When Rachel Shuman hit the five boroughs of New York with a camera in the fall of 2008, an election that would result in the first new president since the turn of the century was less than a month away and the financial crisis had brought protestors out to Wall Street, though you’d think the city was flush from all the high-rises that were shooting up on seemingly every block. A recipe for unease for the New York she knew, Shuman recruited Clay Pigeon, a recent transplant from Milwaukee who had created a radio show around inquisitive man-on-the-street interviews, to join her to capture the city’s pulse at this critical moment.
“It was nice to be with somebody who had a fresh eye in a way, and I loved talking to all the people we talked to,” recalls Shuman. “There were 45 interviews that we did and there’s only nine in the film, but it was endearing. I’ve always loved the people of New York, but it made me love them even more.”
That charm is infectious in “One October,” which Shuman placed on a shelf for a decade to age like fine wine and emerge as a testament to both a city that’s constantly in flux and yet resolutely one of a kind as the pace of change only seems to embolden residents in what they stand for. Coming across characters of all different stripes from St. Marks to 125th Street, the 55-minute film spans the socioeconomic strata as Pigeon approaches strangers to ask for their feelings on the election or the gentrification going on around them or simply their personal stories. What the filmmakers get in return is a sense of a city built out of something stronger than concrete as it houses such diversity of culture and thought, with Shuman allowing audiences to get swept up in it by immersing them in the sights and sounds of New York. As the film begins a weeklong residency at the Maysles Cinema, where it will be accompanied by a host of special events, as well as being available to the masses on iTunes, the filmmaker spoke about the project’s inspiration and eventual incubation.
How did this come about?
I was initially inspired by Chris Marker by a film called “Le Joli Mai,” which is a portrait of Paris he made in 1962 that takes place during just that one month of May. It’s a combination of interviews and picturesque tableaus of the city and I thought I’d love to make a portrait like that of my city. I also felt there were some similarities in the issues being raised – it was a period when Paris was going through a lot of urban renewal and redevelopment and they had just ended the war in Algeria after being at war with them for eight years and there was a lot of political tension and questions about the future of the country. It felt like we were coming to a moment like that in New York with all the zoning changes in the city and politically [how] we had been at war with Iraq for five years and we were about to have this [presidential] election, so I just thought it was a really interesting moment to choose to document in the life of my city.
Did you have the idea from the start that you’d film this and then put it away for some time?
Originally, when I was shooting, I did think it would come out the next year and it was a portrait of that moment. But in editing it, I felt like, for lack of a better word, it wasn’t newsworthy [because] it wasn’t so much reportage as much as it was an impression. As I started working with the material, I just felt it needed distance because so much of the film was about change and it would have more meaning if a period of time went by. You could see the change just from when it was shot to when you were looking at it, and [when the film] premiered at its first film festival in early April of 2017, it was a couple months after Obama left office. My goal [became] to have it come out right at the end of his tenure as a marker of these past eight years where [we know where] we’ve been and the film takes place the moment before and here we are in the moment after. So I ended up putting it on the shelf for many years.
What was it like to return to it?
It was completely edited before the election of 2016, so I was not taking into consideration who the next president would be, but what changed from when I shot the film is that I had the feeling originally that I was a little angrier, like, “Ugh, what is happening to this city?” I was really frustrated that I was living in the East Village and things were disappearing left and right. The whole shape of it was changing with these huge high-rise condos and it felt like the pace of change was just going too fast and in a direction that wasn’t taking into consideration the people who had been there for so long. As time went by, it wasn’t that I became less angry, but I think I had a larger acceptance for the way the city reinvents itself. I gained some perspective myself [of], “Well, this might be the chapter we’re in right now, but we don’t know where we’re going to be 10 years from now” and [also that] I might not like the shape of things, but [since] the film was more of a celebration of what I do love about the city, [I saw it] as a way of sharing that with people to help inspire them to save the parts of the city that are important.
How did Clay Pigeon come to be your guide?
I wanted to interview people on the street, but I wanted to find somebody to take on that role and I wanted that person to have a personality. I didn’t want them to be an off-camera, unseen voice where you’re just editing around the person’s questions. So I was just talking one day to a friend of mine about what I was looking for and he used to have a radio show at WMFU, so he said, “Oh, you have to listen to The Dusty Show with Clay Pigeon.” I listened to him and honestly, the first show, I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get in touch with this guy.” He’s this voice I was looking for, so I wrote him and [asked], “Would you like to get together for coffee and I can tell you about this project?” He agreed on the spot and for me, it worked out really well. I felt he just captured many aspects of what I was looking for, both in the way his style is and his energy.
[Clay Pigeon], himself, is like one of the phenomenons of the city that I feel like is maybe in danger of disappearing – this spontaneous interaction of bumping into people on the street [and talking to them]. New York’s always been a place welcoming of that, so I feel like in some way he also represents those people like the bird watcher or the carrot peeler salesman who just is meandering through the streets, just doing their thing, but in spending a little bit more time with Clay Pigeon, he’s our way into the citizens of New York. We went basically from Brooklyn Bridge to Harlem, moving up the city each week, and he likes to go to parks, just because for the audio it’s better because it’s a little quieter, but I knew I wanted to cover much more of the city, so I stretched him to go further.
One thing I really loved about the film was how you would build some sequences out of sound connections as opposed to image – what was it like editing with that in mind?
That was critical because the film does not have a traditional narrative arc, so I used everything in my power, like diegetic sound, to make those connections. The score was also very important to me, and they all contribute to the story of the film. There’s a lot of little themes that carry throughout, like I’m sure you’ll notice all the animals in the film – I was trying to portray the city as a kind of ecosystem, thinking about diversity and what makes a thriving ecosystem and what helps any habitat thrive – so I worked a lot with the sounds of nature across scenes that maybe you aren’t even seeing an animal, but you’re hearing it. So I worked with all the layers I had at my disposal to make the whole package that told a story in its own way.
It seems like this weeklong run at the Maysles Cinema is going to be pretty special, with plenty of intriguing post-screening events. How did it come together?
I was excited to screen there and we did shoot a lot in several neighborhoods – the Lower East Side and the East Village are also heavily featured, but I feel like the residents of Harlem are in the film, so why not bring it to that neighborhood? That neighborhood was and still is undergoing drastic changes, so one night we have a panel coming together to talk about Harlem and specifically the changes happening there and how it’s reflected in the film and the film’s being shown with a beautiful little 10-minute short film called “The Monolith” that also deals [with a similar theme] in a complementary, but slightly different way [as] a woman’s experience of the changing skyline of New York and what it opens up in her dialogue with herself. I also made a special behind-the-scenes video of Clay Pigeon because he can’t come every night to every screening, so for a few of them, we’re showing that to give a little more insight about how he works and how he edits everything in analog and why.
It just feels like an honor to be associated with institution [such as Maysles Cinema] and we have a theatrical tour that we’re kicking off with about 10 other cities. I love hearing people’s responses, especially people who don’t live in New York, and seeing how the film resonates because it hopefully speaks to people about their own community. Even though it’s a portrait of New York, I feel a lot of issues the film brings up are things that people are dealing with around the world – corporatization and globalization’s effects on development in urban [areas] – and hopefully it inspires people to look and cherish what’s around them and celebrate it and help shape the community in the ways they want them to be.