EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with DOCUMENTARIAN MICHAEL GALINSKY: “Battle for Brooklyn”
Michael Galinsky (co-director,cinematographer) is known for socially-conscious documentaries on the big and small screen. Most notably Horns and Halos, which tackles our country’s perception of its own media. Galinsky’s creative partners include Suki Hawley, co-director, and producer David Beilinson. The team’s latest film, Battle for Brooklyn, examines the almost decade-long fight between Brooklyn citizens and private developer Forest City Ratner. A battle — led by Ratner — to have the local government seize homes from homeowners via eminent domain, thus creating private wealth with minimal public benefit. Battle for Brooklyn shows the events unfold in a manner that is not only accessible, but riveting.
I recently spoke with Galinsky over the phone from his home in Manhattan. Galinsky was incredibly generous with his time; we chatted for almost an hour. Like most documentarians, Galinsky was excited to share his process for making documentaries; as well as the past, present, and future state of the issues and conflicts that are the subject of his film. Here are some of the highlights of our in-depth interview:
TATM: How did Battle for Brooklyn come to be?
Galinsky: I saw an article in the paper that said, “A development project is coming to Brooklyn. Hooray!” I thought, “This seems a little bit weird.” I knew the area it was coming to. It seemed it was impossible. It’s in the middle of playgrounds and neighborhoods. My daughter went to daycare a block from there. So, when I saw a flyer saying, “stop the project,” I immediately picked it up, called the number on the flyer, and the woman who answered was Patti Hagan, who I could tell right away was an interesting character. So I started shooting that afternoon. That was eight years ago.
TATM: How did you center in on the people, organizations, and locations within Brooklyn that became the focal points of the film?
Galinsky: I followed [Hagan] for about ten days and she said, “You should meet this one loft dweller…who I think is really going to fight this thing.” Her thought was, “Everyone else was just going to cut and run, and they weren’t going to really fight for their community.” She was right. That guy…[Goldstein], had bought his condo almost a year earlier. He just thought that the project was wrong. It would have been easy for him to leave. But he that knew he had to stop it for the rest of the people… It actually turned out, that I knew [Goldstein] a little bit before this project started. So he was more open to giving us a lot of access. That’s one thing you definitely need when you’re making a documentary, is characters who are open and will let you in… Since we had a level of trust already, it made it much easier.
TATM: You’ve said the film is a “character-driven verite-documentary,” how did you come to shoot in that style?
Galinsky: It’s the kind of filmmaking that we value. It’s…immersive, and allows you to be in a situation, instead of a bunch of talking heads telling you what to think… While we didn’t set out to make an advocacy film, but since we did set out to make a film that follows characters, and since they were advocating for something, the film does take that tone on… In this case, it’s almost like filming Erin Brockovich in process.
TATM: Did you ever schedule or record any interviews for the film?
Galinsky: We actually did. Because of the kind of film we were making, we knew we weren’t going to be able to get access to the developer [Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner] or the government official [Marty Markowitz], but we were able to get interviews with them. If we didn’t have that, I think the film would feel really unbalanced. As it is, we got just enough of that to really give you an understanding of where the developer and the government officials are coming from.
TATM: How did Battle for Brooklyn evolve as you were filming it?
Galinsky: For the first year we shot quite a bit. We starting logging the footage and compiling it. With a documentary, you can’t really edit until you know what the ending is, and we didn’t know what was going to happen… We just had to follow and wait. Eventually, things started tumble towards the end… Then we were able to start putting stuff together and having it begin to make sense… We did know early on that our main character would be [Goldstein]. That gave us our focus.
TATM: Goldstein talked about struggling with the indefinitness of the whole process. Was that something that you felt as a filmmaker?
Galinsky: Absolutely. It was really hard to keep forward… It took us two years of almost full-time editing…with no financial support. So it’s very hard to kind of keep it up… It’s been great to have it so well-received, because it’s made all that work worth it.
TATM: Did you face any threat from these powerful interests when making Battle for Brooklyn?
Galinsky: We took great pains to be super low-profile. I don’t think they even realized we were doing it for five years, even though we had filmed with them. Because they were doing so much media in the beginning, they weren’t really aware of the project. I don’t think they’re very happy about it now… I have been a little bit worried that there would be some kind of pushback… That’s one of the reasons we tried to get the film out in as big a way as possible, so that it couldn’t be dismissed.
TATM: Are you worried about how Ratner, or Markowitz or [New York Mayor] Michael Bloomberg or anyone else in the film might respond to it upon release?
Galinsky: No… To them we’re a gnat. We’re not even a mosquito. We can’t even draw blood. So they might swat at us or be annoyed… The film isn’t an explosive documentary. It’s more of a simmering one. It gets people to think more deeply… Ratner was asked about it. There was an article about the project in the New York Times. The last line of the article was, “So Mr. Ratner, have you seen the documentary Battle for Brooklyn?” He paused and said, “Eventually.” I’m sure they’re not happy about it, because it is bringing a lot of negative attention to the project.
TATM: Talk about your process of editing 450 hours of footage. How much of the film did you find in editing, and how much did you know what to cut for going in?
Galinsky: It took [Hawley] a couple of months to just watch everything… Meanwhile, we had targeted what we knew were the key moments… We made a three-hour cut that included everything. There were scenes that did similar things, so we started taking those out. That was a year-long process… By the end, the process became very rapid, and became clear what was working and what wasn’t. We did 30 small screenings at our house starting last September… We would view it with people, and get a sense of what was working and what wasn’t… By the last couple of screenings, no one was checking their phones. We found that to be the case when we first started showing it as festivals.
TATM: What surprised you the most in making the film?
Galinsky: How venal the developer and the government officials could be… The way they would print fallacy of fact. How they were just not out for the public interest. Because they were so focused on this goal, which was the get this arena and this project done, that they would do it at any cost. When you have that situation… The public interest really gets decimated. The people who should have the most voice, they people who are going to be most affected by the project get ignored.
TATM: If enough people go see Battle for Brooklyn and it gets all the success and recognition it deserves, what do you think its impact might be? For Brooklyn and the country as a whole?
Galinsky: Our main goal in doing it…is more about getting people to think deeply about what’s going on around them instead of just reading the first paragraph of a New York Times article… In this case, the New York Times was a terrible, terrible reporting source. I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that they’re development partners with the developer. The developer used eminent domain so seize property on 42nd street to build the Times’ new building… [The film is] really about the people retaking narratives away from the media which is faltering…in these situations… I think people are starting to wake up. Films like this and Trumped, that’s where the real media is, taking a look at the way media is discussing important issues… It’s also our goal to make a compelling movie that people are engaged in emotionally, as well as intellectually.
Battle for Brooklyn opens on August 19th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall Theater. Goldstein, Hawley, and subject Daniel Goldstein will be on-hand for post-screening Q&As.
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