Lights, camera, action! Please stand clear of the closing doors. Huh? Yes, you heard right. That’s the type of direction you can expect to hear in the New York City subway system, where filmmakers and television producers have come for decades to add depth, texture and realism to any story that takes place in New York.
With its sets and soundstages, Hollywood can pose as “anywhere USA,” but only New York City can pass as, well, New York City. And if a film is shot in New York, there’s a strong chance that there will be at least one scene set along the tracks and stations of MTA New York City Transit’s (NYCT) immense and scenically diverse subway system. Add to that the impressive number of music videos, television commercials and shows lensed in New York City, many of which require at least an occasional subway shot.
The responsibility of overseeing special events and filming at NYCT falls to the Video Production Unit of the Division of Government Affairs. Division Director Lois Tendler believes NYCT offers an invaluable resource to the film industry and by extension provides an economic benefit to the city.
“Despite the fact that production requests often call upon us to exhibit great creativity, flexibility and energy, knowing that we here at NYCT play a role in fostering moviemaking in New York City is truly gratifying,” she says. “Besides contributing to the authenticity of productions viewed worldwide, we help keep the economic benefits that flow from films (and commercials and music videos) right here at home.”
Over the years some memorable celluloid moments have occurred in or around the New York City subway system. Remember Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chasing an elevated train through South Brooklyn in the French Connection? Or how about the train-jackers who took the Lexington Avenue Local for ransom in the Taking of Pelham 1-2-3?
Both Eddie Murphy (in Coming to America) and Paul Hogan (as Crocodile Dundee) proposed to their brides in the New York City subway, presumably living happily ever after. And who could forget King Kong, with Fay Wray in hand, wrecking the Sixth Avenue elevated train in preparation for his climb to the top of the Empire State Building? Well, technically, it didn’t really take place in the subway — it was a scale-model set of an elevated railway — but everyone got the idea.
The very first motion picture shot in the system was a Thomas A. Edison film in 1904. The cameraman mounted a camera on a train and followed the Lexington Avenue Local along its route. The grainy film was short on plot, but it started a tradition, and the camera has been in love with New York City’s subway ever since.
More recently, Jennifer Lopez boarded the No. 4 train in the Bronx and rode to her job in a swank midtown hotel in the film Maid in Manhattan. A few years earlier, she, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson teamed as transit cops in Money Train. Harrelson returned for an encore when he and Keifer Sutherland transferred from horseback to a Brooklyn-bound B train as it pounded across the Manhattan Bridge in the climactic scene of Cowboy Way.
“New York City is like our back lot, and filming in the subway system is one of the high points of working in New York City,” says Gary Martin, president of production administration for the Columbia/Tri-Star Film Group. “Through Alberteen Anderson and her staff, NYCT has been extremely accommodating. We began the process for the feature Money Train a year before filming actually started, and they worked closely with us to make it happen.”
Assisting the filmmakers
Headed by Anderson, the Video Production Unit handles the needs of scores of production companies, from site scouting to picking a specific type of subway car.
In fact, it will even help arrange the purchase of subway cars as it did for the producers of Money Train and Die Hard With a Vengeance, whose productions just happened to coincide with NYCT’s scrapping of a fleet of 40-year-old cars.
Of course, buying a subway car isn’t quite as simple as picking up a used Toyota at the corner lot. “The director and producers traveled to the Coney Island Maintenance Facility to meet General Supt. Frank Selecchia and Assistant Chief Mechanical Officer Richard Sowa, who helped identify several obsolete cars available for purchase,” explains Anderson. “After the cars were chosen, they had to be abated for asbestos, inspected by the State Department of Environmental Protection and then prepped for shipping to California. It’s all part of the process of making these projects happen.”
Additionally, Anderson’s unit has catalogued an impressive list of film-friendly stations and lines. One popular location is the Grand Central-Times Square Shuttle during off hours. Another is the Church Avenue F Line station in Brooklyn’s Kensington section, which boasts express tracks on the upper level and non-service tracks on the lower level.
“A major reason subway scenes are included in many movies filmed in New York City is to add a genuine feel of a city that pretty much lives as a result of its subway system,” says Anderson. “Also, with its hundreds of stations, miles of underground and elevated track and a diverse car fleet, directors don’t have to work particularly hard to get unique looking shots.”
