How Marc Singer Became a Great Filmmaker

“The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” – Thomas Edison

For most dreamers who want to become filmmakers, this would probably be the most sensible path for them to follow:

  1. Spend six months to a year locating a film school that will accept you.
  2. Invest tens of thousands of dollars to enroll in the best program you can find.
  3. Spend two to six years studying film and developing a familiarity with all the major skills: direction, lighting, sound, etc.
  4. After getting your degree, spend six months to a year looking for a job. And if you don’t find a job (and chances are you won’t), get a non-paid apprenticeship with a movie-related business and work at that till you get a shot at something better.
  5. Keep at it for 10 or 20 years until you finally get a lucky break.

If you think this is unrealistically pessimistic, consider what the Bureau of Labor Statistics has to say about employment in the film industry: “In television and film, actors and directors typically start in smaller television markets or with independent movie production companies and then work their way up to larger media markets and major studio productions. Intense competition, however, can be expected at each level, because ever more applicants will be vying for increasingly fewer numbers of available positions.”

So what if you don’t want to devote half your life to academia and internships and small-time productions and groveling and schlepping and kissing butt?

If that’s the case, you can take my “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach.

On Friday, I explained how taking quick action – action before you have all the facts, knowledge, or experience – can be the best way to accomplish great things. That’s just what Marc Singer did…

Marc was an unemployed immigrant from England when he heard the rumor: Hundreds of homeless people were living beneath the ground in New York City.

There was something about the idea that struck his imagination. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. A village of homeless men and women hidden in a subway tunnel. How did they live? What did they do? And where, exactly, were they?

He got his chance to find out when an article in an independent newspaper gave him a clue as to where this urban Atlantis might be – and it wasn’t far from where he lived. For several weeks, Singer poked around and talked to homeless people. Finally, he found what he was looking for – an otherwise unremarkable pile of rubbish in a tunnel stretching north from Penn Station to Harlem.

For several days, he watched raggedy people disappear into the tunnel and come out again. Eventually, he approached them. He told them that he was interested in getting to know them. They thought he was crazy.

He had a feeling that in the blackness beneath that hole lay his destiny. So he kept talking to the homeless people who were using it, trying to make friends with them, until one of them finally invited him down.

It was an Alice in Wonderland experience for Singer. In the cavernous darkness, he discovered dozens and dozens of painstakingly constructed huts made from discarded plywood, plastic, and canvas – huts that housed hundreds of squatters.

The property they were squatting on had been abandoned long ago when the subway stopped running along that route. There were still, however, electrical wires and water pipes running through it that the crafty squatters had tapped. Inside the shacks, radios played. Beneath a jimmy-rigged water line, the denizens of this dark city showered. There was everything here that Singer had imagined … and more. He built himself a little shelter among his new neighbors and, for several months, spent half his days there.

At one point, sitting around a makeshift campfire, playing cards and talking to several of the men, someone suggested that Singer make a film about it all. The moment he heard it, the idea struck him as exactly right. Despite the fact that he knew nothing about filmmaking (“If I ever picked up a camera in my life, it was a little disposable throw-away one,” he told reporter Amy Goodman of IndieWire), he got started immediately.

Singer spent the next several weeks hustling around the city, gathering up equipment and reading books on filmmaking. He used his newfound (and equally inexperienced) friends as his crew and, relying mostly on instinct, directed the filming, lighting, and sound. As the weeks went by, he accumulated hundreds of hours of film. When he ran out of film, he borrowed money and shot more film.

After several months of shooting, Amtrak announced that they were going to clean up this abandoned tunnel to make way for some new project. They contacted the police to force the squatters out. Singer went to Amtrak and asked for a deal. If they would give him just a month or two of leeway, he said, he would sell the film and use the money to find other places for the squatters to live.

It was a promise without a foundation, based entirely on faith. But, miraculously, he pulled it off. The second half of the amazing black and white film he produced down in the tunnel tells the story of how these people fought for their right to stay… and then, when that effort failed, worked with Singer until he found homes and jobs for them.

The film, a documentary called Dark Days, went on to win the 2000 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award, and it shared the Cinematography Award. Marc Singer became an instantly credible and credited filmmaker, and his career has been uphill ever since.

Rent the film and enjoy it. But then watch the extra feature that describes how Singer made it. You will be impressed by his ingenuity and the tenacity he showed given the obstacles that faced him. For me, the big lesson was that he went full-speed ahead with his goal of making the film the moment the idea popped into his head.

After spending all that time and effort getting integrated into this unusual community, he recognized – on a gut level – that making the documentary was the right thing for him to do. He didn’t let his complete ignorance of filmmaking or his lack of money or contacts or anything else stand in his way.

He had the right idea, and he was emotionally ready to pursue it. That is how many, many great things are done.

Ready. Fire. Aim.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]