Film

In “En el Séptimo Día,” Jim McKay Brings His Communal Ethos to Soccer-Mad Sunset Park

The writer-director’s latest study of New York margins concerns the work-life dilemma of an undocumented Brooklyn deliveryman

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The sound of writer-director Jim McKay’s En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) is the languid buzz of a summer Sunday afternoon in Sunset Park around the artificial-turf soccer field, a bright green jewel in a neorealist setting of chain-link, ambient traffic noise, and tens of extras. Kids toddle or bike around the park; friends and aficionados clap or rest their legs on the bleachers; passersby stop on their walks, hand on hip, to watch the grown men huffing and puffing.

Opening last Friday, just days before the start of the World Cup this week, En el Séptimo Día concerns José (Fernando Cardona), the star player on a nine-a-side team of mostly undocumented workers from Puebla, Mexico. José is grasping at a sporting glory rather more muted than what will be on display in Russia, but which is, nevertheless, a profound source of pleasure, achievement, and grace — the high point of a week otherwise spent biking across Brooklyn, delivering paper-in-plastic takeout bags filled with upscale Mexican food.

But, suddenly, a dilemma: The league’s championship game is approaching the following Sunday, José’s usual day of rest, and his boss is demanding everyone show up for an important private party. Over the weekend-to-weekend timeline of the film, José weighs his responsibilities at work — where he sees the glimmer of a pass to legal status — and to his friends and teammates, who mostly live together in the same apartment on 57th Street in Sunset Park and cover each other’s shifts washing dishes or selling cotton candy.

Such a communal style of living suits the filmmaking methods of Jim McKay, the South Slope resident for whom En el Séptimo Día marks a welcome return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade in episodic TV (with credits running from The Wire and Breaking Bad to The Good Wife and The Good Fight). His films embed themselves in marginal New York communities, to the extent that En el Séptimo Día — the Spanish title of which McKay was prepared to fight to keep — features credits in Spanish, and Spanish subtitles for its rare English dialogue. (One of the soccer players speaks a Mexican-Indian dialect, which is subtitled in both English and Spanish; an exasperated teammate finally yells at him, “Speak Spanish. We’re in New York!”) McKay’s films are made in collaboration with his subjects; Our Song (2000), his Crown Heights–set coming-of-age piece, features an “A Film By” credit whose designated names take up the entire screen. “No one makes a film by themselves,” McKay explained to the Voice recently.

McKay came to filmmaking late, by way of Eighties college rock. With his friend Michael Stipe, he formed the production company C-Hundred, and directed R.E.M. music videos as well as 1990’s Tourfilm. His first fiction feature, Girls Town (1996), a rape-fallout ensemble drama shot in Middle Village, Queens, came out of an acting workshop. That film’s stars, including Lili Taylor, all took co-writing credits. McKay was inspired by the methods of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, and The Big Dis (1989), an improvisational independent film made by two of his acquaintances: the writer-director Gordon Eriksen and the actress Heather Johnston. Girls Town “was about teenage girls,” he says, “and I knew enough to know that I didn’t have that experience” — any more than he knew how to write a script from scratch by himself. “As much as I had observed, and could certainly imagine — I think that’s the job of the writer — I wanted to share the experience.” From his initial outline, Girls Town “lost a lot of its didacticism,” as well as more of its “genre-ish” trappings, “and became detailed in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve.” At a time when HBO Films was, McKay says, “looking to do stuff that was off-the-map,” they funded and broadcast two of his works: Everyday People (2004), a Brooklyn-in-a-bottle ensemble film about race and gentrification drawn from stories collected by Nelson George; and Angel Rodriguez (2005), about a homeless teenager inspired by time McKay and his wife and collaborator, Hannah Weyer, spent volunteering at the youth-services organization the Door.

For Our Song, McKay had prepared a script about three teenage girls going through adolescent dramas both universal (divorced parents, shifting friendships) and sociopolitically pointed (pregnancy, public-school closures). The film came alive when McKay discovered the Jackie Robinson Steppers, a marching band which became both the axis around which his starring trio’s lives rotated (including a young Kerry Washington in her first film) and a way into the neighborhood, able to facilitate whatever locations or services the production needed through its deep intertwinement with the local community.

