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Claire Varney



Claire Varney is a Field Producer and Corresponding Journalist.

Claire directs and produces one-on-one and impromtu interviews @ premieres, festivals, on-the-street, and production behind-the-scenes throughout the US and internationally.   

 

Productions include:

HBO Field producer/Correspondent -20 years "The Buzz" 

CTV / Bell Media Canada - 15 years as L.A. & NYC based Producer with "ETalk"

Paramount Studios, Discovery, Showtime, BSkyB, Star TV Asia, CityTV/Rogers Communications, AMPAS and more...

Independent film EPK Producer and Unit Publicist   

 

 


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Tribeca Film Festival 2022 - Interview with Mike Mintz & Irad Straus, Co-Directors of BOWERY ~ By Claire Varney

BOWERY is an intimate look into the lives of five homeless New Yorkers who live in the Bowery section of NYC.  Filming commenced in 2019. and continued through June 2020.

Mintz and Straus reveal the personal struggles of living homeless on the street and facing incomparable challenges with crime, drug addiction, making an income, brutal weather and the ensuing COVID-19 outbreak.  

The World Premiere of BOWERY took place in the Tribeca At Home festival section online on June 12th. 
Following the premiere, the film was available for audiences to view on the festival platform.

An in-person theatrical screening of the film took place on June 16th, with some of the film's subjects in attendance. 
BOWERY is the feature film debut for both directors. 

 

Mike Mintz & Irad Straus, Co-Directors BOWERY

Interviewed by Claire Varney

 

CV

Thanks very much for taking the time out for this interview. Wonderful to meet you both. 
How did everything go with your premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Fest?

 

IS

It’s pretty crazy because this Tribeca Film Festival was almost 2 years to the day that we finished shooting this documentary in 2020. So this really is a triumphant return to the city for us.  

 

MM

Tribeca was always the dream because it was so close to where we were filmed this doc. 

 

CV

Tell me about the title of this documentary...  I live here in New York City so I know where the Bowery is, but for people who don’t -how did you come up with that as the title?

 

IS

Mike and I went back-and-forth on the title a lot. For months. We kept trying other titles and nothing really stuck, but when Mike suggested Bowery- the second he said it it clicked: It’s just like the only name for this film. 

As you know - but maybe some of your readers don’t, the two most “iconic” if I can use that word - neighborhoods for homelessness in the United States are skid row in Los Angeles and the Bowery in Manhattan. And we filmed in the Bowery so we realized this was an inherent powerful neighborhood associated with the film So we felt there was nothing more powerful than putting that at the front and center. It’s about the people who live there. It’s about the type of people who live there. 

 

MM

And also just to add onto that - we noticed as were filming that there is actually a long canon of films about this area. There’s the famous film from the 50s called “On the Bowery”. So we kind of see ourselves as part of that canon of films, and we thought that the way we were filming was so “fly on the wall” and embedded in the scene, as opposed to any other title.  Bowery just seemed to evoke the most authentic version of what we were seeing and what we were showing.

 

CV

What is it about that area that homelessness has continued there, even though it has become  gentrified in ways?  I know that there are now some popular clubs and hotels there.  

Is the homelessness generational in a way?

 

IS

No I don’t think so at all: I think it’s that the Bowery Mission which is a historic hub is still centered right there. And as you mentioned, yes it’s become gentrified- you have Soho on the west and you have the East Village on the east, and Chinatown just below it. Some of this is some of the most expensive real estate in America. Even the Bowery is very expensive. It’s a New York neighborhood like any other New York neighborhood, so we’re not talking about a cheap dilapidated place in the middle of everything.. No, this is just as desirable as anywhere else, and the truth is that homelessness is pretty pervasive all throughout the city. 

I don’t think that today its unique in its homeless population, it’s just we’re leaning on the history of the place, and also I lived nearby for several years and I was familiar with a location and I was familiar with Dollar (who is featured in this film). He is the first individual we spoke to for this film, he speaks to people who don’t speak to anybody, and he started introducing us to people that he knew and it kind of grew organically from there. 

Just to take it back to your question, our film is less about the Bowery itself today and more about the history and our proximal distance to it and realizing that it all worked together.  

 

CV

As you mentioned there are other films about the Bowery and of course others  about homelessness, but what makes your film different and unique from the others?

