Two Towers, Six Years, and 16 Millimeters
The remarkable journey – and uncertain toll – of Steve Bilich's 'Native New Yorker'
Every film has a backstory just like every life has a history, but rarely do the two commingle to such a fantastic and phantasmagoric degree as they do in Austin filmmaker Steve Bilich's 13-minute short "Native New Yorker," which took home the Best Documentary Short award at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
The twin stories of Steve Bilich and the film he made are, quite literally, the stuff dreams – and nightmares – are made of. They're silver-nitrate flickers backdropped against X-rays and MRI scans, and they teem with the pedestrian ghosts of strangers and the tangible memories of friends. They're remarkable not only for the skill, luck, and sheer universal coincidences that had to align before this particular filmmaker could take home that particular award but for the very fact that they exist at all.
Bilich's cinematic record of his home at that time, Manhattan, encapsulates everything from the history of the island of Manhattan and its long-gone native inhabitants to the history of Gotham City's skyline and its not-so-long-gone landmark twins. And it's the story of Bilich himself, the son of an actress, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time or, as he puts it, "the wrong place at the wrong time that turned out to be right after all."
It's a film, too, whose physical toll is only slowly becoming apparent: As one of thousands of 9/11 "first responders," Bilich is at an exponentially higher risk for respiratory and pulmonary ailments. In the past few months, a chest X-ray turned up a spot on his lung, and although his recent biopsy came back negative, there's still that nagging spot (a second biopsy will be done), a noticeably reduced lung capacity, and other respiratory ills that "come and go." This is, sadly, status quo for nearly all of the surviving first responders of 9/11.
Visually, "Native New Yorker" follows Bilich's friend and shaman trail scout Terry "Coyote" Murphy (half-Cherokee and half-Irish, shirtless and braided, and how's that for a native New Yorkian genome-scramble?) as he traverses from Inwood Hill Park – where Manhattan was "bought" with booze and beads in 1625 after Henry Hudson discovered the island on Sept. 11, 1609 – to not far from the World Trade Center, which plumes smoke in the background as emergency vehicles jitter in and out of frame, trailing ashy tendrils in their magnificently unnerving wake. It's that day, yes, but this is less a record of horror than of surreality. You watch it once and then, immediately, again and again, peeling back the layers of inadvertent meaning and accidental metaphor, as the black-and-white, 16mm photography exposes and overexposes red skins, white skins, black skins, and brown skins. Surely this was planned. Surely it had to be. But no.
Narratively, the very fact that Bilich's film exists was made possible only by a looping chain of coincidence and chance, luck and adversity, earthshaking historical events, and the most mundane aspects of the filmmaking life, like, for instance, scraping together enough change to pay for lab processing. Or, say, buying a battered old camera at a Manhattan flea market.
"I was born and bar mitzvahed in the bayou," says Bilich, by way of introduction. (Full disclosure: I've known and been a friend of Bilich's since I wrote about his debut feature, Ruta Wakening, in 1994.) Despite having spent nearly a full year of his life working at Ground Zero – and accruing the incipient physiological and mental damages that have, over time, become all-too-common in 9/11 first responders – he looks like the proverbial million bucks. He is, as ever, quick with a joke, a smile, always asking how you are. This will be the first time I've heard the full story of how "Native New Yorker" came to be and what, exactly, happened on that awful day, and although emotion sometimes lodges in his throat, Bilich is remarkably composed in the telling.
(Which is pretty remarkable in and of itself: Bilich lost a lot of friends on 9/11, including several from New York City Fire Department's Ten House, or Engine 10/Ladder 10, whose firehouse was within striking distance of the World Trade Center. His best friend, fireman Bobby Beddia of Engine 24, perished along with FDNY partner Joseph Graffagnino while battling the Deutsche Bank conflagration this past August. Because the Deutsche Bank had been heavily damaged on 9/11 – in news photos, it's the one covered in black netting – and had no functioning standpipe, the Fire Department had to raise hoses from street level. Six years on, and 9/11 isn't over yet, not by a long shot.)
"The evolution of 'Native New Yorker' was a series of trials and errors," Bilich explains. "It was originally called 'Native American in Manhattan' and was a seven-minute-long short that was edited together by my friend [and Continental Club co-founder] Jack Hazzard while I was still at Ground Zero collecting dust in my lungs."
