The assignment- A whirlwind weekend at the fabled Chelsea Hotel, filming 6 interviews and a musical performance.
1- All the interviews had to be done in one day, as my DP had limited availability.
2- Our musician, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, only had that weekend free.
3- It's the middle of winter in NYC. And we're shooting outdoors.
4- The hotel has strict non-filming policies in effect, so everything had to be done on the sly, from filming, to smuggling a full set of lights, camera and sound through the hotel lobby and into the elevator, to bringing up a half dozen special guest stars ever 90 minutes without it looking like I was running a whorehouse or having them go to the front desk and saying "I'm here for the film shoot!"
5- How the fuck are we going to get onto the roof of the Chelsea Hotel? They installed a keypad stronger than any industrial security system found in the finest nuthouses, so my lock picking days of 2007, when I last snuck up there, were to be no more.
6- I needed to make a round trip from LA-NY and do ALL of this between Friday night and Monday morning so as not to miss work, where we are about to embark on marketing a film that has an opening date 6 weeks from now. And without telling my boss.
Those are a lot of parameters.
Now, I had just been to the Chelsea in December, rented a suite and conducted seven interviews in it within a two-day period, unnoticed, so I figured the room part wouldn't be an issue. It was the roof that worried me. I had previously attempted to make a deal with the person who lives (lived, actually, he's being evicted) in the pyramid, itself. I was to sublet the pyramid for the week I was in NYC and shoot there, no problem.
Except he backed out. Without telling me. But I kind of figured it out when I showed up and he wasn't there. And didn't answer his phone. Or cell. Or texts. Or emails. Thankfully, I had kept the reservation for a room. But the roof was not to happen on that trip.
So back I was going in order to get this done. But how to get onto the roof. I had been told by a fellow filmmaker who had shot at the Chelsea that they could not bother her because she was at the time a resident and therefore had the right to shoot in her home. So all I had to do was to find a resident with roof access willing to allow me to hire them and allow us access through their roof entrance.
Not as easy as it sounds. Since the new management took over in 2007 and ousted Stanley Bard, they have been doing their best to evict the long term tenants and turn the place into a pricey boutique hotel. Now as far as I'm concerned, there's no way to do it without preserving what makes the Chelsea the Chelsea, but that's another story. However, because the tenants can't breathe the wrong way without the management up their asses, everyone I approached was terrified of being caught. I finally was able to convince someone (who will remain nameless) to help us out (for a large-ish, but manageable fee), and even they were very nervous about doing so and agonized over the decision before agreeing. We had the roof for 3.5 hours on Sunday morning.
Immediately, I began consulting every weather website, the Farmer's almanac, I threw the chicken bones, Magic 8 ball- anything to give me a better idea of the weather in 30 days. Conclusion: inconclusive. Fuck it, we roll the dice and figure it out later.
Onto booking the guests. I had seven people I needed to interview and only had room for five. From earlier experience, I knew that no matter how many people you booked, there would always be a cancellation and the more you booked, the more cancellations. (I had 5 cancellations out of 14 bookings on the last go-round!) So I overbooked, figuring by the time January 31 rolled around, we'd sort it all out.
Everything fell into place and before I knew it, the weekend was coming up. Except for one interviewee who was out of town, no one had canceled. I had to jam pack six people into one day and in order to do so, had to rent another 32gb memory card for our HD camera. I got it from a great place that does UPS delivery, with prepaid postage, so it comes to your door (or in my case, office) and you throw it in a drop box when done. Of course, my boss was in when it arrived and had to know exactly what it was, who it was for, what it did and why I needed it.
Now, my boss is aware of the fact that I've been making this documentary. In fact, when I was hired, I told him about it, with the caveat that it would not interfere with my job. And for the most part, it really hasn't. I don't take sick days ever so on the occasion when I've needed to travel, I've scheduled things around holidays so the time off would be minimal, knowing that by the time I needed to take some serious leave, I'd be necessary enough to be accommodated. Plus, I think it amuses him. We work on much larger budgeted films, and very mainstream product, so the idea of a no-budget, indie documentary is far beyond his scope of useful. He just sort of pats me on the head and says, "Oh, you're making a movie. That's nice." I'm honestly not insulted by it because he looks at it from a business standpoint. And I get it. And he's as supportive about it as he can be and should be. But in any case, I hadn't told him I was going to be going away because I had arranged a schedule that would necessitate me only being out of the office for an hour of regular business hours. I'd call in late on Monday morning. No problem. After he saw the equipment I'd rented, I told him I was shooting, but locally. No reason for him to be worried that I wouldn't get back on time.
So yes, my punishing schedule: Work all day Friday, fly out of LAX at midnight. Land in NYC at 8am, go directly to the hotel. Meet one of my kickstarter backers for breakfast and a tour of the Chelsea Hotel. Run over to Tekserve to buy some needed extra equipment (I was acting as a 2nd cameraman for the music shoot), meet my mom for lunch, come back to the hotel and teach myself how to use said 2nd camera, on which I had no prior experience. Finally collapse into bed for three hours before being called by our roof helper at 9pm, after which I am unable to go back to sleep until I take a pill, then up at 6am for a full day of shooting. Shoot all day, maybe finishing by 10pm, pack, hop into bed for three hours, get up at 2am for a 3am car to the airport. Fly out of NYC at 6am, land at 9am LA time and drive to my office for a full day of work.
I haven't yet described the room in which we'd be conducting five of the interviews. I booked a junior suite. Last time, I booked a suite and the place was cavernous, but ugly as hell. The walls were off-white (stained, really) wallpaper/pegboard that looked like sound baffling, actually. There was an enormous red velvet pit couch in the middle of the room, a broken green velvet antique loveseat and no lamps except for a weak halogen one that, when turned on served only to illuminate the water stain two feet above it. However, my DP Mike and I managed to make it look like seven different locations by the magic of cheated angles and colored gels. But on to this room.
Not really a jr. suite, as it only had one room and a kitchenette. But I learned long ago that there are no rules at the Chelsea Hotel (unless you want to shoot something, then all of a sudden, you're one of the blond kids from Flowers in the Attic and there's Grandmother with a whole list of what you can't do.) The walls were white with a Jackson Pollock-esque paint design with four primary colors that looked like a special ed class went wild at a Color Me Mine. A royal blue bed with a cherry red carpet, maroon and orange patterned drapes and the piece de resistance- a frozen testicle of a cluster globe lamp drizzled with the blue and green.... silly string.
In case you're having trouble visualizing this Taj Mahal, I've included photos below. It's room 324. be sure to ask for it next time you stay at the Chelsea.
That's all for today. Tune in for Part Two where I contemplate taking a shiv to the downstairs doorman when he refuses to let us upstairs with our equipment, the elevator stops on the 5th floor and begins swaying up and down and I interview Will Sheff of Okkervil River on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 2010.