 

MM

I think what we tried to do very quickly into the filming process was a very organic and unplanned process.  It started with filming with Dollar once a week, and then blossomed into something so much bigger than we ever anticipated. But once we kind of got something going we did a little research on what was out there and found out a lot of documentaries were self-aggrandizing videos.  They have someone kind of going onto the street and saying they’re going to give a homeless person a haircut or feed them a meal, and it’s more about them and it’s a lot of “top down” angle stuff… “pity porn” you could call it. There’s a lot of that, and there’s a lot of traditional doc kind of talking heads, overly polished and a lot of archive stuff..

We wanted to do something different. As we filmed we put a lot of emphasis into the aesthetic. To make it more of a visceral type of experience for the viewer to living with these people for a year. We really wanted to lean into that and give the viewer a type of sweeping cinematic experience that would tie them right into these people’s experiences. We put a lot of emphasis into that. There are no real breaks in that lifestyle, therefore for the viewer there shouldn’t be those types of breaks. And we have montages that type of film together. We really wanted to do something different that we felt we hadn’t ever seen before. I think we accomplished that. 

 

 

CV

No breaks in that lifestyle- very well said. That definitely was evident throughout the film.  

 

IS

It also goes back to the ethos of the film and part of the reason we made it was to seek empathy. The goal is for every viewer who watches the film to walk away at least having felt some sort of connection to one of the characters if not a few of them. And so it goes back to the old adage of walking a mile in someone’s shoes. That’s the experience we wanted to give: We wanted to create a cinematic hour and a half or forty experience when you’re literally walking in someone else’s shoes- you’re experiencing life through their eyes and hopefully that’ll be a powerful and transformative experience. 

 

CV

Always important in documentaries is the access that is achieved with the subjects.  Tell us about how you did that.  How did you win the trust?  Initially with Dollar?  And the others… did you give them something?  And why did they want to be a part of this?

 

MM

We filmed for 15 months. Only last 12 months made it to Camera. The film stands June to June 2019-2020. But it took us several months just working the scene to be able to establish these relationships and establish a trust. Dollar made his introductions and those introductions kind of kept paying it forward. 

But I think it was primarily just showing up almost every single day and coming with food often times they wanted cigarettes: We learned from that and would bring them cigarettes or little things they wanted. We tried not to give them money often because we didn’t want to manipulate the environment too much we didn’t want to be filming and have them constantly strung out -if we gave them money and they might run out to get a bag or whatever it was. 

But one of the things we were moved by is just being invisible in plain site.  How painful that must be. Every day you’re standing there asking people for things and you’re in a city like New York everyone just walks by like you don’t exist.  So I think we just flipped the script on that in making this film. Every single participant was like a star for an hour, or for an afternoon, or a few minutes whenever the camera was on them.. Not only were they visible but they were in the spotlight. 

I don’t think they realized how that would play out-or how that would make them feel. I don’t think we realize that either. But over time we realized that it actually had a positive effect on them, and we built trust overtime and they realized our intentions were good- and as Mike said earlier we were not there to grandiose. 10:28  ourselves but to put their lives on display if they wanted help doing that. I think it was an uplifting and powerful experience for them too. 

 

MM

To add onto that- The people who are depicted in the film are really a drop in the bucket of all of the people we have met. For 15 months we would go down there and we would know about 80 to 90% of the homeless people in the area -dozens and dozens of people. The people in the film are the people who gravitated toward us just as much as we gravitated toward them. And in terms of gaining their trust it was definitely showing up. Also, there were days that we gave them food and cigarettes but if they didn’t want to film we wouldn’t film with them. We gave them all the agency in the world to say, ‘We don’t feel like it today’. We didn’t not help them out on those days.

But also on a person-to-person level, we got to know them. They knew about our personal lives – what we were doing. And we knew the same for them. And that helped us in just being with them for long stretches of time. And there were a lot of things that weren’t filmed – a lot of conversations off camera.  I personally had a lot of experience and really positive interactions from a young age with people who were addicts. My mother worked at a methadone clinic when I was growing up, so when I had a day off of school and she couldn’t leave me at home she would take me to work.  That definitely helped me to not pigeonhole them into a box- such as thinking they’re just addicts. They are people with medical and mental issues. I think the way that I delegated our roles on set really helped to facilitate an intimate and close-knit atmosphere. 

 

CV

I’d love to hear more about that how you delegated as co-directors. Did you actually stick to what each of you were committed to all the time, or did you cross over as codirectors? 

When I read that it was just the two of you all the time, that you two made up the entire crew...that you didn’t even have an audio tech… or anybody else assisting... I found it astonishing.    

So how did you delegate between the two of you, and what were the challenges?