Martin concurs with Anderson’s assessment. “In New York City everyone relates to the subway,” he adds. “Of course, Chicago and Los Angeles have subways, too, but nothing can take the place of New York’s system.”
From the small to the large
In addition to films, the Video Production Unit handles several other types of filming projects, each with its own set of needs. Shoots can require virtually anything from the use of a subway sidewalk grating to a station platform or stationary railcar or a stretch of subway line and a full, moving New York City subway train.
Jobs can last for a couple of hours, or production crews can shoot in the system over the course of several months. In 2002, 48 productions were shot in the subway system, with project times ranging anywhere from one to six days.
Shooting a production in North America’s largest transit system is a cooperative effort among several divisions and units of the Department of Subways, the Department of Buses, the Executive Vice President’s Office and the Division of System Safety.
The process requires teamwork and coordination. Working along with the Video Production Unit, the General Order Unit is notified when a production company wants to shoot at a particular location and time. At that time it is determined whether or not a train or station is involved, and the type of shooting they would like to do.
Next, a technical meeting is scheduled at the desired location. Representatives from Government Affairs, the divisions of Stations and Car Equipment, the Department of System Safety, Contract Inspections, the Electrical Department and Rapid Transit Operations assemble to discuss the request and scout the location in order to make certain the shoot is feasible and there are no safety issues.
Charges are figured to the last penny, taking into account how long the production will last, how many NYCT employees will be needed for the job and how long the job will take. The rental of a subway train includes the crew (train operator and conductor), a train service supervisor and sometimes officers of the New York Police Department.
Learning to walk the walk
Anyone who walks along NYCT subway tracks must take an eight-hour track class. The instruction educates newcomers to the dangers of working in the vicinity of moving trains and a live third rail. The classes, similar to the one given to NYCT employees, are aimed at keeping everyone safe and raising the comfort level of folks who probably aren’t accustomed to working around 400 tons of moving subway train.
Attendees of the course are also required to take a test upon class completion. Finally, everyone who takes the class must stand in a clearance area along the tracks as a train passes. Of course, with safety always being a prime concern, all productions using NYCT property are required to take out liability and railroad insurance policies of at least $2 million each.
As important as it is to make the system accessible to producers, the primary role of the subway system is to move people. If a production calls for shooting in a normally busy location, that project will be done during the overnight hours when impact on the public is minimal.
While most production personnel are repeat visitors and understand what it takes to keep the system running smoothly, a small number of location managers just don’t get it. “Unfortunately, sometimes you will get a location manager or director who wishes to shoot in a busy station at the height of the rush hour,” Anderson says. “As important as their production is, our customers come first.”
Customers do come first
It’s a complicated process to set everything up to the satisfaction of all sides. After all, while NYCT does its best to accommodate the entertainment industry, the authority also has 4.7 million subway riders to move each day. Does everything always roll smoothly? Well, not exactly. At times NYCT has to put its collective foot down and say no to a project.
In one instance, a movie director wanted to cut a pole out of a subway car so that he could obtain a better angle on a shot. The midnight request was denied and it was explained to him that the pole helped support the ceiling-mounted air conditioning unit and contained electrical lines and drain lines from the HVAC system.
Another time several years ago the producers of the NBC drama Law and Order wanted to stage the deaths of several passengers struck down by a gas attack on a subway train. NYCT officials, including representatives of the press office, decided that coming so closely after the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, the scene might raise concerns among riders.
However, since then, Law and Order producer Dick Wolf has worked closely with NYCT on several projects, including his series Players. “This was a major production for us,” says Anderson. “It involved several tough shots, and they came off without a problem.”
Overall, the bad moments are far outweighed by the good. Martin has come into the system for several films, including Money Train, Spiderman 1 and 2, Men In Black 1 and 2, Finding Forrester and Maid in Manhattan. Robert DeNiro’s production company Tribeca Films has been a steady customer, as has Paramount Pictures.
Filming in the New York City subway system will always present challenges and opportunities. The next time you see a film, television show, commercial or music video that includes shots of an NYCT subway, remember a lot of work went into making it look just right.