reinvention one step ahead of current trends. Empty lofts deep in Brooklyn sometimes carry the seeds of a movement, its bearers holding the secret like the knowledge of an ageless shaman disseminating wisdom with quiet chants, staring into the darkness, just like in a movie theater moments before the first rays of light project unknown images onto a communal wall. The journey of an artist is a spiritual one, requiring faith in a vision no one else can see. The pulpit takes on many shapes and forms, the medium ever expanding. The message can be contradicting, the discourse a whisper or a shout. There can be blood and violence or moments of quiet embraces. So who are these dreamers, these immigrants of art spilling into this city fleeing their origins from a persecution or hardship less easy to define than the traditional migrant searching for work? Sometimes their names are splashed across billboards and subways ads. Other times the artist is sitting next to you at a coffee shop, mouthing lines for a play, their path still a mystery. I have always been intrigued by the many different kinds of people who push back against norms of the status quo, those who make the noble attempt at wresting away their own destiny from the long arms of fate. The prospects of fame and the idea of success to me have always told only half of the story. How these works of art take shape and the process of alchemy which begins with a dream and becomes something we, the audience, are invited to experience is the real story, the story before all the dust and blood is swept up off the studio floor. Recently I had the opportunity to help an independent filmmaker and be in a movie at the same time. What this day turned into was perhaps the funnest daddy and daughter day of all time.
I met the indefatigable Justin Fair a few years back. We worked together at the great Cafe D’Alsace. While I was in the bathroom taking shots of vodka, he would be in the bathroom stall next to me trying to finalize funding for a short film he was working on. A lot people talked game, he walked it and had the history to prove it. This is why I was honored when he passed along a script to me written by his friend Ian Grody called Sloan Hearts Neckface. I read it on the long subway ride home, a welcome reprieve from homework (I was probably reading Hawthorne at the time). It was great and the next shift we had together I told him so. “So, what are you going to do with it,” I asked.
“Direct it,” he said.
What I believe is there is a right way to direct a film and a wrong way. If it is fast, cheap, and easy then it is probably the wrong way. Like a man possessed, Justin seemed to be doing many jobs at once. At the restaurant he would literally tell a table the special, put in a drink order, answer a text from a crew member, follow-up an email about some equipment, and finalize a time for an audition. He was also about to start working on a play by David Mamet. He was a whirlwind of inspiration. He wasn’t taking any short cuts. He knew the journey was going to be long and when he finished he wouldn’t be the same.
Sometime in late 2015 I stopped working at D’Alsace and we went our separate ways. To my surprise Justin reached out to me in the middle of this past summer and asked if I could be an extra on August 18th. Sure, I responded, but can my daughter come? August 18th was a Thursday and that is our day together. Hell yeah, he responded.
My daughter Amara and I had to be in Harlem by 11am for the shoot. 125th, West side. We arrived as the crew was setting up. If anyone has ever worked on a film, they know how much preparation is involved in the smallest moments. But this is cinema. Many small moments can add up to something big and all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make these moments come to life is something only the people working on the film can only truly know. Once Justin, who I shall from this line forward refer to him as the director, came to the location, the crew had already been setting up the shot, working the angles. The Directors of Photography, Peter Fackler and Lukas Pruchnik (they composed the title picture) were checking lighting and it was apparent they were working with the Director quite closely in collaboration. Collaboration is the defining word of filmmaking. Like Ahab, the Director was the captain of the ship, chasing the white whale of the film. Each person has a clearly defined role, at least from the outside looking in. Of course this is probably far from true. But they are working together, chasing this object and getting further and further away from familiarity and into something unknown.
The shoot itself was really just a few takes. My daughter and I had clear directions. We were to walk past the lead actor, Raul Castillo, and recoil from him. That’s it. Just a tiny piece in a grand puzzle. After a few hours on set Amara and I were relieved of duty, our miniscule performance etched in digital celluloid, a tiny thread in an independent film. Afterward, Amara and I spent the day in the Upper West Side, roaming the city and walking down boulevards we had never explored together. Funny how streets you have seen many times look different through the eyes of a curious child.
A few weeks ago I began thinking about our experience, being allowed to share a sliver of someone else’s dream. I started thinking about the role of artists in general, their mode of survival. It can be a lonely road where the support of others can be crucial to the outcome. For filmmaking, I think this is especially true. It helps to live in a place not only conducive to the creative process, but also a place which embraces it. New York is such a place. I recently asked the Director what were some of the challenges in making this film and he said: “Money is the root of all complications. It limits our time, our locations, our equipment, our ability to secure collaborators. Just a week before our shoot Seth Rogen stole actress Clara Mamet away from us. That’s the power of money. These things come up, though. We adapted. Limitations are good. So are last minute changes and challenges. They lead us to what the piece really wants to be.”
It is funny how similar filmmaking is to real life. We must roll with the punches after our expectations take unexpected turns. This is why the act of creating and the story behind it is sometimes more important than the final product. Hearing these stories of how artists overcome improbable odds to achieve an end which turned out to be different than the blueprint is something we can all learn from when the trials of our lives seem frustrating and our own dreams look less attainable. There is always a fear of failure but if everything was predictable life would be boring. When I asked the Director about the creative process he simply said, “the endeavor of creating teaches you about yourself. It's humbling, requires collaboration and forces you to evolve. It helps one distinguish between a life of sincerity and a life of propaganda. It's about the best damn thing out there.” This is why the regeneration of new artists who continue to spill into our city is important and must be taken seriously. This is also why it is important to support local artists no matter where you live and embrace them because their stories can help our stories. It inspired me to pick up a pen and write about the experience with my daughter on a day where we were asked to be in a movie. In turn we played a tiny part in the creative process while we were given a memory that will last a lifetime. In the end everyone wins.