Two years before, on a visit to Manhattan, Bilich's mother, an actress, cajoled her son into accompanying her to what was then a vibrant flea market at 26th Street and Sixth Avenue.
Bilich explains: "She said, 'Maybe you'll find an old camera,' and it was almost as if she knew. Moms know, right? So we go to the market, and lo and behold, I end up buying this beautiful 1924 Cine-Kodak, hand-crank, spring-loaded camera from an Australian Aborigine – a 'native Australian,' if you will – for $9 and change, which, adjusted to today's U.S. dollars, was more than the native American aboriginals got for the island of Manhattan."
And that was just the beginning of Bilich's luck.
"Later on, I called Kodak to see if I could find some film for this thing, and I ended up on the line with Steve Garfinkel, who just happened to be the expert on that particular type of camera. And he sent me two cases of 7231 16-millimeter film for that camera – for free! He just gave it to me. It was like I was on this journey, and I was being handed everything I need to complete it, wherever it might lead. I kid you not. At every turn, literally, fate, destiny, God, call it what you want – I've been given exactly what I need. I told [Garfinkel], 'I will make a great movie someday with this little camera, I promise you.'"
Which is what happened, although two years passed in the meantime. Two weeks to the day before 9/11, Bilich, whose normal 9am bike ride took him around the twin towers and over to the West Side Highway, found himself, completely by happenstance, at Pier 34.
"That's where I met Terry 'Coyote' Murphy," recalls Bilich. "He was just sitting on the edge of the air duct – which has since been made inaccessible – smoking some herb and talking to the shaman. I'd never seen him before in my life, but I got off my bike and walked over to him, and we shared a peace pipe and had a little powwow. At the time I told him I was shooting a film with this old camera I had and asked him if he wanted to be in it.
"You know, even then it was all very surreal, because we were watching the shadows of the airplanes taking off from LaGuardia, and the shadows would climb up and cut through the towers. And I thought it would be great to get this Native American, this American aboriginal, with his ponytails and that profile, in front of the twin towers, which were, after all, the tallest canvas in the city. I thought maybe if I timed it right and got lucky, I could get the towers, Coyote, and the shadow of a plane all in the same shot.
"And then, having smoked the pipe, I completely forgot to trade contact info with him, and I didn't see Coyote again until exactly two weeks after that."
Everyone who was even tangentially involved with the city of New York on September 11 has a story, and every story is valid and unique and integral to that person's view of themselves. What not all 9/11 stories have, and what makes Bilich's story so compelling – and, by extension, the story of his film – is a single twist of fate (or destiny or plain old dumb luck): While heading down, Steve Bilich rounded a corner and ran smack dab in to Terry "Coyote" Murphy.
Bilich: "I was under the weather the morning of 9/11, so I didn't follow my normal routine. No bike ride, right? I'm sitting in my apartment, it's around 9am, and my mom calls me on the phone. She says, 'Turn on the TV!' and I say, 'I can't hear you; there's an airplane.' And it was the second jet, flying right over my house. I couldn't hear my mom, telling me to turn on the TV, because of the deafening sound of the plane hitting the second tower.
"Like everyone else, I ran outside to see what I can see because I couldn't understand what I saw when I turned the television on, you know? My roommate was urging me to take the camera with me, but for some reason I kept saying, 'No, no. I'm not going to take the camera.' And – that time – I didn't. Instead, I rode my bike down to the front of the north tower. I was standing there, trying to help, but not knowing where to begin. This was before they came down. You didn't know; you couldn't imagine.
"Then you start to see something that you don't understand. And you look again, and you still don't quite grasp it because your sane mind won't let you. And it's people, jumping, and they're landing really close to me. Disintegrating next to me. On me. And at some point I began to try to ride my bike home, but I couldn't make my legs function. I was in shock. When I got back to my apartment, I was a bloody fucking mess, and I had not been hit by anything. It was other people's blood. And I washed up, changed clothes, and went back out. This time I took the camera with me.
