03 Apr The Number
This week, in addition to hustling to finish Battle for Brooklyn, we have been working on an EPK (electronic press kit) for a Danish singer named Agnes Obel. Agnes moved to Berlin to be creative, and over the course of a few years she put together an album of seemingly simple songs based around piano melodies and singing. I write “seemingly simple” because in fact they are dense and complex. In talking to Agnes its clear that years of work went into finding a way to make the complex simple. As I interviewed her we talked about how sometimes things that appear simple and easy are actually the product of an incredible amount of invisible work. I know this is the case with Battle for Brooklyn.
When people watch the film they will understand that we shot for a long time, but I don’t think they will ever have any idea that Suki edited full time for two straight years (in addition to the many months she assembled footage the previous 5 years). We felt like we were close to finishing last summer after a year of editing, but in retrospect, even then we knew that was only wishful thinking. With all of our documentaries the editing process is an obsessive shaping of ideas and themes. For months we have known that the movie was in there underneath all that footage. Finally last night, on what was probably our 20th small screening, the 5 guests we had over to view the film burst into applause at the end. Now it truly is done, and to the people watching it will probably seem like we just kind of threw it together.
One thing that really helped with last night’s screening was the fact that we took out the dollar figure that Daniel and Shabnam received as their settlement with NY state. Until last weekend we felt like we had to deal with the number (3 million) because we thought we would be attacked by people for not saying it directly. The truth is, after legal fees that number was much closer to 2.3 million. After moving expenses and a two years of renting while looking for a new place the number is closer to 2.1 million. After taxes, buying, and renovating a new place there’s not much left over. The vast majority of the audiences that will see the film will have no understanding of the epic costs of real estate in NY. And in the flow of the story there is no space to deal with all of these details.
A couple of weeks ago we showed a rough cut at a legal conference on eminent domain. One lawyer, before the screening, wrote on a blog, “I wonder if the filmmakers are going to deal with the 3 million?” I responded that we would, and for several months we had it in the film. However, the settlement comes at a point in the film where we are tumbling towards the end. Narratively, the story feels over when the opponents lose their eminent domain case. When the story is tumbling to a close there is no room to get into the realities of the number, and people just get hung up on it. We showed the film to an LA based editor friend of ours who felt most strongly that we should lose the number. As someone who hasn’t followed the story, but was immersed in the movie, she felt that it was distracting. She’s right. In the end, the film is not about the number. It’s the story of a community, told through an individual’s struggle, that came together to fight a developer. In NY, the developer did everything they could to make the whole story about the number. Within minutes of the settlement they sent out a press release that focused on the number. The press focused on the number, but that’s what the press does. We decided to discuss the settlement but not include the amount. The movie finally worked. The story isn’t about the number, and in fact that’s what the story is about.