Marc Singer was not a filmmaker. Born and raised in London, he moved to New York City after graduating high school. Upon discovering the large, intricate web of homeless communities, he found himself living with a group of friends who had permanently settled in the Amtrak tunnels beneath the pulsating city. Inundated with stories of triumph, loss, drug use and circumstance, Singer felt the need to do something tangible to help his friends. So, they decided to make a film.
Ten years after its initial release, his documentary, Dark Days, is now revered as a social relic, a ‘90s phenomenon. But one can’t ignore its haunting duality to the continuing struggles of homelessness and hopelessness. A testament to human willpower and rebirth, Dark Days captures the light of all souls in a cavern of darkness.
Oscilloscope Laboratories began a theatrical run for Dark Days at the Cinema Village in New York for its 10th year anniversary on July 1st. The special edition DVD will be available on July 19th.
This underground community is so vibrant. How did this subject find you, or how did you find the subject?
Well, I was already in the tunnels. I had already been there for about 3-4 months. One night, we were sitting at a fire, laughing and talking about what happened that day to one of the other guys. Suddenly, my friend Ralph said, “Man, someone should be making a film about this stuff,” and it sort of struck me—why don’t we do it? We can make a film, sell it, and hopefully, the money would get everyone out of the tunnel. They would also be the crew of the film and would be helping themselves by getting themselves out of the tunnel. That was the beginning of the journey of the film.
Your subjects were also your crewmembers—they helped you light and shoot. Since this was your first foray into filmmaking of any kind, what was that experience like?
It was amazing. For everybody living in the tunnel to be the crew, it worked on many different levels. Firstly, it worked because it’s very difficult. You don’t have any money to ask someone professional to come into an underground environment like that and work the same amount of hours that you would be willing to work yourself. It’s also difficult because you never know the reactions that these people are going to have to an outsider—maybe everybody got along with me, but hated my sound guy. I was there with my friends making a movie about my friends, while everyone working on the film was a friend to one another. It was a lot easier for them to be the crew because I wouldn’t have to worry about somebody not making it that day since they live there. It worked in that sense. But, more importantly, it worked as a vehicle to get everybody out of the tunnel. When you go on the street, you are very isolated and self-sufficient. I figured it would be great if we could get everyone working with other people again—counting on other people—while doing something that was completely foreign to us. Everybody feels that you need a lot of training to make films or otherwise it won’t happen. I don’t believe that. I believe that you can do anything you want to do, as long as you believe it. From an emotional standpoint, for anyone that gets out on the street, they never believe they’re getting off the street. It’s very, very difficult. You lose all confidence in your ability to survive. Them being the crew really helped them in all those different ways. It gave people something more than just holding a light.
It’s so amazing that you actually lived down there, establishing a bond of intimacy with this community. But because of that, did you find it easier or harder to ask personal questions about family, loss, drug use, etc.?
It’s real easy because they’re my friends, right? Think about your best friend or a group of really close friends. You’d ask them anything. You wouldn’t feel weird about it because it’s your friends. So that was the most important part; that’s the advice I’d give to any other documentary filmmaker. You have to become friends with the people that you’re filming. You have to go beyond the level of, “I have a camera and I’m filming you.” It was more like, “I’m working with my friends, so I can ask anything.” Nothing was off the table.
Was everyone in this community open to you and your project? Were there people who felt like you were infiltrating their lives?
I wasn’t infiltrating their community because I was living there for months and months before the film came up. It wasn’t like I went down there and tried to do an exposé. There were a hundred people living in that tunnel. I knew people I never shot on film and I didn’t want to film some of them, either. You sort of find your group that you want to film and are the most open for me to film. It was more of a community idea to do this. It wasn’t like I was—
An outsider of sorts…
Yeah, there was a ton of people that I filmed that didn’t make it into the final cut. I made a lot of mistakes. It was the first thing I’ve ever tried. You do things that you think was a good idea—you follow that idea or character that would come up—but it ends up on the cutting room floor. There were some people that didn’t want anything to do with the film. There were people living in the tunnel that never spoke to anybody, ever. Not just me, anyone. You could say “hello” to someone every single day and they just wouldn’t speak. People that really wanted to be left alone lived in the dark. Everybody is a different individual. Some people have stuff that they’re running from, and some are very open and upfront about their situation. They become the main characters. They presented themselves quite quickly.
