Nothing annoys me more than scouting New York for an Ext. Dank Alley scene. For some reason (probably because of the movies!), everyone thinks of Manhattan as a city riddled with dark, grungy, dilapidated, smokey alleys that New Yorkers are constantly walking down and getting themselves into trouble in.
The truth is, of course, that Manhattan actually has very few alleys – space is way too limited on our small island to waste on forgotten backstreets. Half of the alleys are privately owned (Great Jones Alley, Franklin Place), and only a small number are of the type you’d want to shoot in (parts of Cortlandt, Staple Alley). One of these used to be Theatre Alley, located behind J&R Computer World.
Today, I drove by and was saddened to see that one of New York’s rare archetypal dank alleys is no more – all the buildings on the left have been torn down to make way for what I can only imagine will be a sterile high rise composed of glass and more glass:
I have a confession to make: the first film I made in New York as writer/director was set in Ext. Dank Alley. Yup, I’m as bad as the filmmaker’s I so often complain about.
I went to college as an undergrad at Columbia University. In 2003, Coca Cola began advertising around Columbia’s film graduate school about their annual Filmmaker’s Competition, in which ten students from film schools across the country are given a budget (then, about $6,000) to make a 50-second short about filmmaking. Of the films, a winner is selected to play in movie theaters across the country during trailers.
As far as anyone could tell me, the competition was only open to grad students. However, I read the fine print, and it seemed like I was technically eligible as an undergrad, as I was a film studies major. So I wrote a minute-long script (largely set in an Ext. Dank Alley!), drew up some storyboards, completely guessed my way through a $5,000 budget breakdown, and sent it in.
Two months later, I got a call: I was one of the finalists! Woo! Not only did this mean I got a LOT of Coke products…
…It also meant I actually had to make my film. I had made plenty of amateur shorts with my friends over the years, but nothing as complex as this. I was going from crappy miniDV to suddenly shooting on 35mm, and I had no idea what I was doing.
One of the most pressing tasks was to find a location – my first foray into the world of scouting. And of course, I very, very quickly learned that New York has very few alleys. Thank God for Forgotten NY’s write-up on Manhattan’s alleys – not sure what I would have done without it.
Most of the alleys weren’t right for the script, but I finally settled on a pretty iconic choice in Tribeca: Franklin Place (thanks for sharing the pic, larindame!)
The location was locked. I began focusing on all the other aspects of the movie (casting, finding a crew, props, costumes, equipment, etc., etc.) knowing that at the very least, we had a killer shooting location.
Surprisingly, everything came together for the shoot. A film company I interned at allowed us to shoot in their corner executive office space. After a lengthy audition process, we assembled a great cast. And Panavision even gave us a full 35mm shooting package for free (how my producer, a Columbia grad student, negotiated this one remains a mystery to me to this day).
Then, a day before our shoot, Franklin Place alley found out we were planning to film there.
And told us it would cost $25,000 a day.
As it turns out, Franklin Place is privately owned. Each building abutting the alley owns about eight feet of it, and they’re very used to getting pay offs from big film companies like the ones I tend to now work for. I tried to explain that our budget was only $5,000, and we had no money, and could they please make an exception for student filmmakers?
We jumped into a panicked scouting mode, and finally came across Theatre Alley. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise – Theatre Alley was perfect, even danker and more claustrophobic than Franklin Place. We feared J&R might have an issue with us, but they gave us the go ahead, and we had a new shooting location.
Other than it being absolutely freezing (middle of February, shooting from sundown til sun up), the alley was perfect. With tons of trash scattered about and actual steam rising from a sewer, we didn’t even need to use our fog machine (which was useless anyway after the liquid froze).
While waiting for a set-up, I noticed an old fuse box on the the building on the left (recently demolished). I opened it up and saw this guy inside (it kills me this shot is so out of focus!):
The building pictured below on the right, also gone, housed a porn store and theater. At one point, it became clear that we’d need to mount a light to one of their fire escapes, and I sent my AD inside to get permission. The owners said fine, and even let our lighting guys access the fire escape from inside the building. Of course, this meant they had to go through the porn theater, carrying lights over paying customers enjoying a movie in progress.
No razor wire was going to keep us out! Incredibly, six years later and this scaffolding is STILL in place:
Once the sun set, we began shooting. Other than an incident in which our eager grips pulled the camera dolly off the tracks, nearly ending the shoot, the whole thing went smoothly.
And now, my 2004 entry into the Coca Cola Filmmaker’s Competition! A quick reminder: the film only had to be about filmmaking, and there was no requirement to include anything Coke-related (of course, in hindsight, nearly all of the winning films shown in theaters around the country have included Coke in some way; I probably should have considered this!).
Not bad, right? If it feels rushed, it’s because we had to cram everything into a scant 50 second run time. If it feels amateur, gimme a break, it was my first movie of any size, and I was the ripe age of 21!
Theatre Alley holds a very, very special place in my heart for the night I spent there making my first “real” short film. It was freezing, the damn vampire teeth kept falling out, and it started snowing around 4 AM (you’ll notice that toward the end). But man did that location shine in the film.
While I’m sad to see it go, I’ve always figured its demise was inevitable. Some buildings you hold on to because of their historical or artistic value. Theatre Alley was simply one of a dying breed – a forgotten back street of Manhattan. Its value was in its scarcity. Honestly, I won’t be surprised when Cortlandt Alley et. al. follow suit. Enjoy them while they’re here.
Good-bye, Theatre Alley!
And thanks for all the memories!
PS – No, I didn’t win. However, it was a great experience, I got to shoot a 35mm short, and as a consolation prize, they sent me this very heavy solid glass Coke bottle trophy!
PPS – If you’ve ever walked down the northern portion, you’ve probably noticed this seemingly ancient advertising painted on the western brick wall. It reads: Victory Theatre – Vaudeville / Photoplays:
Don’t be fooled, though! This is just left over from a film shoot pre-2004. The alley is actually named for the former Park Theatre, once located on Ann St (it burned down in 1848).
PPPS – Yes, the bum appearing in my most recent pictures is pissing in the alley. Seems only appropriate.
PPPPS – College Humor did an awesome Coke Refreshing Filmmaker’s Award parody, in which the guy goes a bit more artsy than they’d like.
PPPPS – Scout’s vampire vixen says, Drink Coke!