Prison or Sanctuary? Dancers on a New York Rooftop Explore the Mental Health Impact of Lockdown
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Director Ezra Hurwitz on working with New York ballet dancers and Sarah Jessica Parker for a film for National Alliance of Mental Health. Written by Laura Swinton
Before becoming a director, Ezra Hurwitz was a dancer. He danced with the New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. So when it came to untangling and expressing the confusion, isolation, and emotional kaleidoscope of lockdown, it was dance to which he turned. His new film Inside & Outwards, created with production company HunterPark launched on World Suicide Prevention Day, sees a series of characters express their mental state on a New York rooftop – with Sarah Jessica Parker narrating proceedings and a track from Sufjan Stevens.
The seeds of the project lie in a budding friendship Ezra kicked off with a couple of creatives at McCann, to whom he’d previously pitched for a Verizon job. He didn’t get the job but since then they’d been bashing ideas back and forth – and when quarantine struck, the team sent him a poem that they thought would make quite a nice film – maybe a user generated short, cutting between different people reading it to camera?
“Honestly, my aesthetic and approach is just so not user generated,” says Ezra, who was nonetheless touched by the poem. “I really liked the writing, it was super simple, though different than it ended up being. But the messaging really resonated with me…. It was very much about where I felt I was emotionally and a lot of my friends were in the time of quarantine.”
That idea catalyzed a creative process, and the project ballooned and evolved. For Ezra, who describes himself as a ‘productivity-driven person’, the feeling of being stuck in his New York apartment, not doing anything fed into his own anxiety. And so he channelled that pent up energy into the film and a self-care routine of daily runs and DIY.
“It was very discomforting and then, around that time, this poem found its way to me. Also I stayed in Manhattan in New York and it was just a ghost town, like it really cleared out,” he recalls.
At the same time, his husband, who is a principle dancer with the New York Ballet, was trying to keep sharp by practicing in their apartment living room. It sparked his creative imagination and as he saw his friends finding ways to deal with things, the ideas for the film began to develop. One friend, another dancer, started taking photos of himself dancing on his roof, and thing started to click into place, and it inspired the idea of showing a series of characters dancing on their own rooftops.
“I know it was just very striking to me because it felt like really beautiful, but kind of like he was perched on this isolated look out, like, and he couldn't go anywhere, but you saw all of the other rooms and all of the other people own,” says Ezra. “And so I thought that that sort of was a metaphor for me in terms of like, both like the expanse of hope, but also like really being confined to your own plot of, of space.”
Originally, Ezra envisioned this film as being shot on a series of different rooftops, but he soon realised that with the restrictions of social distancing, transporting crews and kit and props from building to building would be impractical and unsafe. And so he came up with a new idea, to create a cube frame that could be dressed up to represent the apartments of the characters.
“That's when it took the turn of more of a surreal aesthetic where each person's home really represented their experience. I got a lot of fun out of it, just really bleeding inspiration from the actual talent,” he recalls, saying that each set up was inspired by the living spaces, aesthetics and social feeds of the talent. “Their own experiences definitely coloured their performances and like their involvement in the piece. But they're hopefully speaking to like a really diverse roster of walks of life.”
The simple wooden frame has been elevated with punchy set dressing as well as lush cinematography- and at heart expresses the paradox of lockdown. For some, our homes have become a comforting, safe place in which to thrive. For others it’s become a cage. And for many, it’s become both.
That cage-like constraint also had an impact on the choreography, and Ezra worked with New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer to workshop with the dancers. For performers used to filling a stage, the challenge was learning how dance within confined spaces.
When it came to the production itself, thankfully it wasn’t Ezra’s first taste of running a Covid-safe shoot, as he helped local hospitals with their safety communications. “I was actually doing a bunch of PSAs - like boots on the ground work for the hospitals in New York. They were basically the only clients that were kind of allowed to be shooting. And so I was sort of hyper aware of the COVID workflows,” he says of the spots that he shot with HunterPark.
Ezra and the team had a wonderful idea and prepared performers and a production team that was raring to go… but they had to wait. And so they waited and noodled around the idea. Until Memorial Day, when New York’s Governor Cuomo gave the green light to non-essential gatherings of up to ten people. HunterPark EP's Lauren Tuttman and Bethanie Schwartz, who worked with Ezra throughout the development, were instrumental in bringing the whole complex production together.
That ‘ten people’ allowance was eaten up quickly, with an onset medic and Covid supervisor, together with the production, the art team, director, lighting, cinematography and cast. When it came to shooting on the rooftop and getting the set and cast up safely, they used a scissor lift, where two people could easily maintain a safe social distance. The logistics of getting everyone and everything up was, laughs Ezra, ‘like crazy math problem’. Between every set up, the frame had to wiped down and sanitised and the team were working fast to use the natural lighting conditions to their advantage – each scene feels strikingly different thanks to the time of day and the changing light strobing the New York backdrop.
Once the beautiful performances were captured, the film was tied together thanks to a warm and striking voiceover from Sarah Jessica Parker. She has a position on the board of the New York City Ballet and presence in the Ballet’s home, the Lincoln Centre, meant that she was someone Ezra could reach and her involvement, once again, transformed the film.
“I remember that was the last piece of it. I was like, ‘whose voice is it going to be?’ Initially I thought maybe it would be the talent – it’s something you see a lot in commercials – and then I thought, ‘I don’t want it to be about each of these specific people, it should be one voice uniting them’,” says Ezra. Sarah Jessica Parker doing a voiceover might have, he concedes, triggered associations with Sex and the City – but in the end, as one of the few celebrities who chose to stay in New York, she felt particularly appropriate. And her and glitchy phone voice brings a grounded warmth and hope to the film.
The finished film has been released with the National Alliance of Mental Health – when the team felt it was in good shape, they reached out to the New York NAMI chapter, to see if it could be of use to them. It turns out they had been so wrapped up in the on-the-ground work of supporting people with their mental health challenges throughout the lockdown.
“I had again been in my own creative bubble and they have been literally manning this mental health, non-profit through the pandemic. The traffic to their hotlines had exploded exponentially. People were really leaning on them – which is good, but it really put it in context for me. Like, this is not just me and my friends and this abstract understanding of the community. These people are really on the frontline,” he says.
The film has been released on World Suicide Prevention Day, and at a time when people are just waking up to the long-term mental health impact of this traumatic year. “I think the best part is not just making something that's beautiful, in a vacuum but giving it some purpose, you know?”