Marc SingerMarc Singer’s groundbreaking documentary Dark Days is available on DVD and download from February 10th. It shines a light on a largely forgotten sect of homeless people living in the railway tunnels of New York City in the nineties; living away from harshness of the street, the ‘Tunnel People’ of NYC built their own rudimentary houses and even had electricity, creating a community with its own personality (and fair share of troubles).

The director was kind enough to speak to HeyUGuys in time for the film’s newest home release, concerning what it was like living in the tunnels, tips for making a quick buck, and the movie’s long and arduous road to eventual acclaim at Sundance.

Would you like to detail how you first started, or got into making Dark Days? Because you’d never made a film before then. 

I was living in New York in a neighbourhood that was a little bit… it was a poorer neighbourhood, let’s say. And there were a lot of people living on the street in that neighbourhood. I’d watch people from the window, and one day I got just a little bit curious what it must be like for that person to sleep outside. So I started making friends with different people in the neighbourhood, and just sitting down, having a coffee and talking to people – and I met one guy in particular who I got on really well with, and I started hanging out a lot with him. And for the next five months, I’d see him whenever I could and he would take me into other areas and just teach me a lot about living on the street.

Was that John Murphy, the crack addict? Beat poet?

Heroin addict. Yeah! He was, actually, and the first day I sat down with him he goes, ‘look, we’ll see how long it takes me to get a bag of dough’. But John would always talk about the tunnels; whenever it was raining, or he’d had a pretty rough night out, he’d talk about how he wish he’d go down into the tunnels. But when I would say, ‘why don’t you go down there then, if they’re that good?’ And he’d always say, ‘they’ll kill you down there. They’ll eat you down there’, and the whole mythology surrounding walking into a dark, abandoned underground tunnel. But to me – I was almost twenty-one at the time, and a lot more gutsy than I am now – that sounded great. So I started to explore lots of different tunnels, and after a month or two I found a tunnel that I thought was really good; it had everything I imagined a tunnel would be like, and I ended up basically moving into the tunnel. And then after being in the tunnels for like three or four months I realised that the people were nothing like I thought they were going to be like, and being homeless in general – let alone being in a tunnel – was nothing like what I thought it was going to be like. And I’d made a lot of really good friends, and I wanted to try and help them in some way – but I didn’t really know how that was going to happen. Then one night, we were sitting round a fire and somebody was laughing about something, and someone goes, ‘man, someone should be making a film about this’. So we said, why don’t we do it? We can make the film, sell it, then the money will get everyone out of the tunnel. And at the same time, they’ll be the film crew because they’ll be helping themselves out of the tunnel – and that’s how it really started. Purely from somebody sitting down and saying, ‘someone should make a film about this’ – and that’s what we did.

You say that the homeless people were the film crew as well. To what extent?

To every single extent. Like, in the beginning, none of us had ever made a film before, see – I hadn’t even seen a camera. I didn’t even know how to load the film. So they taught us how to load it in the camera house, and so we had to sort of organise the tunnel a little bit in terms of electricity and different things that we needed to tap into and make sure that plugs were in the right places and stuff like that. But once the infrastructure was done – which was all of them – you know, the first few days were a little bit rough because none of you knew what you were doing. It was like everyone was all over the place. Three or four months into filming, I’d be asleep in my house at night and there’d be a bang on the door and someone would say, ‘you’ve got to get up, this is happening now’, and by the time I’d get down there the lights would be already up, film loaded, and we’re ready. It was a full film crew. I mean, we were a small group of people making a film in a tunnel, it’s not like there’s explosions and a lot of stuff going on; but for an independent film, it was a full working crew.

That’s really quite amazing, because a lot of documentaries are labelled ‘collaborative’ efforts and so on and so forth, but in this instance that’s really, really true.

Even sometimes in terms of funding.

In terms of funding? How would that come about?

Basically, we’re living on the street – so once you max out the credit cards and max out all the different stuff that you’re doing to fund it, you [still have] got a lot of good will – but there’s always times when you’ll need more money. And once you’ve been out on the street long enough, you learn there’s lots of different ways to make money. But sometimes it just requires a little bit – and then you can make a lot more money. I’ll give you one example; so one way to make money on the streets is to collect cans. And you can redeem those cans in for five cents each. And you can go collect a lot of cans, and turn them in – but in New York, there’s only two places to redeem those cans. One place is supermarkets, and they’re open from nine in the morning to five at night. And another place is called, ‘We Can’ – basically a warehouse where you can bring as many cans as you want. There’s no maximum, and they’ll give you a cashier’s cheque you can take down to the local cashing place and get some money. And We Can is open from six in the morning ’til eleven in the morning – so between six at night and six in the morning, there’s nowhere to cash cans. And if you’re a crackhead – or simply a homeless guy who doesn’t want to sleep on a bag of cans, because somebody’ll take them – what we would do, is set up a spot and take two cans for the price of one. And within a couple of weeks, you’d have every crackhead in the city coming to you to cash their cans. Because that’s money right there. And there’s lots of ways like that on the street.

