The last few days before shooting the scene were oddly quiet on the Harlem front. The Cotton Club was once again shuttered up and silent, as it had been for most of our time in the area. I was truly hopeful that we wouldn’t have any more trouble from them. The whole thing was a shame, really. The place was virtually never open. Had we not done the right thing and reached out to them they may well have never even realized we were there. Yes we were a major presence, and would be for three consecutive nights, but their establishment was closed for weeks at a time. They could have taken an easy ten grand from us with no hard feelings.
I did my best to see things from their perspective. Were we exploiting them? Try as I might I just could not see how we were. I’ve filmed all over the country, in every imaginable circumstance. I’ve grown accustomed to being a target. People get star-struck when exposed to the movie business, and some get greedy. We’re very high profile and spend substantial amounts of money as a normal course of doing business so people see us as a payday. Even the greediest, most self-entitled individuals I’ve dealt with paled in comparison to these fellows. This wasn’t about wanting proper compensation; this was an attempt to flat-out steal from us using the most shameful race-baiting and violence to do so.
The thing that was getting lost in all this was just how impressive and ambitious our set was. It is a great looking location to begin with. Having spent my adult life on film sets I have an appreciation for a well-organized one, and we had our act buttoned up. Approximately 300 people counting all cast and crew, 75 period picture vehicles, a few dozen equipment trucks and motor homes, all set up in the right place and at the right time for maximum efficiency. Film crew aside I was coordinating the activities of twenty-four traffic agents, two standby fire companies, eight police officers from the film unit, crews from the D.O.T. and Con Edison and a few dozen business owners, spread out over twelve city blocks. Fortunately I was working with great Assistant Directors and we set it all up beautifully.
Hanging over this massive choreography was the threat of violence from the folks at the Cotton Club. The NYPD had come through in impressive fashion. They clearly had no love for the Reverend and his cronies as they had assigned two busloads of police in full riot gear. They were positioned discreetly a few blocks from set on a deserted industrial side street. Their location was pretty much unknown and technically not even I was supposed to know where they were deployed. At some point I needed to liaise with their Captain and headed towards them. I was still a block away and approaching when a voice on a loudspeaker instructed me to halt immediately. I complied. There was a palpable menace in the air, two busses filled with police jacked up on adrenaline and looking my way. I stood fast til the Captain approached and I told him what I had to. That was one shitstorm I did not want to unleash on anyone.
In addition to the riot squads we had hired a sizeable contingent of private security from my friend’s mosque. He had earlier unpleasant experiences with the Reverend and was fully prepared. In addition to his usual guys he had reached out to some affiliated mosques, bringing support from as far away as Atlanta and Chicago. Want to feel secure? Hire 75 of those guys to watch your back. It wasn’t just the physical presence of that many seriously big men, but the calmness they projected. These are guys who do not drink or smoke; they aren’t hotheads and are not easily upset. They very quietly project calmness on the situation as well as the impression that you do not care to cross them. I was extremely glad to have them with me.
We also had a few retired police scattered amongst our crowd, and I know there were undercover detectives circulating, both NYPD and federal. What really concerned me though was the possibility of an incident happening with some of the non-security personnel. With so many grips, electricians, teamsters, stuntmen and other production types present there was a lot of testosterone in the air. In a crowd that large there were plenty of people I did not know. Everyone had been briefed on the situation and most were pretty wound up. That’s natural anytime you play with vehicle crashes, explosives and fire. Add the security threat and the whole thing felt like a powder keg waiting for a spark.
We were going forward. It was better this way in the end. I was hired to help make a movie, not participate in a sting operation against some Harlem gangsters. Now that it was clear we weren’t going to get them on tape incriminating themselves we could focus our efforts on getting our work done. All the relevant parties on our end sat around a table and discussed the problems filming in an adversarial situation like this posed and what to do to solve them. Even though it was burdensome at the time, in the abstract it was still an interesting exercise. We spend our careers solving problems, this was a new challenge to overcome and not a simple one.
