Theodore Collatos is a Brooklyn-based, award-winning photographer and filmmaker, who works in both fiction and documentary. His most recent features include the documentary Queen of Lapa and the narrative drama Tormenting the Hen, and his pilot Palookaville won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. For more info on his work, visit the Broken Horse Films website.
It’s Saturday, 11:20 a.m. I’ve been up all night. Snakes in my veins. Scared – no, terrified. My brain running around itself stupidly.
I give up staring at the stucco ceiling, gobble down my generic Wellbutrin, Ravistatin and Levothyroxine on an empty stomach and turn on the shower. In my head, I go over my shot list, over and again. I’m trying to memorize what-has-to-be-shot vs. what-will-probably-be-cut. I run cold water in the shower to take the edge off. People will be arriving in 20 minutes and I need to appear calm. I say to myself, “Don’t talk too much, don’t seem desperate. You’re a filmmaker and this is what you live for.”
Carol is already up and a latte with a smiley face on it sits on the table of our matchbox apartment. That’s so lovely of her to do. The first sip gives me a rush. Tasty, warm, sweet. This is my only moment of respite in a day that will be filled with improvising, explaining, planning, pivoting and stealing. It’s going to be great!
Jason arrives first, with his Sony camera and Steadicam already assembled. He wears all black and brings bags of lights, lenses and lavs. He carries everything like it’s nothing. My P.A. Ryan is a bit late, so I help Jason with the gear. I manically go over the hand-drawn storyboards and shot list I drew the night before; he takes it all in stride. I’m so lucky to have this guy on my team.
Howard, my lead actor, arrives next. He’s been on an overnight bus from Pittsburgh after working his shift at a restaurant and plans to leave the next morning for a stand-up night he hosts called Sin Comedy Sundays. He’s got a “No Evil” tattoo on his neck and a perpetual smile. Howard is down for whatever in the best of cinematic ways. Then Jackie, our associate producer/actress, arrives. I’d met her a week earlier at a cafe where we bonded over our cats. Ryan, a talented filmmaker in his own right as well as a P.A. and actor today, shows up next. Ryan’s so tall and my ceiling is so short, his head grazes the top.
Carol’s passing around menus for the cafe across the street. I realize we should probably eat before and not after the shoot, as we’ll be underground in the MTA all day riding to and fro, stealing shots without a permit. It’s going to be chaos.
My lips feel like they’re trembling when I speak, so I say as few words as possible, letting people get to know each other. Karl bombs through the door in a savanna white cloth jacket and pants, with a brimmed bermuda hat. It’s something to behold. I could picture John Huston wearing this get-up and it’s perfect for the scene.
By now, Carol’s back with food, coffee and green tea for Jason. I couldn’t do any of this without her. I pace the room. We scarf down lunch. We’re already behind schedule and the day hasn’t even started yet.
“We can do this,” I think, while simultaneously thinking, “There’s no way we can do all of this.”
As the energy in the room dies and we become unfocused, I fret over the shot list and share the storyboards and what’s planned. Jackie pulls up a spreadsheet she made with my drawings and I start feeling a bit more at ease. I’ve got a good team. Bare bones but willing to fight.
It’s 1 p.m. and we’re late. I blocked 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. to get everything. Karl’s got a hard out at five. It’s not enough time to get all the shots anymore, and the unpredictability of shooting on the train is its own problem. I don’t tell this to anyone. We could conceivably be shut down at any time.
Jackie asks, “Do we have permits?”
“If a cop arrives on scene, we’ll just pack up and go somewhere else,” I explain to everyone. “You technically don’t need a permit if you don’t have a boom.”
“You’re holding a boom,” Howard says.
“Not technically … let’s just see how it goes.”
We board the train. No time to waste. We’ll be meeting Patrick at 4 to shoot the last scene — a bloody confrontation at the 191st Street tunnel off the 1 train. He’s a real cop, so I’m hoping having him in uniform will help us get away with this. The tunnel is about two city blocks and covered front to back with beautiful graffiti, perfect for the scene. Tragically, right after we shoot there the city paints over everything with an ugly yellow-white color. I’m so glad we caught it before it was gone; I feel like we documented a little piece of New York history in the scene.
