Stand Clear of the Closing Doors follows a 13-year-old autistic boy who wanders into the subway system, leading his mother — an undocumented Mexican immigrant — on a desperate search to find him as superstorm Sandy descends on their home in Rockaway Beach.
Set partially in New York’s labyrinthine underground trainscape, ranging across Queens, and starting its theatrical run at Cinema Village tonight, the Special Jury Prize winner at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival is really a Brooklyn baby. Director Sam Fleischner lives in Prospect Heights, while the project’s two major production companies — m ss ng p eces and SeeThink Films — operate out of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, respectively.
SeeThink, wedged in beside the Williamsburg Bridge, is a collaboration between four young filmmakers: Tom Davis, Luke Meyer, Ethan Palmer, and Andrew Neel. They produced their first film (a documentary called Darkon) together in 2006. We sat down with Neel to talk about their work on the latest “small miracle” of low-budget filmmaking.
How did you first get involved with Stand Clear, and what was the extent of your creative input into the film?
I’ve known Sam for a long time. We had started to think about working outside the gang of the four of us and Sam came to me with his concept and an outline of the script, and I started working on it as a producer. It was the first time I’d done that in a really hands-on way. And I worked with him over the course of a couple of years, I guess. It’s really the first film I’ve been a producer on—that I’ve really lived with and helped develop—that is coming out like this. Also [co-founder] Ethan Palmer worked as a co-deputy producer on it. With all the projects that we do, a few of us are on the project in name but it’s always a group effort: at any point in the filmmaking process we’re always consulting each other about what we think of the current cut, how we should get around obstacles. Ethan was really out there in the field every moment of shooting, and I wasn’t in the field. It is exciting!
Why did you decide to work on this particular film? What are you looking for in a project, as producers?
We gravitate to films about outsiders. When Sam brought the script I immediately thought it fit into our interests for obvious reasons: autistic people see the world in a slightly different way and there’s a lot of value in that. Additionally, there’s a lot of neo-realism being made these days: there’s a circus of it on the festival circuit, and a lot of it ends up falling into this huge blob of very similar films. In this film — knowing Sam and his treatment of it — I knew the neo-realism would acquire a new intellectual element as part of the narrative, which would make a film that could really rise above the rest and be something that was more than just a simple drama.
So what’s the central idea behind Stand Clear?
There’s the more obvious narrative issue — a mother looking for her son, and his coming of age — but it’s also a moment to see the world, and the New York City subway system specifically, through the eyes of someone who looks at the world in a different way. So often, especially in places like New York, we lock ourselves out of the experience of watching and looking and experiencing the collage of stuff that’s going on around us. The film is an opportunity to do that through the medium of Ricky’s point of view.
You worked on this project in collaboration with Greenpoint-based m ss ng p eces. Tell me about your relationship with them?
m ss ng p eces co-produced it with us, and it was an organic thing. I knew Sam, Sam was represented by m ss ng p eces, they wanted to support his film. They’re generating more narrative content, and were excited about what he was trying to do. Our attitude is always: work together.
It’s important to point out that Veronica Nickel was really the blood and guts producer on the ground — the driving force, despite her company name not being on it. Ethan was out there, Veronica was out there, everyone was pretty die-hard, and without them we wouldn’t have the movie.
In your opinion, how’s the NYC independent film scene looking more generally?
There’s two different ways of looking at it. There’s a tremendous amount of awesome material that’s coming out of New York right now. There’s a number of tribes that have developed in Brooklyn over the last ten years — of young filmmakers, who are making films at low budgets and in new ways. And I think this is the moment that a lot of those tribes are facing their moves into the larger business of film. So there’s an interesting story that’s developing there and we’ll see how that goes for everybody.
From a producer’s point of view, financing is becoming extremely difficult. Purchase prices have gone way down and the number of films out there have gone way up, so in order to get a film seen you’ve gotta do a tremendous amount of work, the work has to be good, and you have to get lucky. It’s a real struggle, man.
What are some of the upcoming projects you mentioned?
We have a documentary in production right now that’s financed but not announced yet. Then another documentary called Fourth Wall — the story of the Sullivanians, which was a therapy cult in Manhattan. They had multiple parents in the group so no one really knew who their parents were; the leader of the cult was this fascinating and yet problematic person. So it’s an investigation of liberal values coming out of the 1960s, via the story of this cult. We’re all excited about that.
On the narrative side, I have two films that are in development with Killer Films. Darren Oronofsky’s company Protozoa has asked me to make a film that’s also in development. So we’re working with them and that’s exciting. This all came out of a film that we made called King Kelly, which started to pull us in new directions. There’s also a sci-fi script that’s being written. There’s also a TV show that we’re working on. So there’s a lot of stuff, and we’re also working with more directors outside of the company so it’s an exciting time for us, really.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is now playing at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street.