The city was still going to give us our permits, so we could go ahead with all the normal arduous work involved with shooting a scene like this. Visually the Cotton Club was not part of our scene, it was simply a building in the distant background. Its position, however, would permit people to stand within their property and be disruptive. As we cannot move people off of private property we needed a visual barrier between it and the set. Simple enough, we just designed a freestanding two-story façade to be erected in the street between our set and the building. People could march all night, bang pots and pans, shine lights or do whatever they wanted on their own property, we would never see them. Noise wasn’t an issue as it was a big explosion scene. Most of it was being shot m.o.s. (without sound) anyway.
I spent lots of time in the neighborhood working the local businesses, community board and neighborhood leaders. Our position amongst these people was solid. The business owners attitude was that we were doing something to help them and that they were glad for it. None of them were interested in losing their windfall just because the Cotton Club was getting greedy. Same with the community board and the community itself. We were pumping money into the community in numerous ways, the Cotton Club was just trying to take away from it. I had feared a backlash but everyone local sided with common sense and what was right over bullshit racial provocation and extortion. That was encouraging to see, not just relevant to our film but also in a larger sense.
We had a meeting scheduled with the brass at the NYPD. Before we got to it we sent a half dozen set dressers up to do some preliminary work. They were basically measuring signs, looking at how things that needed removing were attached, that sort of thing. They weren’t there long before they were run off. Middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, they were surrounded by a group of thugs from the Cotton Club who physically threatened them, spit on them, and stole someone’s toolbox. I wasn’t surprised. These thugs meant business. Our workers pulled out immediately and we started really focusing on security.
We informed the police of the situation in our meeting and they responded by posting a patrol car on site 24/7. I was sort of amazed by that, it’s sometimes hard to get the NYPD to devote all the resources you want from them. Our meeting made it clear that they were used to dealing with the specific individuals who were trying to shake us down, however, and were plenty eager to get into it with them. In addition to protecting our set they agreed to provide a full compliment of riot police during our shoot. They would be held in reserve a few blocks away and would swoop in if given the word.
Holy crap, riot police? This was getting a little crazy and I was starting to worry. As much as I personally wanted to smack the shit out of the guys who were trying to extort us I really didn’t want anyone else getting hurt over this. I had horrible thoughts about even the police guarding the set for us being injured. Yes, they were NYPD but they were there on our behalf and it was just two officers out there on their own. What if the same group of criminals who chased our crew off caught the police off-guard? I lived with my concerns as my anger towards these gangsters we were dealing with grew deeper and deeper.
I wasn’t the only one who got angry at them. I had a very lengthy relationship with the security company I use. They happened to be a group of black Muslims based in a Mosque a few blocks away from our set. My friendship with the proprietor of the company was sincere and deep. I’ve eaten at his house, played with his children and prayed at his Mosque. The job aside, we have had lengthy conversations about my Catholic faith and his belief in Islam. We are genuinely friends. As a security professional who I employ he was concerned about the situation we were in. As a friend he was angered by the personal threats made against me. As a black man he was saddened that the Reverend and his followers did nothing but set back race relations with every move they made. The thing that really pissed him off, however, was the fact that the Reverend actually had nothing to do with the community he claimed to speak for. The Reverend was based in Brooklyn and according to my Muslim brother was only involved because he had criminal ties with the owner of the Cotton Club that went back a long way. My friend was absolutely livid that some thug from Brooklyn was trying to get over in Harlem. Once the local mosque was involved I felt a lot better. Without my asking they became a steady presence in the area. Every time I was around I’d see big guys dressed in black quietly passing through the area. We now had plenty of our own people on the ground.
All that remained was actually shooting the scene. The night was rapidly approaching.
It took a few days to set up our next meeting. He kept me waiting, and I was thinking the whole thing over while I did. Fortunately there were the normal things I had to deal with as a Location Manager in the last days of prepping a film. We had dozens of other locations to attend to, some with very complicated stunts as well. One was a waterfront warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn where we were simulating a fire. Beyond the normal issues like cutting a deal with the owner, figuring out how to park the equipment trucks and campers, finding a catering and holding area to feed and house the crew and cast, scouting the area with the NYPD and a representative from the Mayor’s Office, writing the city permit request, cutting deals with the neighboring businesses, etc. there were the added problems pertaining to the fire effect. Such as the FDNY inspections, hydrant permits, hiring a fire boat and safety support boats, notifying all the news radio stations so people passing by on the Gowanus didn’t panic and that sort of thing.
