MORIARTY Reviews DARK DAYS & Talks To Marc Singer!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Every now and then, you see a film or you talk to someone, and you are changed, bettered by the encounter. I was lucky enough this month to have both experiences.
I am duly impressed when a master filmmaker takes the time, the resources, and the energy required to make something great and really crafts the film. Kubrick, Burton, Spielberg, Scorsese, Stone... these are the types of guys who can move heaven and earth if they want to. They marshal these vast armies of other artists and technicians, and they pour the effort in, and when everything lines up, they bring forth really special, powerful work. But you expect it, in a way. It's not a surprise when they pull it off.
But what about the guy who's never made a film before, who just takes the basic tools and raw willpower and a few books and a dream and sets about capturing something on film, something that turns out to be moving and memorable and possibly even important? Is this person a savant? Is it just dumb luck? Is that shock of excitement, the thrill of discovery, part of what makes the work so potent?
After I staggered out of the Nuart theater the other day, I knew I wanted to talk to Marc Singer, director of DARK DAYS, winner of this year's Documentary Freedom of Expression award at Sundance. On a technical level, it's imperfect, even frustrating in a few places. But this film lives and breathes beyond the edges of the frame. It's an important film not only for what it's about, but because of how it was made. It's a success story onscreen and off. Knowing full well he wasn't the actor from BEASTMASTER and V, the guy at the center of it, Marc Singer, was a mystery to me.
Shot in black and white, the film is a document of a specific time and place. It's New York City, the mid-'90s, and we're introduced to the men and women who live in one tunnel of the subways, who have built homes for themselves there, and who have their own community that Marc is invited into. These people aren't just the subjects of the film. They're also the crew. They ran the camera, the lights, the sound equipment. They all contributed in numerous ways, and the result is a film that reached inside of me.
These aren't characters or easy stereotypes we see in the film. These are real people, each of them with a unique story, each of them with a pain or a loss or a decision that's brought them to this place, to this condition. There is dignity in the film, humanity, and unexpected humor. I cared about these people by the time I realized that we were seeing real changes in their lives. Marc didn't just catch them living a certain way. He caught the end of that world for them, and he caught what happens after. And from this bleak portrait of forgotten souls comes hope, shocking and ultimately transcendent. I was moved deeply by the end of this movie, by the place we leave these people. It woke something in me up, and it left me both uncomfortable and overjoyed. It's a complicated film, and talking about it is difficult. You don't want to ruin any of it for another potential viewer. It's not even like you could describe the moments out of context and have them make sense or give them they proper weight. The joy of finding a bag of doughnuts in the trash. The pain of memories of children lost. The dulled relief of a crack pipe. It's a film of enormous power, and that comes from the simplicity of it all. The use of DJ Shadow's music as the film's score is inspired, and it turns familiar tracks into something new, something deeper. It's as if he wrote the music for the film.
In fact, take a look at the Official Site for the film. Read DJ Shadow's account of why he got involved with the project, of how he adapted his work to Singer's extraordinary images. Read about each of the main characters in the film. Read about the effort behind getting it onscreen. It's a beautifully designed site, a wonderful compliment to the film itself. Most importantly, it tells you where and when you can see this film, something I can't urge you to do strongly enough. I'm haunted by the montage of those faces, by the way all of them (except Dee) turn to look at you as you drag the mouse over them. Henry, Brian, Tommy, Greg, Julio, Ronnie, Ralph, Clarence, and Lee... these aren't characters in a film. These are real people. The fact that they had the courage to share themselves with Marc and his camera at this point in their lives is stunning to me. They aren't ashamed of being themselves. They are people who have found themselves in this circumstance by whatever means, by whatever route, and they are surviving. There is a life that they are making for themselves that is meaningful, that looks forward. They're not saints, and they're not perfect, and they have issues you could write whole books about. But they're decent, and they're familiar, and they're undeniable. Singer's film is at its best when it forces you to accept as human those people who we are all trained to ignore, to walk past.
