How Hurricane Sandy Rewrote 'Stand Clear of the Closing Doors'
Director Sam Fleischner discusses how Sandy changed his film about an autistic teen living in Rockaway, Queens, telling THR: "Now I can't really imagine it any other way."
Shooting on the New York City subways is never an easy proposition, but that's especially true for an ultra-low-budget film about a 13-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, played by an untrained actor (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) who has the disorder in real life.
"We had very little control over the subway environment, so that was a pretty huge challenge," director Sam Fleischner tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The variables are infinite and constantly changing. It's tough to spend too much time down there without getting totally disoriented."
For this reason the subway is also the ideal setting for Fleischner to create a cinematic universe that allows his audience to relate to his character's autism. Ricky, as has been the case with many people on the high-functioning spectrum of autism, wanders away from home and is drawn to riding the subway.
"The New York City subway is especially heavy, loud, and dirty," explains Fleischner. "I think it's sensory overload for most people. There are lots of things to fixate on."
Fleischner was shooting on the trains when reports of Hurricane Sandy moving up the East Coast started to hit the news. He admits that he ignored the initial warnings and was hoping the hype was similar to the unrealized devastation people were predicting with Hurricane Irene. As was the case with many New Yorkers, the reality started to hit home for Fleischner once the city announced it would shut down the subways.
"We took the last train back to Rockaway before they shut it down," recounts Fleischner, who used footage from the subway closings in the film. "The air was pretty ominous the day before though, and part of me knew that things were about to get crazy. The birds knew."
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is set in Rockaway, Queens, where Fleischner lives and the cast and crew were being housed. While everybody else involved with the film evacuated, the young director stayed in his house with his two roommates. "The storm was like nothing I've ever experienced," recalls Fleischner. "The day after the storm, the movie felt very insignificant and trivial. It took me a while to get my head back into it."
When the the production did regroup, it was clear that the film's setting, the distinctive beach community of Rockaway, had been destroyed in ways that could not be shot around. The distinctive boardwalk had been ripped to shreds, countless houses had been destroyed and abandoned cars were stacked up on the sides of the streets. Once Fleischner accepted that there were remaining scenes he would not be able to shoot, he started to see Sandy as being part of his story.
"With a little time, I realized that the storm was like the movie itself," explains Fleischner. "There was a true allegory within it, and in a way, it connected to a lot of the film's themes in a deeper way than I ever could have written."
Fleischner had to reconceive part of his film. Now Ricky's mother (played by Andrea Suarez Paz) desperately searches for him against the backdrop of Sandy working its way toward New York. The audience's knowledge of Sandy's devastation naturally raises the stakes on whether Ricky will find his way home. "It would have had a less dramatic ending," says Fleischner of his original script.
As THR's John DeFore points out in his positive review, back when the film premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, the hurricane's arrival is successfully integrated into the film's third act -- so much so that it's easy to imagine the original script being written post-Sandy. Fleischner believes Sandy helped him make a better film. "I think the storm was a gift to the narrative," the director observes. "Now I can't really imagine it any other way."
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors opens Friday in New York at Cinema Village. You can watch the trailer below.