I wrote some blurbs on Facebook about Out In The Cold, but it deserves a full-fledged blog post, too.
Out In The Cold is a documentary about homelessness in Minneapolis, and we just finished shooting Wednesday (two days ago). For the movie, my friends John and JD put themselves out on the street to live homeless for seven days. While John and JD are the main "characters" in the documentary, it's really about telling the stories of those who live experiencing homelessness day-in/day-out. John and JD got to hit the "off" switch after a week, and go back to their homes and jobs. People truly experiencing homelessness don't have that privilege. We want to bring light to their stories.
My involvement started in November at an Upper Room social gathering. Talking about filmmaking with my then-acquaintance-now-friend, JD (I'm pretty sure he has a real name, but no one knows what it is, so we call him "JD"), I asked if he had any fun projects coming up, and he told me he was in pre-production for Out In The Cold. At this point I believe I began gesticulating wildly (cue Lost In Space robot) and asked how I could get involved, because homelessness and beggars are issues I care about passionately. Long conversation short, I came on board as line producer, aka, a "details man", for the production.
We enlisted dozens of volunteers from Upper Room to serve 4-hour shifts as production assistants during the shoot, to help collect release forms, carry equipment, drive getaway cars, etc. I scheduled them as best I could to give us 24-hour coverage, especially on the riskier nights that John and JD would be sleeping outside. We also made an appeal at Jacob's Well, and several people offered donations on the spot, which was incredibly humbling and affirming.
Two Mondays ago, the crew met to iron out any last minute details; on Tuesday they shot some interviews and B-roll, then on Wednesday morning, John and JD began their adventure. I didn't have spare vacation time to take the whole week off work, so I worked my normal 9-5, and then joined the crew each evening to help "on set" (downtown Minneapolis), and then take care of dumping/backing up footage & sound, as well as daily paperwork, sending call sheets for the next day, and dealing with receipts and money. Despite missing the daylight hours of shooting, I actually did get to spend a considerable amount of time with the crew, and we got along exceptionally well (I'd never met the camera operator or sound mixer before our Monday pre-pro meeting). And by "exceptionally well" I mean we had a blast. There was a tremendous amount of mutual respect, and we shared a lot of laughs along the way, too.
Even though I couldn't take the entire week's shoot off from work, it was important to me to be there when John and JD first set out, so I arranged with my manager to take a few hours off Wednesday morning. After shooting a "last breakfast", while the crew packed their gear for the day, John and JD and I circled up and I prayed over them for the week ahead. It was important to me partially because I felt guilty not being able to be there during the days, but moreso because I saw this relating to my dream job (that doesn't exist yet) of being a movie set chaplain (even though this isn't overtly a "Christian film").
For several nights during the shoot, JD had pre-arranged for he and John to sleep in one of the downtown area shelters, but other nights they slept outside in their sleeping bags. Night 1 went without incident - the boys were plenty warm and found an overpass that sheltered them from the wind. Night 3 they did not fare as well; around 10/10:30 they were showing early signs of hypothermia (apparently John said something about his scarf tasting like peanut butter, or rubbing peanut butter all over his face - there is disagreement about what was actually said), and so JD called our overnight PAs, parked in a warm car just a block away, to evacuate them. This quote-unquote "failure" was emotionally difficult on John. On the one hand, our emergency planning worked correctly - we'd staffed PAs for the overnight with explicit directions to check in on the boys often, and they were there to evacuate them immediately. More importantly, pride didn't get in the way, and neither JD nor John "tried to be a hero." On the other hand, this epitomizes the difference between a film project simulating homelessness, and people who are experiencing homelessness for real. JD and John had the privilege of pulling the eject lever, and they were safe. I wrestle with knowing not everyone can do that.
On Saturday, JD left to attend a mandatory workshop for a grant he'd applied for to help fund the movie, and I got to spend the day (starting at the inhuman time of 6:30 a.m.) with John and our crew, Ben and Matt. Since I knew we'd be spending a lot of our day outside, I clad myself in long underwear (purchased during a late-night adventure to a sketchy Kmart the night before) and multiple layers of shirts and coats. For the majority of the day I actually found myself quite comfortable. The morning started slowly, but in the afternoon we interviewed a man signing at a freeway exit, John got some free coffee and a sandwich from the Basilica, and we hung out in the skyways for a bit to warm up. We captured some really cool footage of a phenomenally talented street musician (skyway musician?) named Quinn outside of Macy's. He wasn't homeless, but we interviewed him anyway. One of his insights particularly caught me: he said it's usually the poor people who will throw a few bucks into his guitar case, because they understand what it's like to be in need; rich people just want to hold onto whatever they've got. I don't think he's wrong.
After Quinn we talked in the skyway for probably an hour with a man who'd been in and out of homelessness for 41 years since the age of 9. He didn't agree to be on camera, but was willing to share his story with John offline. And I definitely think he had one or two screws loose (specific example: he said he could always read people, and followed this by saying John was an alcoholic... which isn't anywhere near truth, so...), nevertheless it was a fascinating conversation. He also gave John a pointer on a heated stairwell in the skyway system where John and JD might be able to sleep at night (which they did, two nights later).
At this point, a "man in black" appeared from nowhere and asked us to move along with our camera equipment; he touched a weird key-like thing to a panel in the skyway wall, and then when we looked back, he was gone, poof, disappeared. This became the source of many-a-joke for the afternoon.
