One of the first costs cut by Marc Singer when shooting his debut film was rent. The London-born Singer, 26, left his meatpacking-district digs in 1994, giving up a modeling career that peaked with the Macy’s catalogue, to live among the homeless in an Upper West Side Amtrak tunnel. His neighbors became the cast of his documentary Dark Days, which Singer swears he had no thought of making when he went underground. It opens at Film Forum this week after winning three awards at Sundance.
“I felt more accepted in the tunnel than any other place – especially fashion,” Singer says over eggs and toast at a downtown café. He stayed underground with Ralph, a former crack addict; Tommy, a teenage runaway; and Henry, the sage, in surprisingly cozy shacks built with scrap wood, rigged with electrical sockets, and furnished with cookers and couches found on the street. When Ralph suggested making a film, Singer remembers, “we thought we’d sell it, and the money would get them out.”
What went on behind the camera was almost as interesting as what was going on before it: Henry made the camera dolly, Ralph was the soundman, and Tommy was a glorified PA. Lowry Dreke of the rental house Cinevision taught Singer to load and shoot, and let him slide on payments. “Marc would disappear for months,” says Jackie Zimmermann, Cinevision’s manager, “but we were more concerned about him than the equipment. He was so passionate – we wanted to help.” Singer’s neighbors pitched in, selling extra cans and bottles for film. Kodak’s Bob Mastronardi donated some of the film needed to finish – about ten hours’, or $6,000, worth. Singer sold his rights to a group of investors (from construction workers to fashion flacks) and then, as producer, sold the film to Palm Pictures, retaining percentages for his crew.
When Amtrak evicted the tunnel dwellers in 1996, Singer helped relocate 50 people into government-subsidized housing. Editing 50 hours of footage to an 84-minute film took him another three years of sleeping on his friends’ new couches: “They’d say, ‘You went from taxis and sushi to walking and looking for food in the garbage.’ They found it comical.” Singer, still homeless in a sense – he’s house-sitting in Brooklyn – says, “I don’t.”