PART 2: PRODUCTION
On November 5, 2014, I flew to Las Vegas to my father’s place. The Los Angeles segment was, with the Paris film set scenes, the most challenging part of the project, because it was the one in which I had the least amount of existing resources to rely on: I knew no one in Los Angeles, had no place to stay, and didn’t yet know if I would even be able to find the right location to shoot in.
All I knew is that I could get myself to that area, because my father lived in Las Vegas. I had originally thought of setting the film there, but I quickly relocated the story to Los Angeles, for two main reasons: first, visually, Los Angeles offered a lot more interesting connections to the other cities than Las Vegas did. Sure, Las Vegas has a replica Paris, but other than that, there was little to draw on. Secondly, and more importantly, Los Angeles made far more sense in terms of the story, as it is the home of Hollywood and the symbol of filmmaking success. I thought it interesting to explore a life where Hollywood is the backdrop for a failure, and a possible rebirth. Instead of having my character go there and “make it,” he would discover a life far removed from his initial hopes and expectations.
The biggest challenge for me then was to find a place to set the character’s story. Having decided that in this life, he would become homeless and would be recovering in a shelter, I needed to find such a location to film in. And so, while still in Paris, I did research on Internet, listed as many shelters in Los Angeles as possible and e-mailed them, explaining my project and explaining that in preparation, if it could be useful to them, I could spend a month or so volunteering beforehand. Of the dozen organizations I contacted, 4 agreed to meet with me: The Midnight Mission, The Salvation Army, the Union Rescue Mission – all three of which are on Skid Row – and Ascencia, which is Glendale.
Mid-November, I booked a few nights in Los Angeles and hopped on a bus, hoping to meet with them in person. It just so happened that my Greyhound bus from Las Vegas to Los Angeles dropped me off on Maple Avenue, right in the heart of Skid Row. Although I had researched this neighborhood, I wasn’t prepared for the initial shock of physically being there. Perhaps a little naively, I had imagined that what I had seen or read was an exaggeration, and that things must have gotten better. But no: the streets were indeed crowded with tents and tarp shelters, littered with trash and left-over food, with the odd shopping trolley filled with all kinds of necessities and junk. Gangsta-rap was roaring from ghetto-blasters, the smell of weed whiffing from most street corners and crack addicts passed out on the concrete. Walking down the crowded sidewalks, I didn’t exactly know how to behave: should I act as though I was walking on any other normal street? Should I avoid making eye contact? Will they get angry if I ignore solicitations? Will they take offence if I step off the curb and walk on the road? Part of me felt bad for even asking myself these questions, but I was soon leaving the busiest intersection of Skid Row – San Pedro and 6th - and slowly but surely heading to more “normal” streets. This actually was the other thing that struck me: Skid Row was so close to both downtown – with its major business headquarters – and just a few blocks away from hipper, gentrified neighborhoods, such as the Japanese quarter.
Over those few days, The Salvation Army and the Union Rescue Mission pulled out before I had the chance to meet with them. I realized that I had chosen the worst possible time to show up with my film project: with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, this was the busiest time of the year for organizations helping homeless people. I did, however, meet with the Midnight Mission. Joey, in charge of volunteers, gave me a tour of the Mission and explained to me how it worked. He was himself a resident of one of the dorms in the Mission and had been following the program for 9 months already. I told him about my film and insisted on the fact that I had set the whole month of December aside to come and volunteer at the shelter as much as possible, in order to get to know the place, the people, and also just simply to help out. I genuinely wanted to immerse myself in this world and try to contribute something useful. I think this probably gave them some reassurance that my project was coming from the right place and not seeking to be exploitative. Joey liked my idea and penned me in for some volunteering shifts. However, he couldn’t yet guarantee that I would be able to shoot anything, because he wasn’t the person who would have the final say on the matter. At this stage, I was being vetted.
I returned to Las Vegas for the remainder of November with one crucial problem to solve: finding accommodation for a month in Los Angeles. When I looked online at possible accommodation on AirBnB and Craigslist, places were either very expensive or in neighborhoods that I had been told were to be avoided. I’m usually not paranoid about spending time in locations labeled as dangerous, simply because I’ve lived in enough places to know that these warnings are often a little exaggerated, but this time, I had all my film equipment that could potentially get stolen and didn’t want to take any chances. So I put out a post on Facebook and Internet magic operated: a friend of a friend was going away for the month of December and subletting her place, by Vermont and Beverly. I moved in and got ready for my shifts, with now just two “issues” on my mind: first, making sure I could shoot at the shelter, second, finding a cameraman.
