This Revolution

In June 2004, I watched Ted Demme’s inspirational profile of 70s filmmakers, A Decade Under the Influence, which is basically a call-to-arms for indie auteurs to use whatever means they have at their disposal to make movies. Afterward, I just started riffing with a producer friend, Bob Jason, on how the time was ripe for a radically politicized homage to the Cassavetes era. Jason agreed, so I went full force and pitched him and his production company Co.Op, the concept of an updated homage to Haskell Wexler’s cinema verité classic, Medium Cool. Set against the chaotic and hyper-militarized backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Wexler’s narrative effectively blurred the lines between reality and fiction, forcing viewers to question the responsibility media has to its audience and the society as a whole. For many American cinephiles, it is one of the most important films to emerge from that era.

With the Republican National Convention coming to New York in less than 90 days, Jason cautioned that we’d probably have to shoot the narrative elements after the protesters left the city. But I argued we would need the tension and drama of the approaching convention to get the most out of our actors—especially if we wanted to set the third act in the streets of Manhattan during the protests. Jason brought in his partner Bob Kravitz to vet the idea. Kravitz was skeptical, but he could see the value of a run-and-gun shoot that stole production values from what would potentially be the largest gathering of activists since the Vietnam War. “Get us a script that can attract some major talent, and we’ll set you up for a mid-August shoot,” he said.

In three days I had a 10-page treatment. Two weeks later there was a first draft. Co.Op threw down the money for development, and I began working with Nathan Crooker, a young director and cinematographer who had just finished directing a series of commercials at the company. Despite the fact that Crooker had no feature-level acting experience, my gut instinct was to cast him in the lead role of Jake Cassavetes, the hot-blooded war shooter who returns from Iraq and is assigned by the network to get embedded with radical elements of the American political underground. I knew we would need to depend on Jake’s RNC footage as much as our camera crew’s, and so the actor needed to be able to shoot as well as any real cameraman.

Once the third draft was completed, we sent it to Adrienne Stern to cast, and Crooker and I took off to Boston for the Democratic National Convention to shoot the opening credit sequence and do tests to see if Crooker could carry the part.

When we got to Boston, we found a fortress city. The streets around the Convention Center were fenced off and surrounded by police officers, secret service agents, snipers, and heavily armed state troopers. Crooker and I spent four days embedded with the various anarchist collectives protesting the DNC, shooting footage from both Jake’s and the narrative (third person) cameras. The opening scene of the film is shot from Jake’s POV as he repeatedly asks a masked anarchist why they cover their faces. With each successive question, the protester gets more annoyed, until he finally grabs Jake’s camera and, looking directly into the lens, says “I know who you are, I know what you are doing, and I am going to smash your shit to the ground.”

Charles Maol is a dedicated activist whom I have known for many years. He agreed to act as the film’s protest coordinator at both the conventions as well as playing the part of this angry anarchist in the opening scene. But each time Crooker approached Maol with his camera to elicit the angered response, other activists in the crowd mistook it for a true confrontation and had to be restrained from attacking Crooker. This added an incredibly hot layer of tension to the scene, which we eventually pulled off on the third take.

On the final day of the convention, just hours before the delegates would leave the city, a fight broke out between protesters and the Boston police. It came after a rash of arrests in the so-called “free speech pen” outside the Convention Center. The protesters began to link arms and surround a small unit of police officers. When the police began to push back, one kid grabbed the hat off a cop’s head and the melee began. From the edge of the struggle, I kept my camera locked on Crooker, who had positioned himself directly in the middle of the fight. Despite being repeatedly hit with billy clubs, he stuck with the action and shot what would become the action-packed opening credit sequence for This Revolution.

Back in New York, with three weeks left before the proposed commencement of principal photography, we began to cast roles. Though we would be producing the film on a shoestring budget, there was a lot of pressure to attract some name talent—especially if I wanted to give the lead role of Jake Cassavetes to Nathan Crooker. In less than two weeks we cast a majority of the parts, giving leads to Rosario Dawson, Amy Redford, and Brendan Sexton III. We also nailed down over 40 locations, many of which were attained at no cost.