Sounds very lucrative.

You can take advantage of it. So, there were times where we would do two-for-one spots, raise enough money and buy some more film. And you can do quite well.

With the film actually, am I right in reading that Kodak supplied you with free damaged film whenever you ran out?

It wasn’t whenever I ran out; basically it was a one-shot deal, but I’d run out of money for a while now, and we hadn’t filmed anything in maybe a month – could’ve been longer, but it felt like a long time. And I remember going to the lab; I was good friends with people in the lab, I used to like developing the film with them at night, and I liked to just be in the room – I’d go out and learn  lot, right? ‘How’d you this? How’d you do that? How does this work? Show me an editing machine’… But, I went into the lab one night, and was quite upset about something – I didn’t have any money, I couldn’t film, I couldn’t do anything – and I sort of said to them, ‘do you guys have any short-ends?’ And a short-end… you have a can of film which lasts ten minutes, and your scene takes nine minutes when you’re shooting a movie. So you can’t do anything really with that one minute, so a lot of times they would cut it and re-can it, and use it as a short. So the labs tend to have a lot of short-ends, and I said, ‘can I get some short-ends? I don’t care what it is, colour, film stock, I just want to shoot something’. So they said, ‘let me just call Bobby up at Kodak, see if he can help you out’. So, he calls this guy; ‘he wants you to meet him the next day at Kodak’. So Ralph and I went to Kodak – one of the [homeless] guys from the film – and when we got up there and finally got to see him, he sat us down and told us, ‘tell me what you’re doing’. ‘We’re doing this film, we’re trying to help people, but it’s about this and we’re shooting on film…’ and he said, ‘what film stock are you shooting on?’ And we told him, So he said, ‘come with me’. We walked in, and he goes, ‘see that there? Take as much as you can carry.’

Which is fantastic when you’re trying to make a low-budget documentary.

We took as much as we could – you couldn’t see over the top of the film.

So was shooting it in black and white a budgetary or creative decision?

Neither, really – and if it was creative, it wasn’t on my part. It was a friend of mine, he was a film photographer, and he used to show me a little bit about when he was taking his own pictures, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to shoot it on film. What should I shoot it on?’ And he said, ‘well, if you shoot colour you won’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to fuck it all up. It’s going to be red, and green and blue and it’s all going to be off – so man, shoot black and white. Because if you screw it up it’ll still look cool. It can look scratchy and grainy and cracked, but it’ll still look cool.’ And I was like, alright, I’m going to shoot black and white.

I think the monochrome really makes it feel – not necessarily claustrophobic… but it heightens the senses.

I’m thrilled that I did it in black and white. And almost everything down there, frankly, you walk down that tunnel and everything is covered. Put it this way; if you have a flashlight, in that beam of light is so much crap and dust, that if you have a colourful shirt, it looks brown by the time a couple of days have gone by. It’ll just be covered in shit. So everything was sort of black and white anyway!

Going on to after the film went through a tough time of when you were trying to edit it, but when you finally got it to Sundance where it won awards, could you tell us how crazy and different that time must’ve been?

Yeah, it was very, very different because I’d been on the street for a long time, and then editing for a little bit of time, and then back on the street for another year. Then when I finally got the money to finish the film, even the last year or so of finishing the film, I was working basically with one person at any one time, for a year and a half. I worked twenty-hour days, I worked and fell asleep at the computer, woke up, kept working – and that was my home too, right. And so, I didn’t really see anyone, and then towards the very end of making the film, the last few months where we were in the sound, and getting prints, I started to see more and more people. But it basically went from that isolation of maybe five years to going somewhere else – and it was the first time that anywhere else had seen the film. Then all of a sudden, I’m sat in front of two-hundred people, five-hundred and sometimes two-thousand people, and they’re saying, ‘how did you make this? Why did you do this film?’ And I was just like a fucking deer in headlights. And then from there it won stuff, and then you’re just like, holy shit. The biggest thing was, when we first said – Ralph was the one who said it, that someone should make a film about this. When we were sitting round that fire and we’re sort of daydreaming about it – we would say, man, could you imagine if it was in the movie theatres? And I remember Hoop Dreams came out, in like 199… 5? And maybe ten of us from the tunnel went and saw it in the movie theatre.

All as a big group?

Yeah, like an outing. Because it was a documentary that was getting all this acclaim, and we were like, ours is going to do that – but we were in a fucking tunnel. And so, to go from all of that to Sundance, and it just being out there and getting that sort of acclaim, and we had done something that I think anyone can do, you know, you’ve just got to believe you can do it. But everybody else seems to think that you need school, you need all this stuff, and you can’t do it without this or that – and here, we’d done it. And so, it was kind of overwhelming because suddenly you’re around all these people.

darkdays1I think it’s a really good example that anyone can make a film – or can achieve their dreams. I mean, you were in a tunnel…

I think it was really was down to you just gotta have the balls to step off the cliff. And then once you’re off it, you’re falling, and you’ll figure out a way – you know, if you don’t save yourself you’re gonna hit the floor. You don’t build your wings on the way down. You just got to take the first step, and have the confidence to do that.