"Instead of going back down to the towers, I went directly west to Greenwich and then Washington and saw the smoke billowing off toward Brooklyn. And right then I looked up, and there was Coyote. I just looked at him, and he said to me, just kind of matter-of-factly: 'So, is that the camera? You wanna shoot me now?' And in my head, which is already spinning, I'm thinking, you know, 'Who sent this?!' I don't know. It was another moment, another step in what was beginning to feel more and more like some predestined journey I was on. I mean, really, what are the odds?"
Over the course of that day, Steve Bilich the filmmaker put away his camera and became Steve Bilich the volunteer, handing out water bottles to rescue workers, taking donations to purchase groceries for firefighters at the nearby D'Agostinos Supermarket, and trying to stay sane by staying busy. According to him, that's what a lot of people did. Not all, but more than you'd think. Eventually, Bilich logged almost a full year at Ground Zero.
"I was just one of thousands of people who ran toward the towers when everyone else ran away from them, but there was nothing special about my actions on that day," says Bilich.
"I will say, for the record, that the people I saw die the quickest, in the hours after both towers had fallen, were, ironically, the illegal immigrants, the dishwashers, busboys, janitors, and so on, and they died because they were usually smaller of stature than the big, burly FDNY and NYPD guys and therefore could slip into the crevices and holes in the rubble where, we assumed, there might be survivors. I'm not kidding. Many of them didn't even speak English, but they were the first ones there, the first civilians in the area, because of their jobs. These forever-unknown guys were and are heroes. Before that began to happen, they were sending in dogs – police dogs, rescue dogs – but the dogs would die almost instantly, incinerated by the fires below, which, as we know, burned for months afterward."
There were, it's common knowledge now, no respirators available to volunteers early on. Most people used surgical or painting masks, neither of which could adequately filter out the microscopic particles of pulverized debris that hung over Lower Manhattan for months, as subterranean fires burned at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees. 3M eventually donated truckloads of them, but it was, as Bilich says, "a day late and a dollar short."
"With the exception of going to Sundance, I was right in the thick of it for near on a whole year. I became a FDNY consultant – not a firefighter – which means that I was a voice for firefighters, chiefly against their own department. Most of what I did was make sure that the families of these heroes, the wives and the children and the brothers and the sisters, could get on with their lives by having their [Federal Emergency Management Agency] contracts filled out, making burial arrangements, getting flowers – you name it, I did it.
"And in the meantime Jack Hazzard took the footage I shot that day and created the first version of the film, his version, which is the one that went to Sundance."
By yet another coincidence, former 81/2 Souvenirs manager and onetime adviser to LBJ Jack Hazzard lived just a few blocks from Bilich in Lower Manhattan and ran in to him while the former was day-jobbing it at a neighborhood watering hole.
"I was actually down at the site when things began to happen," Hazzard says. "I was at Bubby's restaurant, at Franklin and Hudson, and I saw on television the first plane hit. Like most people, I assumed it was a small plane, and I was curious how they were going to put the fire out, and so I walked outside and over to the base of the buildings. And while I was standing there, the second plane hit, and the engine from that plane actually went right over my head. I was a lot closer to the site than I should have been. But I thought maybe there was something I could do to help.
"Then I walked home, which was a quarter- or half-mile away, straight down Greenwich Street, stopped at the grocery and bought a bunch of food, and then holed up for about two weeks."
In the interim, Hazzard contacted Bilich, who mentioned he had shot some footage of the towers on 9/11 but was unable to come up with the processing fees. Hazzard, sensing an opportunity to use creativity to work out some of the 9/11-related demons in his own head, told Bilich he'd pick up the processing and transfer-to-video tabs if the filmmaker would allow him a chance to edit the film into ... something. Bilich, still working at Ground Zero and too close to the subject matter to consider doing an edit of his own at the time, readily agreed.
Hazzard: "I took that raw footage over to the headquarters of the Bertelsmann Media Group [where he was giving a presentation] and edited it on their AVIDs with one of their engineers and then had a friend run down to Virgin Music to get some music, which was Mozart's Requiem. I did a linear cut, to the Mozart, and while I'm no filmmaker and I have no background in filmmaking, I cut Steve's raw footage to Requiem and, miraculously, it worked!