The basic story of This Revolution follows Jake’s journey from the corporatist realm of news media into a more radicalized and underground political environment. When he discovers the network is giving his footage of anarchists to The Department of Homeland Security, Jake is forced to take sides and decide whether he should risk his social and financial security in order to take revenge against the system that has betrayed him. His moment of personal revolution is inspired by that of Rosario Dawson’s character Tina, who has chosen the radical anarchist Black Bloc movement as a means of channeling her rage at the government for taking her husband to his death in Iraq.

The majority of the shoot took place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. During one very hectic day of shooting, Rosario remarked that we were moving at about four times the speed of a “normal” film schedule. Over a two-week period, we shot 12 days at an average of 18 hours a day. Because of the compressed schedule and pressure to move between locations, the actors often only had one or two takes to get a scene.

Each morning, as the RNC approached, headlines in the New York papers grew ever more shrill and ominous. Threats of terrorist bombings and anarchist attacks on the city added a dimension of realism to the fictional construct that had been set against the imminent Convention. On the first day of the RNC, we brought in Rosario, the four members of her Black Bloc “cell,” and the rest of the crew to be briefed by Charles Maol. Though we had been given loose permits to shoot scenes of the Bloc in the actual protests, there was no guarantee that we could avoid tear gas, mass arrests, or even a potential Al Qaeda hit. So the group wrote the numbers of our lawyers on their forearms and equipped themselves with gas masks in case of an attack.

The most critical scene for us to shoot that day involved a chase sequence between Jake, the Black Bloc, and undercover police officers dressed as protesters. We had to find a street that was not too hotly lit but which also had enough protest action to give a realistic backdrop to the scene. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere of the shoot were crews from “Entertainment Tonight” and the New York Daily News, who had asked to tag along for the day. Try to imagine the scene: television crews following and shooting our crew who were following and shooting Jake who was following and shooting the fictional Black Bloc activists.

As we made our way down one street toward the main march, we heard sirens and then saw a police van pull up on the sidewalk ahead of us. Seconds later, with all cameras rolling, six NYPD officers had surrounded the Black Bloc actors and pushed Rosario Dawson and Vija Brigita Grosgalvis onto the hood of a car. When they started to cuff them, Rosario protested and tried to pull her mask down to explain the situation. The officer slammed her back onto the car hood and placed steel handcuffs on her wrists. One woman who witnessed the entire scene broke into tears and began sobbing uncontrollably.
Over the next five minutes, with our entire crew, the news media and hundreds of onlookers milling around, I tried to present our permits to the arresting officer. Each time, he refused to look at the paper and pushed me back onto the sidewalk. Finally, as it became clear that Rosario and Vija were going to be arrested for breaking the city’s prohibition on wearing masks at protests, I demanded he look at the documents. With that, I was arrested for obstruction of justice and hauled into the back of the van with Rosario and Vija, both of whom had been unable to pull the black bandanas from their faces.

During the next four hours, we were shuttled from the local precinct to the makeshift detention center at Pier 57. Separated by 15 foot-high fences rimmed with barbed wire, we waited for our files to be processed so we could be taken down to central booking. We were some of the first people to be arrested that day—eventually thousands more innocent, law-abiding citizens would pass through the facility—so we were handled relatively quickly. When I finally got into the cell downtown, I was able to call Lisa Hsu, the film’s producer. She explained that Brian Jackson, the film’s brilliant DP, was out with the rest of the cast and crew shooting as much of the third act as he could. Realizing that we would not be able to take Rosario back out into the protests after this fiasco, Lisa and I sat on the phone for an hour, re-writing the climax of the film. She had already seen footage of the arrest shot by Brian at the scene and felt it would be perfect for the film. It had given us a high-production value climax that we could never have planned for and created a more powerful consequence of the network’s betrayal of Jake to Homeland Security, specifically the identification and arrest of Tina.

That event changed the entire course of the film and ultimately became a pivotal moment in the story, providing us with a perfect alchemy of the documentary and narrative genres. Once principal photography was wrapped, we rushed into the edit and had our cut ready for the Sundance deadline (a week late, actually), completing the entire process, from conception to final cut, in 100 days.

Though there were many compromises due to the speed and approach I took to the production, the main intention of making a film that quickly was in having a relevant social document that could reflect the social upheaval of our current era. So often this is left to the documentary genre, and we lose the more beautiful, tragic, and heroic elements that can be sheathed in a narrative structure. I hope that This Revolution can contribute to the legacy of verité filmmaking and honor the tradition established by artists like John Cassavetes and Haskell Wexler.

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