Despite the production challenges of filming on the New York subway UNIT 9's director Jonathon Pearson was keen to tell one very unique story
From Tokyo to London, a city’s metro system is a place to plug in the ol’ headphones and steadfastly avoid eye contact with others. But the New York subway is alive with personality as dancers and buskers skip from train to train.
It was on such a train that Jonathan Pearson, a director with UNIT 9, was struck with inspiration for a film. As he saw a dance crew spring into action, he realised that though it was a phenomenon he’d witnessed many times in New York, he knew very little about the community of dancers.
What followed was a meticulously-researched deep dive into the world of New York dance crews, where he met Mo, a quiet young woman for whom dance has proven to be an outlet for the creative power that roars within. LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Jonathan to learn more about how he made the film and the friends he made along the way.
The Next Stop (Trailer) from UNIT9 on Vimeo.
LBB> How did you come across Mo’s story and why did it inspire you to create a film around it? How long did you spend getting to know her?
Jonathan> I’m always on the lookout for new projects and while on a shoot for a commercial in New York I was travelling on the subway one day. A crew of Litefeet Dancers (the style of dance these guys do) jumped on and started to do their thing. I’ve spent tons of time in New York over the years, and even lived there for a little while, so I’d seen these guys hundreds of times before. But this time I couldn’t stop thinking about who these guys were, how much this played into their lives and where it all came from.
After a few days, I knew I’d found my next project. It had so many elements that I’m drawn to - big cities, passions, modern history and subculture - so I could already sense what the film would feel like. But we needed to find the story. I was super conscious that this was very much its own thing, with close-knit groups of people that had grown up together forming groups, so I didn’t want to just turn up and just start waving cameras in people’s faces. After a load of research and watching anything I could find (and there wasn’t loads), I travelled to New York with a colleague from my UK & US production company UNIT9 Films. We organised meetings with crews we’d found on social media and then just travelled up and down on the subway for days on end. I’ve never ridden so many trains in all my life!
The idea was to get to know the world properly and kind of ingratiate ourselves into it - to treat it with respect. I also wanted to shoot lots of still imagery to build up a more specific picture of what the film would look like - it’s always a big part of the process for me at the beginning. We shot thousands of pictures across our travels that served as a great basis for talks with my D.P Adam McDaid and Editor Toby Conway-Hughes.
After meeting lots of crews we ended up hanging with one in particular of which Mo was part of. The crew were fantastic but Mo just stood out to me. She was very unassuming, kind of quiet and almost in the background, but when she dances you suddenly see this whole other side - like she’s coming alive, almost. This group were the last we’d met and from what we’d seen, Litefeet and street dance in general seemed to be very male-dominated. Mo’s unique viewpoint as a the only female member of her crew instantly stuck out to me and I knew I’d found the story. We hung out a bunch of times and then continued the conversation over chats when we returned to London, agreeing we’d be back in a few months to shoot the film.
LBB> When it comes to the shoot, you shot scenes in a subway station and on a train – what challenges did this present and how did you address them?
Jonathan> Despite UNIT9 Films being incredibly supportive from a budget stand point, we unfortunately didn’t have the time or money to go down the proper routes whilst shooting on the subway. There were lots of locations that were correctly permitted, but we had to shoot a little guerilla on the Subway and just go for it!
So the first challenge was keeping a small footprint. We did this by pre-mapping out the train rides we wanted to take and then having our production support and camera vehicles drop us off and pick us up at each end of the ride. Or we’d ride in one direction and then back again. This way we were never really that far from any extra bits and pieces we might need. On the trains, we were very disciplined and only carried a few lenses. I like keeping to just a few focal lengths if I can so this worked well for me.
The next challenge was shooting on fast-moving trains. Much like the London Underground, the New York Subway is one of the oldest in the world so it’s not exactly a smooth ride! I knew I wanted to be able to revolve the camera a fair bit on the train sequences, so as to give the sense of the gravity-defying moves the crews perform where they twist and flip upside down, so this quickly led Adam and I to using a stabilised rig of some kind - a Ronin in this case. Adam was extremely keen on using Operator Frank Larson whom we were very lucky to have as he’s very much in demand. Much like Adam’s, Frank’s work was amazing - at one stage he followed Mo from one train off onto the platform, upstairs, through the station, down more stairs, onto another platform and into another train. All seamlessly and all at rush hour! We shot a lot in slow motion so the take was almost as long as the film itself(!) and couldn’t be used but it was just so good to watch that level of talent in action - that innate sense of framing and movement.
LBB> In the film, Mo says she wants to be a role model, how do you think this film will help her become one?
Jonathan> I’ve spent a lot of time in the U.S, specifically in New York and L.A - and they are kind of like second homes to me. As much as I adore them, one thing that always strikes me is how the lines between demographics seem to be more clearly drawn there. Mo grew up and lives in an area of New York that is an absolute world away from the tourist images of Times Square and Central Park. Being in a film that will be shown to a wider audience and executed in the way it has been will definitely help her stand out. And the very fact that she’s committed to and is in this film is starting to inspire people around her to do similar things. So in a sense, it’s already helping her to be a role model in her community. It’s also helped Mo in that she is now getting more involved in making content and sees the value in her talent - confidence in a nutshell.
LBB> What were your highlights from the shoot?
Jonathan> Honestly, the highlights are myriad on this film. Just being out in New York with such a talented group of people - my Producer Harry Starkey-Midha, Director/Production Assistant Joe Youens and an amazing crew - and making something for the sake of itself was such an enjoyable experience. But if I had to list a few I think making new friends was a real highlight. Firstly with my supremely talented D.P, Adam. It was important to me that I worked with a DP that lived in New York. I have relationships with great DPs in the U.S but they are all based on the West Coast. I’d been stalking Adam on Instagram for a while and so just cold-called him and hoped he wouldn’t turn me down! His work is so human and honest - he just has a fantastic eye for cinematic images.
What followed was not only a great shoot but a wonderful friendship that continues today. This was exactly the same with Mo. We struck up a lovely friendship where she trusted me and want I wanted to do. We continue to chat every few weeks across social media and I’m looking forward to hanging when I’m next in NY. Lastly, it would be working with my Editor Toby. I’ve cut with him for a number of years but our work is always commercial in nature so it was great to be collaborating on a project where we could just do our thing. I love getting into it with him and watching him work - he’s so talented and a real craftsman. I’m really proud of the work he did on this film.
LBB> What message do you hope people will take from the film?
Jonathan> The Next Stop is very much a story that’s in motion - Mo’s story is only just beginning. To me, it’s a hopeful story and that’s precisely where we leave Mo - in the hope that she continues with her journey. What I hope people will take is that talent lives everywhere - sometimes we just need to open our eyes a little wider to see that.