The Red Cars, Not Redcoats, Are Coming
By ANDY NEWMAN
oe McCarthy sees Redcoats everywhere in Brooklyn.
In his mind's eye, British troops come surging by the tens of thousands off the war boats massed in the Narrows off Bay Ridge, just as they did on the humid, breezy morning of Aug. 27, 1776. They march in endless formation up Fourth Avenue, past the auto body places and worn bodegas, and pelt the badly outnumbered Americans with cannon fire and grapeshot from the yard of the Old Stone House, across Fourth Avenue from Staples.
Mr. McCarthy -- a filmmaker unrelated to the Communist-sniffing senator -- wants everyone to be able to see what he sees. But he lacks the money to make a movie camera see 5,000 British soldiers advancing up the dirt track of the Gowanus Road.
Which is how, on a humid, breezy morning in August 2000, he found himself standing in the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway, shouting over the endless crescendo of gunning engines and directing eight young bicyclists in red T-shirts to lead a charge up to the next traffic light.
It is not easy to shoot a half-hour historical drama about a battle involving 44,000 men on a budget of $100,000. So when Mr. McCarthy, a moderately successful creator of corporate promotional films, set out at age 53 to make his first independent feature, he decided to make virtues of his many necessities.
He dispensed for the most part with frills like sets, props and actors. Instead, he tried to recreate -- all right, evoke -- the Battle of Brooklyn, the bloodiest but one of the least-known episodes of the American Revolution, with a star-unstudded cast of one, plus a handful of nonspeaking bit players. He chose, wherever possible, to film in the exact locations where skirmishes were fought, no matter how incongruous.
"If I had more money," Mr. McCarthy said between scenes one afternoon outside the Old Stone House, now rebuilt and serving as a part-time museum, "I'd make this differently. But it is what I wrote."
Mr. McCarthy, a 15-year resident of Cobble Hill and lifelong American history buff, read a book about the battle in 1997 and was deeply moved.
For 12 hours, in clashes scattered over several miles of the borough, 9,000 American soldiers fought largely in vain to stave off the assaults of 35,000 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries determined to squelch the revolution once and for all.
But at the battle's climax, 400 soldiers from Maryland delayed a British force of 2,000 at the Old Stone House.
The Marylanders stormed the building again and again, took it twice, ultimately lost it, but helped buy George Washington enough time to escape with 9,000 troops across the East River to Manhattan to regroup and fight another day.
Mr. McCarthy bought the rights to the book "The Battle of Brooklyn: 1776" (Sarpedon Publishers, 1995), by John J. Gallagher. But he needed a main character on which to focus.
He found him in Gen. William Alexander, the fearless commander of the Maryland troops. The general was a failed 52-year-old businessman whose anti-British sentiments were fueled less by egalitarianism than by anger at Parliament for refusing to recognize him as the Earl of Stirling, heir to land grants covering Long Island, Maine and Newfoundland.
"Lord Stirling is not necessarily a good person," Mr. McCarthy said. "He's not, you know, a George Washington, a perfect icon. He's a flesh-and-blood human being with anger and resentment and frustration. And he found himself at a place where he could do his duty as a republican, and he did it."
The movie is called "The Brave Man."
The five-day shoot began July 31. The first scene to be shot was the trickiest, and, at $7,500 for about four seconds of film, the most expensive. Sixteen red cars, most of them rented Ford Tauruses, representing the British forces, were to drive in formation up all eight lanes of a blocked-off Fourth Avenue from 28th Street to 26th, with timed explosions going off in front of them to represent the firing of their cannons.
Courtesy Brown University
|A 19th-century engraving of the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776, which gave Washington time to evacuate his main force to Manhattan.
"You're showing what happened over that geography," Mr. McCarthy's art director, Rolf Grimsted, explained, "and that the geography is paved over is really part of the story."
Not surprisingly, obstacles arose. Pedestrians kept wandering in front of the camera. During one take, a man with a cane hobbled across the thoroughfare just as the first charge was set off. Mr. McCarthy, an almost eerily even-tempered man, allowed himself a single shouted epithet.
At 11 a.m., the star, Graeme Malcolm, a Broadway journeyman who spends his evenings understudying in "The Real Thing," arrived. He is tall, gaunt and, like Lord Stirling, Scottish-born. Mr. Malcolm, whose character morphs between a present-day tour guide and Lord Stirling, donned uniform and wig and delivered his first lines in the median strip of Fourth Avenue after dancing across lanes of choreographed traffic.
"The shots rolled up the road ripping off legs," he read breathlessly off the cue cards. "Smithereens of shattered balls tore flesh all around."
There were several scenes to be shot at the Old Stone House.
