They’ve “just wrapped with the hipsters”when I get to the set of Art Machine at 10:30 on a Sunday night last month. The set is the rooftop of a loft building off the Morgan L stop, just up from Flushing Avenue, previously noteworthy for hosting Rooftop Films screenings and a rowdy New School benefit that got busted up by the cops. Notes handwritten on printer paper, informing the tenants about the shoot and vowing that cast and crew will be as quiet as possible, are posted in the stairwell.
Somebody on the production had been to some events up on this roof, or knew somebody who had—much of the film seems to fallen into place this way, from the bands who appear on the soundtrack (Ava Luna, Kaki King) or play at party scenes (Monogold, Data Dog), to the local artists whose work represents the output of the protagonist and others. That’d be young Declan (played by Joseph Cross, one of the babyfaced advocates in Milk), a sheltered, classically trained painting prodigy whose bipolar disorder ratchets as he prepares for a coming-of-age exhibition, and who then finds exhilarating release in the company of a crowd of Bushwick “rebels,”most notably one Cassandra Moon, a performance artist whose medium is gunpowder (Cassandra Moon is played by Gossip Girl‘s Jessica Szohr). The climax of the film will show the Bushwick rebels in full art rebellion in an establishment Chelsea gallery, a scene shot earlier in the week at the LES’s Colette Blanchard.
For other locations, the film has used the House of Yes to represent the squat where the hipster artists live, and the home of director Doug Karr, at Bedford Avenue and South 2nd Street, for Declan’s home.
Karr was inspired to do the film in part by his time in Toronto, teaching art in a psych ward; he says it made sense to set the film in Brooklyn because of “research I’d already done”since moving here a few years ago and beginning to “delve into the psychedelic Brooklyn art scene”(he smiles a bit as he says that last part). He envisions Art Machine appealing first of all to the neighborhood where it’s set—a place and a moment as yet unrepresented in feature films—and expanding outward.
The film has already done something like that, raising the first $25,000 of its $200,000 through Kickstarter (and the remaining seven eighths through private equity). This was before the casting, a very professional six-week process encompassing everyone from the leads to the hipsters they’ve just sent home, after finishing a 50-person party scene on this, the last night of the 19-day shoot. Some are still around, perhaps sticking it out until the 11pm “lunch break.”A producer points out a woman in a bright green flapperish dress: “our aerialist,”she says, though before I can ask whether she means in the movie, or in real life, or both, the aerialist is giving her a hug, and one of the cards she’s been handing out.
There’re two more scenes to shoot before sunrise, and Karr is currently blocking the first one, doing the hands-as-viewfinder trick as Cross and Szohr run dialogue on the edge of the roof (the skyline offers a view of the Citicorp tower in the distance). Cross is in a gray hoodie; Szohr is wearing, accurately enough, a slouchy oversized hoodie and boots over tights, and a straw hat of some sort.
Lunch: we walk down to the “staging area”a few blocks away, to Varet Studios, where the filmmakers will eventually make use of the postproduction facilities but which is currently being used as bike storage and a changing room (the aerialist is out of the green dress now, and into leggings). A Pulp Fiction poster hangs on the wall; 90s hip-hop is playing.
Cross and Szohr are handing out gifts: Polaroids of each cast- and crewmember, affixed to wooden palettes. They’re sort of the mayors of the set, coming and going separately from the rest and walking the couple of Bushwick blocks between the set and this makeshift trailer without any accompaniment (this goes for everyone, including me: I’m largely unchaperoned). Later they’ll rejoin the rest of the crew at lunch, handing out more wrap gifts from the back of the wardrobe truck (where the costumes, such as they are, have the thrown-together look of a Goodwill rack), parked, like the truck with all the gear, out on the sidewalk in front of the lofts. Cast and crew are sitting and eating (salads mostly) in slightly clique-y set-ups.
It’s unseasonably warm, out here on the sidewalk in Bushwick on a quiet Sunday night, and the cast, crew and locals are all dressed similarly (in sweatshirts). A guy in a flannel shirt comes kicking down the street on a longboard: he turns out to be a crewmember. The aerialist is over by the craft services table, handing out a couple more hugs and then biking home.
“Back in,”a couple people shout quietly; the remaining work to be done tonight is a continuation of the rooftop party scene, in which young Declan is exposed to the Bushwick art scene while taking mushrooms for the very first time; and, last of all, his first meeting with Cassandra. There’ll be confetti canons going off to represent her gunpowder art—there’s been a lot of pyrotechnics this shoot, I’m told, and the other night they set a stuntman’s hand on fire. (Intentionally.) As I head home down Flushing Avenue, a man in clown makeup walks the other way; he crosses the street to take some money out of an ATM in front of a bodega.