I wrote to Palm Pictures after seeing the film at the Nuart (it's now playing in LA exclusively at the NuWilshire), and I asked if I could speak with Singer. The always-impressive Rama Dunayevich hooked me up with him the other morning, something I want to thank her for. At 9:00 on Friday morning, a frosty mug of Mountain Dew my only hope for staying awake, the phone rang in the Labs. I answered and was greeted by the dry London rasp of Marc Singer. He reminded me straightaway of Guy Ritchie, another really down-to-earth Londoner I've spoken with recently. There was no pretension in Singer at all, no ego about his Sundance-award winning documentary. I think he had some pretty great things to talk about, and I think his story is a real inspiration to any aspiring filmmakers out there, either in fiction or documentaries. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
Hey, how are you, mate?
I'm great, thanks. I had a chance to see the film about two weeks ago, and I thought it was incredibly affecting. Only a certain number of films each year even stick to me at this point. I see so much, and it just blurs. But every now and then, a film really causes me to take a step back, to reflect on something. I moved to Los Angeles ten years ago, and when you move to a big city, there's a process that you go through of gradually learning how to handle the sheer volume of homelessness you're faced with every day. Everyone I know out here goes through it. It's a process of disconnection. This film was the first time in a lot of years that I thought about how we make people invisible. How did you come to make this film? How did you make these people visible for yourself again?
Well, I never had any idea that I was gonna make a film. It never started out that way. I don't know... at the time, I'd moved to New York and I was living in the East Village, and at the time, the homeless were allowed to sleep in that neighborhood. So there were people everywhere. I had a corner apartment, and I had a, you know, a window on the corner, and I would just sit there in the window all day, and I'd just look out, and I'd see people sleeping in the street all the time. And it wasn't an overnight thing, you know. I just sort of thought, "What must it be like for that person?"
So I just started hanging out and making friends in the neighborhood, and, uh, started helping out people and visiting people... more like just talking with people. And one of the guys I hung out with started talking about the tunnels. He'd say, "Ah, in the wintertime, I'm gonna go into the tunnels. I'm sick of sleeping on the street." And I never heard about them before. I just started to get, like, fascinated by them, and I started to go exploring. After about three or four weeks of going into different places, I ended up finding that tunnel that we made the film in.
And like I said, it was about three months into it, of being there every day and making friends... I made some really brilliant friends there. And the more time I'm spending on the street, the more I'm realizing the people are nothing like I thought they would be like. Any homeless. Because, you know, you never ever seen them portrayed the way they really are. Whenever you watch anything on TV or you watch anything, you always see the poor guy sitting in the corner or on the street, feeling sorry for himself, blaming everyone else around him. And you always feel guilty watching that shit. It was nothing like that when I was out there. People weren't like that. They were, you know, really people. That sounds so simple it's almost complicated, I think.
One of the things the film does so brilliantly, I think, is putting those human faces on people that normally aren't given those faces by people. Really looking in someone's eyes makes it hard to walk past them.
Well, that was one of the reasons I made the film. The other reason was, I wanted to get everybody out of the tunnels. You know, at this point, they had become my friends, and I didn't like seeing them living where they were living. One night we were sitting around a fire, and, uh, we just lost it about something that happened that day. One of the guys said, "Man, somebody should be making a film about this." And I said, "Well, why don't we do it?" And what we figured is, we could make the film and sell the film, and the money would get the people out of the tunnels. I didn't know anything about independent films then. That's just how we were thinking. And they were the entire film crew on this documentary. I was the only person that was from the outside.
I've heard incredible stories about the technical accomplishments you guys pulled off in this picture. None of these people had ever held a camera or lit a scene or recorded sound before.
More than that. I hadn't either. And that was the beautiful thing. These guys are so creative. I mean, to be out on the street, anyway, you've got to be pretty creative. You've got nothing to go with, so you've got to learn how to do things from nothing. Sometimes that takes a little bit of creativity. In the tunnels, especially, it does, because you're not limited by a lot of things you are if you're living on the street. You can have a house. You're only limited by how creative you can be. Tapping into creativity, you know... all it takes is the right thought...
Well, there's that scene where Brian comes back, and Tommy's been living there in that two-story house, with the dogs out back, and Brian's taking a shower in this cracked drain pipe... and it's just such an incredible... you just never think about it. "If I'm living in a tunnel, where do I shower? How do I take care of those things?" And to see it so stark like that...
Some people would take ice in the wintertime, because they had these big icicles down there, and they'd melt them on the fire, heat it up, and take a shower with the water. And when it came to making this film, there was... there was nothing, nothing that was out of the question. Do you know what I mean?
I'll give you an example. If I would have had a regular crew down there, and we can't afford a dolly, obviously, and we can't afford anything, but I'm thinking, "Fuck, I really want to get a moving shot. How the hell am I gonna do this?" You know, we'd be fucked right there. That would end it completely right there. But with these guys, I'm like, "How do I get a moving shot?" I know everybody pretty well. I know what they did before they were homeless, and one of the guys used to be a track worker. He used to, you know, lay tracks for the railroads. Henry. He's the old black guy cooking the cornbread. So we're walking down the track, talking about something, and I'm like, "How wide is that track?" I just threw it out. And he just looks at it, right, and fires back, "Well, it's so and so by so and so." So I'm like, "Alright, he really knows his stuff." So I say, "Can you build me something that can roll down that track, be smooth, hold a camera, lights, and a few people?" And he thinks about it, and he goes, "Yeah."
So the next morning I wake up and I come out of my house and I'm going to clean my teeth, and I look down the tunnel and I see, um, a little campfire. So I walk down there to see, you know, who it is and say hello, and it's Henry. And we can't afford a drill or anything, so what he's doing is, he's got these two-by-sixes, and he's heating up these metal rods in the fire and burning these holes through the wood like a drill. He took the wheels off a shopping cart, put them on these platforms, laid plywood over the top of 'em, and he built me a dolly that ran all the way down the tracks. That's how we did those moving shots in the beginning.
It's fucking awesome, man. And it was like that with everything. If I needed electricity, they'd just tap in. It was like having a full working crew, all of them homeless, and no one's done a thing before. And I knew that they could do it, because I, I honestly... I really believe that anyone can do anything. You've just got to have a bit of belief. And I saw that straightaway when I first went into the tunnels. I couldn't believe what everyone had done. I had huge respect for everybody, because it's much easier to just give up than it is to fight. Do you know what I mean?
It's easy to let yourself go and just, you know, feel sorry for yourself. And these people hadn't done that. They still have some power over themselves, and they've done all of this stuff. And I used to think, "Well, if I was in that situation, would I have done the same? Or would I have given up?" They were amazing.
What was the experience like once you had finished this picture and you were able to show it to your friends?
Ummmm... different reactions. Because, I mean, they were fully part of this thing from start to finish. Like they helped me think it up. They helped me do everything. We taught each other how to do it, because, really, none of us had any... none of us were...
I love the feel of the credits for the film, the way they look like street tagging.
Yeah, it's kick-ass, isn't it?
It's great. It's perfect for the overall feel of the picture. How did you get DJ Shadow involved? He's another big part of the mood, the final effect.
Okay, ummmm... let me go back a little bit. The guy who did the titles... those credits... he also did the website. He's brilliant.
[MORIARTY NOTE: Allow me to intrude here. Having visited the Official Site, I would agree. This guy's work is exceptional.]
I have this friend, Barbara Morton, who's a teacher and a photographer, and she'd been in the tunnels, and she'd been working with the homeless for years. She came in and... without her, these guys wouldn't have gotten housing. She's really a brilliant woman. So I knew she was teaching at Cooper Union, and that's a pretty big art school in New York, so I said to her, "You know, I really want someone who can do these titles, but I don't want any shit that's, like, the regular font. I want somebody who could design it and animate it." And she said, "Well, there's these three kids that I've got in my class. Two of them are good, and they'd really appreciate it. And one of them's, like, brilliant, but he's a little bit cocky." So I said, "Well, I wanna meet him."
And he came in, and it turns out he's not cocky at all. He's just so good on a computer that he was teaching her what to do, so as a teacher-student relationship goes... Anyway, he came in, and he drew the things, and we went over it for months and months and months, and we animated them. His name is Jay, and he was 19 at the time. 18 at the time? Just brilliant.
And Shadow... well... I'd never heard of Shadow before. I'd never heard any of the music or anything. And one day... well, there was a time... okay, let me go back a little bit. I started editing, went for about three months, then ran completely out of money and couldn't touch the film for about a year and a half. During that time, it was really, really difficult. I was out on the street myself. It was really a tough time. During that time, I met this guy named Nicolas Morley, this crazy, crazy Australian guy, and him and his wife would literally feed me every night for a few months.
