Just in time for holiday shopping, there’s a new documentary short anthology that is perfect for your favorite New Yorker. It’s called True New York, and it is a collection of five 30-or-so-minute, vérité films about the Big City. As a true New Yorker myself — or, at least, a true native — I was thrilled by how the anthology manages to reveal such vivid, nuanced stories that are so much a part of the fabric of the city and yet so underappreciated.
The best has to be C-Rock, a fantastic film about the giant rock cliffs on the Harlem River, where a giant painted “C,” for Columbia, faces the northern tip of Manhattan. I’ve driven by that cliff countless times and here I discover that local boys (not sure about girls) have been joyfully jumping the rocks for thrills for decades.
The other docs are equally well-told, although they are subtler and character-driven. But the overall impact of watching the films of a train station design obsessive, a taxi cab fleet owner, a Muslim slaughterhouse operator and a true outsider-artist is an enriching experience that makes you appreciate this city anew.
The mastermind of True New York is Jeremy Workman who, in addition to being a director and editor, runs Wheelhouse Creative. (www.wheelhousenyc.com) with his partner, Rob Lyons. Wheelhouse makes 40-50 movie trailers a year, including the season spots for POV for the last 10 years or so.
Wheelhouse produced the anthology for First Run Features and Workman also directed one of the films. I tossed him some questions and he tossed his answers back, opting to go long. But filmmakers interested in making shorts should settle in to tap Workman’s depth of wisdom and experience.
Tom Roston: What was the process of getting the shorts released as an anthology?
Jeremy Workman: A few years ago, I had made a 22-minute short documentary called One Track Mind. It’s about this amazing subway historian Phil Coppola who has spent 40 years cataloging the decor and design of every subway station. It was a good little short about an odd obsessive New Yorker and it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. But after its festival run, it didn’t really find an audience, which is certainly how it usually goes for short films. It was just sort of “out to pasture” and I was off making other films.
But last year, The New York Transit Museum decided to play the short at a special event. And then the New York Times ran a big article on the film’s subject. Suddenly, there was new interest. I was thinking of how I could take advantage of all this interest and help find a new audience for the film. So, that’s when we thought, “What about an anthology of great New York City short documentaries?” So, we went right to First Run Features with the idea. I had known those guys for years as they released my first film (Who is Henry Jaglom?, POV 1997). Marc and Seymour at First Run loved the idea and we were off and running.
We then set out to find 5 amazing shorts with NYC as the backdrop. And we didn’t want to confine the candidates to just “new releases.” To find them, we spoke to a lot of filmmakers, festival programmers, and friends. We probably watched 30 or 40 shorts and finally settled on these five: C-Rock (director Jordan Roth), Taxi Garage (director Joshua Z Weinstein. This film is an adaptation of his longer film Drivers Wanted), A Son’s Sacrifice (director Yoni Brook. Brook is a POV alum with his film Bronx Princess, POV 2009), Black Cherokee (directors Sam Cullman and Benjamin Rosen. Cullman is a POV alum with his film Art and Craft, POV 2015), and my film One Track Mind. There are not a whole lot of anthology films out there — and even fewer documentary anthologies. There’ve been some great narrative anthologies. People remember the terrific New York Stories (1989) and there’s been an audience for New York, I Love You (2008) and Paris, je t’aime (2006). So, we’re excited about its prospects.
Roston: Other than the obvious NYC connection, what would say unites these films?
Workman: In big picture terms, I think all the films showcase New York City in a way that mainstream audiences are not used to. Most people see only the New York City that the media depicts. We really were trying to showcase a New York City that traditional movie audiences aren’t used to. That meant finding incredible stories in the outer boroughs and really digging into those characters. C-Rock is set in a place in the Bronx that rarely is seen in film. A Son’s Sacrifice is set in Ozone Park, Queens. Black Cherokee takes place in East Harlem. Taxi Garage is set in Long Island City, Queens. So, we wanted viewers to say, “Wow, where am I? I don’t usually see NYC in this light.”