What was the social dynamic like down in the tunnels?
It was a very large mix of people. There were kids who had run away from home. There were very old men and women of every race—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—and everything in between. The tunnel represented the full spectrum of people. What was most interesting to me was that it wasn’t separated in the same way that communities would tend to separate up top, where people at the time were much more separated by race. In the tunnel, it was much more separated by what you did. So, if you were a drug addict, you tended to live near the other drug addicts. If you were completely clean and sober, you tended to live near others who were clean and sober. If you were a kid, you lived near the other kids. It was a very diverse group of people, and, at the same time, individuals in a group of people. The most important thing was that everybody was an individual. The common bond they shared was that they lived together in the tunnel.
As you said, this was your first film and had to learn things on the fly. How did you know when to roll and cut? Were there any monumental moments that you didn’t catch on camera?
Yeah, probably hundreds just about. To a filmmaker, you think that everything that happens is quite important, but you never know what it’s got relevance to. Someone can say an off-the-cuff remark that you think is completely off, but you never know the role it could play in the film—and you regret not capturing that. For me, I wanted to film everything because I’m doing a film about guys on the street and they could be dead at any moment. They could move away or disappear. Their life changes very, very quickly. It’s very basic survival. For me, every moment was an important moment. In hindsight it wasn’t, but at the time, it felt that way. There were lots of moments I didn’t have the money to film, but on the whole, I think it was a pretty fair and accurate representation of it all. I’m not sure if any missed scene would have made the film that much of a better film.
You had a lot of equipment and film stock donated to you for this project, and it’s shot in beautiful, gritty 16mm black-and-white. How did the look of the film come about?
It came about because I didn’t have a clue. I spoke to a friend of mine who was a photographer and I told him I wanted to do this film. The only reason why I shot it on film was because I thought I was making a film. I’m making a film, so it would be shot on film. The black-and-white came about because my friend said, “If you shoot color, you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re really going to mess it up. You should shoot black-and-white because, if you mess up, it’ll still look OK.”
It’s amazing that you had electricity for televisions and appliances down in the tunnels—all these comforts of life. How did they find electricity down in the tunnel?
When you’re homeless, you tend to get very resourceful. There were streetlights you could tap into, which limits you to the time that the lights would turn on and off. There are other large power boxes underground. If you got the guts, you could tap into those boxes. The hardest part is finding the wiring. Honestly, people down there were only limited by how sorry they were feeling about themselves. If you were feeling very low about yourself and allowed yourself to go into the dark, downward spiral, you were less inclined to try and make your place livable. But if you weren’t willing to give up and willing to fight every day, you could do amazing things. People built great places, despite being a homeless person in New York.
And to expose for film, you had to light it quite a bit. Were you ever in a situation where you had trouble finding electricity to film a key scene?
Every single time, man! We had a couple of lights, a couple of really powerful ones. We nailed two pieces of wood together to make a cross and I put on light on either arm of the cross. I’d have Henry (one of the subjects) just hold the light. All I said to him was, “Point the light at anything I’m filming and don’t stand in front of the camera.” If I move back, you move back with me. And that was it. It was very raw. We put lights where you wouldn’t see them. I’d do anything; I’d stick a light into a shoe if it would hold it straight. As long as I got an exposure, I figured that was alright.
It’s miraculous how your friends all received government housing at the end of the film. We see countless homeless people on a daily basis here in New York City. Do you think this happy ending could happen today?
