New York City’s Penn Station is the busiest train station in the western world. Every day thousands of commuters travel through its transit system and congested platforms to reach their allotted destinations. Scott Lazer, in his new pulsing 16mm video essay Commute, sees the visceral and hectic nature at play in the station accompanied by an equally oscillating soundtrack. DN caught up with Lazer who revealed how he managed to shoot in the station over a series of Christmases whilst, almost entirely, avoiding the cops.
I’m curious to know what Commute was born out of? Is that station really familiar to you?
When I was in college at Rutgers in New Jersey, my friends and I would often take the train into Manhattan to roam the city. Having grown up in the South, public transportation (particularly by rail) was a pretty foreign practice to me, so some of my first commuting experiences were aboard NJ Transit. Coming back to campus through New York Penn Station, I remember the thrill I felt the first time I joined the stampede of people rushing to catch their train after the monitors delivered the sacred message of their platform number.
My goal was to capture the dreadful wait for the platform number and the charge that follows hurrying to catch a train.
Years later after I graduated, I took the train back to Rutgers to speak to a class when I was once again struck by the zombie-like glare commuters sustained on the platform monitors in the waiting room, and it dawned on me that this might make for an interesting film. I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to make it, but my goal was to capture the dreadful wait for the platform number and the charge that follows hurrying to catch a train.
It has such a visual fluidity to it, did you shoot it all in a day or was a more drawn out process?
To capture the most congested, coldest, and brutal conditions, we filmed on the Friday before Christmas in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Because I didn’t know what the finished product would be, I kept going back to Penn with more specific shots in mind until I felt like we had what we needed. The first time we went, the cops tried to shut us down, but they finally let it slide if we agreed to keep our equipment off the floor to avoid a fire hazard. By the third day of production two years later, we knew what areas were better to keep from getting caught, and our shot list had become much shorter and more specific. The last day I went back for literally one shot.
How did that affect everything when you came into the edit?
Because I didn’t know what the film would become when I first set out to make it, it took a while to find it, especially considering how short the total run time is. It took such small, incremental steps forward for so long that I almost gave up on it. Also, our Cinematographer Lucas Millard shot Commute on an ARRI 416 film camera, and the film was scanned and processed at Metropolis Post in Manhattan which added time to the process.
Did that spur the inclusion of the voiceover?
For a long time, the film had no narration, only music, which bugged me because it played like a music video, which was exactly the kind of thing I was trying not to make. Then one day, I had lunch with one of my best friend’s brothers, Wilson Kello, who is a daily commuter on NJ Transit, and I told him I was working on a film about commuters at Penn. He immediately launched into this incredible, impassioned, zany, hilarious monologue about what it’s like to ride the train to New Jersey every day. So, I asked him if I could record him talking about this for the film, which he agreed to do.
It took such small, incremental steps forward for so long that I almost gave up on it.
I booked us an ADR studio in Manhattan to record and time his narration with the picture, and we knocked it out in about two hours. Wilson’s voice gave the film a wonderful new point of view, some comedic levity, and transformed the piece into a sort of visual essay. It finally felt complete.
Strange question, but have you shown the film to any commuters at New York Penn Station? I’m curious to know how people have responded to the humour in the film? Also, what did Wilson make of the finished film?
Aside from when I played Wilson the film when we recorded his voiceover, I didn’t expressly screen Commute to any NJ Transit commuters prior to its release. However, after the film’s release I did get a number of messages from commuters sharing their appreciation for seeing their daily struggles represented in a film. One woman who is a daily commuter from New Jersey sent me the kindest email, thanking me for “giving a voice to people like her”. Reactions like this, when a stranger sees something you made and relates it to their own life, are the most gratifying for me.
As for Wilson’s reaction, he loved the final film, and we’re already talking about other ways we can put daily life under the microscope like we did in Commute. He actually called me a few days after Commute’s release to tell me that his neighbour, also a fellow commuter, came across the film online and recognised Wilson’s voice, which was very cool to hear.
And last but not least, what can we expect from you next? What are you working on?
I actually have two more completed short films that I will release this year. The first is a documentary, Visitors, which I filmed with Taylor McIntosh during the “Storm Area 51” event in Rachel, Nevada last September. That will be released online June 10th. The second, Mango, is a short narrative film about an explicit affair told from the perspective of a mobile phone. Taylor lensed that project as well. Because so much of my work historically has been in the world of music, these films Commute, Visitors and Mango are a return for me to storytelling, which is what drew me to filmmaking in the first place and is the direction I want to go with my work.