Tuesday, September 3, 2013


First you watch, then we talk...

So last Spring, Gary Mahmoud from the "Urban Dictionary" and newly re-titled, "Max Danger" shoots, is hanging out in my office as he's wont to do (the guy's got some idle time - he's an ACTOR) and he says "I've had this idea for a while about a comedy short on a Subway where there's a normal panhandler, then a stranger one, then it gets progressively more insane - eventually like circus midget and Mariachi band insane."

How could I say no?

What followed was one of the most logistically bizarre and technically difficult shoots I've ever been a part of.  Producer Aida Artieda should as usual, be sainted.

We outlined the idea based on his script - seven panhandler vignettes, eleven cast members, ten people shooting video on iPhones using (in theory) the same professional video app - Filmic Pro, and one location sound guy with wireless mics on seven different people and a giant shopping bag with his gear shoved inside looking way too much like an "if you see something, say something" moment.  It was a stealth shoot of the highest order - nary a permit to be had.  Sorry MTA, you just wouldn't understand, and as one wise man once said "it's always better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."  

We did neither.

Gary and I rode the train to time out the beats.  We recorded sample audio with wired and wireless mics to test for interference.  But we knew that on this budget, we would NOT be able to rehearse until the day of the shoot.  Meaning we'd get what we got and make the best of it in the edit room.

To his credit, Gary assembled an amazing group of actors and crew.  In this situation, one person with a negative attitude could have completely derailed - pun INTENDED -  the process.  But everyone came to have fun and work hard.  Both vital ingredients on a shoe-string like this.

So about a month later at my office over pizza and beer, we found ourselves stuffed in a room doing a bunch of walkthroughs, placing videographers (iPhoneographers if you want to be a total nerd like me) in rough positions and timing out the beats of the different vignettes.  It was clumsy, and sloppy and quite obvious that it would bear almost no resemblance to the real experience.  One thing that did work was the timing.  Aida and her brother called out action to a stopwatch seven times from opposite sides of the room, as each panhandler began.  I think that might have saved the whole thing.

Did I mention this was late August and hot as balls on the subway?  I almost blocked it out, but DAMN~ that didn't make anything any easier.

We trudged to the Union Square 4 train and kept loose formation.  But while we didn't want to draw too much attention, we needed to all remain in visual contact as well, lest we get on different trains or miss the action call - or any of the millions of things that could have gone wrong.

Miraculously, none of them did.

Train pulls up.  We all hit record on all ten cameras - we're rolling now.  All the crew climb onto the same Subway car and take positions.  One car to the left, half the cast in script order - one car to the right the rest.  Train pulls away with all of us and….Action!

I'm going to pause a moment to mention one thing.  I always believed and still do that Gary as the officer who breaks up the party and then finales the whole thing would have been better as a uniform cop.  Gary's concern was with a last name like Mahmoud and a background in politics (you don't even want to know…) he'd be arrested for impersonating a police officer, legally/figuratively sodomized in court and then incarcerated and literally/brutally/repeatedly sodomized in a prison shower.  I never saw this as a legitimate risk as long as he wore a costume and no actual firearm or badge.  Of course it wasn't me taking the risk.  I will say that during one of the four takes we shot, some real uniform cops took note of us and though we all rushed off the train in a mass "abort mission" call, we thought we were goners for the rest of the night.  His Fred Dryer as Hunter impersonation gets the point across just fine.

Back to the shoot.  We filmed ten angles of four different "takes" of Panhandler Party over the course of two insane hours.  The timing worked better on some than others. The subway riders were almost always raucously into it.  I could hear myself saying, "As long as the cameras didn't all simultaneously fail, we got something here."  Only one camera failed on one of the takes and it was me holding my iPhone upside down by accident.

Back at the office over more beer, and a serenade by our Mariachi band we pulled all the footage off all the phones, copied it and copied it again for safe-keeping.  Something about having forty takes, separate audio that needed to be sunk together and 200 minutes of footage for a three-minute short should have raised instant concern.  That's a lotta stuff and a lotta work.  More than we'd even know.

But that was still way ahead of us.  With bottles raised, the dulcet nylon twang and four-part harmony of the band took us all in its sway - and for the moment the world was ours.

Bag Lady - Jane Aquilina
Jabari - Rob King
Tracy - Jen Kwok
Tracy - Nick Cobb
Businessman - Andrew Ginsburg
Ringmaster - Sean Allison
Mariachi Band - Mariachi Aguila y Plata
(Aguileo Ramos, Rigoberto Ramos, Leopoldo Juarez)
Cop - Gary Lee Mahmoud

Produced by Gary Lee Mahmoud, Josh Apter, and Aida Artieda
Written by Gary Lee Mahmoud
Edited by Josh Apter
Assistant Editor: Rishi Gandhi
Sound Recordist: Alan Kudan
Audio Post Mixer: P. Dennis Mitchell
Color Correction: Alex Grybauskas
Camera Work:
Elyse Brandau
Rishi Gandhi
Justin Hoch
Josh Hyman
Dan Jamieson Rodgers-Cromartie
Dan Katz
Jaime Ordonez
Lauren Potter
Jessica Solce


  1. Ton of fun working on this project!

  2. Really well done. Kudos to all of you!!!

  3. This is great. I thought this was real. I take the 4 train almost every day and this is exactly the way it is. Except usually the panhandlers pace themselves so there are not two in the car at the same time. I think there is some organization that controls them so that when one panhandler gets off the train the next one gets on.

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