The house, a squat, two-story structure on Third Street in Park Slope that sits in the middle of a playground, is the most prominent monument to the Battle of Brooklyn. It reminds Mr. McCarthy of how poorly the battle has been remembered.
"If you look at the greensward in Concord, Mass., where there's a bridge were 16 people shot 30 shots over the bridge, the greensward is miles long, and they built this little community of gift shops and antique shops around this great thing," he said. "And look what we've got here."
Though there is talk of creating a Battle of Brooklyn heritage trail, all there are now are some plaques scattered around the borough, the house and a monument to the Marylanders in an obscure corner of Prospect Park.
(The Old Stone House will be the site of much of "Battle Week 2000," an 11-day commemoration that starts tomorrow at 11 a.m. at Eighth Street and Third Avenue with a salute to the Marylanders.)
On and off the set, mishaps happened. A hit-and-run driver knocked the side-view mirror off the rented equipment truck. More dauntingly, the smoke machine, the heart of Mr. McCarthy's tiny effects repertoire, conked out. A replacement was rushed to the scene.
But Mr. McCarthy, who beneath his usual Panama hat wore the goofy grin of a man who cannot quite believe his good fortune, appeared untroubled. And Mr. Malcolm kept his focus, exhorting imaginary troops to turn the enemy's cannons against them. "Let them feel the sting!" he cried, sword held aloft, as Mr. Grimsted and his assistant fanned smoke in his direction. "Stand your ground!"
By Wednesday, spent shooting a squad of blue- and red-uniformed re-enactors in Prospect Park, casualties were mounting. A production assistant crashed the supply van into a truck. A hair in the frame on one of the previous day's reels meant a scene had to be reshot.
And there were grumblings about lunch, a bleak smorgasbord of supermarket cold cuts and mayonnaise-based salads. "I told him I was a vegetarian," a ponytailed gaffer griped.
The production manager, Ray Foley, took it in stride. "Some of the crew are used to commercial shoots, where they really feed you well," he said. "But as long as they stay on the job till Friday, I'm O.K."
In front of the camera, though, things were going great. The meadow rang with musket fire and the re-enactors were bleeding up a storm. And the new smoke machine stood up to a vigorous workout.
"Smoke it up!" Mr. McCarthy shouted, coachlike, during one scene.
On Aug. 4, the production traveled to Third Avenue, under the Gowanus Expressway. The traffic pounded relentlessly, a full-spectrum symphony of bass tractor-trailers, baritone vans and tenor subcompacts. The Redcoats on bicycles, played by three production assistants and five teenagers from the Fort Greene Youth Patrol, could not hear their directions. Mr. Malcolm, his voice already raw from four days of shouting, was barely audible.
Then it was over to Sixth Street, where a purpled-haired production assistant had gotten his parents' permission to use their roof to shoot a vista of the Gowanus Valley.
Mr. McCarthy climbed a rickety wooden ladder, cut his elbow on a rusty nail, and emerged onto a breathtaking view of the rear ends of row houses.
"This was supposed to be a panorama across the whole valley," he said, sounding wounded. There were narrow view corridors on the far left and far right. It would have to do.
There were two more scenes. One was at the lot of the U-Haul center across the street, where Lord Stirling gathered his men for the charge against the Old Stone House. The troops were played by 14 three-legged metal trailer stands, each about a foot high.
"We must stop them, men!" Mr. Malcolm shouted at the stanchions. "For God and country we must stop them! We must take the house!"
Nearby, Carmen Flores leaned on the trunk of a car, taking in the action. A graduate of William Alexander Junior High School, which lies next to the Old Stone House, Ms. Flores, 20, said she had no idea her alma mater was named for a local military hero. "The whole time I was there, they never explained to us anything about it," she said.
The last shot, as dusk began to fall, was a long speech on Seventh Street, near where the bones of more than 1,000 patriots lie hidden beneath homes and warehouses. The whole block watched in rapt silence. At the end, Mr. McCarthy hugged his star.
The end of shooting meant the return to reality. Mr. McCarthy has to raise $20,000 by the end of the month, the amount he went over budget. DuPont, a longtime client, wants a film about industrial glass. And Mr. McCarthy needs another $60,000 to finish the movie.
"I'm out of friends that write $10,000 checks," he said. Though he hopes for educational distribution, he does not know where, if anywhere, the movie will eventually show.
But the dailies looked great. Mr. Malcolm looked very PBS, the explosions read like explosions and the smoke was magical.
Yesterday, Mr. McCarthy was holed up in an editing studio putting together a rough cut.
"We're at that great anxiety period of beginning again," he said over the sound of cannons. "It's coming very nicely. It's just that we're just starting."