When people say ‘Brooklyn renaissance,’ I say, ‘Yeah, man,’ says Brooklyn-based filmmaker Joshua Bee Alafia, director of a 33-minute Brooklyn kung-fu movie called The Anti-Vigilante. I feel it all the way out where I live in Flatbush. It’s not just happening in Williamsburg or Park Slope. It’s all over.
Renaissance might be too strong a word at this point. Despite such star-packed, borderline-Hollywood efforts as Noam Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, and such near-breakthrough Brooklyn indies as Mutual Appreciation (shot in Williamsburg by Bostonian Andrew Bujalski) and Four Eyed Monsters (by Bushwick residents Susan Buice and Arin Crumley), what’s happening in Brooklyn is still very much under the radar. It’s less a fullblown Renaissance than a percolating scene that has yet to erupt into national view. And Brooklyn isn’t the only city with a buzzing filmmaking scene. Relatively cheap and easy-to-learn digital filmmaking technologies and Internet-based forms of publicity and distribution (particularly downloads) have combined to allow a small army of moviemakers to learn an art form they might not have been able to afford ten years ago. (And if you doubt it, check out Google Video, which has become an international showroom for homemade film and video projects, some of them fascinating.)
That said, Alafia isn’t imagining things. Something is happening in the borough. And what’s distinctive about it is probably due to the collision of five critical factors: the aforementioned new technology; numerous Brooklyn-based festivals (including the Brooklyn Film Festival, the Brooklyn International Film Festival, the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, Reel Sisters, Rooftop Films and the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival); the relative health of the tax-break-encouraged New York film and TV industry, which allows the most talented or tenacious filmmakers to earn a living, or at least some walking-around money; a vast yet dense geographical area, served by the world’s most thorough subway system; and affordable rents, compared to much of Manhattan. (Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on that last factor, thanks to developers.)
The result of this convergence is a rare instance where the term filmmaking community isn’t a contradiction in terms. Unlike Los Angeles or even most parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn filmmakers don’t just live in the same area code and occasionally run into each other at screenings or parties. They live on the same city blocks, shop at the same stores, patronize the same restaurants and bars and see each other every day. And it’s a bit less competitive, image-driven and stressful than Manhattan. The borough gives artists emotional as well as physical space to do their thing.
Brooklyn has definitely supplanted the lower Manhattan of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Jim Jarmusch era when a lot of young filmmakers were living on the Lower East Side on the cheap, and making small movies, says Bryan Wizemann, a Las Vegas native turned Clinton Hill resident who shot his first film, the existential gambling drama Losing Ground, at The Gate, a Park Slope bar. A lot of filmmakers, a lot of artists, have been priced out of Manhattan. I’ve noticed that when I pick up a new novel in the bookstore and flip to the back, it says, ‘so and so lives in Brooklyn.’
Brooklyn has the advantage of being in New York, but being a little outside the hustle and bustle, said Vladan Nikolic, a Belgrade native who shot his first feature, the romantic thriller Loveabout a Yugoslav hit man, his ex-wife and her cop loverin locations throughout Brooklyn. I keep discovering this place is full of filmmakers. Every day I run into people that are filmmakers or who know people who are filmmakers.
This literally pedestrian familiarity leads to friendship and collaboration, and a sense that just because filmmaking is a serious business doesn’t mean filmmakers can’t be generous to each other.
This is a referral-based industry, but I’ve gotten to the point where I know enough people that I don’t even have a reel, said Alafia. It’s been years since I got hired off a reel. What other places do you know where you can freelance as a cinematographer and editor without a reel?
Brooklyn filmmakers tend to want to help each other, and because people are helpful, you start to collaborate in more informal ways than you might find in a place like LA, which is so competitive, says Four Eyed Monsters’ co-director Crumley. You just start making stuff together and you don’t worry so much about the formalities.
Crumley says he and Buice couldn’t have made Four Eyed Monstersa documentary-drama hybrid about the filmmakers’ relationship that has continued online in regular podcastswithout the support of people in their Bushwick apartment building, which is thick with people who are either employed by the film and TV industry or hovering on its margins.
Everybody else in the building is pursuing some sort of artistic endeavor, Crumley says. Not everybody in the building is doing filmmaking, but there are lot of complimentary skills. We mixed our audio with a sound guy down the hall. Next door to him we had our fashion designer, who gave us all the male clothing for the film. Upstairs there’s sort of a rock opera theater group that has a lot of actresses and actors who come through and do rehearsals there, and we ended up casting a lot of small roles from that pool of people.
Crumley and Buice even used their building, specifically their apartment, as a de-facto studio, devising breakaway partitions that allowed them to do pre-production, production and postproduction in the same space, sometimes simultaneously. We did auditions at the same time that someone was rough-cutting a scene on the other side of a wall. You can make that kind of stuff happen here, kind of pull people together.
Locations are more varied in Brooklyn than they are in Manhattan, they’re easier to get, and it’s easier to film on the streets without getting hassled, says Eric Werthman, a therapist turned director who shot his debut feature Going Under, starring Roger Rees as a therapist in a relationship with a dominatrix, in and around Park Slope. They’re more varied than they are in Manhattan, there’s more of a visual sense of history because things don’t get razed and built over quite as fast as Manhattan, and they’re easier to get. Park Slope, of course, is used all the time (in Hollywood productions), but it’s still easier for cars and trucks to park there than in Manhattan. (Intriguingly, Love‘s Nicolic served as a producer and editor on Werthman’s film.)
Shooting in Brooklyn was the big reason I was able to finish the film and get it made how I wanted, says Wizemann, who re-dressed The Gate to resemble a Vegas poker bar for Losing Ground. We were inside the bar the whole time, but I felt like the movie got made with the permission of the entire Brooklyn community, from the bar owners to the traffic cops to the frickin’ liquor distributors, who would wait till we were done with a shot to unload their liquor.
So far, there is no recognizable Brooklyn aesthetic. One can’t easily compare Losing Ground, a dreamy real-time drama shot on high definition video with Rembrandt lighting, with the handheld, 16mm black-and-white Mutual Appreciation. Nor can one confuse the video-diary-influenced DV feature Four Eyed Monsters with Going Under, whose steamy 35mm color photography makes Park Slope look like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Paris.
The only common quality, so far, is a combination of ambition and intimacy, qualities that aren’t unique to Brooklyn, but which seem to flower there. These aren’t indies as the mainstream media define them, i.e., small, theoretically serious movies with half-a-million to multimillion-dollar budgets, starring people you’ve heard of, distributed by arms of major studios. These are tiny, personal films, a few steps up from a home movie; they belong to a genre that was recently given a marvelous label by IndieWIRE: Undies. They have an international flavor, spiced with bohemian assumptions, and they’re often attentive to the offhand beauty one finds throughout the borough.
For me, the appeal of Brooklyn is the beauty of it all. I wish we’d shot more in the streets between Fort Greene and Williamsburg, where there’s a kind of desolate land but beautiful stretch, with all these bodega lunchonettes that are worn, but because of their diverse ethnic mix, very lived-in and beautiful. And where the Arabs live on Coney Island is beautiful, too. Vlad (Nicolic) used a location I almost used, the bridge on the Gowanus Canal. You look at it in his movie, you’d think he shot in Amsterdam. It’s just beautiful.