Below are two clips from a scene which takes place on the Roosevelt Island Tram. For those unfamiliar with Manhattan and it’s satellitte islands, Roosevelt Island is a strange little place located to the east of Manhattan, on which for many years the only thing of any importance was a mental hospital. (The building is still there but is closed, abandoned, deeply ghostly). Later, projects were built–middle-class projects to be sure but nonetheless vast, gray, uninspiring projects. (Somebody I know once referred to them as looking like “retirement homes for old spies”). But in the early seventies, a tram was built to take people from 59th Street on the East Side of Manhattan over to Roosevelt Island…and suddenly, one of New York’s loveliest secrets was born. For the tram ride through Manhattan, over the East River and descending upon Roosevelt Island is truly a magical experience–by night or by day, in the rain or in the sunshine. The trip is a mere five or so minutes but is a weightless float through the middle of the city and past the bridge and the attendant traffic. Something about the height that the tram stays at–not super high but around the tenth or so stories of most of the buildings it passes–and then the strange ascendency it takes as it nears the bridge–is quite breathtaking.

For years I wanted to shoot a scene on the tram and I finally wrote one into the script of “City Island”. Like so many things in pre-production, the whole notion of capturing the magic of the ride became vastly more complex than it needed to be. For awhile I was convinced that we had to build the tram, shoot it on a soundstage and greenscreen in the lights of the city…don’t ask why, how can I explain the madness that sets in when the clock is ticking and your finally about to get to shoot your movie after eight years of waiting. My cinematographer, Vanja Cernjul, finally took a camera up in the tram at night, shot without lights and we looked at the results in a screening room: perfectly lovely. Ultiimately he rigged a few practicals to light the actors and that’s how we shot it…using predominantly the natural light of New York City. We were able to “own” the tram for about four hours one night–in other words the tram authorities closed it to the public and allowed us full use of it. We made the trip back and forth ten times–twenty trips over the East RIver–to complete the three page scene. Below are two clips from that night…


Sign up for news & updates so you don't miss a thing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *