MIDTOWN — “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a phrase New Yorkers hear several times a day in the city’s subway system.
It was also the logical title for director Sam Fleischner’s film, which is currently in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. For the non-actors that he shot on the A and C trains, the phrase became a calling card for the film, a story about an autistic Mexican-American teenager who gets lost on the city’s subway system.
“It was an easy thing for people to remember in that context. Hopefully a lot of them will keep in touch and look us up and feel like a part of it,” Fleischner explained of the title of his film.
Little did the director know, his film was soon to become memorable for an entirely different reason.
Fleischner’s shoot began on Oct. 6, 2012. He based the story in the Rockaways, where he’d lived part-time during the past three years, originally drawn to the neighborhood for the surfing.
Shooting went smoothly for the first three weeks until a force of nature dropped in for a cameo.
Hurricane Sandy not only disrupted production for three and a half weeks, it ripped through Fleischner’s home and ruined the ending for his film, which was going to take place on the strip of the A line that goes over Jamaica Bay. That section of the A line remains closed to this day, nearly six months after the superstorm.
In the middle of the storm, with winds whipping at his house on Beach 92nd Street and Holland Avenue, Fleischner and two friends ignored the calls for evacuation and instead shot the waves as they grew increasingly foreboding.
“I mean, I’m not comfortable talking about it because it’s like an ineffable thing that you can’t really put words on,” Fleischner said of filming the storm. “You can’t do it justice because it was just such a next-level, otherworldly experience.”
Overnight, Sandy literally changed the course of Fleischner’s film. He decided to make it a plot point.
“I guess I felt like I didn’t have too much of a choice," Fleischner said. “I was talking about the whole movie being this wave. It’s building, building and then it crashes … then it creeps up on the shore and pulls back out and that’s the end of the movie.
"I was talking about that before we started shooting," he added. "There’s all these things that synchronized in a profound way that I couldn’t have turned my back on. These were gifts to the narrative.”
Fleischner finished the film just three days before its first screening on Saturday, April 20. Though the inclusion of Hurricane Sandy makes the film particularly timely for this year’s festival, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is also a quintessential New York film at its core.
Protagonist Ricky (played by 14 year-old Jesus Sanchez-Valez, who has Asperger syndrome like his character) spends an extended period of time riding the A and C trains from end to end. Through him, the audience observes so many of the hallmarks of a subway-riding experience: buskers, dancers, rolling plastic bottles, lost tourists, happy lovers and yes, even nail-clipping.
Fleischner exploited the long station-less stretches from High Street in Brooklyn to Broadway-Nassau in Manhattan and from 59th Street to 125th Street in Harlem to avoid continuity problems. Aside from a few set-ups, he found most of his subjects just by approaching those already riding the subway.
“People were just excited. It was just a fun, little unexpected flourish to their commute,” he said. “We were really open and inclusive about it, which I think made people excited to cooperate with us.”
It was important to Fleischner that the film was about a Latin-American family. When the film isn’t following Ricky on the subways, it’s following his mother Catalina (played by Brooklyn actress Andrea Suarez), who frantically searches for her son while also keeping the household afloat with a cleaning job.
Catalina’s husband is an undocumented immigrant, forced to work outside of the city for weeks at a time.
While Fleischner was sure to avoid turning it into an issue-driven movie, the family’s background was a powerful subtext for the film.
“It’s good to tell stories that aren’t about white people,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t know if this kid would’ve gone missing as long if he was white, just because I think sadly, there’s an invisibility of immigrants in this country and that’s something that I wanted to touch on. I wasn’t explicit in it. I wanted it to just be something you considered.”
The film will screen as a part of the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday and Saturday. The MoMA PS1 Rockaway will hold a special free screening on Saturday, April 27 for local residents. To learn more about “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” click here.