I think it’s totally possible. The tunnel at the time was a very unique experience. Even to get housing at the time for single males was very difficult, and the red tape is huge. There were 250 Section 8 vouchers and they were only allocated for people living in subways; they weren’t allocated for people living in the Amtrak tunnels. First, it was convincing them that living in a tunnel is living in a tunnel, that these guys should be eligible. It was a massive amount of red tape and the Coalition for the Homeless were a huge catalyst in this happening. Margaret Morton, a fantastic photographer, was a huge influence on this happening. There were a lot of people involved in getting it done. But I think it can happen at any time, you know? It’s tough, though. I’m not an expert on homelessness. I could tell you everything about what it’s like to be in a tunnel in NYC between 1994 and 1997, but aside from that, I don’t know. I was with Mary Brosnahan from the Coalition for the Homeless a month ago and she was telling me statistics that were amazing. I’ve just been out of the loop of what’s happening. And with the recession, things are very tough for people. Could this happen again? Could we have another fairytale ending? Of course. Will it happen to every person on the street? I don’t know. It’s very hard, you know?
It’s been 10 years since the initial release of Dark Days. Without giving too much away, what special features can we expect from the 10th year special edition DVD?
Well, I went back into the tunnel 10 years later. That was kind of cool.
How was that experience?
It was really interesting for me because I hadn’t been down there in a long time, probably 10 years, maybe longer. The physical space had changed a lot. There was no sign of life. All the artwork had been painted over. It was very clean and sanitized. It was an interesting experience to go back there. It brought back a lot of really great memories, tough memories and all kinds of stuff. That’s a good addition to the DVD.
There’s an update on where everybody is now, although that was a bit of a challenge since people have been out of the tunnel for 15 years now. Their paths are as wide as they are. There’s a bunch of cool stuff.
The music for Dark Days was by DJ Shadow, which complemented the film perfectly. How did he get involved?
I had no idea what the music would be like. I was pretty close to having a rough edit. A friend of mine was with Ian Astbury, the lead singer of The Cult, and he suggested that I show the film to Ian. At the time, I never let anybody see anything from the film. I didn’t want anyone to see the rough cut. I generally don’t show people things unless it’s completely finished. So, I finished a fine cut and showed Ian the film. The first thing he said was, “You really need some music” and I said, “I’ve got no idea.” He said, “DJ Shadow.” I hadn’t even heard of Josh (DJ Shadow) at the time. I went out and got a bunch of CDs, took them back to the editing room and it was perfect. I called up Ben Freedman, my co-producer, and told him I found someone who could do the music. Ben knew who DJ Shadow was and he asked who my second choice was. I simply said, “I don’t have a second choice. This is it. This is the music for the film or I’m not going to put music in this film.”
A phenomenal process underway in trying to get in contact with him. Finally, we found out there was a show in New York and I wrote him this letter. We had our really beautiful friend, Mette, try to go backstage and hand him the letter. If anyone could get backstage, it was Mette. She was gorgeous. So I gave her the mission and she did it. She got backstage and gave it to somebody that said he was his manager. We screened the film for DJ Shadow and he said, “I’ll do it.” He was awesome. That guy really is a humble, humble person. For the amount of talent and success he’s got as a DJ and record producer, he’s super humble and a really lovely guy.
What are you up to next? What have you been up to since Dark Days?
No films. I’m in the food business now. I have a company that sells very nice garnishes—garlic, cherries, onions, anything that you’d find in an alcoholic drink. I supply hotels and bars, distribute and manufacture them. I always thought about making another film and I did start, but it didn’t really work out. If I ever make another film again, I have to be able to fund it myself. There’s nothing worse than somebody putting that much trust in you, giving you access and having it all just shut down.
I’ve read about your last film—a documentary about a United States Marine Corps Recon Platoon—and how it was shut down due to the reshuffling of its soldiers and the lack of a narrative arc. You chose not to salvage anything from 2 years of work and footage. Why?
Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s not really about what the audience thinks of the film, you know? By the time that you see it, I’ve already left it. It’s done for me. For me, it’s about the experience. It’s not really about the film. If I’m going to work my ass off, it’s going to be quality. I’ll lie down in front of a truck for my film. So if it’s not going to be what I wanted, what’s the point of doing it? So, I burned the footage and destroyed it all—and it is what it is.
We hope you will return to film soon.
Keep your fingers crossed that my company does well, and then I’ll make another film.