Last week saw the release of Ten Thousand Saints, which we’ve been looking forward to ever since the film reenacted the Tompkins Square Park riot last year. The adaptation of Eleanor Henderson’s novel revolves around a hippie father, Les (Ethan Hawke), who brings his teenage son, Jude (Asa Butterfield), to the tumultuous East Village in 1988, the year of the riot.
While living with his way-too-chill, pot-smoking dad, Jude becomes absorbed in the straight-edge punk scene and fascinated by a rich, uptown girl (Hailee Steinfeld). Variety describes the film as a “love letter to a bygone era of New York City,” and, because we have our own love affair with that time and place, we played jealous lover and did some snooping. We spoke with directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, Girl Most Likely, The Nanny Diaries) about how the East Village of the 1980s intertwines with the lives of the characters, why Ethan Hawke is the ultimate New Yorker, those silly lap dogs on the Upper East Side, and Springer Berman’s accidental involvement in that epic clash of police and residents.
Robert: We did a lot of location scouting and tried to find little corners of the East Village that really spoke of that era. It’s funny, even since we’ve filmed some of them have vanished. The Yaffa Cafe closed soon after we filmed.
Shari: Because this was a fairly low-budget movie, people said, “How are you going to transform the East Village of 2014 to the East Village of 1988 without a budget?” And we said, “Garbage.” That was such a difference between now and then. There was such a tremendous amount of garbage and furniture on the street. People lived on the street. So we brought a lot of junk with us. “Garbage is cheap,” is what I’d tell the producers every time they would freak out.
Shari: It was really funny because there is [a scene] where Asa Butterfield and Ethan Hawke walk through Tompkins Square Park and there’s homeless people living there in the tent city. And we recreated it, but there was a point when we hadn’t set the cameras up yet. You could see all of these local people in the park starting to freak out like, “Oh my God!” You could see people thinking it was real because we hadn’t set the camera up yet. There was all of these homeless people and garbage and they were like, “Wait a minute, what are these people doing here?”
Robert: The setting in the East Village, that’s a turning point when the story is set. There was this clash at the time between gentrification and the kind of bohemian and ethnic and homeless who had taken over the area. People who were gentrifying the neighborhood wanted to impose this curfew on the park so that they would start cleaning it up. They wanted rules and the people who embraced the neighborhood for what it was — who were squatting and what-not – wanted to enjoy the anarchy of the neighborhood. I think it was a right setting for the character played by Asa Butterfiled because his parents have no rules. His home life is complete anarchy and he gravitates towards this subculture of straight-edge punk that’s hardcore. It’s all about rules and it’s militaristic — benign drugs and alcohol and weed and sex. In a way the battle going on in the character is mirrored in the community.
Shari: I was in the Tompkins Park Square Riot. I just happened to be in the neighborhood, walking around that night. A police officer pulled me and my friend aside, like, “Get off the street!” or something like that. I wasn’t actually in Tompkins Square Park, I was on First Avenue. But you could hear helicopters and police vehicles. I was like, “What’s going on?” I’ll never forget this – a police officer yelled at me, “Ask your friend!” and then I saw a policeman hit a guy who was walking out of a bar and did nothing. And then I wound up getting involved in the actual riot itself.
Robert: Now we have this very sterile East Village. It’s not breeding the kind of creativity it once did, although when that creativity existed there was a lot of problems. I remember when I was young I was mugged at gunpoint and all kinds of things happened. Shari got mugged at one point. It was a tougher existence in a lot of ways, but there was something exciting. There was a danger to it.
Robert: It’s interesting if you look at the East Village because in a way the hippies handed the East Village to the punks. This is a generational story. The Ethan Hawke character is a hippie. The things he celebrates about the East Village are where Jack Kerouac lived and whatnot. His son comes and discovers a new world there, also a subculture, a counterculture.
Robert: First he’s attracted to the music and then he’s attracted to the lifestyle because he is a kid who will take any drug around. He ends up being attracted to this young, hip energy of straight-edge punk. How do you rebel against the generation that invented rebellion? He’s got parents from the ’60s and how do you rebel against people who are still rebellious? By becoming super conservative, which is what the straight-edge were (even though they were all about tattoos). They were clean living, which is the opposite of the way he was raised.
Robert: One thing you get with Ethan Hawke is that he is immediately identifiable as a true New Yorker. Ethan is this Renaissance man. He writes books, he is involved with theater and movies. He’s an artistic soul in a very New York way, so it was very exciting to work with him.
Shari: There were a few times were he was in wardrobe for Les and I wasn’t sure if he was dressed as Ethan or dressed as Les. Are you in wardrobe or is that your outfit? Walking around with him, he knew [everyone] – people he had worked with, actors or just people in the community who loved him. He was so at home.
Robert: In a lot of ways it’s about something more universal, almost cosmic. It’s about the randomness of existence, where you end up, and your family. It’s [about] how one person’s life can change the course of so many people’s lives. I love being involved in that era and all of that nostalgia and music, but I think it resonates with people [now].
I’ve seen The Nanny Diaries, which depicts the world of wealthy, upscale New Yorkers. How would you compare that New York with the one in Ten Thousand Saints? Do you see them complementing or juxtaposing each other?
Shari: We’re both New Yorkers. I’ve lived here since the ’80s and I think that the world of The Nanny Diaries is just as much a part of New York as the world of Ten Thousand Saints. That’s what makes New York the crazy, amazing city that it is. It’s like blocks away you can have completely different [worlds]. Growing up you could go one block and it could be a dangerous street and then one block up and there are millionaires.
Bob and I originally started out as documentary filmmakers and so there’s a documentarian in us that loves to do a movie about different worlds and different cultures and really immerse ourselves in it. The world of The Nanny Diaries is not a world that either of us existed in. But we would walk around and eat lunch at the places where those women would lunch and observe the people with their lap dogs. The world of Ten Thousand Saints is a little more familiar – it’s a world we lived in.