So I was fortunately preoccupied. However at the beginning and end of each day there was only one thing on my mind, and that was the situation awaiting me uptown. Throughout my already busy days I was checking and re-checking the tape recorder. I’d slip the batteries in and out, making sure the poles were aligned correctly. I had picked out a loose jacket that would conceal the recorder well while allowing a clear recording. I wondered if it could really break as badly as I had been warned or if I was just hyping things up unnecessarily.
On the third day he called and told me to come up right away. It was better that it happened on such short notice. Didn’t give me time to really work myself into a lather. I told my Assistant Location Manager where I was going and no one else. The bosses all knew what was happening and were anxious to know when it was going down, but I didn’t want to dick around talking to anyone. I was on a mission. As it was, I definitely felt a little fear in my gut as I drove up the West Side Highway. Not so much a concern with possible consequences down the road. Those were too far away and ultimately unlikely that I didn’t sweat them. It wasn’t about physical harm, despite the threatening atmosphere in the room last time. I’ve been punched before and will be punched again. Besides, if things broke really ugly like that all rules are off and I like my chances. But that wasn’t going to happen. No, my real worry was that I would say something compromising or make some sort of professional misstep. Funny.
The whole thing was a set-up. I arrived to find the doors open, curtains drawn and sunlight streaming into the room. No thugs, no threats, just my former attorney friend sitting at the table with a giant shit-eating grin.
“So, you tell your bosses what we talked about?”
“I did. They don’t think your loss of business is worth $100,000. They’d like to make you a more reasonable offer.”
“$100,000? Where’d you get a number like that? I never suggested any numbers. If you think that’s appropriate compensation for the people of Harlem then I’ll accept it.”
Bastard. He knew. He’s done this before, of course, he’s a professional extortionist. He knew I’d be trying to tape him and he wasn’t going to let me trap him. We went around and around with him insisting that he only wanted our donation to alleviate the inconvenience our presence was causing “his people”. At the same time, he was very insistent that if we did not do right by the neighborhood there would be “serious consequences”. He made it abundantly clear to me that the threats stood, he was just much too wily to spell them out a second time. I made it clear that our position was that $10,000 was fair for any potential loss of business and that we had already made significant contributions to the community. I walked out with him in mid-sentence promising we would never be able to shoot and would “reap the whirlwind”, whatever that meant.
“Producer” is such a poorly defined job. It means nothing and everything at the same time. At times it can involve nothing more than showing up on set and allowing the movie to happen without getting in the way. Other times you have real problems to solve in order for a film to be made. A really great Producer supports his crew and works through whatever difficulties arise. I was fortunate to be working for a couple of excellent producers when I was threatened at the Cotton Club.
We sat down and discussed all of the possible ways to solve the problem. From the start they were great about telling me I could walk away from the location if I were personally afraid. Well that wasn’t happening. There’s a reason for the phrase “donkey Irish.” I’m too headstrong to back down from any fight, even to the point of great personal cost at times. I love a good scrap, and by God did I have one.
We sat down with representatives from the Mayor’s Office, the city Corporation Counsel (attorneys)and a Captain from the NYPD. The city made it clear that they would not be upset if we chose not to film in Harlem but none of the people on our side of the table was interested in that option. Once that was established we worked through the legality of the various possible results. The city essentially stood behind our decision to proceed with our filming. They warned us of the potential dangers while agreeing to provide police assistance to the extent they were able. The city attorneys cautioned us of the litigious and violent nature of our adversaries and strove to ensure we acted within the law throughout the process.