We file onto the Bedford-Nostrand platform and I float my plan: We’ll shoot on the G, going back and forth until we get the first scene. Everyone agrees, but what I haven’t accounted for is that commuters might actually be sitting in the train. I need a certain seat configuration for the scene to work. We all stand around on the moving train for an eternity waiting for people to get up, but it’s not happening. I’ve been sober for a while at this point and my nerves are a mess. I’m starting to panic again. My chest grows tight. My lips are chapped. My sound recorder and boom are getting tangled around my fucking feet. Finally, we reach the end of the line, and everyone gets up. Thank God.
I can feel my team giving up on me — no, in reality, I’m feeling myself give up on me.
“We don’t have enough time,” I whisper to Jason. He looks at me and says, “Let’s just start shooting.”
And so we do. Karl sits on the floor of the G train playing a drunk as the car fills up with “extras.” Howard, Jackie and Ryan get into position, I get the sound up and running … and the recorder won’t turn on. Wait, it’s on. No, it’s off again. Jesus Christ …
Jason turns back. “Ready?” The doors shut, and the train starts moving. “It’s not turning on!” I say as calmly as possible.
Jason replies, “Do we need sound in this scene?” I look back at him with hopelessness in my eyes. “Let’s just lav everyone.”
Jason gets to work. He’s the best one-man-band I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. He gives me his phone with the viewfinder linked up, and now my sound recorder is working again. We are off and shooting! Finally.
It’s 3 p.m. Amazingly we’ve gotten through all of the planned shots, and everything looks beautiful so far. Karl really went for it, Howard’s reactions were perfect, and even Jackie and Ryan did well even though they’re not really actors. And no one on the train seemed to care at all — our extras actually seemed to enjoy the process!
My adrenaline is crashing. I just want this to be over. But something has happened that I didn’t plan for: everyone has to take a massive piss. So, we connect to the 1 train and hold it all the way to the Inwood, 191st Street station.
3:45 p.m. McDonald’s. After walking up and down the street, unsuccessfully popping into restaurants asking for refuge, we’re now in a line of schoolchildren, moms and high schoolers the length of the entire restaurant. But we’re elated. We’re chit-chatting with line members and living on the edge of what life’s supposed to feel like. Accomplished. A team. A goal. Camaraderie.
I need a latte. At this point, I’m fielding calls from Patrick the cop from the McDonald’s bathroom. I’m hoping he doesn’t recognize the echo in my voice or my stream as it hits the spot.
It’s 4:15, and we’re at the 191st Street tunnel. No sign of Patrick or Jason, my D.P. But that’s a good thing, because I’m still trying to figure out how to stage everything in the tunnel. I figure we’ll shoot somewhere in the middle to avoid the real police officers that are at the ticket booth end of the tunnel. I didn’t account for real officers at the scene, so I’m hoping no one tells them we’re here. With fake blood and a fake officer.
In the tunnel, Howard changes into his boxing garb and I apply fake blood to his head. We lay Howard out on the tunnel floor and pour blood around his head. It looks remarkably real. I get texts from both Patrick and Jason and run down to meet them at the other end.
While I’m going over the shots with them, Patrick asks, “Can I try something? I wanna play him as … kinda-a-asshole.” Patrick has a New Yorker’s been-a-cop-for-30-years accent that’s perfect for the scene. “Sure,” I say. I have found myself saying “Sure” to people’s questions throughout the day; it’s both reassuring and non-committal. I think it’s important to shoot any ideas people have — they’re usually better —but to shoot your own as well.
“Oh, no! We can’t do this!” Patrick yells as we approach Howard on the tunnel floor, covered in blood. I look at Jason and say, “Just go.” Jason rolls. I say, “Go, Patrick.”
As Patrick runs up to the crime scene, he has a change of heart. He leans over Howard, puts his hand on his chest and says, with both kindness and callousness, “We’re going to get you out of here.” He executes his lines perfectly. It’s beautiful to watch.
“What happened to trying it like ‘kinda-a-asshole,’ Patrick?” I ask, while cleaning up the blood.
“I don’t know… It just came out that way.”
In between takes, spectators and a few extras pass by the scene. Even with the cameras and all of us standing there, some actually believe Howard is hurt. It is the strangest thing in the world. Is this what our phones have done to us?
It’s 5:30 p.m. Karl’s hard out has morphed into a soft out due to all the fun and games. We hug our goodbyes with Karl and the bare bones crew heads to get one more shot. The real cops hardly notice us and we roll on the last take of bloody Howard as the long fast day comes to an end. We got everything and more. We smell of underground and exhaustion, all the way back to Brooklyn.
Featured image shows Howard Lester at the 125th Street subway station. All photographs by cast and crew, courtesy Theodore Collatos.