Hurricane Sandy Empowers a Film It Almost Destroyed
On October 28 of last year, Sam Fleischner was riding the A train out to Rockaway. With him were an autistic child actor, a lighting guy, sound guy — an entire film crew in fact, all under his direction. To hear the name of the film, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, is to understand that the location was an appropriate one; it’s the story of a 13-year-old autistic boy played by Jesus Sanchez who gets lost on the subway for 10 days. When it’s not taking place on the A train, Stand Clear unfolds in the Rockaways, where the boy’s mother is on a frantic mission to find him. The real-life story (documented in a New York Times article in 2009) that inspired the film takes place in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. But Fleischner saw parallels between the subway and the ocean, and he wanted the family in his film to live nearby. It was four days before Fleischner’s film was scheduled to wrap, and he needed all the time in the subway he could get. But Hurricane Sandy had other plans.
The crew kept filming all the way to Rockaway, on the last train out before the entire subway system shut down in anticipation of the oncoming hurricane. It would, in fact, be the last train out to Rockaway to date. Once he realized what was happening, Fleischner put Sanchez on a flight back to his home in Florida and waited for the storm surge. Most of the crew took off, probably for good, since their rental was up on November 1 anyway. Fleischner’s cinematographer, one of the toughest people he knows, stuck around until the next day, when he got nervous and headed back to Brooklyn. “Of all people, I thought this guy would ride it out with me,” he says.
Fleischner himself lives in Rockaway, in a wood-frame house left from another era on Beach 92nd Street. Soon after moving to New York in 2006, he’d taken up surfing, traveling out to Rockaway from his apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. It was during this time that his first feature film, Wah Do Dem, won the top prize at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. He also directed music videos for MGMT, Santigold, and Panda Bear. Two years ago, he rented the Rockaway house with two friends, and last summer he started living there full time, subletting his Brooklyn studio to a friend.
The timing was fortuitous. After spending two years developing the script, securing funding, and auditioning actors, Stand Clear was beginning to look like a project that would come together. The search for an autistic child who could play the main role was exhaustive, but Sanchez had the right combination of ability and patience to play the part. Fleischner rented a house for the crew on Beach 96th Street, plus an apartment down the street from his own house to serve as the family’s home in the film. All of the film equipment was kept in his basement when not in use. Filming started on October 6.
When I arrive at Fleischner’s house one blustery afternoon in early February, he’s sitting on his porch, oblivious to the winter temperatures, politely or conveniently wrapping up a phone call. He invites me in, pushing open the front door. I follow him, expecting without thinking of it what one always expects upon entering a home. Namely, floors. Instead, sheets of plywood compose makeshift paths atop floor beams that are the only objects between me and the concrete basement, some 12 feet below. I follow him across one and up the stairs.
For the moment, Fleischner and his two roommates make do on the upper two floors, sans living room or kitchen. That he still manages to offer me a cup of tea speaks to an unflappable sense of decorum, or of the normalcy we force on ourselves when our house is half-destroyed. He heats water from the bathroom sink in an electric tea kettle propped on a wobbly end table in the hallway. He has curly dark hair that appears to be taking an extended break from any relationship with a pair of scissors, and a beard that has been left to its own devices for quite some time.
We sit near his editing station in the front room and start to talk. In Fleischner, there is an ease in discussing creative endeavors which suggests a life that has always included them; and indeed, I soon learn that both his parents are artists. Through a window, we can see the ocean out beyond where the boardwalk used to be.
Fleischner tells me the story you might expect about the night of Hurricane Sandy — the pitch black, the awesome sounds, the bottle of Jack Daniels. And earlier, the not taking the whole event all that seriously. “I was thinking it was a chance to edit and think more about the movie. I was really kind of ignoring the storm.” He urged one of his roommates — who also happened to be doing some work on the film — to record audio for possible use later. He filmed footage of the ocean from a neighbor’s balcony. “I managed to get some unbelievable shots when the storm was coming in,” he says.
That afternoon, the water started seeping up from the sewers. “Then as it was getting dark,” recalls Fleischner, “water started pouring down the streets.” His two roommates watched their cars float away. From a second-floor window after dark, they made out faint outlines of large floating objects. They watched transformers explode above the street. A little later, Fleischner was standing in his living room when water started bubbling up through the floorboards. At that point, he and his roommates scrambled to get the film equipment — which they’d already lugged from the basement to what they’d thought was high enough ground — up another flight to relative safety.
The next morning, “waking up to see what it was was mind-blowing, so shocking,” says Fleishner. The way some new mothers talk about how everything else fades into the background once the baby is born, so Hurricane Sandy pushed all else into irrelevance. Those large floating objects revealed themselves to be entire swaths of boardwalk. The entire Rockaway Peninsula was covered in a foot of sand. A blocks-long stretch of his street remained flooded for days.
That first night and for many after, he cooked food with neighbors over a bonfire in the empty lot across the street. “We ended up hanging out with so many random Rockaway people. It was just an interesting, interesting time.” Days were consumed cleaning up and helping others do so. By the time one of his producers made it out to Rockaway four days after the storm, Fleischner had become lost in the remarkable event around him. “My head was no longer there at all,” he says. “The movie just seemed so insignificant.”
But the producer was nudging him to finish the film. Gradually, Fleischner started thinking about it again. He realized that many of the film’s locations — a local diner, a skate park, the boardwalk — no longer existed. He’d recorded them literally in their last moments. He doesn’t say so, but upon that realization, an obligation to see the project through must have become apparent, the obligation of one in a unique position to preserve what no longer is.
In some seamless and instinctive way, it became a foregone conclusion that the movie’s plot would be altered to culminate with Hurricane Sandy. That unbelievable footage of the storm would make it into the final cut. “It’s funny, I don’t even remember how the script was before the storm,” Fleischner says. “Now it just feels very much like it was always supposed to be there. And I’ve thought so much about how to integrate it that I’ve forgotten how it was before.” Without giving up too much, Fleischner explains that “before, the kid makes it back by way of the train, and now he makes it back in a more magical way.”
Ten days or so after the storm, Fleischner resumed work on the film. He flew an actor in from Mexico to film scenes as the boy’s father. Sanchez came back up from Florida. By this time, what was left of the film crew — three or four people — worked by the power of a generator on loan from one of the producers. There was grandeur to be found yet. “The remaining structure of the boardwalk was like Roman ruins. I got to shoot in there before they started filling it in with sand,” he says. For Rockaway, it was one of the earliest cases of people just getting on with things. He filmed for two weeks.
This week, the Tribeca Film Festival announced that Stand Clear of the Closing Doors will premiere at the festival on April 20. What viewers will see is a film that doesn’t exploit Hurricane Sandy for dramatic effect, but rather features the storm where it now seems always meant to have been. To leave it out would have been to leave a bleeding hole in the story — the film after all, literally lived to tell the tale. “The symbol of the movie is the Ouroborus,” says Fleischner, referring to the mythical serpent that eats its own tail, which the boy in the film draws and redraws compulsively. “And that’s all about ‘creation can only come from destruction.’ The storm sums that up better than anything.”
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