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Tunnel Vision

The L Train Shutdown Is Getting Its Own Documentary

We talked to filmmaker Emmett Adler about who the shutdown hurts most, crazy alternatives for the L train, and how government can better the heart of New York life.
Cynthia Nixon. Images courtesy Emmett Adler

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Depending on a few factors—location; socioeconomic class; occupation; etc.—the L train shutdown in 2019 may mean something different to you. For bodega, bar, and small business owners along each stop, it could be a cause of concern. For real estate brokers, it could be a chance to shift the markets and score deals for clients. For students, it could mean setting alarms an hour earlier, just to make it to school on time. And for the hundreds of thousands of other daily commuters, maybe it’s a new bike or ferry ride, shuttle bus, or packed subway route.


But for Emmett Adler, the L train shutdown was ripe material. “I realized the story is like an onion: you peel away all of the layers, and it has so many,” said Adler, 29. “Once you get into it, you can talk about the history of the subway, climate change, inequality, and infrastructure nationwide. There's just so much to talk about—it was a really meaty topic.”

With an extensive background as a documentary editor, Adler saw the shutdown as a chance to film what has been a years-long crisis-in-motion for New Yorkers—this sort of slow-crawling mega event that we all know is coming. The result: “L Train Doc,” the tentatively titled name of Adler’s directorial debut and full-length independent feature film, alongside producer Ian Mayer. In it, Adler and Mayer bring their cameras to the many town hall meetings, press conferences, and rallies surrounding the shutdown, in an effort to tell a story whose ending is still unclear.

To find out more about the documentary, VICE spoke with Adler over the phone. Here’s what he said to say. (Disclosure: This reporter has been interviewed in the documentary, and has advised the filmmakers on shutdown subjects.)

MTA President Andy Byford

VICE: What was the inspiration for a documentary on the L train shutdown?
Emmet Adler: Well, I was living in East Williamsburg when they announced the shutdown, riding the L train every day to get to and from work. So I was very familiar with the intense crowding that happens on the line, and how many people rely on it. So I knew this was gonna be a big deal. It was kind of unimaginable to live in that area of North Brooklyn with no L. And then, being a documentarian, I realized that this was the kind of story I'd like to tell, and it affected such a cross-section of New Yorkers. Almost every kind of New Yorker is somehow affected by this.


Who have you spoken to thus far?
The challenge for us is to represent all the various demographics and ages and socioeconomic standpoints of people who are affected by this. So we've gone out to Canarsie, the end of the line, to talk to people, and their concerns are different from the concerns of a student who's in high school and lives in Williamsburg, who we're also talking to.

It's really been residents of all different backgrounds and ages. Politicians who are involved in the issue, including City Council members and Cynthia Nixon—we're following the governor's race because she's taken the race to the subways and made that a major issue. MTA representatives, activists, business owners, real estate, and experts. One of the coolest interviews we did was with Richard Ravitch, who was running the subways the last time they were in dire straits back in 1979, because we want to get that historical perspective. And what's going on now is most comparable to what was going on in '79.

Richard Ravitch

And throughout all of those interviews, do any common themes keep coming up?
I mean, generally, everyone feels a little upset about the subways, the way they've been maintained over the years, and the conditions and difficulties they have to deal with. I think community involvement in the decision-making is definitely a common theme, especially in light of the lawsuit coming from [residents in] downtown Manhattan. And there are concerns about communication and awareness in the communities—activists have been concerned about that, so that the community knows what's coming, and is prepared.


I think optimism has also been a theme… it's both sides: obviously, there is a fair amount of negativity, but there's also optimism. Like when we spoke to the owners of the club House of Yes, and they were talking about how Brooklyn will take care of itself. People have this idea that Brooklyn will revert to a communal, less-commuter type of place where everyone will take care of each other, and maybe it'll go back to the old days to some degree.

The L train shutdown has spawned a Science Fair of solutions, from pontoon bridges and scooter shares to gondolas and flying buses. What's the craziest idea you've heard as an alternative?
With the L train shutdown, things will kind of sprout up for a week or two and the people whose opinions matter in the community might get behind it, but they tend to die out within a month after realizing the sort of forces at play when you try to create a thing like that in New York involving the East River.

That said, I think the craziest one I've heard is buses on boats—which is the idea of buses driving onto ferries and then crossing the East River. I think there's something about that that nobody is really familiar with around New York, or maybe America at all, and it sounds really scary and dangerous. I remember being at a community board meeting when they were presenting this concept, and the woman just literally had to repeat those words a few times: "Buses. On. Boats." Just to let it sink in, she had to say it three times. And then people were like, this is insane, and dangerous, and I'll never do that. So that didn't seem to have much of a shelf life.


You mention things sprouting up and dying. What's it like filming a sort of work in progress, in regards to what’s being put forth as solutions, and the story of the New York City subway system writ large?
In one way, it's exhilarating. We're sort of learning while we're filming, and that is incredibly interesting. And sometimes it's also challenging and a little discouraging, because we spend a long time filming something and we have no idea if it's going to be relevant, but we sort of have a responsibility to the film to cover everything, to some degree. Sometimes we'll find out about a press junket the day before it's happening, because a lot of these things are last minute, and then we're scrambling to organize a production crew. At the same time, we don't have time to be indecisive about this. In the back of our minds, we're like, 'Is this going to be at all relevant in a year when we want to edit and release this film?'

We're sort of turning the corner to a phase where we will need to go full-time on the doc. We started in November of 2016. But I can't imagine anyone financing a full-time production crew for a documentary when you're shooting, by the time it's all over, for over three years. In a way, it's been sort of an ideal way to do it, aside from the self-financing part. [laughs] We're freelancers, so we don't exactly have your traditional full-time jobs. We'll do a gig for like a month, and then produce the L train doc for a month. And while we're doing these gigs, we're producing in the background and basically working two jobs for, like, years.


So you’ll go from November 2016 until the first few months into the shutdown. What's still left in the timeline? What else needs to be shot?
We're very much in the midst of full-on production and we have a handful of goals for certain scenes that we're trying to shoot. We want to have access to some of the inner-workings of the MTA, and continue to capture their process. I think the day of the shutdown will be a big day for us, and we’ll want to have 360-degree coverage from all perspectives. I think the day of the Democratic primaries for governor in September will be a big day for us, because we'll want to have cameras with Cynthia Nixon and Governor Andrew Cuomo. At the end of the day, Cuomo controls the MTA and so who is governor is an extremely important aspect of this.

And then after the shutdown, we want to do a sort of round robin with all of our characters to see how they've been affected. And that will be a gradual process. Right now we're setting up for that, to create the scenes that will have you emotionally invested in these people, so when we follow up with them after the shutdown, you'll get a sense of an arc.

And once it's released, what do you hope the documentary accomplishes?
I think it's funny to think that when the train shuts down, if people are stuck at home, this film will give them something to be entertained with. The subway is sort of at the heart of New York life, and you realize that when you dive into this. So you get to show a glimpse of that to people all over the country who may never take public transportation, or even understand how New York works. We hope that it gives people understanding, and entertainment.

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