Sunday, May 01, 2005

Tribeca Trash Patrol


I took out Robert DeNiro’s garbage today and, boy, was I proud.

It wasn’t exactly his garbage, of course. I was emptying litter baskets at the Tribeca Film Festival, but since the festival is DeNiro’s pet project I figure I can stretch the point to absurd limits and claim that I indeed hauled Travis Bickle’s trash.

I volunteered for the festival because I love film. My dreams of being in the business have yet to materialize and I figured this was about as close as I was going to get, at least for the moment.

Maybe I’ll meet Robert DeNiro . That was my standard line whenever I told people I was working the festival. That never happened, but I did get a t-shirt, a knapsack, and an ID badge stamped “Volunteer” to wear around my neck. Then I stood in the rain and told people to have their credit cards ready.

I haven’t given up being a filmmaker, or at least I haven’t given up fantasying about being one. I have a completed script and I’ve got a first draft of a short film script that I want to direct.

But right now, as I dream of the big break, I’m taking out the garbage. And I’ve got a newsflash for you: film festival garbage stinks just as badly as any other refuse.

I only put in three days at the festival but I feel like I’ve gone through some military campaign. And it was on my second day that I tried to take a step toward making my filmmaking dreams a reality.

A friend had set me up with some young guys who are bent on making a movie about a former Chinese gang leader they met through their music company. They needed a script writer and were willing to pay $5,000 in real money.

That would be a first for me. I’ve been involved in God alone knows how many film projects that couldn’t miss, were guaranteed to pull in millions, and would win every award in the western hemisphere. And I’m still taking out the garbage.

So the prospect of actually getting paid for my work had me interested. And, after a morning of stuffing tickets into envelopes at the Tribeca Film HQ in ultra-hip lower Manhattan, I got on the A train and I rode out to Brooklyn. Way out to Brooklyn, to a part of the borough where a white face like mine sticks out like a rowboat in the Sahara.

I was nervous. I didn’t know these guys, I didn’t care for the neighborhood, and I had to go to bathroom—badly. Unlike wealthier neighborhoods, there weren’t any Barnes & Nobles outlets around Macon Street. No place to hang out, or read magazines, and use the can. This is flyover country for the big chains.

After a couple of tries at nearby payphone, I got through to the man who would be mogul, who is a mailroom clerk in the real world.

He was in the basement of an old brownstone, sitting before a vast sound mixer that looked like it could launch ballastic missiles between tracks. His cousin sat beside him, smoking a joint and rattling his head to the deafening music that came out of the massive speakers.

The contrast between this scene and the Tribeca office of just few hours ago was stunning. I felt my festival ID under my jacket, hanging uselessly around my neck.

First thing I did was use the can. After that I endured another 20 minutes of thumping base and reefer fumes before getting down to cases. Grand Master Mogul had a lot to say, but I think the essence of it can be summarized in four little words.

The money is iffy.

It seems our Asian gangster type had decided that his story would be so hot, so much in demand that everyone could forego their salaries until the cash started rolling in once this epic hit the theaters.

Oh, yeah. I didn’t want to tell the budding Selznick that I’ve got a closet full of these pipe dreams that I’ve amassed over the decades. Each time I figured this would be it; this would be the project that would put me over the top. And each time the thing would die a slow and miserable death.

While I pretended to ponder this offer of hard work and no pay, the Mogul and his cousin talked about a mutual friend who was the victim of a home invasion. Armed men had burst into his house, tied him up and cleaned him out.

The cousins kicked around the names of possible suspects until the Mogul shrugged it away.

“This is Brooklyn, son. Happens all the time.”

I went home and waited a few days before leaving a voice mail declining the offer. It felt strange walking away from a movie project, but I guess I’m getting smarter in my old age.

After finishing my shift on the last day of the festival, I went to a nearby New York Sports Club and got cleaned up. I called my sister on a payphone in the gym lobby and made plans to meet her and aunt at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I happened to look out the window. And I gasped.

“Ron Howard is walking by,” I babbled into the phone. “He’s right in front of me.”

“Go talk to him,” my sister cried, as the director of "A Beautiful Mind" walked out of my line of vision.

But I didn’t. The volunteers had all been warned not pester people with headshots and scripts. And what would I say? I want to be a filmmaker but I’m not; could you please help me?

I said my goodbyes to my fellow volunteers and then took a few seconds to direct two guys who seemed lost. My stomach flipped when I saw they had ID lanyards like mine, but instead of “Volunteer,” their cards read “Filmmaker.”

Hey, guys, I thought as they went into the theater, want to trade?