Taking ‘one step out of reality into a little bit of magic’

[media-credit name=”Photo by Jim Jarmusch ” align=”aligncenter” width=”300″][/media-credit]
Sara Driver, on a kinder, gentler Bowery.

Driver, on ‘Sleepwalking’ through Chinatown

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  Have a conversation with filmmaker Sara Driver about New York cinema and city life in and around the 1980s and you’ll soon notice her habitual, perhaps subconscious, use of the word “magic.” Whether referencing the Bowery circa 1994 or NYU’s film school when punk was in full bloom or the nature of her next project, Driver invokes that word the way you and I use conjunctions — out of necessity, in order to string urgent thoughts into effectively structured sentences.

It’s appropriate, then, that Driver’s current retrospective at Anthology Film Archives owes its very existence to an unexpected event that unspooled with karmic elegance…maybe even a touch of magic (or, at the very least, serendipity).

Missing for years, and feared lost to the ages, Driver’s “You Are Not I” (her 1981 debut as a director) turned up in Tangiers in 2008 — in the form of a 16mm print found among the belongings of the late writer Paul Bowles. The 48-minute chronicle of a schizophrenic mental hospital escapee who wanders the rural New Jersey landscape, it was based on a short story by Bowles — who, in death, gave new life to Driver’s limited but distinguished body of work. “The discovery of ‘You Are Not I’ jump-started the preservation efforts,” Driver says.

Also screening at Anthology, in prime condition, will be the features “Sleepwalk” (1986) and “When Pigs Fly” (1993), along with “The Bowery — Spring” (a 1994 video short, it was part of a French national TV series called “Postcards From New York”).

In addition to these films, Driver produced 1980’s “Permanent Vacation” and 1984’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” Both films were directed by Jim Jarmusch. A kindred spirit of Driver’s minimalist style, he shot and co-wrote “You Are Not I.”

That style was as much a product of necessity as preference. Back before digital filmmaking (and even before home camcorders…remember them?), film students were shooting on Super 8 and 16mm.

During her days at NYU, Driver recalls, “The school was on Seventh Street, and it was a small, three-year program. There were only about 150 students in the graduate school. We were right in the heart of everything going on, in terms of the punk scene…and 16mm was the film of choice.”

Whether a starving student artist or an equally hungry “indie” director, the high cost of film stock and processing meant that, “You had to think your films out before you shot them. You had to figure out the most poetic way to tell your story with the limitations.”

Then, along came video — and although it lacked the richness and detail of film, it did allow for a generous (often unnecessary) amount of takes. That unprecedented opportunity to shoot first and ask questions later led, Driver says, to a fatal flaw that has since plagued narrative filmmaking.

“With video,” Driver notes, “people have this misunderstanding that you can shoot as much as you want, then find your story once you’re in the editing room. But the limitations of film can be a great asset.” As for the format that dethroned video, she observes, “Digital’s very problematic. It’s not a stable medium. It doesn’t receive light and shadow the way film does.”

Just as video and digital expanded the footage shot to footage used ratio to absurd proportions, these new formats also tempted filmmakers to spend less time contemplating, and crafting, the screenplay.

During the long process of shooting “Stranger Than Paradise” (a lifetime, by today’s point and shoot standards), Driver used her own day job experiences and visions of city street life to form the basis of what would become her first feature-length film.

From 1982 to 1984, when “Paradise” was put on hiatus due to lack of funds, Driver worked at Todd’s Copy Shop, on Mott Street (alongside Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon). “It was a perfect job,” Driver recalls. “I remember the flashes from the Xerox machine would put me in a kind of trance. And I kept a journal of things I would see on the street. I used to see very odd interactions between people or overhear something, and I wrote all these things down.”

Perhaps, she admits, it’s nostalgia casting a forgiving patina over memories of the past…but Driver maintains that city life at the time was, “just one step out of reality, into a little bit of magic. New York really did have magic then, because it was such an empty city. It was very cheap to live here. You could have a job in a Xerox store and pay your rent and have your food. People didn’t want to be here…and the people who were, really wanted to be here.”

Featuring a cast including Ann Magnuson and Steve Buscemi, “Sleepwalk” concerns a copy shop worker who unleashes all manner of curses and self-fulfilling prophecies when she mutters aloud the text of the ancient scroll she’s been hired to translate. A mystery without resolution, and a dream from which her main character literally never awakes, “Sleepwalk” is more concerned with memorable images of almond-strewn floors, machinery acting on its own volition and sparsely populated streets than it is with the chases and crises which could have easily sprung forth from the narrative.

Shot in Chinatown and on the Bowery (on 35mm film), Driver remembers the production process of “Sleepwalk” as one of camaraderie that stands in stark contrast to Gotham’s hellish reputation at the time. Living Downtown may have had its risks, but it wasn’t without civility (at least for the locals).