"I'm hesitant to even call what I made from Steve's footage a 'film.' I wanted it to show the feeling of that day more than the events themselves, you see? It didn't show the gore, the people jumping, none of that. It's almost like an old newsreel. And it took me about two hours from the time I started to do it."
Hazzard's initial cut of the film was entered in that year's Sundance, which gave Bilich some much needed time off from Ground Zero. Entered out of competition, it provoked divergent reactions from the audience, with some calling it "exploitive" and others praising its somber, poetic lyricism. One person who was moved immensely was Palo Alto-based composer William Susman, who offered to compose an original score to replace Mozart's Requiem. Bilich, realizing that at some point in the future he and Terry "Coyote" Murphy would continue filming their own version of "Native American in Manhattan," agreed to Susman's idea, and the composer eventually came onboard the Bilich bandwagon in a co-producer capacity, as well.
"I approached Steve at Sundance for two reasons," says Susman. "I was moved and very affected by the events of 9/11, and, from an artistic standpoint, I realized that the film was silent and that it could use a contemporary score, something that resonated with contemporary audiences rather than the Mozart, which was written for a totally different audience and purpose.
"Subsequently, several years later, Steve created the 13-minute film 'Native New Yorker,' an expansion on the six-minute 'Native American in Manhattan,' and sent it to me to score, which I did while also taking on the duties of executive producer and getting the finished film out onto the festival circuit. And it was the people at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2005 that suggested we submit it to Tribeca. They knew Peter Scarlet, the head programmer. And that proved to be exactly the right festival at exactly the right time. It was like it was made for Tribeca."
"Native New Yorker" took home the Best Documentary Short prize at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, bringing both film and filmmaker full circle. (It also won the Gold Medal for Excellence at the Park City Film Music Festival and the Columbine Award at the Moondance International Film Festival.) And as of two weeks ago, it's being distributed and can be viewed online at Austin indie film distro company B-Side (www.bside.com).
Right now, though, I'm sitting at the dinner table with my old friend Steve Bilich, who's currently prepping a theatrical production of Harold & Maude, to be performed in February at Mercury Hall. At 46, he doesn't look old at all and, despite his emergent health issues, sounds, frankly, a hell of a lot healthier than I do with my complimentary double whammy of allergies and asthma. I ask him how he's holding up and what he's doing for his health. Bilich notes that there, too, he's been luckier than many.
"I'm very fortunate to be a part of the Mount Sinai medical-monitoring program. It's a program that was set up for first responders, including firefighters, policemen, Port Authority people, construction workers, those sort of people. I'm able to take part in that because I was a volunteer who became a hire before becoming an FDNY consultant. They're based out of Washington, D.C., and connected to the AOEC, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics [see "Health Woes for First Responders," below]. These are the people who countered ... claims that the air quality around Ground Zero was safe. It wasn't safe at all, and everyone knows it. The AOEC are the ones who gave the physicals and checked first responders out from top to bottom. They're the ones who are continuing to monitor the health of people like me.
"And now that I'm back living in Austin, it seems like there's even more of the patented Bilich luck in the fact that Austin has so many top-notch doctors who deal with respiratory and pulmonary illnesses on a daily basis thanks to the homegrown allergies in Central Texas. And they also deal with extreme cases such as my own. Another fortuitous coincidence, right?"
It's a true-life adventure almost too much to believe, I tell him. If you put it in screenplay form, you'd probably be laughed off the Paramount lot.
I ask him, "What does it mean? To you?"
"Everything leads to something," Bilich tells me. "It was not to the benefit of my lungs to be there that day or to run into Terry 'Coyote' Murphy that morning, completely by accident, or to have in my possession this ancient Cine-Kodak camera and the film to put into it or to do what I did, any of it, all of it. But there's got to be a reason, and I think, in one respect, certainly, the win at Tribeca proved that. A thousand random things had to happen just so for me, and this film to end up where we did, and, you know, it really just proves that old saying: Truth is stranger than fiction. It really is."
And dreams, in the end, are stronger than nightmares.
For more information about "Native New Yorker" and William Susman's original score, visit www.nativenewyorkerfilm.com and www.susmanmusic.com. To learn more about the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, which monitors the health of 9/11 first responders, visit www.aeoc.org.