Though much of the Windy City’s indie buzz is focused on “Boyhood” this weekend, another film is set to open for a week-long run, and in the opinion of this critic, it is destined to be regarded as one of the year’s best pictures. “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” surveys the subway system of New York through the eyes of a 13-year-old Autistic runaway, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez). His distraught mother, Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), frantically searches for him, though her status as an undocumented immigrant limits the number of methods she can utilize to locate the boy. The viscerally powerful, sometimes thrillingly abstract sequences director Sam Fleischner managed to capture amidst the bustle of commuters is nothing short of miraculous.
Fleischner spoke with Indie Outlook about embracing the unexpected, the various difficulties facing the production and the reason why “Rain Man” did not serve as an inspiration.
Q: You seem to thrive on working in an environment that you can’t fully control.
A: Yeah, definitely. I try to embrace that. Of course, a lot of it has to do with taking a practical approach since I never really had many resources to work with that would allow me to have full control. But philosophically, I generally like the idea that things are more interesting if they evolve naturally rather than if they are predestined. That’s a big part of documentary filmmaking, just being as observant and aware as possible, and I try to apply that to everything I do.
Q: It’s interesting how Ricky’s growing engagement with the world parallels that of his mother, who’s forced to reach out to others while searching for her son.
A: That’s a very good observation on your part. I wanted to have these two foreign systems running parallel to one another. Ricky’s like an alien within the subway system and doesn’t really know how to navigate it. Mariana is an alien within the United States, and a lot of the systems that exist aren’t there for her. The beach was also another element that I wanted to evolve. It becomes part of her environment and community. She goes to the beach, which is a place that her son liked but she didn’t have a connection with until he went missing. I tried to have a little bit of a see-saw effect where one thing goes up while another thing goes down, and keep things connected in that way.
Q: What parts of New York did you want to capture and felt were underrepresented in cinema?
A: The subway, in general, is underrepresented in film. It’s such a cool location. I was excited by the challenge. I knew that you were allowed to legally shoot on the subway, but logistically, it’s a nightmare. I thought it would be an exciting feat if we were able to pull it off. Rockaway Beach is actually where I live. It’s been in some movies, but I don’t think most people associate New York with the ocean. Even before Hurricane Sandy hit, I wanted to juxtapose the chaos of the ocean and the manmade order of the subway.
Q: From a directing standpoint, what was the challenge like of staging scenes in a crowded train?
A: If anything, it’s about trying to be open. Even when we went out with a mission to shoot a particular scene, we’d make sure to capture something else that might be happening at the same time. When you’re shooting, it’s easy to become pigeonholed. You have to be really focused to get what you’re setting out to achieve. It’s easy to miss everything else that’s going on in the periphery. I think that the goal should not only be to find what you’re looking for but to be ready to spin the camera around if something interesting is happening behind you. It took longer than planned for us to get the things we had wanted to include. Sometimes we wouldn’t get it at all and just abandon the idea because something else would happen that would achieve the same sort of effect and it would be more interesting than anything that could’ve been written.
Q: What particular unscripted events ended enhancing the film in unexpected ways?
A: The storm at the end would be the biggest example of that. It came three weeks into our production and shut us down for another three weeks. Sandy changed our main location so much and shut down the subway for so long that I had to rethink the movie. Rockaway was turned upside down and there were a lot of scenes that I could no longer get. During that little hiatus, I rewrote the ending of the film. I realized that the storm, as difficult as it was to live through, actually had a lot of themes that were relevant to the movie and the narrative that I was going for.
Q: How so?
A: The boy’s odyssey is largely a destructive one. He has no food and he goes into this dirty dark place. I wanted to show a physical decline and a spiritual incline. These two things are blurring into each another. In order for Ricky to come out on top and strengthen himself, he has to go all the way down. I tried to chart that journey for him, sort like in [Nicolas Roeg’s] “Walkabout.” I also wanted to get a little hallucinogenic. Storms often behave in a similar way, in that they cause all of this destruction but they also provide an opportunity for creation and a fresh start that I think is really powerful and important.
Q: How did you go about researching Autism in order to portray it accurately? There are many sequences that visualize Ricky’s heightened senses, such as his preoccupation with circular shapes.
A: I came up with the circle [motif] just as a graphic to guide his perspective. I’ve done some research, read a few books and spent time with kids on the spectrum. Jesus, who plays Ricky, is on the spectrum as well. Otherwise, I felt like I had a license to come up with my own rules. Every person is so unique that you just have set up some criteria and commit to it as much as possible. Some ideas were inspired by Jesus himself and others were created. A lot of them came simply from observing Jesus. He’s an extremely honest and compassionate kid, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a common trait [in regards to Autism]. That’s just who he is and I wanted to show that in the movie. He cares so much about the people around him, such as the kid he helps with his sweatshirt. I really love that about him. There are other things, such as how he calls medicine the “evil drink,” that I took directly from my conversations with Jesus.
Q: Were there past films depicting Autism that served as an example of what you wanted to avoid?
A: “Rain Man” is probably the most famous one. I had seen it as a kid and liked it, but when I re-watched it recently, it felt really heavy-handed. I wanted to do something more subtle. I also didn’t want to depict an idiot savant, which I think is one of the stereotypes of Autism, that it spawns super-geniuses.
Q: The sound design is one of the most impressive and meticulously complex aspects of your movie.
A: I always knew sound was going to be a crucial device in the film, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the postproduction process. This is my second time working with Eli Cohn, who did my first film as well. He and Scott Hirsch are really committed to designing the sound in an inspiring way, and they experimented a lot of with finding methods to convey Ricky’s point of view through sound. A lot of people have responded positively to the sound and I think it manages to pull you in without being too overbearing. Except for the end credits, there’s no non-diegetic music in the film, but the sound does become subjective in many cases.
Q: What’s up next for you?
A: I’m talking with a producer about doing a movie that would potentially include bigger names in the cast. “Stand Clear” will probably never make its money back and it’s just such a battle when you’re making a film like this. It doesn’t matter how good it is. If you don’t have A-list actors, it’s not viable. I’m sort of at a loss in terms of how to make this whole thing work. “Stand Clear” was a well-received movie. It won some prizes at festivals and got some great reviews but the audience that you can reach remains so limited. I’m in the early development stages of a project that would have more resources in terms of its cast so I’m curious to see where that might go, but I’m also working on some movies with nonprofessional actors and tiny budgets as well.
“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” opens Friday, July 18th, at Chicago’s Facets Cinémathèque for a week-long run. For more info on the film, visit its official site, and also make sure to check out Fleischner’s excellent site as well, which features a fascinating array of short films, music videos, art installations and other projects.