 

IS

Mike is the videographer, so it made most sense obviously that he be with the camera. New York City is a big hustling bustling place, and if your completely focused on capturing a shot in the lens the rest of the world kind of has to melt away so you can just focus on that. 

That was the delegation - Mike was in the camera he was in that world/in that lens and that focal point, and I was basically both helping to manipulate the scene in front of him and also keeping him safe, and also just running around miking everybody up and making sure everyone was in frame. 

 

MM

Just to interject-we never manipulated scenes: It's more of just like Irad would tell me when somebody’s coming in - and what was going on in my peripheral.  

 

CV

I understand. Irad was your eyes and ears while you were focused on what was going on in the lens. 

And he was keeping you safe…interesting...

 

MM

Yes, we had a strong buddy system. In 15 months there’s only one time when I tripped I fell on my ass! 

 

IS

He’ll never let me live it down!  

 

MM

It was me it was not you!

I think when people have that reaction like you had.. that it was just us two out there…It really only could’ve been us two. Anything bigger I think would’ve killed the entire ethos of the project. And my rig was also very small- I wasn’t working with a really big documentary shoulder camera. 

 

CV

What were you shooting with?

 

MM

I was shooting with a Panasonic S1 with an adapted vintage 50 mm lens which was very small. Manual-everything was manual, and then I had sometimes I put a little tiny 5 inch monitor but I always had a very small preamp which I powered our road wireless go mics which captured incredible audio. We had a very run-and-gun set up and we just kind of swapped batteries when we could, swapped cards…

It was  low-key - it was run and gun - it was "guerrilla".

 

CV

Back to the beginning… you’re setting up to make this documentary… how did that change along the way?  As you said, which I really respect and I feel that’s what documentaries should be… you really didn’t know what you’re going to find when you got out there and it all unravels or reveals itself as you go. 

This documentary in particular…As you stated, you wanted an intimate portrait and not to look down on the subjects.  What changed along the way?  Of course you had some ‘incidences’ going on….

 

IS

Obviously it was a very historic year which none of us could’ve preempted. 

After the first few months we realized what the format was going to be, life is so freewheeling that if you don’t really put a cap such as this is the beginning/ this is the end, it’s just going to be impossible.  So we just kind of set those for ourselves fairly early on, and then it was just sticking to those.  

When Covid hit we opened up the conversation, ‘Does this change things or does it not?’ We realized that Covid could end in a month or a year, or in 10 years. I didn’t make any sense for us to divert the focus of the picture and have it suddenly be  about Covid and the homeless experience during Covid. We rolled with the punches and I don’t want to give away any spoilers but obviously it was a pretty significant year for a lot of reasons both for the residents of the Bowery because of things that happened there, but also the residents of the world because of things that happened everywhere. 

We did our best to balance both of those realities in the confines of the 12 month period. 

And the last thing is also that a lot came together in the edit.  There were a lot of stories, and a lot of narratives and a lot of things to sift from and choose from. Ultimately, Big props go to our editor Evelyn we’re going through all of that and finding the narratives that made sense and wove together beautifully and helped create this cohesive world that hopefully our audience gets to immerse themselves into. 

 

CV

Who is “Dollar”? As you said, he was the first person that you made contact with…

 

MM

Dollar is a man who I would say is in his early 60s, and when Irad first started encountering him every day he would find him at this corner of Delancey and Chrystie streets and he would direct traffic with a smile on his face and energy beyond his years. And also he’s an amputee - both his legs were removed. There’s something about his spirit and his dedication even though he wasn’t getting paid for this: He was there out of this sense of duty and routine. And as we got to know him he served as this overseer of the neighborhood – kind of like the grandfather of the neighborhood.  And that we found incredibly inspiring. 

When Irad and I first approached him about the filming he was really into it, and he I think really appreciated having a late shine on him for a moment. And I think the fact that he had those positive feelings he was able to give that to other people. He facilitated introduction. He is the heart and soul I would say of the project. He is the core. He was able to facilitate these introductions that really provided a full cast of characters that have different complex experiences. It all comes back to him, and the fact that he is kind of a constant and a sense of consistency. 

 

CV

Has he seen this film? Or any of the others seen the finished product?  
 

IS

That was I think one of the most rewarding experience from everything we’ve done so far. We got to premiere at Tribeca Film Fest which was unreal. And we went back to the Bowery to find anyone we could to come to the screening. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but we got the two boys-Steve and Andrew, and Dollar who all showed up for the screening. 