The next meeting was where our Producer really came through. He reached out to a very highly placed contact in the NYPD, who in turn put us in touch with the Justice Department. We went to a nondescript office building downtown and met with an FBI Agent and an attorney from the D.A.’s office. Nice guys but very serious. Most cops have a pretty dark sense of humor but not these guys. My initial attempts at humor got no response whatsoever; these fellows were stone-faced and humorless. They were also real pros, and I felt comfortable speaking with them.
I once again described exactly what had transpired. They both took notes while I spoke, writing in what were fairly thick files. Clearly law enforcement had some prior dealings with my new uptown acquaintances. The first thing they asked me was whether or not the Reverend himself had been mentioned. He actually had not come up. I had very much associated him with the situation in my mind due to the well-established connections between the former attorney I was dealing with and the Reverend. In point of fact, however, he actually had no involvement whatsoever with the situation so far. They definitely seemed a little disappointed to hear that, he really was on their radar. I then got a very stern warning from the agent.
“The guy they went after upstate, they ruined his life. They got his picture on the front of the papers calling him a rapist. They held press conferences every day destroying his character, said he was a racist as well. Threatened him, threatened his family. Protested outside his house every day screaming, chanting, saying all sorts of terrible things about him. He’ll never live a normal life again. You get tangled up with these guys you could face the same thing. You ready for that?”
I had to really give it some thought. First of all, it’s only a movie. Once the shoot was complete the filmmakers would move on and forget all about me. While I wanted to do the best job possible for them I had learned never to extend myself too far. Ultimately we’re all using each other to get a job done and no matter how deep the feelings of camaraderie run, it’s only a temporary relationship. Also, I had to think about the specifics of my life and those I loved, and what the consequences could really be. Ultimately, though, I really had no choice. These are bad people I was dealing with. Thugs, criminals, lowlifes. I wouldn’t be comfortable walking away from a chance to take them down. Most of all was that they had threatened me personally. That’s not something I can walk away from. Fuck them.
Once I agreed to work with the feds, they told me they would rig me up with a tape recorder. I was to meet with the guy again and get him on tape demanding money and threatening me. If there were any way possible I should get him to say his name, as well as any other names of his associates. After some good coaching they took me down the hall to get the wire.
What a letdown that was. Guess I’ve watched too many cop shows but I figured I’d be taking off my shirt and having the rig strapped on me. Instead the agent signed out one of those little hand-held tape recorders like a reporter uses.
“Yes. Comes with double a batteries and an extra tape. Just put it in your pocket and turn it on. Try not to wear a sweater or anything over the mike.”
“What if he sees it on me?”
“I’d advise you to get the hell out of there.”
I put it in my pocket and walked out. The city seemed oddly quiet as I crossed Federal Plaza to hail a cab. I was ready.
First thing I did was call my friend in the Mayor’s Office. She was unhappy to hear my report but fully supportive of whatever the studio decided to do. The guy I had met was already involved in litigation with the city so they were interested in everything that happened between us. She gave the NYPD a heads-up call and told me to be careful. Then I met with the producers of the film. They were horrified by the story I told them. The goal of a Producer is simply to help the Director make the film he wants to make. This was just a messy complication.
After extensive conversations amongst us and a consultation with the studio we had a plan. I was to meet with him again and make very clear how much we were already doing for the community. We really were, too. In addition to the direct payments to local businesses and purchases from local vendors we had done some local hiring. On top of that I had arranged a donation of eight thousand dollars to the local boys and girls club. That’s not something we were obligated to do, or expected to. It was done as part of my general policy of being a good neighbor and giving back to the community you work in. We had a clear conscience about our treatment of the neighborhood and wanted to make that known to him. Most importantly, we pulled together some discretionary money to make absolutely sure we were compensating the Cotton Club for any perceived loss of business.
It’s worth noting that the Producer and the studio were adamant about not being held up or extorted, and I respect that. Many people in their position would give more or less a blank check to get rid of the problem. Our collective position was that we were willing to make a reasonable payment to keep everyone happy, but we would not be taken advantage of. After chewing on the numbers we came up with ten thousand dollars to play with. That’s ten thousand dollars we were willing to pay as a good faith gesture for any theoretical loss of business for a business that wasn’t really open.
