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Back in a New York Frame of Mind

In the days after Sept. 11, hesitations about filming on the city's streets gave way to determination to carry on.

November 25, 2001|ALINA TUGEND | Alina Tugend is a New York-based writer

NEW YORK — In the upcoming film "Brown Sugar" co-stars Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs are shown strolling down the Brooklyn Promenade along the East River. The backdrop, as in so many films of the past, will be the sparkling Manhattan skyline. But something will be missing from the shot: the hulking presence of the World Trade Center towers.

This is not a case of editing out the towers from shots, as has been the case with some recent films and TV shows. "Brown Sugar" was one of the first films to start production in New York City following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The scarred skyline that it depicts is all too real.

For many on the crew of the Fox Searchlight film, working has been an antidote to feelings of helplessness and sadness.

"I needed something to take my mind off of the tragedy," Diggs said. "I was proud to be the first to start up [production]; it's a blatant statement that we're not going to let [terrorists] affect us, and that New York is still a beautiful, exciting place."

Although actual shooting wasn't to have begun until Oct. 1, most of the crew for "Brown Sugar" already was in New York preparing for production when the tragedy occurred. "Our first thing was to make sure everyone was all OK," said Rick Famuyiwa, the movie's co-writer and director. There was a close call with the movie's gaffer, who was on the 42nd floor of the south tower when the first plane hit the north tower. Fortunately, he got out in time, Famuyiwa said.

A few days later, Famuyiwa and producer Peter Heller, both of whom live in Los Angeles, organized a meeting of department heads. "We wanted to know ... whether we should go forward," Famuyiwa said. "We wanted to make sure everyone knew we understood if they chose to drop out of the movie. A lot of people lived downtown; maybe they felt it wasn't the time to work on a picture, maybe they wanted to go and be with their families."

To Famuyiwa and Heller's surprise, not one person wanted to back out.

"Some felt, 'We're not going to give terrorists another victory,"' Heller said. "Others said we need to support the New York film industry." Noted Famuyiwa: "Seeing no hesitation on anyone's part to go forward made me feel good."

The start of production was pushed back, though, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 9 because the city temporarily pulled all the filming permits.

Famuyiwa said such steadfast support and enthusiasm encouraged him to continue.

"I didn't know if we should go forward," he said. "It was a tragedy of such enormous proportions. I felt all these kind of petty little things we worried about--such as budget issues--seemed to disappear."

Although the skyline was shot early in the filming as a backdrop to a party at a rooftop apartment, it was shooting near the towers' ruins that was most difficult, Famuyiwa said. There are still flower shrines and candles on the Brooklyn Promenade to commemorate the victims.

"If the shrines still exist on the day we shoot, what do we do?" he asked. "We can't move them, but we can't have them in the shot."

"Brown Sugar" is a love story, and no changes have been made to incorporate or refer to the Sept. 11 attacks, the filmmakers say.

"We want to make a wonderful, romantic movie about New York," Heller said. "We want to send a message that it's still a great city where you go to realize your dreams." In general, movie production in Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs has not been as severely affected as some other industries, according to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting.

Julianne Cho, a spokeswoman for the office, said that "everyone who has been originally scheduled to shoot" films, TV shows and commercials after Sept. 11 has gone ahead. "Everyone's been very positive." Currently, seven feature films are shooting in and around Manhattan, according to the office's production list.

A large part of the reason the movie industry wasn't so hard hit was luck, said Harold Vogel, an entertainment industry analyst and author of "Entertainment Industry Economics." Production companies had rushed to film at the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001 to beat expected strikes in May and June by the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Although the strikes didn't happen, many shooting schedules had already been condensed. "They didn't spread out the filming over the year," Vogel said.

"I don't see anyone running away from the city," he added. "My sense is that business north of Canal Street [above downtown Manhattan] is certainly back to normal."

"East of Harlem," another Fox Searchlight Picture, also is shooting in Manhattan. Unlike with "Brown Sugar," the cast and crew were not in town for the attacks; much of the early production took place in Dublin, Ireland. It moved to New York and began shooting Oct. 23.

Like those working on "Brown Sugar," many were initially conflicted about continuing on the picture. (Both films are scheduled to be released next year.)

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