I was working on the New York City set of the Paramount feature, “The Hours,” which was an hour subway ride from my apartment in the Bronx. It was a very boring ride, with the same faces, sounds and sights I encountered every day. But then a blind gentleman made his way onto the train with a violin in his right hand and a bow in his left. He found his way to the pole in the middle of the train. The train rumbled, screeched, and then took off. In that instant, the blind man began to play. He played amazing classical music that you would only imagine you could hear on stage in London – not under the streets on a subway car in NYC. When the train stopped, the blind man got off the train and never asked for a cent.
This is when I became a documentary filmmaker: I had a question and wanted to answer it. A story was born.
The question I had about the lives of musicians who play in the subways of NYC was tucked away in my head for some time. In the years that followed, I moved to Arizona, got sick of the heat, and then decided to give my original home of Connecticut a shot. As fate would have it, I landed a job at a documentary movie house. I learned two big things from working on the indie feature doc “Dislecksia: The Movie.” First, that I was dyslexic, and second, how to make a documentary film.
I got to work on my own movie, “Busking the System.” I bought a camera, rented an office, gathered a team, and began to answer my question about the NYC subways musicians. I quickly realized that I needed to raise some money, and from my narrative film days, I remembered this was the least fun part of being an indie filmmaker. I joined the IDA for some 501(c)3 donations, which got me enough to do a one-day shoot.
After a month or more of research, I set up a one-day shoot with the self-proclaimed “King of the Underground,” Theo Eastwind, a subway performer who was part of the union, Music Under New York (MUNY), and the famous subway drummer, Shakerleg. The shoot went great and I was able to shoot a promo for the movie. I held a fundraiser, played the promo, and was able to raise $7,500 with the promo alone. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for principal shooting.
Now for the real production — I got two valuable producers that were not paid, but own a small piece of the movie. I also got interns – again, free and valuable. What I did not have was a strong enough story, and I did not want this film just to provide an answer to my original question, but also to tell a great story. With my producers and interns, we researched and built the foundation for a narrative in a documentary. “Let’s not just do interviews,” we thought, “let’s find three musicians from around the U.S., different styles of music, different ages, and different lifestyles, and bus them into the city and find out what it’s like to go down into the NYC subways for the first time and try to survive with just their music.” The budget for this new plan added up – plane tickets, bus tickets, food, hotels, tapes, two extra shooters and more – so we had to do it right the first time and capture everything.
We shot for about six solid months. We got some really great footage and ended up with about 100 hours. Over the next year, we had some pick-ups and follow-ups, but the movie was shot. I found a young editor who was still looking for more experience but was talented enough to do the job, so I paid him a very reasonable day rate. He helped piece together the story, and we were off.
I did a bunch of screenings and changed the timeline of the film after almost every one. Eventually, I was happy with the edit. “Busking the System” played in two small festivals and then we signed with a producer’s rep to try for the holy grail of distribution. Being a student of the film distribution market, I knew we had our work cut out for us. As the entire industry landscape was changing, with DVD a non-profitable option and Netflix paying nothing for indies, how was I going to get my money back?
The advice you hear from every expert on every panel is “find an audience,” something Blockbuster and a fancy cover used to do for you. So who was my audience? While making the film, I learned that many street musicians call themselves “buskers.” Well, there is my audience – buskers and fans of buskers.
I researched busker festivals, and discovered that they are held throughout the world. So after setting up some screenings at these events, I decided to release this movie theatrically myself. I found an author on the subject – who is also an NYC busker in her own right – and talked her into a movie/book tour. After gaining some steam regionally at the busker festivals, I was able to piggy-back into legitimate theaters in the area of the festivals, thanks to the press we were getting via television and large newspapers. We also connected via Facebook and LinkedIn with people in the regions we were playing who had interests in music, busking and documentary film. We actually beat out “Buck” and “Midnight in Paris” for the entire weekend at a theater in Kansas City, Mo., but in fairness, we were actually there in town working to drum up an audience. I respect both movies – I think both are much better – which is why it’s fun for me to brag.
We are still screening, but in my mind, we have succeeded in a great run by having our NYC premiere at the reRun Gastropub Theater! We have arrived. We signed with a digital distribution broker, and will be self-releasing a DVD, with great special features. We’ll also be selling mp4 downloads on the website www.flicku.me.
All in all, it was a great run and adventure. My crew, the stars and I traveled with the film, played in great venues, and met some fantastic, interesting people. We truly learned what busking was and used it to busk the big screen.