I went to the second meeting alone. My assistant didn’t need to be involved any deeper than he was. It’s my job to solve problems and I was going to solve this one. I admit to being a little nervous, it would be foolish not to be. I wasn’t expecting any physical harm to come to me but I was dealing with street thugs here so you never know. I briefly considered going armed but decided it would only provoke things and make a bad situation worse. I was let into the club and sat down for the most disturbing conversation I’ve ever had.
I sat down with the same disbarred attorney I had met the last time. For this meeting, however, he had brought a couple big fellows whose job it was to sit in the corner and glare at me. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging them. To me that was actually a sign of weakness on his part. A real badass doesn’t need help to intimidate someone. He was putting on a show which I ignored. If anything it made me even more polite and charming. Fuck if I’ll lower myself to his level.
I once again explained all the things we were able to do to mitigate any interruption of his business, keeping up the charade that they were actually open. He listened while I went through the paces. I then started in on the other efforts we were making to help the community when he cut me off.
“The community? The community? Some cracker coming to Harlem to tell me he going to save the community? I speak for the fucking community, not you.”
“Sir, I don’t presume to speak for the community. I’m simply explaining the things we are doing to…”
“Fuck you and your explanations. What you going to do for me?”
I explained that we were prepared to pay him as much as ten grand to compensate for any negative impact we would have.
“Ten grand? That’s chicken feed! You and your Jew bosses think you’re still running a plantation here?”
He broke into a Steppin Fetchit voice.
“Yessa massah, I thanks you fo yo money. I’s be a gooood niggah fo you”
Jesus, this guy was a lunatic.
“Okay, sir, please tell me what you want from us. What can we do to make this work?”
“Boy, you bring me one hundred thousand, cash, and you can shoot your movie in Harlem. That’s your Harlem tax.”
“One hundred thousand? That’s not going to happen. Be reasonable. Take the ten thousand and move on. It’s found money.”
I have to point out that during the entire conversation he took every opportunity to insult and attempt to intimidate me. He called me “boy”, “cracker”, “whiteboy”, all sorts of things. He leaned in close to me, yelled, bugged his eyes out, waved his arms, whatever. I don’t scare easily. I returned his aggressiveness with smiles and always referred to him as sir. However his next statement crossed the line completely.
“One hundred thousand or the streets of Harlem run red with your blood!”
Okay, that’s enough. It was a very wise decision on my part not to have come armed because we were in a very dangerous place just then. I pushed my chair back and stood up.
“I’m done here. You have our best offer. Take it or leave it.”
I turned to leave to see his two goons standing between me and the door. I figured it was 50-50 they took a shot at me on the way out but I kept it together and walked straight towards them. They parted at the last second, with one of them throwing a hard shoulder at me as I passed. Fuck it. I walked out of that stale musty room and took a deep breath of the early morning air outside.
Finally I got a call from my assistant that he had met someone at the Cotton Club. A man claiming to be the owner was letting himself in a side door one day when we caught up to him. Apparently he was too busy to speak at the time, but he told us to call and make an appointment to sit down. Would have loved to have worked things out right there, but it wasn’t happening. At least we had made some contact.
Over the next several weeks He played cat-and-mouse with us. He wouldn’t respond to phone calls, or when he did answer he would promise to call us back but would not. Eventually he agreed to meet with my assistant then never showed up. A second meeting was attempted and we were stood up again. I was getting equally frustrated and concerned. Someone who wants to do legitimate business does not handle themselves like this. Plus, we were getting close to our shoot date.
At this point I started calling and leaving messages myself. Finally, just three weeks before we were due to shoot, they agreed to yet another meeting. My assistant and I went to the club at the appointed time. We knocked and were shown to a seat by a custodian who said nothing and went about his business straightening the place up and dragging leaking bags of garbage across the floor and outside.
