Initially, I’d intended to make my web series, Three Trembling Cities, entirely fictional. It was going to be a braided piece chronicling the lives of different immigrants, each of whom is going through different issues and is part of a different social circle. Their stories were inspired by those of my friends, coworkers, my fiancé, neighbors, industry peers, and acquaintances — all the many people who make up this city. But it was always intended to be fiction.
Ben Wolf, one of the producers and the cinematographer, thought we’d gain a lot by weaving real-life stories from immigrants into the fictional narrative. It was a cool idea, one that I’ve seen done only a few times — in the film Reds (1981, Warren Beatty) and When Harry Met Sally (1987, Rob Reiner), and American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini).
Their stories were inspired by those of my friends, coworkers, my fiancé, neighbors, industry peers, and acquaintances — all the many people who make up this city. But it was always intended to be fiction.
Once I finished the script, we set about finding people to interview. Debarati Biswas, one of the producers, is herself an immigrant (and the inspiration for one of the characters), so it made sense to interview her. Between her, Ben, producer Daria Sommers, and me, we reached out to a number of folks, and scheduled a dozen interviews. We included in our definition of immigrants people who came from other places within the USA as well, and also added a few folks whose parents had come from abroad. We invited them out to Debarati’s and my apartment in Brooklyn, luring them in with booze, catered food from Sahadi’s and the promise of a fun winter afternoon get-together.
I wrote up a list of about six intro questions to serve as launching points for further discussion:
We shot our subjects facing the lens directly, in front of a greenscreen. We wanted the audience to feel connected to the interviewees, as though they were part of a conversation. The greenscreen gave us options — we could decide later what we wanted to put behind them. We interviewed about a dozen people, ending up with several hours of footage. Each interview took about twenty minutes to half an hour to shoot.
Since we were launching our crowdfunding campaign in January, I had about three weeks to put together a series of videos that would help pitch the show. We relied a lot on the interviews. To augment them, Ben and me (mostly Ben) shot a lot of scenic footage from around the city, and pulled some clips from previous projects. I cut the interviews audio-first — getting rid of pauses and digressions — until I got solid 20-to-30 second clips. We used the scenic footage to cover the jumps.
What to put in the background behind the actors? I searched for something more thematic. Looking at the scenic footage, we saw something that we’d known at a gut level for a long time — that the subway serves as a kind of cultural conduit for the city. New York has become an increasingly segregated city. Neighborhoods and even individual blocks are cordoned off from each other by skyrocketing rents, gentrification, the disappearance of unstructured public space, and “artisanal” stores and restaurants pushing out older mom and pop shops. But everyone ends up having to take the subway together. Daria also saw this as a powerful way to tie the series together visually.
we saw something that we’d known at a gut level for a long time — that the subway serves as a kind of cultural conduit for the city
I took a map of the subway and stretched it over a map of the globe, Photoshopped out everything except the train lines, and suddenly had a very iconic, colorful image that wasn’t too distracting.
This ultimately led to using subway motifs throughout the show. In many of the episodes, characters travel via subway. The opening credits include footage shot from the windows of various elevated trains (the N, 7, and J). The first episode starts with Urmi walking out from under the shadow of the Jackson Heights 7 stop. Even the font we used was based on the squished Helvetica that the modern subway signage uses.
I reviewed the interviews over the next couple of months in between prepping for the shoot. I took out clips that seemed especially concise and focused. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to integrate the interviews with the fictional storyline, but trusted that we’d figure it out and put most of my energy on shooting and editing the fictional component.
We shot the fictional storyline in May/June 2016, and edited it together without the interviews. After finishing the third cut, I experimentally inserted interview clips into different parts of each episode — at the beginning, in between scenes, and at the end. Ultimately, the only thing that flowed well was putting them at the end of the episode. I tried to match the subject matter and theme of each episode with the theme of the clips. But the results felt a little forced, like an after-school special where the host comes out and talks about today’s “lesson.”
Instead I let the emotions of the storylines guide me. What were the characters feeling? What were the interviewees trying to express about New York City, about the “lived experience” of being an immigrant? This worked much better. At the end of Episode 1, when best friends Urmi and Ilona talk about Ilona leaving the country (and leaving Urmi behind), there’s an underlying tension about this separation. This keyed into Dr. Sucharita Bhaumik’s interview, where she talks about how overwhelmed she felt when she first got to NYC and found herself just one among the “teaming millions.”
Once I started looking at the emotional arcs of the interviews and episodes it became fairly easy to match up interview clips to episodes. The interviews started to talk to each other as well — Dr. Bhaumik felt overwhelmed by the size of the city, whereas Samprit Banerjee liked the fact that he can “lose himself” in the city and still remain an individual. Joanna Correa felt that the city offered her personal space that she didn’t have in Sao Paolo. But Shu Nakamura loved the fact that New Yorkers are more openly argumentative and angry than the Japanese folks he grew up with.
By the fifth picture cut, all the interviews were in place. I tweaked the interview lengths a bit, and I had to cut the 10th episode interview out. It felt stronger to end the season on the narrative storyline.
The inclusion of the interviews has provoked a divided response among fans of the show. Some love the extra texture they add to the show, while others find they get in the way of the fiction. Some feel that the interviews are introducing the next chapter rather than relating to the one they just watched. Some wanted more variety in our interviewees; others suggested putting the interviews into their own episode. I’m rather pleased that this choice has generated such divisions — it means people are engaged in what’s going on. It’s definitely something we want to continue and possibly expand on in Season 2.
Many thanks to the show’s producers — Ben Wolf, Daria Sommers and Debarati Biswas. Also to our interviewees (alphabetically): Samprit Banerjee, Dr. Sucharita Bhaumik, Debipriya Chatterjee, Joana Correa, Luchia Dragosh, Faith Pennick, Kristin Moriah, Shu Nakamura, Ursula Verduzco, Lucy Yau.
You can watch the first season of Three Trembling Cities on Stareable.