On December 2nd, I went for my first volunteer shift at the Midnight Mission. Joey greeted me and got me straight to business: I put on a plastic apron, hairnet and gloves, and started helping out in the kitchen. I then spent about two hours unloading pallets of donated food boxes into the giant walk-in fridges, and for this task I was paired with Toby, another resident of the Mission. While unpacking milk cartons and candy bars, we got to know each other a little bit. He had been at the shelter for several months and was good friends with Joey; they were even bunk-neighbors in the dorm. He told me of his years on the road, traveling through every State in the USA, doing dozens of different jobs. For a while he had worked as a videographer for various gigs, using DSLR cameras. When I got round to explaining why I was in LA, he was immediately excited about the film and so I asked him if he’d like to do the camera work. Without skipping a beat, he replied: “Sure! I’ll do it!”
Over the next month, I volunteered a few times per week at the mission, usually for a lunch or dinner service. Spending time there, I came to learn a lot about the areas’ inhabitants. Most of the people on Skid Row are either addicts (mostly crack) or mentally disabled. That’s usually why they’re still on the streets, because they just don’t have the resources –financially and/or mentally - to stay off it. But one thing became very clear to me while working at the Midnight Mission: there were solutions to get off the streets if you had the strength of will to stay clean. The guys living at the Midnight Mission were all fairly open for conversation, well-spoken and mild-mannered. While some still bore the effects of years of heavy drinking and drug abuse, others seemed like regular guys. Some told me how a few years earlier, they were living normal lives, were married and had jobs, and explained how losing one led to losing the rest and before they knew it, they didn’t have a place to go. Many lived in their cars for a while before eventually ending up on the streets. Listening to their stories made me realize how close we all potentially are to slipping off the cliff. One unfortunate event unravels the scenery of normal life and reveals the true nature of people, both those who you know (usually for the worse) and of strangers (sometimes for the best).
Midway through my month in LA, I still hadn’t shot anything and realized I had to get moving on the location shots. While in Helsinki I had been able to walk everywhere and in London public transport was good enough to get around, in LA neither was an option. The city is just too spread out and requires having a car. So I made a long list of locations where I needed to go and rented a car for a weekend. On the first day, I focused on downtown LA, where most of the things I wanted to see were located. The next, I went to Beverly Hills and managed to shoot some of my favorite footage of the whole film: I attached the suction-cup rig to the hood of the car, set up the camera which was connected to the tablet with the wire running through the window, and put the tablet behind the steering wheel. The great thing about Beverly Hills is that the roads are extra smooth, there’s very little traffic, and some of the streets are lined with the most amazing trees. So I spent hours driving around, in particular up and down North Canyon Drive, North Rexford Drive, North Alpine Drive and North Maple Drive. I was almost certain someone would call the cops and report a strange car with a device on the hood stalking the streets, but nothing of this sort happened.
On Christmas morning, I returned to the Midnight Mission for the Christmas event. I was growing concerned that my days in LA were running out and I still hadn’t filmed anything. That day, I reminded Joey of my project and he led me to the communications and media manager, Ryan Navales, also an ex-resident. He welcomed me in his office with a sturdy handshake and set the tone by telling me I should feel fortunate to have already made it this far. They receive dozens of professional film requests a year, and usually guys who show up with a smile on their face and no money to put on the table wouldn’t get very far. But Joey had reported positively on my project and it was thanks to his vetting that doors were opening for me. Ryan’s main concern before green-lighting anything was to make sure that I wasn’t here to take advantage of the residents. He had already been tracking my volunteering shifts and knew I had developed a good relationship with Joey and Toby, as well as some of the guys in the kitchens, but he wanted to hear it straight from me. His other question was whether I intended to show the Midnight Mission as a generic homeless shelter, or if it would be presented as the Midnight Mission itself. I knew this was kind-of a trick question, as there could be good reasons why he may want to hear either answer, so I told him the truth: I wanted it to be the Midnight Mission, because I wanted to set the story in something real. I believe this is the answer he wanted to hear; it meant that my film would serve as a vessel to candidly come into the mission, show how it works and tell the story of a successful recovery. Our meeting ended with Ryan telling Joey that we could shoot any time that Joey deemed appropriate. So, we got together with Joey and Toby and filmed on the 29th and 30th of December at the mission.
When I first arrived, downtown Los Angeles scared me a little. Upon leaving, I felt a pinch in my heart: with the help of people I didn't know, who had gone through life struggles who made my own seem trivial, I had got what I wanted, something silly, some scenes for a film. I hope, at the end of the road, that Ψ will introduce the Midnight Mission, and more generally Skid Row, to people who don't know about it and may be willing to help in whatever way they can.