The credits of Our Song, like those of En el Séptimo Día, are uncommonly detailed. It’s highly recommended to watch them all the way through, for the meticulous shout-outs to every menial task performed on-set and around it. Their concluding exhortations are also of note: In Our Song, the credits end with “Are You Motivated?,” a refrain of the Jackie Robinson Steppers’ real-life bandleader; in En el Séptimo Día, it’s “La Lucha Continua” — that is, “The struggle continues.” The overwhelming sense is of a group endeavor — a shared adventure, really, as per a “Thanks” in Our Song’s credits, over the course of “a hot and sweaty summer.” “Especially on a movie like this,” McKay says, “if you worked on it, you worked on it because you cared about it. No one was making a lot of money and so at the very least, you deserve to be thanked. … Hopefully the film is important to the people who see it, but for all the people who were in the movie I think the process was as important as the product.”

Our Song was compared upon release to Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), written and directed by Leslie Harris, an African-American woman. McKay liked Harris’s film, and felt as if “there was room, and there’s still room, for a couple hundred more of those stories, given the balance in the other direction.” He describes himself as “unbelievably hyperaware of who I am and how I’m different from the characters that I’m writing, and all I can say is, I do a tremendous amount of homework.”

Telling the stories of underprivileged nonwhite communities is a challenge for pragmatic reasons, as much as for philosophical ones; questions of respectfulness are wrapped up with questions of verisimilitude, and what’s most important for McKay is an open atmosphere on-set. “That’s what directing is to me: listening, collaborating, talking about what the material means,” he says. “There’s minutiae of directing in terms of getting the read that you’re trying to get, but the overriding thing is really about: ‘This scene is this little story, do you understand it the way I understand it, and if so, that’s why this is here, or, if you don’t understand it that way, how do you understand it? Well, that’s interesting. You know what, I didn’t intend it that way, but I like that, so go ahead and do it that way.’ Constant collaboration. Even if I’m on a TV show with professionals who’ve done this for fifty years, and it’s someone else’s writing, I don’t see my role as being any kind of dictator. I think the whole process is always about humility and exploration. There was very little improvisation on En el Séptimo Día, but there was a lot of conversation.” By the time En el Séptimo Día embarked on its nineteen-day shoot, McKay and his cast had spent “four or five months” playing soccer together twice a week, talking about the movie.

To find his actors and integrate the production into Sunset Park’s Mexican-American community, McKay and producers Caroline Kaplan, Lindsey Cordero, and J. Xavier Velasco met with local leaders and activists at St. Jacobi, a local church and neighborhood hub. They organized a seven-month casting process that began with videotaped sidewalk conversations; they ate locally rather than relying on an outside catering company. Unlike José’s boss at the restaurant, McKay scheduled around his cast — all nonprofessionals who’d never acted before. With the exception of star Fernando Cardona, who took a month off work, the actors would come in on Saturdays, if they could, or Sundays, which they generally had off, to shoot scenes in the shared apartment and at the soccer field. If an actor had to work on a day he was supposed to be on-set, McKay would write in an excuse for where the character was that day, or figure out something different to film.

This behind-the-scenes logistical wrangle, this struggle to make room for something personally rewarding outside of work, mirrors José’s conundrum of whether to go to work or play soccer in the park — a scheduling conflict the film takes deadly seriously. Some characters respond incredulously to José’s angst — it’s only a game; suck it up and think of the money you’re sending home, the difficulty of finding another job. Some teammates implore José to remember their shared dream; one, who works with José in the restaurant, says he’ll go in on Monday and let the boss fire him for taking his regular day off. The film’s viewers, says McKay, “are responding in similar ways to the characters: there’s some who are responding, ‘What the fuck? Are you crazy?,’ and there’s others who are like, ‘No, you should play.’” (Maybe, he suggests, those audience members are soccer fans. Or maybe they’re in a bowling league.) “I think there’s always that initial response, and then my hope is that by the end, everybody has a deeper understanding of what the dilemma was in the first place, and what it means to them, on a more universal level.”

“Look,” McKay continues, “his dilemma is exacerbated by his undocumented status, but there’s little difference between what he’s experiencing and some dot-com kid having his boss email at 11:30 at night and expect an answer right away. It’s capitalism.” McKay laughs, and remembers the Bernie Sanders campaign posing the question of why, “in a lot of other parts of the world, people have a month paid vacation, free daycare, free healthcare, and somehow their system works.”

