After the credits rolled on Sam Fleischner’s second feature “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” on Sunday during its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, a familiar voice asked the first question during the Q & A, marveling at the film, particularly the audio track, and wondering however did Fleischner capture the sound of the city. Coming from “Margaret” writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, this was perhaps the ultimate compliment one could receive and he wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Only days before the film’s debut, Robert De Niro namedropped “Closing Doors” as the one of the two films he most wanted to see at the festival he founded.
In most cases, such endorsements might raise expectations to an unreasonable level for a small drama filmed on the fly in Fleischner’s home of Rockaway Beach. But with “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” the filmmaker has created something truly indelible and unique with the story of Ricky, an autistic teen (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) who has a tendency to wander, his excursion to the beach during a school day leading to a days-long sabbatical on New York’s subway system out of fear of telling the truth to his mother (Andrea Suarez Paz).
Through the two sides of the story wherein the concerned mom roams the streets in search of her son, who is engaging with people on the Metrorail he’s rarely exposed to, Fleischner captures both the fear and wonder inherent in the big city, brimming with generosity in places, such as on certain subway cars, and terribly unforgiving elsewhere, depicting a public school eager to kick out Ricky for reasons that acknowledge their own institutional shortcomings.
Fleischner and crew experienced both as a production when “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors”’ 25-day shoot last October was interrupted three weeks in by Hurricane Sandy, yet for a director who told us last summer of his hope to capture [Rockaway Beach] before it changed any further, he allows for history to unfold before his very camera, resulting in a film that’s all the more vital and vibrant for it. Shortly after the film’s first screening at Tribeca, I caught up with Fleischner, Suarez Paz and Sanchez-Velez, who could only be present for part of this conversation before getting on a plane back home, to talk about how the film came together, how the actors’ relationships to each other offscreen weren’t all that different than on it and braving the superstorm to make something special.
Since mother and son are separated for most of the film, did you get to spend any time together early on to have that foundation as a family?
Andrea Suarez Paz: We did, actually.
Jesus Sanchez-Velez: The first time I went to New York, I was coming to meet all the actors that were in the film, then I met the director and basically the whole crew.
AS: Yeah, he came once just to get to know everybody and we hung out, we swam in the ocean. And we talked a lot and walked a lot together on the beach.
Sam Fleischner: Also, we tried to shoot as much in chronological order as possible and then we started with scenes in the apartment with the family when they were all together. I had them all stay in the apartment the first two nights so that they actually were waking up there, taking showers there, really understanding how this place works so that they could move through it in a way that felt as natural as possible.
AS: We all slept in our own beds. It was a set essentially because we were filming there, but it was just a real house.
SF: We got an empty white apartment and painting it and put all the furniture in there.
You’re able tell so much of a story through what’s on the walls. Did it help you get into the roles?
AS: Absolutely. It was really great and we spent those two nights together just hanging out and I could never make [Jesus] go to bed, though. The kids just never listened to me. [Looking at Jesus] I think you went to bed at four in the morning one time…
JV: Yeah, I stayed awake for a while. Then I actually fell asleep without you knowing. I just got knocked out and then woke up in the morning, like “what the heck?”
Jesus, there must’ve been some moments like that for you on the train. What was it like shooting in such a public place?
JV: It was actually very interesting because there was always something new that we always wanted to try out. Sometimes we wanted to try out shots that were far away from the train. Sometimes we wanted to try out from the other cart and sometimes it was just like very close, so there was a lot of cool stuff to see.
Sam, were there certain routes that you wanted to take, either for better people watching or to have the subway cars completely to yourselves?
SF: Yeah, we wanted a variety. It’s a really hard environment to control, so if we needed more control, we’d try to shoot when there would be less people. There’s four different styles of subway cars for the most part in New York and we chose one, basically the A train, which I wanted to use because that’s the train that goes out to Rockaway and it’s the longest route in the system.
There’s all these spectrums in the movie. There’s a spectrum of Rockaway Beach between the affluent community where the mom works and the lower-income area where they live. Then the A train is another spectrum where you go from the beach all the way up to the Bronx or Harlem, since it’s actually to 209th Street, then there’s the autism spectrum, so it becomes a study of like you do see the different demographics as you move through the different stops. Cities change, styles change and so I tried to capture that, although it was really hard to convey those patterns.
Were there any great surprises on the subway that you got to act against or that were interesting things that happened?
SF: There were tons. One really fun one was meeting Jose, the kid with one arm.
JV: That was pretty interesting.
SF: And he was just such a sweet guy and he was just there [while we were shooting] and he was really excited that we were doing this. He wasn’t really doing anything important, so he just kept riding with us and working on that scene for a couple hours. He and Jesus are like buddies now. There were a lot of surprises. We met a lot of great characters there.
Sam, when we first spoke, you couldn’t have possibly imagined something like Hurricane Sandy happening during shooting. How did that affect your plans?
SF: The hurricane just came right in the middle of our production, so I didn’t know how it was going to fit when it was happening, just because it was all so shocking. I actually stopped thinking about the movie, especially the day after when you realize the severity of it, and just turned the movie off for a while. Everything was shut down, so I had time to start meditating on it and thinking how it would work.
