Friday, April 19, 2013

Autism Hits Big Screen at Tribeca Festival

By and large, the 1.7 billion people who ride the city's subways each year share the same complaints about the system—rising fares, declining service, overcrowding. But when filmmaker Sam Fleischner embarked on his second feature, "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," which makes its premiere Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, he became intimately acquainted with a straphanger issue well outside the typical range.
"The subway is like the worst place to make a narrative movie, ever," Mr. Fleischner said recently. "There's so many variables. If you go in with a plan, the chances of achieving your plan are very slim."
SeeThink Films
Jesus Sanchez-Velez stars in 'Stand Clear of the Closing Doors' as an autistic boy who rides the subway alone for 11 days after a fight with his mother, played by Andrea Suarez Paz.
Mr. Fleischner shot his debut feature, "Wah Do Dem" (co-directed with Ben Chace) on a ship that became available via a pair of cruise tickets. For his sophomore film, he was inspired by the real-life story of a 13-year-old autistic Bronx boy who rode the subway by himself for three days last April. The story—which ended happily with the boy being found in Brooklyn after relying on the kindness of strangers—made local headlines at the time. But the director discovered that the incident was not unique among families with children on the autism spectrum.
"That introduced me to the phenomenon they call 'eloping,'" Mr. Fleischner said. "Something like half of all autistic kids run away at some point. Specifically in New York, they are often attracted to the subway system."
In "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," that attraction lures autistic teen Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) away from his family's Rockaway Beach apartment after a confrontation from his mother, and onto the A train, where he encounters an ever-changing cast of characters. As his mother, Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), desperately searches for her son above ground, Ricky finds new levels of danger, autonomy and awareness below, as practical necessities like food, water, plumbing and companionship force him out of his shell to engage with his mobile environment. Unlike the true story that inspired the film, Ricky spends 11 long days on the subway, amplifying his chances for disaster and his mother's anguish.
SeeThink Films
Andrea Suarez Paz
Casting the part of Mariana was a literal walk in the park. "We met in Prospect Park," Ms. Suarez Paz said. "I was walking around with my son and Sam came up to me and said he was making a film. I've been an actress in New York for nine years and, you know, everyone says they're making a film. But when I read the script I was struck by it as a mother. What if your child goes missing for long enough that you might have to consider never seeing it again?"
Filling the role of Ricky proved more challenging. "I wasn't interested in working with a child actor and trying to tell him what it's like to be autistic," Mr. Fleischner said. "I don't really know what it's like to be autistic. I really wanted to cast a kid that was actually on the spectrum."
So rather than go through the usual casting channels, the production reached out to families via autism blogs. "We couldn't find anyone in New York," Mr. Fleischner said. But an audition tape sent by a Florida family brought Mr. Sanchez-Velez to the filmmaker's attention and, ultimately, to the film. "Jesus looked the right amount like Andrea and he's a very patient and hard-working kid," Mr. Fleischner said. "He's really smart and really compassionate."
During the course of filming, much of which was funded by an online donations campaign, both virtues were tested for cast and crew alike. "There was a huge learning curve of figuring out where we could shoot and when," Mr. Fleischner said. Accomplishing the film's ambitiously long and frequently improvised scenes on an in-service R46 A express train required commuter acumen as much as filmmaking expertise.
"You learn the gaps," Mr. Fleischner said. "There's that huge gap between 59th Street and 125th Street on the A, so if I needed a substantial scene, that was where I would try to get it. We had 5.5 minutes to shoot without pulling into a station."
In lieu of filming permits, the small crew employed a different form of paperwork when dealing with inquisitive MTA employees. "We all were armed with the MTA rulebook," Mr. Fleischner said. "You don't need permits. Whenever anyone would stop us we'd show them the book and say, 'Actually...'"
Many of the film's background performers were cast from the A train itself.
"We were inclusive about it," Mr. Fleischner said. "'This is what we're doing, if you don't want to be in it, no problem, but if you're interested in it...'"
Straphangers who pitched in had only to sign a release and be photographed. "We had a little picture frame and in Sharpie it said, 'My name is [blank].' A lot of times people would actually stay on and keep riding with us if they didn't have anything important to do."
No amount of planning, however, could have prepared the production for how it might navigate the arrival of superstorm Sandy. "We had just finished our first day on the subway," Mr. Fleischner said of the storm surge that devastated the film's above-ground Rockaway locations, "pretty much demolished" the director's own home and knocked out train service for weeks. "We had to take almost a month off," he said.
A generator brought in from Vermont helped the production get back on its feet, and storm footage shot by Mr. Fleischner, as well as script revisions made during the halt, made Sandy a part of the finished film instead of its undoing. Ms. Suarez Paz offered that, if nothing else, the real-life disaster helped her get deeper in touch with her fictional mother's loss. "When we were finally back there and shooting [in Rockaway], we were in so much shock," she said. "Creatively it made a lot of sense to me—emotionally and mentally. I think I used that."

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