We had a lot of prior discussions about being fair to them, being true to their reality. We wanted to be very sensitive in making this film, but we didn’t think too much about how they would feel when they watched it. But then that did cross our minds when we went down to the Bowery to find them to invite them to the screenings. We were a little bit nervous about how they would take it, but they were so incredibly moved. They loved the film. Steve said he wanted to watch it again. They were grinning from ear to ear the entire time. And there were a few other gentlemen who came to the screening as well who had experienced homelessness in their lives and were now kind of back living a regular life in society. They also felt similar-they were all very impacted, impressed and moved, and thought that we did an excellent job. 

So, everything else aside, their stamp of approval and the fact that they were happy and they felt it was a fair and a good portrayal… for us- there are no words to describe that feeling.  

 

 

MM 

Yes, I think that we only really thought about it after the the screening: Having this experience sitting next to our cast members and seeing their reactions and speaking to them afterwards. It really was quite an epiphany to think well maybe the ideal or target audience all along were the people who were in this film. To have them to see their life in a way that they’ve never seen it before. 

Part of that almost confirmed the aesthetic that we wanted to generate in this, which is that we shot a lot of hero shots - a lot of low angles looking up at them, or at the very least eye level.  We didn’t want any top down stuff. We didn’t want anybody looking down on these people. 

To see yourself on a big screen with a hero shot, I feel that can’t not but affect you. I think this is one of my proudest achievements is being able to give them that experience. I think it’s going to stay with them. 

 

CV

Wonderful.  

How was this premiere? Was this the world premiere?

 

IS & MM

Yes

 

CV

How was the feedback?

 

MM

The feedback was tremendous. 

 

IS

It was incredible, just across-the-board incredible. It was a dream come true. We were so honored to be there. I’m still processing at all!

 

MM

Something that’s really noteworthy, that we’ve taken with us, is that people from all different types of backgrounds who have seen this film – it stays with them. 

It isn’t a film like the JLo documentary (that also premiered at Tribeca Film Fest). We know who we are. And still, the people who possibly are your non-movie watchers, your

average movie watchers like someone who just likes popcorn movies, and your filmmakers- they’ve all been really taken aback by it.

That’s a tremendous success, because we didn’t want this to be a niche film: We didn’t want this to be something that only the “filmmakers’ filmmakers” see. Or only someone who is really into this political topic sees. We wanted this to be accessible to all. 

The message of this film was to humanize these people who are people that don’t fall into a specific compartment of society. They are just like the rest of us, just with some limitations and a life that brought them there. We wanted everyone to be able to appreciate their lives, and we hope more people see this film. 

 

CV

Fantastic. I’ll tell you my experience.. Just this morning I went for a walk in Central Park and I saw two guys who reminded me of Steve and Andrew from your film. I saw 2 buddys on a large rock just trying to go to sleep on this kind of gloomy, cloudy day here in New York. Honestly, I had a different outlook about them.

Although I’m a sociology major and I’m very empathetic, I’m also a New Yorker so I pass homelessness all the time. But this morning in particular, seeing this gave me much more empathy. That could be anybody, and they are human. I appreciate that, and I think you did that with your film. 

 

MM

There’s a joke by comedian where they have their cousin arrive from like Kansas to New York for the first time: He picks her up from Port Authority and they walk by a homeless person and the cousin runs over and says, ‘My gosh-what can I do for you? You need help!’  

And the comedian responds, ‘Oh no. We don’t do that here.’  

And she says, ‘Doesn’t he need my help?’   

‘Yeah, I need your help desperately but we don’t do that here.’

It’s not just New York it’s worldwide, but especially in big cities in the US. It’s part of the integration process - just be tunnel vision. The people on the street are not really your concern. If anything, they’re a nuisance that you kind of just payoff or disregard. 

I think the fact that we’ve had a lot of similar reactions from people who have seen the film- they start looking at these people in a different way. They start seeing them as people - as opposed to just ‘ part of the New York environment‘. 

That, I would say is one of the bigger successes of the film. 

 

CV

What happens next with the film?

 

IS

We’ve applied to other different film festivals. We hope to get distribution and our ultimate goal is for it to be available to stream somewhere online to a mass audience. 

 

MM

And I think we understand that there’s no celebrities attached to this film and it's not some sexy topic. Any success for this film will come from the people who watch it. 

It will be a ground up movement- as opposed to some big executive saying this is a sure bet. That’s been a humbling experience but also a really motivating and encouraging one, because we know that the people who see this film talk about this film and want to share it. It could take a while, but the more festivals we go to the more people will see this film and the bigger it will get.  And the more we hope this movement will take form.  ~ 

 

About Claire Varney

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