What’s your favourite memory during your time in the tunnels? Either during shooting, or any other time?

It’s probably some of the more mischievous stuff that we would do to occupy ourselves. I’ll give you one example… So, we share electricity. And a lot of the times there’d be one power line coming down the track and you’d tap into lots of different points. You always want your own power, but the typical thing is somebody else doesn’t have the wire too hook it up, so you’ll share power [with them]. So if you and I are sharing power in the house, and you know what I’ve got in my house and I know what you’ve got in your house, I know exactly what you’re doing in your house by what happens to my power. So if your TV’s picture shrinks, or goes fuzzy, I know you’ve just turned on your cooker. If my light bulb goes dim while my TV’s on, that means so and so forth… I know exactly what you’re doing. So there were two things I could do; one is that some of the girls would be really into their soap operas, and so I had somebody listen when something very important is going to happen – they’re about to kiss, and just at that moment I would turn on everything, and you would hear, ‘nooo!’ And they’d come round the house and be like, ‘fucking turn it back on!’ Then they’d run back in. That’s the thing; down there, there’s a lot of dark humour. You could cut the power and then all of a sudden ten people would come out their house, and then you’d put it back on and they would all go back in their house, and then you’d do it again… I had a lot of fun down there. Like, the tunnel for me wasn’t the difficult part. I lived there for a long time, a lot of cold nights and struggle. But it was like camping in the city; where it wasn’t really hard until I got out into the editing room, lost that and went back out [onto the streets]. That was a much harder time. But the tunnel was a lot of fun. Like what I’m describing now, there’d be something like that everyday.

When I was watching the film, it struck me that the lives that they were leading in the tunnel actually looked…

Quite normal?

… pretty normal, and quite fun. But it was the lives they were describing that they had before which was difficult for them.

Somebody else said that to me today – and what it makes me realise is that you’ll still watch a person dig through the garbage, or you’ll still watch a person wear his full clothes when he’s getting out of bed saying ‘it’s fucking cold!’ And all of this stuff, if we were doing it now, if it was freezing in here now, and we had to go look in the garbage, it isn’t fun. It isn’t nice. What it makes me realise is that it actually is good for me, because you realise that the film did what it sort of set out to do, show the sort of human beings that they are, and I think that’s so not what most people expect when they go to watch it. That that’s what becomes the focus. Someone said to me this morning, ‘you don’t show any of the bad stuff about the people’. And I was like, well there are people smoking crack. It’s still pretty bad.

They weren’t bad towards each other. They were a bit mischievous, perhaps – but not like people in civilisation might treat each other.

Right. And that’s a factor of being on the street, I think. What I learnt out there is that there’s a massive amount of bark, but not as much bite. Now when there is bite, it can go all the way, right? But in general, it doesn’t. Because you’ve still got to go to sleep at night. Now you could be eight feet tall, look like a brick shithouse, be very intimidating, but you want to know something? I’ll fucking set you on fire when you’re asleep… I’m not saying me, but I’m saying it in general, right? What I mean by that is people that live on the street know that they have to go to sleep – on the street! They’ve got no protection. What, you put a wooden box around you, it’s going to protect you if someone’s really got it out for you? So, unless you’re willing to really go all the way, kind of people just don’t. But again, a lot of bark, a lot of intimidation, but not massive amounts of real aggression. So it was kind of nice in the tunnel. People really knew that they had a good thing compared to what it was like sleeping on the street. And some people were generally quite respectful of each other in that way. The only thing there were ever problems with was with drugs, and it was always like somebody gave somebody the money to get the drugs, and they smoked the drugs and never came back. It was always drugs that caused a conflict.

Obviously, Dark Days was first released thirteen, fourteen years ago – and here we are still talking about it.

Twenty years since I went in the tunnel. ’94.

Crazy. The fact that we’re still talking about those experiences… why?

I find it fascinating. I don’t know. I mean, I’m thrilled that it stands up to the test of time; I don’t know why. I think if anything, it’s still relevant in some way. There are still a lot of people living outside, poverty still exists. If anything, it’s a very difficult problem to solve. I don’t know if it’s solvable. So, I think you see a homeless guy on the street, you discover this film, as long as there’s people living on the street, it’s gonna be relevant. And then the tunnel adds another layer to it. Guys living in a tunnel underneath a city – that’s a little bit…

And they were called ‘the tunnel people’ at some point. One last question: they all seem to be quite dab hands at cooking down in the tunnels.

Some better than others…

I want to ask you: What was your favourite delicacy down in the tunnels?

It’s all about the company you keep, and the time in your life… but, Henry cooked a good pork chop.

Dark Days is released on DVD and digitally on February 10th.