I had the cinematographers leave me with a camera set-up before they fled [slight laugh], so I was able to record some shots. The stuff you see [outdoors] in the movie was pre-storm and then [the crew] came back out and we shot more after the storm. Everything we shot with Tenoch [Huerta, who plays Ricky’s father] was post-Sandy, so all those scenes were lit off of a generator that we were running outside.
Andrea, one of the most interesting things about your character is she’s almost a sea of calm, at least on the exterior. You never have a big, gaudy dramatic moment as you might expect, but plenty of smaller, affecting ones. What was that like to play?
AS: It was written that way. I really felt when I started researching autism that a lot of the traits that are commonly associated with autism seem like normal human traits that we all have. I thought that the mother was, to me, just as autistic as [her son] and as anybody else. It’s just a matter of, like Sam said, how you view the world, how you express yourself and how you feel things. Nobody can say what’s normal and what’s part of any spectrum, I don’t think. And that choice of her never losing it and just going into a corner and just crying came from Sam. [Looking at Fleischner] You didn’t really want that to happen.
SF: We shot actually a lot more of it, but I think you really need to meter those beats because they can be so.
AS: We didn’t want it to be about like someone who’s just crying, crying. That didn’t seem as interesting.
My favorite scene in the film may have been when there was the simple wipe of the television at her own house because you realize she hasn’t had the time to clean her own house since she’s been too busy cleaning other people’s. Were there things that you were concerned that might come across in a certain way since this is a film about a Hispanic family being made by a white filmmaker?
AS: We worked very closely in just making it as authentic as it should be and it was very easy bringing that up. Sam’s very open and if he had any questions, [I’d answer them] but I feel like he had a very good idea of how things were going to work. Maybe there was like a little thing, for example with calling the police, I thought that [my character] shouldn’t be so afraid of calling 911 and he thought she should be more afraid of it. There were little things like that where we would have conversations about exactly how does an immigrant act?
SF: Yeah, like would she call? Would she hesitate? In the movie, she waits until the second day to call the police and in real life, I think she would’ve called the police right away, but immigration is still is a factor and a lot of undocumented workers in New York do have fear and paranoia. That’s really sad and I wanted to incorporate that sentiment.
AS: That also layered the character. I felt like the character just kept getting layered with new things. Okay, she’s not going to call until the second day? That means so many things that she wouldn’t do that. That would just give me an idea. I had the character and she became the beat – this is how she does it and this is how she reacts – and I didn’t really manipulate it.
I also have to pick up on something that was asked last night because of who asked it. Kenneth Lonergan was clearly impressed by the sound design, so how did you do it?
SF: I just found out later that was him. I didn’t realize it.
Given that “Margaret” was about telling the story of New York through its sounds, it was high praise and you really capture the cacophony in the city as well. Was it tricky?
SF: It’s always tricky because it’s so important and it’s really easy to overlook when you’re shooting. People make the mistake often of focusing too much on picture and not giving equal attention to sound. That’s something that I’m always trying to do and not trying to control it. Like if a plane rips through the sky during the scene, great. Embracing all of the things that come into play, like when we did the “Evil Drink” scene [where all of Ricky’s anxieties come to a head while riding the subway], a car alarm went off and it just happened to be a loud moment. The train must’ve been full because it gets louder when there’s more people on it and there’s a car alarm going off and it’s like this incredible natural sound design and the kid is screaming, “No, I don’t want no evil drink!” That’s the best stuff when those things just happen that way.
There’s a small amount of poetic voiceover from Ricky that’s effective. Was there from the get go?
SF: I never planned to do the voiceover, then there was just a desire to get closer to him and more into his head. We actually did a lot of reshoots six weeks ago and Jesus came back up here and I played him a lot of the shots that are from his point of view and I edited a sequence of those together, then put a mic on him and just let him watch and narrate what he’s looking at. I guided him a little bit on the shoe monologue, but he really came up with [everything else] in a freestyle form and I love it. There could even be more of it, but I just didn’t have any more time left to do any more work. I had to play the movie at the festival.
What was it like to stumble into history? You’ve got Sandy and the presidential election.
SF: I love movies functioning as documents of time and place, if you can do that. “Wah Do Dem,” but the election was such an amazing moment in that movie and that was exactly four years prior to shooting this. Going into this, I wanted the election to be a bigger thing. I had a lot more newspaper [shots] and conversations going on about the election and that took a backseat to Sandy. But I did sneak in that one newspaper just to kind of stamp what a ridiculous thing it was that Mitt Romney was [running].
And you’re in New York, so you’ve got the Post‘s blaring headlines.
SF: In the Post! Endorsing him as “The Only Choice,” it’s just too good not to include.
Has the meaning of the film changed for you from the first you started thinking of it to the final product?
SF: I don’t know. What I was trying to do was just always changing every day. It was different, so I can only say what it is now. I don’t even know what it was then. But I was interested in doing a lot of observation and I think there is a significant amount of that in the movie. It’s like I wanted to make a nature movie in a lot of ways and I think there’s a little bit of a nature movie in here.