Go backBack to selection

“It Doesn’t Need to Make Sense as Long as You Pay a Lot of Money to Film It in NYC” | Aaron Schimberg, A Different Man

On a stage with red sequins at the back, a man in a surgical mask is gesturing in front of a man who is has a disfigured face.Adam Pearson and Aaron Schimber on the set of A Different Man (Photo by Matt Infante, courtesy of A24 Films)

Films are made of and from places: the locations they are filmed in, the settings they are meant to evoke, the geographies where they are imagined and worked on. What place tells its own story about your film, whether a particularly challenging location that required production ingenuity or a map reference that inspired you personally, politically or creatively? 

New York City may be slightly overused as a film location, but it’s a very narratively convenient city because, like a movie, you can float through it like a dream. You don’t have to think about how someone gets from Point A to Point B. You shouldn’t need to shoot a car scene at all if it’s not a movie about Mayor Adams and his motorcade trying to outrun the Feds. In a New York movie, you don’t need to concern yourself with logic or logistics. If there’s a scene where a couple has a fight in a restaurant and one of them storms off, you don’t wonder which one took the car and how the other one’s getting home. They can both wander off and never see each other again, one joins the mole people and the other becomes a New York Times op-ed columnist writing about the indignity of being forced to eat your cultural vegetables.

Whatever you see happening in a New York movie, you’re compelled to believe it. A person can go anywhere anytime. You can get there any way you please. You can just be there, then not be there. Everything’s already in motion and you can step in and be part of the chaos for a while and then quietly remove yourself, go to sleep at night and miss at least half the action.

On any given day, you can be browsing used books downtown and run into a vague acquaintance and then walk with her across the bridge drinking bubble tea, and at some point, you drift away from her and find yourself riding the Wonder Wheel, feeling nauseous, and you look down and you see the same acquaintance in a mermaid outfit drowning in Jamaica Bay. Ten minutes later you’re on the Q Train where you buy a Nestlé Crunch labeled “not for individual resale” from an eight-year-old. Suddenly you’re in Central Park but there are fences everywhere and you can’t seem to find a way onto any green space, but you see Big Bird sitting on a park bench holding a sandwich, and you’re not sure if it’s an eccentric person in a costume or the real Big Bird on his lunch break. And you realize you’re starving, so you go to an historic (“Since 1996”) Italian deli with powerful enough connections to get the C sanitary grade changed to a B, where the Bourdain-approved $19 sandwiches are made from the same Boar’s Head processed meats you can get in any gas station in the nation, and you think “only in New York.”

Now you’re walking through the fanciest part of town, and that’s where you get stabbed, so you Uber to the ER where a man covered in psychedelic-colored puke is telling you Black people are the real Jews, and you take his business card, which you find forty years later in a used book. You’re waiting around hemorrhaging blood in the ER and 6 hours later some NYU resident newly arrived from Cedar Rapids stitches you up, you’re her first-ever patient and her hands are trembling, and the head doctor looking over her shoulder strongly resembles the man who stabbed you, and there’s a problem with your insurance that will remain unresolved well after you’re long gone from this world. Then you take a Citi Bike home.

If I told you that’s what happened to me today, you can’t say to me, that’s ridiculous, that’s not possible, you’re exaggerating, I don’t buy a word of it—because more or less this happened to you too. You’ll say, “oh yeah, well, wait’ll you hear about my day.”

I’m not suggesting that everything that happens in this city is cinematic gold, only that you don’t have to justify yourself if the narrative stretches credulity. If a character runs into his doppelgänger, that happens to everyone at least three times a decade in this city so your movie just has to take place on one of those days. If he steps into some kind of wormhole that messes with fifteen minutes of his life in a way he cannot at all account for, why not, that seems to happen to everyone I know here, though I was in Minneapolis when it happened to me. New Orleans, San Francisco, maybe Montreal, these are some of the handful of other North American places where you can sort of get away with a similar cinematic logic, though each with a different feel and varying levels of tax incentives. And as much as I’d love to know my way around New Orleans geographically, psychologically, emotionally, well, let’s face it, I’m a stranger there; I’m a tourist, I’ll always be lost, forever a loser and a chump, standing in line for two hours at Mother’s for a Boar’s Head po’ boy.

But you set a movie in most other cities and you wanna play fast and loose with narrative logic, you’re pretty much fucked. If your characters are walking down the street chatting in Tampa, it’s ludicrous. If it’s Los Angeles and a character visits more than two locations a day, something’s off, you’re watching a film that probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it doesn’t need to make sense as long as you pay a lot of money to film it in New York City.

See all responses to our annual Sundance Question here.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham