An interview with the author of a book about America’s most cinematic neighborhood
Self-described pop-culture enthusiast Margo Donohue may have a popular podcast called “Book vs Movie,” but the idea for a book on those very subjects was something that pretty much fell into her lap. The result is Filmed in Brooklyn, out this month by History Press. Here the Brooklynite delves into her beloved borough and the poignant cinematic moments that made it to both the large and small screen. I asked the Brooklyn-based author to dig a little deeper into how this book came about and the stories she discovered.
Walk us through the research process.
At first, I planned a more cursory glance around the major films over the last 50 years with some Brooklyn history mixed in. Then we were all stuck indoors for several months so I just started watching movies and researching all the different neighborhoods around the borough. I couldn’t seem to stop. The key for me was finding out about Vitagraph studios which was created in Midwood in 1897 and is arguably the first movie studio in the U.S. with its roots with Thomas Edison.
I would investigate a neighborhood, find out what was filmed there, and then go out and try to see if I could find those locations. It was so much digging around old blog posts, IMDB, and Facebook groups. Then I would ride my bike, take the subway, or grab a Lyft to check out for myself.
I can imagine some of the great stories you unearthed. Can you share a few with us here?
I can talk about Vitagraph all day. Most of the actors were immigrants who took the work because stage actors thought film work was tacky and beneath them. The Vitagraph players made their own sets and costumes, spoke in pantomime as most they mainly came from different locations around the world, and are some of the first filmed adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens. I love picturing these people traveling a hundred feet in the air carrying baskets filled with props and their lunches heading to work and not knowing what the day had in store for them. It must have been thrilling!
Also, the big chase scene in The French Connection that director William Friedkin swore he had no permits for was very well-choreographed. The streets look the same there but just a few blocks over in Bay Ridge, the Saturday Night Fever disco is now a heavily Chinese neighborhood, when it was “Italians-only” in the 1970s.
Is there one thing that really surprised you?
Early films encouraged the Spanish Civil War and World War 1. That the Ku Klux Klan and many other racist organizations used film to spread their “America First” doctrine. When I was growing up, people called TV the “idiot box,” but we are all susceptible to motion pictures as storytelling.
What makes Brooklyn so special for filming?
We have everything from beaches to parks to older buildings to modern architecture. You can have Brooklyn look like any decade and there is something comforting about it. We are about the Brooklyn Bridge and Nathan’s Hot Dogs, but we also have beautiful brownstones and Hip Hop. The old and the new exist side by side here.
What draws filmmakers to Brooklyn?
There is so much history here. The Brooklyn Bridge can mean walking towards Manhattan “the big city” or it can mean walking back to your childhood and home. In “Sex and the City” it meant Miranda and Steve getting back together (which is how I choose to remember them.) In any disaster film, knocking out the Bridge or the Coney Island Wonder Wheel means you have essentially wiped out all of New York. Coney Island can be a symbol of the past or innocence in America or it can be a symbol of the rot in our cities that will never leave. And don’t get me started when it snows here! It’s as if you go back in time. Especially in Prospect Park, which is beautiful all year round.
Does Brooklyn serve as the backdrop to the story, or THE Story in most of the films that people shot here?
Spike Lee is the “King of Brooklyn” film for good and sufficient reason, he uses Fort Greene, Coney Island and Bedford Stuyvesant better than anyone I have ever seen.
I also encourage anyone really looking to scratch that “Brooklyn itch” to check out director Wayne Wang’s Smoke & Blue in the Face which were released in the summer of 1995 and were based on screenplays by author Paul Auster (a very Brooklyn man) and some improvisation from an array of actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Madonna, Stockard Channing, Jim Jarmusch, and Lou Reed) The site of the Smoke shop is in Windsor Terrace in the most nondescript place which makes the idea of all of these actors showing up to show off their improv skills so goofy to me.
Is there one film that you think exemplifies quintessential Brooklyn?
I can’t pick one so I will list my current top five!
Do the Right Thing
Saturday Night Fever