The Director's Chair Interviews

Weinstein's Under The Bridge Wins MM Breakthrough Award
by Stephen Ashton
Movie Maker, October 1997

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Charles Weinstein's Under The Bridge was selected the winner of the MovieMaker Breakthrough Award at the 1997 Taos Talking Picture Festival. The movie is a warm, touching look at a group of would-be homeless friends living on the Brooklyn waterfront, told from the point of view of a boy whom they befriend.

Stephen Ashton (SA): This is your first feature, right? What films did you do before that?

Charles Weinstein (CW): I'd made two professional shorts outside of school. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute where I worked at Zoetrope for a short time. Then I went to NYU and studied dramatic writing. I then wrote a "Hollywood" screenplay and, to make a long story short, the idea got ripped off and I kind of learned from that experience that it was silly to just do a purely commercial film, to feed the system. Ater that experience I remembered what I learned at the Art Institute, and the film teachers that taught us that it's great to make your own personal films. They told us to do that and work at the Safeway, if we had to, because that will be more fulfilling in the long run. So in '87, I decided to do exactly that, and I made a short film called The Idiot, which was a really good script with lousy direction. With that experience, which took about a year to do, I felt that it would be best to improve my directing by going into stage. So I worked as an assistant director at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, which was a pretty important theatre company at one time. Its members include people like Ellen Barkin, John Voight, and Danny DeVito. I worked there for about four years and directed a lot.

I made a short film called The Gutter Song, and shortly after that my long-term relationship broke up and I was a bit lost. I found myself questioning marriage and values and all those things. About that time I met these families of renegade squatters who had built this subculture lifestyle on the banks of the East River. I met a guy named John, this older street philosopher, and his friend, Sammy, and Sammy was a trip because he lived without money in New York City. He was a fisherman, and he would catch crabs and eels, even seahorses, and he'd pickle them. Sammy and John were displaced longhoremen who lost their jobs working on the docks, but they stayed because they loved it there in a romantic sort of way. On the surface Sammy seemed crazy, but actually, he was living a life that I desired-he was living on a beautiful piece of land, he was self sufficient, they had this whole life without slaving for the American dollar. And there was a familial compassion to their existence that I was attracted to.

So I wrote a great screenplay and unfortunately it got me a William Morris agent who convinced me that she could raise a lot of money for the film. That never happened, but it did cost me two years of frustration. I eventually decided to go forward myself. Preproduction was very painful because there was no money to offer, so we interviewed lots of people for every position and had to sell them on the project. So with each person we'd spend a good hour or two trying to convince them to do the film. At that time we secured a little bit of cash. My mother gave I think it was $5,000, and we got a grant from Panavision's New Filmmakers' Program. I met (DP) John Thomas, and I really liked the film he shot called The Night We Never Met. I took him to where these characters lived, and told him I wanted to use these actual locations to film. Once he saw them, he was sure he wanted to shoot the film. He told me we have to shoot it in color 35mm to show the incredible beauty of this garbage dump.
SA: So what do we see on the screen, their actual place?

CW: Yeah, the actual place where they lived. Another thing he had said to me was that very few filmmakers write realistic scripts that can actually be shot. He meant that young filmmakers write these scripts with scenes that can't be shot in a low-budget way. John is a very warm and patient person. Many cinematographers have a sort of macho arrogance because, quite frankly, they know a lot more about filming on the set than directors because they spend so many more days shooting than directors, who rarely get the opportunity to be on set. So John was patient with me and taught me how to shoot a film.

Then I met a very passionate Melissa Leo, who I'd seen do brilliant work on the stageand in the Homicide TV series. Melissa was very determined, and fought for this part. I'm in debt to all my actors; they gave more than just acting to the film. Many actors worked as producers, built the sets, and contributed more than their art to the film. I think that's important for an independent film.

I really learned a lot. On my first weekend I shot 20 pages of the script. I learned that a filmmaker has to make choices, and you may not get all the coverage you want, but you just have to move along. You either finish the film or you have one long piece of celluloid hanging in your shelf for the rest of your life. That was pretty scary.

SA: What did you do for raw stock?

CW: John Thomas had shot for Law and Order, and he knew that he had lots of short ends. We received a lot of short ends for next to nothing from Law and Order. Also, Bob Mastronadi, gave us some real fresh Kodak stock, probably around 6,000 feet. We shot at least 70,000 feet, but it was mostly short ends. SA: Did you ever think it is, my first feature and, Jesus, am I nuts-this is so far off commercial track that I might be better off writing poetry... It's an expensive art form to experiment in.

CW: Yeah, I had tons of insecurities, because the industry was very cold to the film and said, did you ever think that homeless people will never buy a ticket to a homeless movie, they can't afford to go see a movie.

SA: Film has to go through this incredibly cold, systematic, money-driven process.If you're a poet, you xerox off your poetry and read it in a coffee house. As a filmmaker, you have to be out there on the screens. You need an audience, people who are going to be moved by your film, which is why you're making it in the first place. Why not look to alternative sources, put a damn screen up in a community center, or book some sort of a university place and make an event out of it so people can come, and have people that care about the issues say yeah, we're in business, too, we're in business to make a difference. Commercial exhibitors may not be cold at heart, but man, that's an expensive machine that has to be fed with huge, marketable products.

CW: I really believe that a lot of these distributors are not even aware that they're part of this great paranoid system that really doesn't want individual expression. Film is a very powerful medium, and the distribution of it is really limited and controlled.

SA: Even when the Academy celebrated independent film this year, the only distinction they made was that independents were made outside the studio system. Whereas what you're talking about as being independent are personal films, films that are challenging, films that go beyond.

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