Recalling a friend who lived on Avenue A “when it was rough and war-torn,” Driver notes, “Somebody mugged him on the way home, then saw that he lived on Avenue A. They ran back and gave him his money back.”

After the modestly catered meals were over during filming on the Bowery, Driver recalls, “We would have food left over and we’d put a table outside for the guys. They’d line up very politely for the food. There was a kind of genteelness back then. I actually felt a lot safer [in the neighborhood] than I do now. Now, there’s an aggression on the street that I don’t remember feeling. Maybe it’s the financial difference between the rich and the poor…because at the time, we were all the same. Maybe it was a false feeling, but I really felt people were watching each other’s back.  Recently, I gave some guy on the street some money, and he said ‘Why are you so kind?’ Maybe we’ve become less compassionate as human beings, because there’s so many of us.”

Those nearly deserted city streets in “Sleepwalk” (often populated by a nothing more than a stray dog) weren’t courtesy of police tape and interns directing locals to take the long way around. “The population was just a lot less,” Driver says. “After midnight, you could walk through Chinatown and it was pretty empty. You felt, at night, that you owned the city. I remember spending a lot of time where they had the elevated highway on the West side…it went all the way down to the World Trade Towers. We’d walk around the West Side Highway. It was totally empty and covered with weeds. That was kind of our vacation.”

Living on the edge of Chinatown, Driver witnessed the merging of neighborhoods as well as cultures. “Little Italy and Chinatown were weaving together at the time,” she recalls. “Chinatown was coming further north past Canal Street. I loved the idea of the world being all mixed up and made up of all different kinds of people. I remember seeing the old Italians talking in front of a tenement on Elizabeth Street…and this wonderful woman on her stoop, talking to her new Chinese neighbors about how the neighborhood functioned and where to get groceries.”

Equally gracious were Chinatown residents in the know — who hooked Driver up with the actor who played Dr. Gou.

“I got a lot of help form the Chinese community, which was really great. Stephen Chin, a student I went to NYU with who died very young…he and his wife were Chinese American, and very active. He was trying to start a whole Chinese filmmaking community.”

After his death, Driver says, “His wife took that over. The editor of the film [who was Chinese] was also a very good friend of Stephen’s wife.” Driver also fondly recalls young Dexter Lee — who played the protagonists’ son. “He did such a great job in the film. I remember him being so enthusiastic. We had a birthday part for him on the set, and did it like it was a scene, so it was a surprise. When he found out, he was very disappointed, because he wasn’t going to get to act.”

Although no longer the source of solitude it once was, Driver says Chinatown remains “a place I like to walk when I want to feel like I’m in a different world.”

So it’s a good bet that inspiration for Driver’s current project came from walking the same Downtown streets captured in “Sleepwalk.” Already written and awaiting adequate financing, she hopes her next film will inspire a new generation to embrace old school New York’s knack for offbeat charm and human kindness.

“I’ve noticed there’s been a lack of films for children and a lack of magic in our world for adults,” says Driver. “So I started thinking of metamorphosis folk tales, animal to human, human to animal. I wanted to do an anthology, ‘Tales from the Hanging Head.’ I found all these stories, and adapted them so the magic will feel very present.”

“Hanging Head” is now ready for production — with contributions from a group of, as she describes them, “Imagination Gangsters” (directors Alfonso Cuaron, Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry and Marjane Satropi are on board). Driver’s only edict, thus far: no effects with computers, even though they’re capable of rendering visuals no 1980s director could dream of. “Everything has to be done with light and shadow, or in camera, in a very tangible, handmade way,” she insists.

Hopefully, that limitation will challenge her fellow Gangsters to conjure images that have a ring of reality, and truth, that can’t be created with ones and zeroes. “If you don’t have imagination,” Driver reasons, “you don’t progress.”


Through April 1

At Anthology Film Archives

32 Second Ave., at 2nd St.

Tickets: $9 general, $7 for students, seniors and children (12 & under); $6 for AFA members

For more info, visit anthologyfilmarchives.org

“You Are Not I” screens 9:15pm, through March 29

“Sleepwalk” screens March 31 at 7pm

“When Pigs Fly” screens March 28 at 6:30pm and April 1 at 8:30pm (followed by a half-hour short by Jim Jarmusch, documenting Joe Strummer as he composes the music to “Pigs)


Driver and actress Suzanne Fletcher will be present at select screenings. Also part of the retrospective: “Sara Driver Selects” — a series of works that influenced her, or are favorites
Anthology’s retrospective coincides with a DVD box set release of Driver’s digitally restored films (available on DVD/ VOD through Films We Like and New Video)