The place could use the straightening up. It was pretty dingy and frayed around the edges, with both the stained industrial-grade carpet and the waft of stench that sticks in that stuff when it’s absorbed a few too many spilled drinks and dropped food. No doubt I had been in many similar environments late at night with the lights low and the music loud, but those types of places are never pretty with the house lights up. As far as it being a restaurant, maybe it could work as a tourist trap but no one who knew any better would eat in a stinky environment like that.
We waited a good half hour past the appointed time before we saw anyone besides the janitor. I was impatient and almost ready to leave when a middle-aged black man in a suit came in and introduced himself. Holy crap. He was a very well-known attorney, or should I say former attorney. He had gotten famous in the 1980’s for his work with a colorful local minister, particularly for their involvement in a rape case that turned out to be an elaborate hoax. The fact that it was a hoax did not stop them from doing their utmost to ruin the life of the innocent man they had accused of being a rapist. The two of them were all about race-baiting for profit, and the man sitting across from us now had actually been disbarred for his actions during that incident.
Despite my disgust for the man and his actions in the past I was there to represent the studio. I actually managed to smile and tell him I appreciated all the things he did for his community. I sat down and explained our plan, and how it should not impact what was essentially a closed restaurant.
“You’re wrong about that. This restaurant is open and busy seven nights a week. This is going to cost us a lot of money.”
“No offense, sir, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the area and this place has never been open. I don’t want to hurt anyone financially, but let’s be reasonable here.”
“You come up to Harlem and tell me what time it is, boy? White boy going to tell a black man what his business is?”
Wow, that took an ugly turn awfully fast. Honestly every part of me wanted to punch the prick in the face. He leaned in at me when he spoke, spitting the word ‘boy’ at me in the most insulting way possible.
“Sir, that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. I just want to make a fair deal for everyone.”
“You listen to me boy, you aint coming up to Harlem and making me your uncle tom. You go back to your betters and tell them you met a real black man, and he’s going to need to be dealt with. Call me back when you have some real money to offer me.”
We got up and walked out. I was almost shaking with rage, but was glad I had held it together. This was getting interesting.
Exploding a truck in the middle of New York City requires a lot of careful preparation. One of the earlier things I did was scout the area with the NYPD and FDNY. We established what we believed to be a safe perimeter and figured out which streets would need to be closed, where traffic would be diverted to, how many police and barricades would be required, that sort of thing. The Fire Department did the first of several very thorough inspections of the area looking for any potential problems. So far, so good.
Due to the layout of the area as well as safety concerns we wound up having to close roughly fifteen city blocks. This was a bit more than would be needed for purely safety reasons, but the minimum necessary to allow traffic to flow around our set. Almost all of the businesses that sat within our perimeter were closed by the early evening and would be unaffected. My big worry was about the Fairway Supermarket. They did a lot of business in the evening and were on the very edge of our set.
The key to making our plan work was to have traffic exit the opposite direction they normally did from the Fairway parking lot. We would send them the wrong way down a one-way street for half a block which would get them out of the area. First I proposed the plan to the Department of Transportation and received their approval, then I approached the owners of Fairway.
This is just the type of little thing that can turn into a giant pain in the ass for me. In reality the change in traffic flow would make for an easier exit for their customers, cutting a few blocks off of their drive to the highway entrances. However I would not receive D.O.T. permission without the assent of the businesses owners, and believe it or not I sometimes have people try to exploit their positions for financial gain. I was fully prepared for the ownership to make a big fuss about it, claim I was hurting their operations, and demand exorbitant recompense for them to sign off on our plan.
My encounter could not have gone any differently, or better. The owners were easy to reach and completely reasonable. Not only did they assent to our plan, they very helpfully pointed out that they had a large light-up billboard that might be problematic for us. They agreed to turn it off for a very reasonable fee. They were the type of people I consider myself fortunate to have met. Truly fair and honest merchants.
