|"If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome. Today America is the Roman Empire and New York City is Rome Itself"|
When film companies from other countries - especially Asian or South Asian countries - come to New York City, they want to shoot "iconic" New York locations; those locations that people back home have seen in movies.
The problem, in part, is that the New York of movies does not always exist anymore. There was an excellent article in The Guardian earlier this year called "Confessions of a location scout: Why the New York of the movies doesn't exist anymore." Much of the article deals with the "dangerous" locations highlighted in 1970s films like Fort Appache:The Bronx and The Warriors. However, it also deals with many of the nicer landmarks that have changed.
Showing the "grimier" side of New York has become harder. When I worked on the original season of Taxicab Confessions, we often would spend time in the Meatpacking District. We knew we could find hookers - straight and transvestite - and that we'd find sordid people with racy stories. Indeed, even on low budget film shoots, I spent many a morning on those cobblestone streets reminded why it was called the "Meatpacking District": the many warehouses that did just that, as well as slaughterhouses.
Unlike in Apocolypse Now, no one every said, "I love the smell of dead animal flesh in the morning."
Now, if you were to go down those streets late at night, all you will smell is money and the most interesting characters would be those few who were not club kids waiting for their Uber.
Before the hiatus Leigh had locked up some great iconic locations. Among them were Grand Central Station and Luna Park in Coney Island. The time lost also meant locations lost, and these two locations were among them.
No time to fret. Leigh went about trying to lock new "iconic" locations on no notice. The shortened shoot meant that we were going to lose the interiors for the most part, and that those would be filmed in Indonesia. In fact, the Indonesian team had crammed days of shooting into three days over that weekend, with almost no prep time. They had met their challenge; now, it was on us.
We kept going in circles on what made a location iconic, and more importantly, what would an Indonesian audience find iconic. Leigh was able to cobble together a Times Square day, after which we would film a scene on the NY subway.
We needed the airport scene where Raisa arrives and goes home. The shortened window made JFK very difficult, so we moved to MacArthur Airport. Leigh did a great job of making MacArthur Airport work, which included her making a scouting trip that meant leaving Manhattan at about 5AM for a 7AM meeting on Long Island.
While MacArthur had decidedly less traffic and complications than JFK, it would not be easy. As the scout suggested, it was even further from NYC than JFK, and that meant less filming time in a 12 hour day. In addition, we were still talking about an airport and TSA. On Leigh's scout, she learned what that meant, including dogs sniffing the truck for bombs, equipment and people separately going through metal detectors using the same procedure you would use for a trip.
We would also be assigned one TSA agent per 10 people, and anyone straying away on their own would be subject to arrest and up to a $10K fine that they, personally, would have to pay. This definitely got everyone's attention.
While Leigh was battling getting these locations Brian, my AD, was trying to put together details for a scout that included this long trip as well as locations we did not have yet.
Of course, these other locations still had to be approved by the director, who would not be able to see them for himself but rely on pictures. This process went well into Wednesday, when our team was complete (or as complete as it would be) with the arrival of Rini from Washington DC. We were thrilled to finally be in the same room with our counter-part in DC, who we had spent countless hours with on the phone, online and various other methods from text to Facetime. We still had the communication and time differential with Jakarta, but at least we were in two locations and not three.
We started talking about parks - there were many in the script, and it turned out some of the "parks" were actually meant to be on a college campus. We went through an arduous process of figuring out what was "Park 1" vs "Park 2" etc. As we kept sending more pictures, which park was which would often change. This meant that while Leigh was trying to secure the permit the chicken-and-egg game of her permitting and Brian scheduling was happening. We wound up doing most park scenes at a park in Brooklyn.
Reza, the director, became focused on getting something in Dumbo, and much of his desire fell around a picture he had of Dumbo which was by the bridge, something like this.
As we took different pictures, some of the best angles would be in a private park adjacent to the bridge, which would be difficult to get on short notice. Other streets were on the MOFTB hiatus list, meaning that they had filming so often that locals complained and there would not be permits issued for a while. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, they had become so popular that no one could go there anymore,
We knew we wanted something in Central Park, and late in the process - even while we were shooting - we secured the well-known carousel in Central Park (now hideously named after a presidential candidate I will not name). Aliki helped get that for us at the last minute.
We were trying to replace Grand Central, and the only obvious equivalent, the Empire State Building observatory, was not going to happen easily within our budget or in the time we had to secure it. So where?
Since Raisa was a singer, we thought about putting her in a theater. Why not the Apollo in Harlem? That was iconic, right?
Leigh made inroads there by literally walking in a back way when they did not return her calls. She is a lady who does not take "no" for an answer easily, and she spent a short time on the verge of incarceration from Apollo security. Somehow, she had an outline for a deal there, and we added it to the scout while still trying to secure a location agreement.
By Thursday, it was time to do the tech scout, a tech scout that had been rescheduled numerous times. I did not go, with much to do and knowing that two great production people, Leigh and Brian, were on the trip, and that Rini, a producer herself, could be there to represent Reza's wishes.
While they were away, word began to filter back that there were problems with The Apollo. Frankly, I was annoyed at first. At this late date, I did not want to hear complaints. We had a great place that Reza agreed to that seemed willing to work with us.
However, during the production meeting that followed, it became obvious that it was no small problem.
The ground rules the Apollo wanted were strict. Often, when working in a union house on a non-union shoot, there will be insistence that union "shadow" crew be hired. While costly, I could live with this. Let's just pay them and get it done.
But wait! It turns out they not only wanted their people on, they were insisting that ONLY their people could handle equipment. Basically, my grip and electric crew would be sitting there while they watched people with no interest in our shoot set up equipment. I started to imagine this while an Indonesia-speaking Cinematographer and Director were trying to give directions. Furthermore, there would be no showing anything that branded the space as the Apollo Theater.
Together, these demands became too much. What was the point of paying a very high fee to not show that the location we were shooting in was iconic? None of us could see any situation where the union requirements would not make filming there a nightmare.
I suggested a downtown venue, where a theatrical producer I had come to know pretty well had a successful show. Doug, the producer, was on board, but we also needed the signature of the theater owner, and she was out-of-town and not being communicative. So it was that we were now going to a place on that Monday while still trying to figure out if the permission would come through. I decided to take that chance and late on Friday night, pulled the plug on a place, the Hammerstein Ballroom, that was holding a security check from us.
Leigh and I were in the office late into the night before Day 1, Leigh refusing my imploring that she get some sleep. She was not going to set until she had everything.
Through all of this, Aliki and Arneece were generating all the paperwork needed at a pace that entire office would normally have, and Rini would work her usual 2 days for one, the 12 hours on NY time and then another 12 hours on Indonesian time, desperately trying to keep the flow of communication going.
Brian and Patrick, our AD department, were planning for a shoot in two languages with no shot list and no real idea of what the director and DP wanted in the scenes.
Next, the filming of the New York portion of Terjebak Nostalgia, which had its release just this past week in Indonesia. We congratulate them!