What's harder to believe? That Marc Singer, a 21-year-old Londoner with no filmmaking experience, survived New York City's subterranean tunnels for three months and spent almost six years making a documentary with and about the homeless people who lived there? Or that his film, Dark Days, won three prizes at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival (Cinematography, Freedom of Expression, and the Audience Award) and opens at Film Forum this week?
"I should have gone down into the tunnel and everyone should have said, 'Fuck off,' " says Singer, nearly 27. "I should have gone to the camera house and they should have said, 'There's no way we're going to let you walk out of here with a $250,000 camera.' I should have gone to the lab and the film shouldn't have come out. Nothing should have worked. But everything worked."
Singer's portrait of two years in the life of New York's underground dwellers is wrenchingly beautiful. It shows the crack addicts, the rat roasters, and the scavengers, but its depiction of the homeless is always sympathetic, portraying everything from housecleaning and pet care to the families they've left behind. At the time, Singer had one concern: "I wanted to get them out of the tunnel," he explains, revealing his naïveté as much as his goodwill. "The purpose of making the film was that we'd make it, sell it, and the money would get them out."
Singer first moved to New York with very different motives: to escape his troubled life in the U.K., where he was "getting into fights and doing drugs . . . acid, Ecstasy, speed, whatever I could get my hands on," he says. He also booked a modeling gig for some catalog work in the city"at Macy's or one of those places," he reluctantly adds.
But he was more interested in walking the streets than the catwalk. When he first heard about tunnel life from a homeless man, says Singer, "Something clicked inside my head and I was like, 'I've got to do this.' " He started at Grand Central, despite warnings from homeless in the area. "They told me, 'You don't want to go down there; they eat people.' " Then he checked out Penn Station and stumbled into the Amtrak tunnel where he would eventually live and shoot the film. "I was really impressed with the structures people had built for themselves. And I made friends really quickly. I never felt more accepted in my whole life than I did down there. They were my best friends, my family. And then we decided to make the film."
As a group, Singer and his newfound family went to see Hoop Dreams for inspiration. "I'd never seen any documentaries beforewell, animal stuff, you knowbut I'd never seen a documentary documentary," says Singer. "So afterwards, we were like, 'Man, we're going to do that!' " After a few days of technical tutorial from Larry Drake at Cinevision, a camera rental house, Singer embarked on production and discovered the simple wonders of lighting in the silt-covered tunnels. "The light just sprays; it's magic. I could point the camera on anything and it would look good." As credit cards came and went, Singer shot about 50 hours of footage with his homeless crewthey served as everything from cable pullers and production assistants to lighting technicians and soundmen. "After three or four weeks, they'd say, 'Where are we going to film tonight?' " recalls Singer. "It gave everybody purpose."
He too thrived on shooting in the bowels of the MTA. "I loved every minute of it," he gushes. "Even the shit stuff." Like the stench that made his eyes water? The overwhelming blackness? The monster-sized rats? "OK, it was not that I loved it, because there were nights where I was fucking freezingyou could die of itso it wasn't always easy." And as for the rats, he acknowledges, "I never did get used to those little fuckers."
With Dark Days complete, he's restless, staying at a friend's apartmenthe can't afford his own with $150,000 in debtand "waking up in the middle of the night, seeing pictures." As for the content of the pictures, he's unsure, except to say that his next project will be a "movie movie . . . Unless something comes up before and takes me by the balls. That's the thing with this film; I just had no choice."
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