The only question mark left was a restaurant on the very edge of our perimeter called The Cotton Club. I wasn’t ignoring it, but I also wasn’t overly concerned about it either for several reasons. While it was within our perimeter, it was just barely so. It sat on the very outer edge of our lockup on 125th Street. While we would have police manning a barricade 20 feet beyond the entrance to their parking lot we were prepared and able to allow any of their patrons to pass after a quick stop at the barricade and proceed into their lot. I could propose that we make some nice, professional signs that we could leave behind afterwards indicating that the place was open. I could pay for any employees they deemed necessary to be at the barricade to make sure they didn’t miss any customers.
Although I was prepared to do all of these things or even more, I didn’t think it would be an issue for one very significant reason: the place was never open. In all of the time my assistant location manager spent up there he never saw a single person come or go from the place, nor had I. We were spending a lot of time in the area, too. Between all our various scouts and inspections, and my assistant mapping the area and cutting small deals with every single business and building owner we were a constant presence locally. The neighboring business owners all assured us the place was an operating business, however they could not tell us the last time they had seen it open. An answering machine at the club indicated that they were only open for Sunday Gospel Brunch and “special events”. Visits on subsequent Sundays, however, found the place locked up, empty and dark. Seemed like nothing to worry about, but nonetheless my assistant continued to try to make contact. Kind of wish he never did.
We scouted and chose a pretty great location for our truck explosion. It was the stretch of 12th Avenue north of 125th Street on the western edge of Harlem. Visually it is gorgeous, and has been shot many times. The street sits under a high overpass, supported by massive steel arches. I’ve always been a fan of industrial architecture and this was a fantastic example of such. I knew it would photograph beautifully.
Another positive aspect of shooting there is that it was a relatively isolated piece of real estate. There were a few auto body shops along the strip, and a chicken slaughterhouse. They were closed at night anyway, so we would not be interfering with them. Over time we discovered a few Dominican after-hours clubs and an illegal underground strip club operating in the area, but those are not the type of businesses that would give us a hard time. They wanted to do their thing and be left alone, as did we.
Its difficult filming in New York City as there is so much going on. For a shoot like this we needed to close down several blocks to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Our schedule called for three nights of filming to get the scene. Also, we were using high explosives. In a densely populated area you have to deal with the local businesses and your impact on them. It’s a tough line to draw sometimes. On the one hand, shooting a film can be clearly disruptive to someone’s establishment and take away from their livelihood. On the other hand disruptions are part of the cost of doing business in New York City. Con Ed doesn’t compensate for loss of business when they tear up the sidewalk in front of a store. If a parade runs past your store and costs you money you are shit out of luck. For films there is no hard and fast guideline. Generally you do your best to avoid interfering with people and when it is unavoidable you do your best to work out an accommodation with the owner. It’s a gray area and a difficult one to manage at times.
There is another factor involved as well, and that is human nature. Occasionally you run into an honest man but that seems to be the exception. When you are negotiating compensation for loss of business people can quote you outrageous figures, numbers that strain the remotest credulity, and do so with a straight face. I once shot on a street in front of a falafel store for about an hour. It was a low-budget feature and a bit of an impromptu shot so I wasn’t prepared for it. We were low impact, however, so I just rolled with it. No pedestrians or traffic were stopped. No one was prevented from entering the falafel store. Nonetheless the owner came out bitching and moaning that we were costing him money. I pointed out that we were preventing no one from entering his store and that if anything we were drawing a little crowd, increasing foot traffic in the area.
He just wasn’t having it. He stomped his feet, gesticulated wildly, and insisted that we were causing his children to starve. Finally, more to humor him than anything, I asked him how much business he estimated he had lost. “At least a thousand dollars” was his reply. For one of the rare times in my career I actually got a little pissed off. What an insult that figure was to my intelligence. The guy was lucky if he did that much business on a busy day, let alone in an hour. I looked him in the eye and said “Fine. I’ll give you a thousand dollars, cash.” His eyes lit up. “But in return I want a thousand dollars worth of falafel sandwiches, and you need to make them in less than an hour. If you can’t do it I know you are lying.” Needless to say, he didn’t get any money and isn’t a big fan of the film business. I was able to walk away with a clear conscience as I did not believe in any way that we had cost him money.