Some audience members will see José’s inflexible boss as the villain, and, McKay says, “he’s certainly clueless, and taking advantage, but if you take a step back, you realize he’s a cog in this thing as well. It’s not like he’s living high and free; restaurants come and go all the time, and the people really in charge love to see us compare good and evil among these people who, while some more fortunate than others, are all being exploited by this system of massive inequality. It’s a touchy-feely thing to ask, what are we here for, what is our life worth? With immigrants you often have this extreme circumstance, people who have settled somewhere else, and basically everything they’re doing is to work, to send money home and make things better for their families, but again, I think a lot of American-born citizens have experienced a similar thing. We constantly have these bosses who say, as José’s does, ‘Help me out here.’ And sometimes that’s OK, if your boss is actually helping you out too. But more often than not. … When I started doing television shows, they would call and say, ‘Hey, they need some help on this episode, someone had to drop out, can you change your dates, can you help them out, do them this favor?’ And I mistakenly thought, ‘OK, I’ll do that, and it’s not as ideal for me, but I’ll help them out, and they’ll remember that. And maybe at some point … ’ But a year later, when I say to them, ‘Hey, can I do blah blah blah blah,’ and then they say no, I realize, ‘Oh yeah, wait a second. We’re not friends.’ They’re not going to remember that you stayed late those five extra days in order to make this thing happen.”

A much-paraphrased version of this speech appears in the film, voiced by a priest José consults, who connects his problem to the greater struggle of laborers elsewhere in the city. In an earlier version of the script, the priest advised José to suck it up and think of his family, but McKay was inspired to rewrite the scene to be truer to the activist spirit of the city’s immigrant and Hispanic community leaders — that really is what this priest would say. McKay thinks that with each of his films, he’s pushed the politics further down into the subtext. Similarly, though the film’s championship-game climax takes the form of a clockwork-farcical set-piece that underscores the governing ethos of teamwork and collectivism, he says, “I wasn’t going like, ‘OK, I want to reflect this underriding theme.’ It just made sense. Because you’ve written everything that comes before it, you’ve created these characters, and you go, ‘What would they do?’ Well, they would do this, because this is who they are.”

En el Séptimo Día takes place in the summer of 2016, a retrospectively ominous time (though the way the roommates react to one friend’s run-in with ICE suggests as much continuity as disruption since the film was shot). Yet it’s hard to pinpoint moments in the film to hold up as a kind of rousing thesis about the lives of undocumented people in the Trump era. The characters’ conditional status is an omnipresent, defining element, like oxygen, and the film’s politics emerge organically through the unimpeded view of people who might otherwise make up the background texture of life in New York City.

Our Song, set around the Albany Houses and St. John’s Park, includes a dateline in its opening credits: “Crown Heights, Brooklyn, U.S.A. Late Summer.” En el Séptimo Día’s reads “Sunset Park, Brooklyn, U.S.A. Verano/Summer, 2016.” The films are self-consciously time-capsuled slices of a Brooklyn that’s forever in flux. The last shot of Our Song is of a teenage girl walking down Eastern Parkway, away from the Utica Avenue 4 train stop, on the cusp of the new millennium. McKay holds the shot long enough for us to consider where she’d fit in the neighborhood today. En el Séptimo Día similarly preserves for posterity the Sunset Park of Fifth Avenue dollar stores and beyond. The film shows New York through the eyes of José as he traverses it on his delivery runs, from his restaurant “La Frontera” (played by Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens). He bikes beside the industrial waterfront; along highways carved out of the borough by Robert Moses; and off to incubator spaces in Industry City, porn stores near the Gowanus Canal, and brownstones in Park Slope. The eyes of a delivery guy take in a cross-section of New York City types and landmarks — a premise that’s also been explored in Sean Baker’s Take Out (2004) and the HBO series High Maintenance. Of the latter, McKay says, “I love our locations in this film, but there’s a generic-ness; there weren’t a lot of beauty shots to be had. When the new season of High Maintenance came out, and one article talked about how beautifully it showed Brooklyn on a bike, I was like, ‘Fuck!’ I saw the first episode. There’s all these great dusk shots and night shots by the waterfront in Williamsburg, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not our movie.’” McKay is selling himself short: En el Séptimo Día captures, in natural light, the unexpected beauty of coming over a ridge in an outer borough and catching an unimpeded glimpse of the Statue of Liberty or the Manhattan skyline, so far away you may as well be one of the huddled masses.

 

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