So... finally I get some money and I'm back in the editing room. Nick calls me up and goes, "Oh, a mate of mine's in town. He's good with music, and I think you'd really like him. Why don't I get him to come up, and you'll meet him?" And nobody ever came in the editing room except Melissa [Neidich, the film's editor -- "M"] and myself. We just didn't let anybody in there. And so I said, "Well, no, Nick, I don't let anybody up here. You know, I just like to do the work, and I don't like to show people until it's done." So he goes, "Oh, well, just meet him in the park. You'd like him anyway. He was the lead singer in a band called The Cult, this guy... Ian Astbury. Really, really nice guy." So I said, "Well, fuck it. I'll meet him." He comes up and he introduces himself, and I just kind of like him, so I said, you know, "Do you wanna see something?" So he watched about a half-hour of the film, and he said, "Who you gonna use for music?" And I said, "I have no idea." And he goes, "DJ Shadow."
That was the first person he said. So I went to the record store, and Nick got me some CDs. I took them back to the editing room, I listened to them, and I was just like, "Oh, wow, this stuff is amazing." So I started cutting it into the film, and, uh, I called Ben [Freedman - "M"] up. He's the co-producer. Ben's the guy that found me all the rest of the money once I'd shut down. I said, "I found the guy who I want to do the music." And he said, "Who is it?" And I said, "His name's DJ Shadow." And Ben's like, "Well, you'd better find somebody else. Who's your second option?" And I was, like, "There is no second option. It's either this guy or there's no music in the film." And it took a few months, but we finally managed to get hold of him.
I'm always impressed when you juxtapose unexpected music with certain images and it pays off. It's a jump to hear this sort of techno trip-hop laid over these images, but it's like he wrote the music for the movie.
I know! Isn't it unbelievable? That's what I thought when I put it next to it. I thought, "Oh, my god, it's just fucking brilliant." And he's just... he's such a nice guy. His heart is so in the right place. As a person... take away the fact that he did the film, 'cause he's become a very good friend of mine after all of this. He doesn't do shit for the money, you know? I've seen the guy turn down massive money for work because he just doesn't believe in the thing. It's not like he's got that much money himself, you know.
Well, it's the only way a film this size could attach a name like DJ Shadow.
It's amazing. He's a brilliant person.
Let's go back a bit. We digressed. I asked before about the reactions your friends all had when they saw the picture...
Right, okay. From the time they got out of the tunnel, when you see them breaking their houses and moving into their places, that's about three and a half years ago now. I started editing, I ran out of money, and a year and a half went by. I was living with all of those guys a lot. Remember, they had their new places. So it was a long time. And when I finally got back into editing, it was still another year of editing. So a lot of time had passed from the time they got out to the time they saw it. Everybody's changed. They're so... they're different people now than they were then. I mean, they're soooo different now. So some people loved it, really loved it, and other people have a really hard time watching it. They like reading the press. They like reading all the stuff surrounding the film. They just... when they watch it, it's difficult because, you know, it's hard enough to look at yourself anyway, but to look at yourself, um, in the worst position of your life, and you're so different now. For some of them, I think they're still dealing with it.
Going into the film, I didn't know where this was going. I didn't know they got out of the tunnels at the end of the film. That ray of light is so unexpected. The emotional kick of the picture is realizing that this is a progression. These people rebuild, and there's hope and possibility.
And they are, man. They're just fucking kicking ass. They're so... wonderful. It's beautiful. It's the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
Well, the fact that you pulled the film together through your own personal adversity is equally impressive. Describe to me the experience you had taking this to Sundance.