That falafel shop was in the village, however, and our truck explosion was taking place in Harlem. Shooting uptown brings its own set of problems. Even though it is a generally more impoverished community and there is less business to affect I always budget more money for business interruption in poorer areas. No matter how much you budget it is never enough. Perhaps it’s because poor people have been taken advantage of for so long they automatically assume you are trying to get over on them. Maybe it’s because you have to constantly hustle just to survive in the ghetto. Another factor may be that we are the only exposure to Hollywood some people have ever had or ever will. Ultimately the result is that people in poor communities always expect more money than is typically paid in more economically empowered areas. I know this and prepare accordingly. One thing I never planned for, however, was the blatant and violent attempt to extort money from me that I was about to face.
My first big gig as a location manager was a picture called “Frequency”. Fortunately I had bided my time as an assistant location manager until I was ready to make the jump as it was a very difficult movie to make. It featured both a firefighter and a policeman as characters, and both had action scenes. This meant staging fires and gunfights, but by far the toughest stunt we did was a gas truck explosion.
If you haven’t seen the film, it involves a gasoline truck coming over the George Washington Bridge at a high rate of speed and taking the off-ramp too quickly. It speeds down a hill, sideswipes a Con Ed work site sending some big pipes rolling out of control, bounces of a curb, jackknifes and flips on its side before skidding almost a block down a street. As Dennis Quaid heroically labors to free some people trapped in the wreck gasoline spills out of the broken truck. Everyone flees just as a spark hits and ignites the whole mess causing a giant fireball and explosion.
Just another day at the office, right?
So many problems came up in the course of filming this sequence it will take several posts to describe them all. The smallest and most easily remedied happened during pre-production. We hired a helicopter to shoot footage of our gas truck speeding across the George Washington Bridge. I had notified the bridge authorities as well as the department of Transportation and the FAA. I had filed the permits with the City of New York. As we were not disrupting traffic, using police escorts, or travelling in a dangerous fashion we were pretty much left to our own devices. The truck would basically travel fast but safely and within the law and we would speed up the film very slightly to enhance the effect.
No worries, right? Aside from the fact that we were filming it nothing was particularly unusual or out of the ordinary. Thousands of similar trucks crossed the bridge every day of the year. We were shooting long-lens from the heli so no one on the ground would even be aware of our presence.
Sure enough, it came off without a hitch. I monitored via regular radio with the truck and ground-to-air walkie with the chopper. We got up to speed, rolled camera and got the shot first take. The trip across the bridge is long enough that we even rolled after we had it and punched in a little for a tighter shot. Got some good footage.
I was just breathing a sigh of relief when my phone rang. It was the Assistant Director (a friend of mine) who was riding shotgun in the picture truck helping coordinate and give cues.
“Sammy! Holy shit! Holy fucking shit! I fucked up! I’m in trouble!”
Ooooo-kay, that’s not the type of call you like to get.
“Gary, what is it? What happened? Are you hurt?”
“No, man, I’m okay, but I fucked up! You gotta help me!”
“Okay man, calm down. Take a deep breath. Seriously, breathe in deep. Hold it. Breathe out. Now slowly tell me what the situation is.”
“I fucked up the truck man. We got the shot and were coming back to you and I fucked up. I put my feet up on the dashboard and accidentally hit the emergency release for the trailer.”
“No shit. Okay, it’s going to be alright. Are you hurt?”
“No, but I dumped the trailer. The truck is all fucked up!”
“Is the driver hurt?” (muffled conversation)
“No, he’s okay.”
“Okay, good. Get out very carefully and make sure no one hit you.”
I waited for what seemed like hours. Finally he answered.
“No one else is hurt. We dug a deep gash in the pavement when the trailer dropped but people are just driving around us.”
“Any police on the scene?”
“Okay, hook the trailer back up and drive away.”
"What about the cops?"
"They’re not there, are they?"
“Then get the hell out of there. Put the fucking thing back together and drive back here. Call me if anyone shows up.”
And no one did. They re-attached the truck and returned to me without incident. I wish that were my biggest problem on the shoot but subsequent events would almost make me forget this little incident ever happened.