Leaving the skyway, we made our way toward the Target Center, where John signed for half an hour at the 394 exit. (behind-the-scenes story: while we were shooting, the Target Center security/anti-terrorism folks came and talked with us about our camera; they were all very professional and courteous, and never actually asked us to leave, since they figured out pretty quickly our camera was aimed across the street, not at their building. Matt the sound mixer and I were amused how incredibly quickly the security manager's interest collapsed when I started talking about homelessness and the documentary. I guess, thanks for figuring out we're not terrorists!).
When John talked about his experience signing, what was fascinating to me is he said people deliberately avoided eye contact with him. There were a couple people who gave him money, and they would say something like, "I'm sorry I can't give more", but then even they would break eye contact and stare straight ahead. I'm guilty of doing that, too, if I'm honest. The most extreme example John told us about was one woman, when she saw John in the left lane, stopped, backed up, and shifted lanes right, to avoid the situation.
Soap box moment: money is really tight for me right now, so I get it about not wanting or not being able to hand out cash to beggars. I'm not advocating one way or the other. But dear Reader, something FREE you can give, is dignity. You can look someone in the eye and acknowledge they are human. That doesn't cost anything. If you feel safe doing so, roll down your window and ask what their name is. Or heck, if you've got extra time on your hands, park your car, walk up to them and ask for their story.
After leaving the Target Center, we stopped at a Starbucks to warm up and de-caffeinate in their restroom. John found another friend to talk to, a crotchety janitorial guy who John said was nice, but like I said, my impression of him was very "get off my lawn." While John talked to him, we observed a young woman sitting behind them dressed ... scantily. In the safety of retrospect, now I actually wish I'd tried to engage her in conversation, because some day I'd like to get involved in the ministry of the XXX Church. I digress.
On our way to meet back up with JD, we interviewed a couple folks on the street, the most memorable for all of us, was Monty. I sure hope a lot of his interview makes it into the final cut of the film, because he was so eloquent in his story. Monty had experienced homelessness twice in his lifetime, but now he has a home, a career, and a family, and he was much better dressed than any of us. My take-away from our conversation with him was, "if I've been homeless for years and you yell at me 'get a job', how am I supposed to do that when I don't have the right clothes, or the interview skills to go in and make a good impression to actually get a job?"
That night we met a couple in their very early twenties who've been homeless for one month, trying to make their way to her dad's home west of Minnesota. We talked with them for a long time, and our whole crew really felt connected to their story. It was one more reminder to me that you never know someone's background until you ask - people enter homelessness from so many different avenues. After their interview, I told them what an inspiration they were to me - they weren't married, they'd not made the "for better and worse" vows, and yet they were truly living out those words; it was deeply heartening to be witness to their story.
On Sunday, I joined the crew in the afternoon between my church services, and to my delight they'd successfully made contact with David, a panhandler I met last month, and he was showing them around. After we wrapped with David, the crew grabbed thai food for lunch, while John ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made using the food he'd bought his first day being homeless. I'm in awe of John, because he had the option of us feeding him "real" food, but he insisted on going method. In his words, the rest of us can do a lot of different jobs on the movie (camera, editing, producing, etc) but he felt he brought only one thing (being the subject of the documentary), and so he was going to do that one thing as best and all-out as he could. We (the crew) all admired and tremendously respected his grit, and we repeatedly said this even behind John's back.
By Monday night, we were all really worried about the shelter where John and JD would be staying that night, because apparently everyone they'd talked to on the street had told them "don't stay there, it's dangerous." On our way there we were heckled by an intoxicated fellow who'd only recently left homelessness, and was clearly very bitter about his poverty as compared to our relative wealth. As we walked away, I told him, "I know you're in no place to receive this right now, but I will be praying for you." Maybe that sounds judgmental and holier-than-thou; for me it came from a heart of sadness seeing his situation, and knowing that he was right to say I couldn't understand what he'd been through. I meant what I said sincerely. He of course, did not receive it well.
For all the warnings and the jokes-not-really-jokes we made about getting shanked at the Monday night shelter, it turned out rather anti-climactic. I'm pretty sure we saw at least one drug deal go down on our way in, but aside from that when we were inside we felt relatively safe. Just in case, though, we did have two PAs circling the block in their car as a quick getaway vehicle. We "tucked-in" John and JD and then the crew and I left. The boys were still alive next morning so... that was a good thing :)
Having spent the weekend helping on set, coming back to work Monday morning was hard. I wrote something on my Facebook wall, and it still holds true:
After spending the weekend on the streets with Out In the Cold, it's challenging coming back to my comfortable 9-5 cubicle job. I'd say "first world problem" except, the problem with that is, poverty and homelessness *IS* a first world problem. I met it face to face, through the stories of Robert, Tim, Monty, Mikal & Judith, David, and so many more.
After production wrapped Wednesday afternoon, the crew went out for drinks, and I joined JD later in the day after I got off work. In addition to discussing with JD the deeply philosophical question, "how is it a lot of these guys experiencing homelessness have girlfriends, and we don't?", it was a good time to come down off the high of the film, and share thoughts. For me, some of the most rewarding moments were hearing how the interviews affected our two crew guys, who are awesome people but still hired for the job, not necessarily emotionally invested like JD, John, and myself were. Yet I think they became emotionally invested, and were touched by the stories they heard.
Practically everyone's asked, "when will the movie be done?" JD's goal is to be accepted into an Oscars-eligible festival, which would include Sundance, South by Southwest, the Twin Cities Film Fest, and a few others. Sundance's deadline will be in August/September timeframe, so that's what we'll be targeting, at least for now.
If you're interested in following the film, check it out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/outinthecoldfilm.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I've been around people non-stop for the past week and a half, and I desperately need some introvert time to recharge. If you need me, I'll be at home, staring at a wall.