When Sam Fleischner set out to film "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," he fully expected the kind of headaches and logistical nightmares that crop up when operating a shoe-string budget while directing a cast comprised of many non-actors.
What he hadn't bargained for — indeed what no one in his New York City neighborhood of Rockaway Beach, Queens could have foreseen — was the devastation that ripped up the boardwalk, flooded homes and city streets and tore down power lines after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the waterfront area last fall.
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Fleischner has lived in Rockaway for three years and used his community as the backdrop for his second film about a young autistic boy who runs away from his Mexican immigrant family.
"Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" marks his second feature film. His first, the Jamaica-set "Wah Do Dem," which he co-directed with Ben Chace, won the Jury Award for best narrative feature at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.
He had been working on the picture for three weeks when the hurricane hit, leaving parts of Rockaway without water and power after the storm surge. The community had the ignominious distinction of being perhaps the hardest-hit area in a city hit hard by Sandy.
Surrounded by all the devastation, Fleischner almost abandoned the project.
"I was in another place and the movie didn’t seem all that important at the time," the 30-year-old Fleischner told TheWrap. "It was an existential thing. I was thinking, this project is silly, but then I realized that this is actually a great document of Rockaway before the storm, a place that’s so dear to me. It’s my home and I've captured all these places that are gone."
Rather than allow the project to be another casualty of Sandy, Fleischner integrated it into his narrative. He used footage that he had shot as the storm was bearing down on the city and had the family at the center of the film reunite as Rockaway and New York dig out from underneath the wreckage.
The finished project debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, a mere four months after shooting wrapped. And though it has yet to formally open, Stephen Holden of the New York Times has already declared that "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" is the "probable front-runner in the competition for best world narrative feature" at Tribeca.
The film "is as intense and indelible an immersion in the real New York as I have seen in a long time. It may be crude, but it is completely, exhilaratingly alive," Holden wrote last week.
The ordeal to get "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" to screens reflects in some small way the rebuilding effort that has consumed large swaths of New York City. Three weeks after the storm hit, Fleischner — whose own home was flooded — was back on the set. Most of the crew had departed for other jobs, but armed with a skeletal support team and a power generator, he rewrote on the fly and finished the film.
In the end, he said he believes "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" is stronger because of the storm's presence.
"With time it became clear how nicely it fit into the story thematically," he told TheWrap. "I was interested in the ocean and the subway, and this system and anti-system. Chaos and order. The subway is ruled by a system while the ocean is unregulated, and the storm is the best manifestation of that."
That willingness to adapt worked so well that Genna Terranova, programming director for Tribeca Film Festival, confessed that she had no idea that Hurricane Sandy was incorporated into the movie after the fact, but she said the decision seems organic.
"So much about independent film is just rolling with it," she told TheWrap.
"It works very easily and gracefully with story," Terranova said. "It's not a movie about Sandy. It's the story of the family and the little boy and his journey, which was really touching, and the Sandy arrival, the way it's woven into the fabric of the story was beautiful and inspiring."
The core of the film is still the walkabout that an autistic 13-year-old boy from an undocumented family goes on in the New York City's subway system. It's a type of journey that Fleischner said is common for teenagers on the autistic spectrum. As the boy struggles to find his way around New York's labyrinthine transit system, his family desperately tries to navigate a bureaucracy that is often hostile to and impenetrable for undocumented New Yorkers.
"I'm an observer myself," Fleischner said. "I’d say that’s one of the central parts of my work. There’s observation and then there’s points of perspective and everyone sees things in their own way and people on the autism spectrum have a unique perception of the world. It just seemed like a fun way to fuse storytelling with a lot of spontaneous unknowns."
He also saw it as an opportunity to set a story in a part of the city where film cameras, save those from Woody Allen's 1987 drama "Radio Days," rarely linger. Rockaway is an earthy, crumbling, slice of New York that Fleischner finds arresting in its urban decay.
"It’s almost so ugly that it becomes so beautiful," Fleischner said.
Tribeca is many subway stops and a borough removed from the destruction experienced by Rockaway Beach. However, "Stand Clear of The Closing Doors" will have a special screening on April 27 at MoMa PS1's VW Dome 2, a geodesic dome that was erected in the wake of the tempest to serve as a temporary center for community-based cultural events in the area.
"We’re playing in New York, it’s a New York story and everyone from the crew and my neighbors can come," Fleischner said.