A few steps from the East River in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, police Lt. Milton M. Maldonado and filmmaker Kevin Breslin are discussing a difficult problem: How to flip a speeding car so it rolls over completely--360 degrees in the air--and lands safely on all four tires.
In a deserted area it would be a dicey stunt. On the city's crowded streets it becomes far more dangerous. The heavily traveled block where the car is scheduled to land is studded with potential hazards.
A gasoline station stands on one corner. Nearby is a posh riverfront restaurant, normally crowded with diners on a Sunday--when the stunt is planned. The river itself looms in the flight path of the car, which will be catapulted off a ramp that poses additional concerns: Before film crews can drill holes for spikes to anchor the ramp, Maldonado and city officials must be sure no gas lines or electric cables run underneath.
Maldonado, a 46-year-old veteran of the force, heads the 27-person Police Department Movie/TV Unit--a New York command serving as liaison between film crews and communities. The unit's mission is to assist the film industry while movies are being made--a service the city offers free in its effort to entice movie makers to work here. It also is charged with supervising filmmaking to ensure that permits to film are not exceeded, safety is maintained and neighborhoods aren't unduly disrupted.
"We are going to have a boat and scuba divers standing by," Maldonado said, glancing at the deep, fast-flowing river.
"Probably have the Fire Department too," added Breslin, production manager for the film, "Guns of Dragon," a low-budget movie being made by a Hong Kong company.
Later, Maldonado turns to a companion. "All I'm trying to do is see that everybody walks away safely," he says. "We are very conscious of the community and the surrounding areas."
Movie making is staging a comeback in New York. In the first eight months of this year, permits for 96 features were issued to production companies by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting--up from 54 a year ago.
More than 15 studio feature films with an average budget of $29 million were shot in New York this summer, the result of greater union flexibility in a new contract plus an aggressive campaign by the Administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins, which courted producers from Cannes to California.
"We are increasingly seeing a higher percentage of the permits issued to studio films . . . . We're seeing very big features," said Richard Brick, the city's film commissioner.
Since assuming office last November, Brick, a veteran of the movie industry, has brought a producer's sensibilities to his post.
When the director and producer of "Six Degrees of Separation," the movie based of John Guare's play, planned to build a set in Toronto depicting a New York apartment overlooking Central Park, Brick's staff found a vacant 5th Avenue apartment facing the park. After unions pitched in with additional savings, the film was shot entirely in New York.
When Ron Silver, who plays a police commissioner in the two-hour TV movie "The Good Policeman," wanted firsthand experience, the city arranged for the actor to tag along with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and for the film's art director to see the commissioner's office.
Most feature films still are made in California. Statistics from the California Film Commission show that 67% of the 480 features made in the U.S. last year were shot in California, in whole or in part. But the fight for the remaining 33% is fierce. About 250 film commissions throughout the United States and Canada compete and offer concessions.
Cities benefit from the dollars spent by film companies while a movie is made, but, in addition, favorable images of a city in a motion picture can bring increased tourism.
Services provided by the New York police unit are free--unlike such services in most other cities, including Los Angeles--and are a vital part of the incentive package here.
Maldonado, a 23-year veteran of the force who started his career on the mean streets of the South Bronx, attends pre-production meetings. He inquires whether stunts will take place, whether streets need to be closed, whether large crowds are expected, whether guns will be displayed or fired, and whether actors will be dressed as police officers.
New York has strict gun laws designed to avoid a tragedy like the fatal shooting of actor Brandon Lee on a Wilmington, N.C., movie set in March. Police make sure movie weapons can't fire live ammunition. Actors are forbidden to carry prop guns away from sets or to dress as cops off the set.
The last thing police want is a uniformed actor being thrust into a real crime drama. Police officials also realize the department's image can suffer if an actor in a police uniform is seen drinking a beer on a park bench during a production break.
The fact that police officers in New York City aren't paid by producers helps ensure objectivity.
"They will say no to filmmakers if it is something too demanding of the public," said Harvey Waldman, line producer of "White Man's Burden," a film shot in the city. "At the same time, they do incredible things, like shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge or Times Square."
A few days after Maldonado's first visit, he meets with Breslin and Bob Ivy, the stunt driver who will attempt to flip the car, near the Brooklyn Bridge. Maldonado still is worried. He questions the stuntman closely about his resume and about precautions to be taken. Ivy says the car will have a reinforced roll cage, a special racing seat with sturdy harnesses and only a single gallon of gasoline to minimize the risk of fire.
The police lieutenant asks Breslin if paramedics and a city ambulance will be present. The production manager says yes. Maldonado gives the go-ahead for Sunday.
After a rainy night, the weather is clear on car stunt Sunday. A police launch, with scuba divers aboard, is anchored close to the landing area. Paramedics and two ambulances are present. But the movie crew is delayed during filming of other scenes and light is fading rapidly in the late afternoon when they finally arrive.
As holes are drilled in the street to anchor the ramp, the drill bits hit cobblestones and go no further. Spikes to hold the ramp in place are too long and have to be shortened.
Now there is a real race with the clock. It is growing darker by the minute. Ivy pulls on his yellow fire-retardant suit, adjusts his helmet. The stunt driver looks tense. Finally, crew members return from a machine shop with the shorter spikes. Ivy himself helps pound them into the street with a sledgehammer.
Maldonado radios for a police emergency truck carrying the Jaws of Life--a tool used to pry open wrecked cars to rescue passengers trapped inside.
The stunt driver makes a practice run, stopping the gray Pontiac just in front of the ramp. A single gallon is poured into the gasoline tank. Behind the wheel, Ivy tightens his safety harness.
"We've got five minutes' light," Breslin shouts. "Let's go!"
Maldonado and other movie unit police officers clear the area of traffic. Ivy guns the engine of the stunt car more than a block away. The car speeds toward the steel ramp, hits it at 55 miles per hour, flies 20 feet into the air, turns completely over and, with a crash of metal, lands upright.
For just a second, everyone is frozen. Then members of the film crew race toward the vehicle. They help Ivy, who gets out slowly.
"He's all right. Thank you," Breslin shouts. "It's a wrap."
The filmmaker looks relieved. So does Maldonado.
Times researcher Audrey Britton contributed to this story.