Alright, well, remember, none of had a fucking clue about any of this stuff. It was all just kind of learning it as you go. When we mixed the film... all of it... it was just soft of read the book and do the work. Do you know what I mean? It was really just step-by-step. I never even thought about festivals and selling or any of that stuff while we were making it. And then it got the point of getting right at the end of the editing, and someone was, like, "Well, what are you going to do with it?" And I had no idea. So I started looking at other films. You start meeting a lot of people around that stage of the game, and everyone said, "Oh, you've got to go to the festivals." So when I started researching festivals, Sundance was... well... THE festival. One of them, anyway. We applied to a couple of others, but we didn't make it in them. But with Sundance, we didn't know... the day they're supposed to tell you, we didn't hear anything. Then finally, like 2:00 in the morning, we heard something, and we were like... we were really, really happy. But Sundance was the first time anybody ever saw the film in its entirety. Not even the people that worked on it saw the finished film before Sundance. To me, it was... I just... once the film went public, that's when people could actually see it. And at those screenings, man, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or everything at the same time. Even now, it's still very strange knowing it's out there. I mean, we used to dream about this six years ago, sitting in the fucking tunnel freezing our asses off. Like we'd be sitting around the fire saying, "Could you imagine IF the film did this?" Do you know what I mean? And now it's happening. And it's amazing. And with what happened at Sundance, and the winning of prizes and all of that stuff, it's... I mean, it's just... it's hard to even...
I don't know why anyone else watches a documentary, but for me, it's a window into another life, a life I don't lead. The more honest, the more human it is, the greater the chance it's going to be something I embrace. It's the reason HOOP DREAMS was such an accomplishment in the form, and it's the reason DARK DAYS really connects.
Oh, wow, man, we actually went to see HOOP DREAMS. I'd never seen a documentary before. I'd seen animal stuff on Discovery Channel, but I'd never seen a documentary documentary before, a people documentary. And then we heard about that there was this one in the movie theaters that had made it to theaters, and we all went. We did like a group excursion. We went from the tunnels to watch HOOP DREAMS. And we all came out of it going, "We're going to do that. We're going to do that."
It's the unexpected things. It's the humor in your film...
Because that's what they're like. They are human. It's so simple. It's so fucking simple that it's almost complicated.
There are times where I'm laughing in the theater, and we're so used to seeing this topic only handled a certain way. We're so used to be told, "You have to feel guilty."
You know why? Because whoever's doing the film doesn't spend more than five minutes. That's why. Because if you spend more than five minutes and you get to know somebody, get to know that person, then you're opening up to that person. You're not judging that person. You've got to spill your guts the same as they're spilling their guts. And you've got to give that, and you've got to put in the time, and you've got to be there, and be there emotionally as well. And then people start to open up. And then you see that it is funny. There are times where people are laughing. There are times where people are crying. There are times where people are dreaming, hoping. Everything that you go through, that person goes through, because they're a person. It bugs me out all the time, because it's so... it really is that simple. It just seems like it's impossible to grasp unless it's shown.
Well, that's the value of the picture. You lay it out so elegantly, so simply, and there's no artifice, nothing forced about what this film says. There's no narration laid down over it that tells us what to think or how to feel. You just introduce us to these people, then stand back and let us get to know them and react. The moment in the film that I'm still haunted by is after Dee talks about her memories of being a mother, about how much she misses getting her kids ready for school, how much she misses the visceral memories of motherhood, and then we see that montage of her using crack. It's just shattering. And it's not because you judge Dee. It's because you're NOT judging her. You understand what her pain is, and you hurt with her. You can't detach yourself. I think it's exceptional work. Tell me... what's next? What are you looking ahead to? What has DARK DAYS done for you as a filmmaker?
You want me to be honest? I'm broke, man. I haven't got a pot to piss in. I have an apartment, but other than that, I haven't got anything. So my first thing is make myself a priority, you know? As much as you can, anyway. I need to sort my own life out a little bit, and once that's done, and I feel like I'm a bit more secure, then I just want to... I don't know. I mean, I've done this one thing, and the past six years and two months. That's a long time to do one thing, to have one thought seven days a week. That's all you think about. And it's the most amazing thing, what's happened to this, and it's opened up doors, and it's done so much, but I just need a little time to reflect on it, you know? To step back and really look at the situation and not jump into something else. To not just do anything else, but to wait, and to see what my heart's telling me to do. I've always sort of lived like that. I wait for my heart to tell me. If it grabs me by the balls, and I've got no choice but to do something... it's the same thing as when I moved to America. It was this overnight decision. It was this clear thing that I felt like I had to do. I just need that time to wait for that and to see who I am again. Because all I am is this film at the moment. Even when I get introduced to people, it's like, "This is Marc, and he did this," rather than this is Marc.
Well, especially with a first project that you're so much a part of. Often, documentary filmmakers build careers before they break through. They have a history of doing these films. It's a choice. This film feels much more organic...