From there, we really wanted the characters of NYC to come through. For good reason, New York City has a reputation for unique people. C-Rock is a coming-of-age film that reminds people of Stand By Me. Black Cherokee shows someone who refuses to give up on his dream. A Son’s Sacrifice is a classic story of generation gap. So, the characters are very much larger-than-life in True New York, but they all are going through things that are universal.
Roston: Did any of the filmmakers make a dime creating these films?
Workman: I doubt many of our filmmakers made any money on their films. When you make a short, you’re doing it for the passion. And most of the films in True New York were self-funded. So, they are all passion projects, which often make for the best movies because they’re not trying to appease or appeal to any particular audience or demographic. These are stories “that had to be told.” Unfortunately, there’s never been great ways to capitalize on short films.
Certainly, making shorts is a great way to get your filmmaking career in gear. It’s an essential step for filmmakers to develop their storytelling sense. I think it’s really impressive that all of the filmmakers from True New York have moved on to bigger films. A lot of us have made features or are moving on to bigger films now. After One Track Mind, I made the feature Magical Universe (IFC Films, 2015). Magical Universe has a lot in common with One Track Mind. After Black Cherokee, Sam Cullman made Art and Craft (Oscilloscope, 2015). Art and Craft has a lot in common with Black Cherokee. Yoni Brook and Joshua Z Weinstein are working on features now.
That said, short filmmakers needn’t just think of shorts as just a transitional step in their careers. I think there are more venues now than ever to get your shorts seen. With so many internet streaming and on-demand services, there are all kinds of possibilities for distribution of short films. Sites like Vimeo create humongous reach for short films. And there’s new short film venues popping up all the time, whether it’s the acclaimed Field of Vision unit or CNN’s Great Big Story or the myriad of sites that have Shorts Of the Week.
And certainly there are a handful of traditional champions of documentary short films, from HBO to ESPN Films to PBS (Independent Lens, America ReFramed, and POV have all played great documentary shorts). There are even a lot of theatrical venues in New York that have championed short films, including the IFC Center, Nitehawk Cinema, and Rooftop Films. So, there are ways to get your short films seen by a wider audience. And, who knows, if True New York is a hit, maybe we’ll be looking for more shorts for other series, like True San Fran or True Texas.
Roston: How can people watch True New York? Is there a VOD option?
Workman: Right now, True New York is available on iTunes and DVD. There will be more venues that develop along the way, including hopefully broadcast cable VOD. We even are planning some special event theatrical screenings in the coming months. However, I found it really interesting when First Run suggested that there could be a real market for True New York on DVD. It’s funny because we all think of DVDs as this dated technology. But actually, the documentary audience still very much embraces DVDs. Maybe that’s because the documentary audience is not a traditional early-adopter audience. Or perhaps it’s because documentaries don’t necessarily need the latest technological presentation (like 4K, UltraHD or 3D). For documentaries, it’s about the authentic stories and characters. So, DVD still makes sense for documentary exhibition.
Roston: Are you a True New Yorker? Why/why not?
I’m a bit of True New Yorker myself. I was born in Manhattan. I’ve lived in NYC all my adult life. But, I think I’m really earning my New York City stripes with my current documentary. For the past couple years, I’ve been making a feature documentary on Matt Green. He’s a 35-year old guy who is walking every street of New York City (all 5 boroughs, over 8,000 miles). So, with Matt, I’ve filmed everywhere in New York City. That film will be done next year and it’s pretty awesome. It’s this incredible personal quest story mixed with this unusual deep-dive into New York City.
More than both of those things, it’s really about the idea of seeing your world in a whole new way. There’s amazingness that’s right in front of your eyes and this film is all about that. Matt is like a cross between Thoreau and Ferris Bueller, and he shows you the city in ways you never expected. So, in a sense, it’s actually less about how grand New York City is and more about “the smallness of the world.” I have some scenes that I think will blow people away — whether you live in NYC or you live in Alaska. I’m really excited for people to see it when it’s finished.
To purchase True New York, visit First Run Features to find it on DVD and on iTunes.
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