INTERVIEW: "Dark Days": The Ultimate Underground Film
by Amy Goodman
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Amy Goodman interviewed 'Dark Days' director Marc Singer for indieWIRE during the 2000 Sundance Film Festival where the film won the Audience Award, the Freedom of Expression Award, and shared the cinematography Award. 'Dark Days' opens at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow.]
Marc Singer holds on a pedestal the people who most
New Yorkers strive to ignore -- people who the NYPD
herd into oblivion, who commuters walk on, who endure
Gotham life below millions of tons of cement.
Director Marc Singer spent five years uncovering life in a subterranean shantytown for his documentary 'Dark Days'.
developed his high regard for these people - the
homeless who live in cavernous tunnels under New York
City streets - over a period of five and a half years,
while he lived and collaborated with them to make
"Dark Days," his rookie tour de force premiering in
Documentary Competition at this year's Sundance.
"I had no intention of making a film at the outset,
when I first went underground," says the British-born
director when asked about the origin of "Dark Days."
Nearly a decade ago at the age of seventeen, Singer
left his misspent youth in London behind and wound up
in Manhattan, where he immediately noticed the then
highly visible homeless population. Between
occasional modeling gigs, he started hanging around
with some of the homeless who lived in his
neighborhood, befriending them and also observing from
close range the misinformed disdain and constant
cruelty inflicted upon them. He started hearing wild
rumors about the tunnel squatting communities and six
months later, his curiosity piqued, he ventured
underground, eventually focusing his attention on just
one tunnel that stretches north from Penn Station past
Instead of the cannibalistic sub-human race lurking in
Gotham's bowels popularized in urban myth, Singer
found a handful of troubled, endearing people with a
humbling ability to survive. "It's a dump down
there," Singer says, "pitch black, rats running around
everywhere, garbage, and smells that make your eyes
water. When I first went down there, I was amazed and
awed; I had so much respect for everybody and I kept
thinking, 'Could I have done this or would I have let
myself go to pieces?" Bound by common experience
(family tragedies, drug addiction, and the basic human
search for shelter, food, and love) the homeless
friends Singer made in the tunnel inspired his
powerful social-working instinct.
Perhaps, he thought, an in-depth, insider's view of
these individuals would help change negative
perceptions of the homeless. Most importantly, he
hypothesized, if he made a movie about life in the
tunnel, gave every homeless person involved in its
making a percentage, and if that movie made a profit,
he could provide them with decent housing. The only
thing that stood in the way of Singer's idea and its
execution was that he knew absolutely nothing about
filmmaking, or even still photography. "The truth
is," Singer admits with a naughty grin, "if I ever
picked up a camera in my life it was a little
disposable throw-away one."
When AMTRAK threatened to evict the underground residents, the makers of 'Dark Days' enlisted the support of New York's Coalition for the Homeless.
Undaunted by his own lack of experience, Singer
assembled a group of the tunnel homeless to be his
camera loaders, sound recorders, electricians, and
equipment manufacturers. Such a crew would add to the
authentically personal feel of the film and solve the
problem of finding a professional crew willing to
endure tunnel conditions for that long. Experience
working on a film crew, he figured, would also provide
the homeless with much-needed jolts of confidence and
practice working in a group, "so that when they
finally got out of the tunnel and into the workforce,
they wouldn't be rattled."
Giddy with pride in his auto-didactic team, Singer
explains, "Everybody had a job according to what they
had done before, or were good at, or that I could
adapt to film. Like Henry - before he was homeless,
he laid track on the railroads. So I said to him,
'Can you build me something that we can move down that
track that people can push?' The next morning, I woke
up and found him burning holes through wood because we
didn't have a drill and he's got a shopping cart and
he's building the dolly that ran on the tracks."
The carefully composed, stark black and white Super
16mm film shot underground with severely limited light
looks more like the work of a technical sophisticate
than that of a handful of homeless people none of whom
had ever loaded a camera. "We figured out after a few
days of shooting that you need a lot of light for
film," Singer says. "I shot one little roll of test
footage on a reversal camera and it didn't come out,
and somebody said, 'No, that's what the F stop is
for.'" For electricity, the crew found a wire, tapped
into it, and ran about thirty blocks worth of power
all the way down the tunnel, "So anywhere we were, if
something happened we could plug in the camera and
have light." Within 3 weeks, Singer had a full
working crew, a fact worth considering by anyone
contemplating film school. "They'd say, 'Where do you
want to shoot tonight?' And I'd say, 'Why don't we go
down there? I want to get a shot of that happening.'
By the time I get there, lights are ready, camera's
loaded, sound is ready. Fun crew."
The film's urban wasteland aesthetic is sort of
Lynchian (think "Eraserhead") in its ironic beauty.
"It looks a hell of a lot worse down there than I
could show because of my inexperience with film,"
Singer insists, but the deep blackness does not hide
the supreme filth; it leaves to the imagination the
profound misery and endless piles of waste that loom
in the darkness.
"I want to tell you that aesthetically I made
decisions for this reason or that reason," he says,
"but really that wasn't the case. When I decided to do
this movie, somebody told me, 'You've got to do it on
film.' If they'd have said do it on video I would
have done it on video. Then someone said, 'If you
shoot in color film and you don't know how to do the
lighting you'll fuck it all up,' so I said, 'O.K., I
better shoot in black and white. I can fuck it up and
it won't matter, it'll still look half-good.'"
Singer shot and lived in the tunnel on and off for
more than two years and ended up with about 50 hours
of footage, "a lot of it crap." Singer taught himself
how to edit, and cut the film with editor Melissa
Neidich ("Soul in the Hole") for another year and a
half, interrupted by long periods of cashlessness.
The result of Singer's painstaking process is a
dreamlike journey to and from an emotional and
Like many independents, "Dark Days" is the product of
believers' generosity - roommates, investors, and
vendors who liked Singer and his idea. Kodak, Singer
says for example, "gave me as much film as I could
carry." Cinevision "literally gave" Marc the camera
for two and a half years and taught him how to use it.
He borrowed money, sold everything he owned, maxed
out about ten credit cards, and to this day, is still
squatting in friends' apartments.
"Dark Days" is unique among documentaries because
while it is not an advocacy film with an
overwhelmingly sagging political agenda, the
subjects' stories and their sensitive treatment by
Singer are testament to more creative, gentler
solutions to the problem of homelessness. Singer is
more interested in humanity than in politics. "I love
people," he says. "I have respect for people. I try
to understand people, not to judge them." Asked for
his opinion on advocacy in films, Singer says only, "I
don't want anybody telling me what to do. I made a
very conscious decision to not preach." Despite this
ardent objectivism, the film has a surprisingly
optimistic, controversial ending, which should add to
the currently heated policy debate about homelessness
in New York City.
Another reason why "Dark Days" is unique is that few
people would be willing to abandon comparatively
opulent lives on earth to spend so many seasons in
what is possibly America's most damnable version of
hell. Asked if he had a good time there, Marc Singer
said, a nostalgic twinkle in his eye, "I had a great
time. I have nothing but good memories. I felt more
accepted as a person than I've ever felt when I was
down there. I've not felt so accepted since."
[Amy Goodman is a New York-based freelance writer and
documentary producer, currently working with Moxie