... not like something you set out to do.
I never meant to be a filmmaker. I just made this film. And if something else comes around, and the film is what it should be, then I'll do it, but if it's doesn't, then I won't do it. You know what I mean? It's got to be true. Because 40 years down the line, I'm the only one who's going to be given... I mean, I think about this a lot. I can't be there going, "I wish I'd been involved with this, or I wish I hadn't done that." No regrets. I've never done that my whole life. I've never regretted anything. You just have to stay true to yourself, and if you do that, it might not always work, and it might not be an easy road, but you're content, you know? You're content with who you are. That was why this happened. It just came up like that. It felt like it was overnight. One day I was here, the next day I was in the tunnels. And I'll wait for that to happen again. There's no need to push for something like that.
Thank you, Marc. I have the utmost respect for both you and your film...
Well, thank you, guys. I love what you guys are doing. You've been supporting this from the very, very, very beginning, and I really appreciate that.
I'm glad it's rolling out now, and I'm glad I got the chance to see it. Hopefully now our readers will go and find the picture as it rolls out around the company. Best to you and Palm Pictures.
Thanks, man. Thanks a lot.
And with that, I let Marc get back to his morning. Me, I went for a walk around my neighborhood here in Hollywood, took in a little air, a little sunshine. And as I did, I looked at the people I passed, looked at the guy I saw going through my dumpster, looked at the guys who always stand outside the 7-11 near my house. And I saw them for once. Find this amazing movie in your area. Take your own blinders off for a bit. Let DARK DAYS in, and you'll be changed by it.
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Nov. 4, 2000, 8:33 p.m. CST
by Gordon Gekko71
The dude from V, Mike Donovan.. Same name, same spelling.
Nov. 4, 2000, 9:42 p.m. CST
Yeah he was great in V. I didn't get a chance to read Moriarty's article, so is this a prequel or sequel to V? I hope Robert Englund is involved somehow. Though he was a pussy in V.
Nov. 4, 2000, 10:26 p.m. CST
man thats some inspiration, i swears. Anyhow, Dj Shadow is like a god to me, tis graet to see such an awesome artist not give a f*ck bout money and fame
Nov. 4, 2000, 10:44 p.m. CST
by THE WALLACE
I hated beastmaster 2...but the classic rocks!!! scared the hell out of my when I was a kid. I think I'll go rent it. I think "Dar Days" could be cool. I would read Moriartys review but I'm too tired right now. I hope that kari Wuhrer isn't in it, but as long as theres a few ferrets and they DON'T poison a tiger to death I think it could be a worthy part of the series
Nov. 5, 2000, 12:18 a.m. CST
...I loved V so much. :D I'd love to see another mini-series done (done well, naturally, if possible). I have fond memories of messing with the white noise generator on the Vic-20 trying to simulate that laser blaster sound effect. :) MORE V!
Nov. 5, 2000, 2:51 a.m. CST
You know, I just now started wondering what Marc "V" Signer's career has been like lately, and did a search on IMDB for him, and found out too late that there's two different Marc Singers. :/ We got, "http://www.imdb.com/Name?Singer,+Marc" and "http://www.imdb.com/Name?Singer,+Marc+(II)". :/ Oh well...still nice to see that's he's still kicking about doing things. :)
Nov. 5, 2000, 5:56 a.m. CST
by Roger U. Roundly
Thats story about the Guy building the cart to get the right shot is unreal. Oscar Buzz? (Ps. Somehow, I dont think we're talking about Marc Singer as-in MIke "Gloves" Donovan of "V" fame)
Nov. 5, 2000, 8:30 a.m. CST
...I had read a review for "Dark Days" over on Ebert's site, the difference is...now I'm going to ACTUALLY see the film.
Nov. 5, 2000, 8:43 a.m. CST
by Darkwing Duck
Because you know that right now, some studio guy is scratching is chin and saying "Hmmmm... if I use homeless people as crew, imagine how much money I'd save..." Might we be seeing the start of a trend. (PS: Definitely gonna see this movie, too.)
Nov. 5, 2000, 6:20 p.m. CST
Hey, Mory. They still sell Toberlone candy at the snack counter at the Nuart? How about L.A. Connection live shows, they still happening?