Director Charles Lane Reflects on “Sidewalk Stories” and “True Identity”

Charles Lane, his daughter Nicole Alysia, and Sandye Wilson on the set of "Sidewalk Stories," 1989

Charles Lane, his daughter Nicole Alysia, and Sandye Wilson on the set of “Sidewalk Stories,” 1989

In October, nearly 25 years after the critically acclaimed but short-lived release of Charles Lane’s bittersweet silent comedy “Sidewalk Stories,” the Film Forum featured a two-week screening of the film, which has been newly restored and will soon receive a long overdue DVD release (after a nationwide theatrical run). Silent film was not a hot market in the late 1980s. But Lane, who initially balked at silents during his film school days at SUNY Purchase, had already challenged himself by making a short student silent film (“A Place in Time,” based on the Kitty Genovese murder) and it ended up winning awards, so success seemed a feasible outcome for a feature-length silent.

The result is a zippy, brilliantly scored picture, filled with Chaplinesque sentiment and slapstick (and a not-so-Chaplinesque sex scene amid a cacophony of tribal bongos). It’s also packed with realistic depictions of New York City poverty, which keeps it from falling into preciousness. It follows a street caricaturist’s bonding with an abandoned two-year old girl after he witnesses her father’s murder. After the financial windfall of “The Artist,” “Sidewalk” should receive an enthusiastic response upon the release of the new DVD (which will also include a restored version of “A Place in Time” and commentary from Lane and composer Marc Marder). It is scheduled to be released this May.

The pint-sized, bubbly Lane (who looks remarkably baby-faced for someone who just turned 60) was kind enough to meet me at a Cuban restaurant on Christopher Street two weeks ago, where he (while enduring a liquids-only diet) regaled me as I scarfed down a man-sized skirt steak. Here’s what he had to say about “Sidewalk Stories” and its revival, his recollection of meeting Tom Hanks, and his frustrating experience making his sole mainstream film, the 1991 comedy “True Identity” (about a black actor who disguises as a white mafioso to escape a potential mob hit).

“At Cannes, people applauded for literally 12 minutes. I was nervous and didn’t know what to do. After 11 minutes I was like, “Let me sit!” I can handle it better now.”

Sam Weisberg: At the Film Forum screening of “Sidewalk Stories,” you said that Island Pictures enthusiastically acquired and championed the film, and then a year later they shelved it. What happened?

Charles Lane: It was inside politics. What happened was, at Island, Chris Blackwell loved the film. He had great taste. He had acquired “She’s Gotta Have It,” “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Stranger Than Paradise.” Then, come 1989, Island got two new co-presidents, and they wanted the company to be a contender. They wanted to do “Dances With Wolves,” but they couldn’t bid high enough. They looked at “Sidewalk Stories,” but it was a thing they eventually wanted to go away [after the theatrical run].

SW: And there wasn’t a contractual guarantee for a VHS release?

CL: No, it was a “to the best of our ability” thing about the theatrical release, and there was nothing about VHS. It was not released on VHS in the US. In France, I think in Germany and definitely in Japan, it was released in ancillary markets. It was a bootlegged copy. Now, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s released in the theater across the country and in Europe, and it’s going to be on DVD and VOD.

SW: How did you get the DVD deal going after 24 years?

CL: It went from Island [Pictures] to PolyGram [Filmed Entertainment] to MGM [which acquired PolyGram in 1998 for $235 million]. No one knew what to do with it. They looked at “Sidewalk” and were thinking about restoring it and releasing it on DVD, but it would cost them too much so they shelved it.

It had always been more popular in France than in the US as a theatrical film. Carlotta Films has been actively marketing the film in France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium since 2002. When the rights ran out, they went to MGM, who said they didn’t own the rights anymore. I found out the contract we had signed with Island originally was a 20-year contract, from 1989 to 2009, and I just didn’t realize. So Carlotta wanted to get the rights again. I said I wasn’t really interested in the rights for the French-speaking territories. I wanted a wide, international re-release.

I knew Harvey Weinstein [at Miramax] from when we first made “Sidewalk.” He wanted to handle it then and didn’t know how to do it, but now he’d done “The Artist.” I called Harvey and he said, “We just did ‘The Artist,’ I’m going to take a break, but good luck.’” So I only had Carlotta. We did a theatrical re-release in the US and South America. They did the restoration in Italy. They have the rights for the next 12 years.

SW: Was it “The Artist” that got you thinking there was now a market for the film?

CL: All my friends were pissed because there were things that borrowed from “Sidewalk,” including the ending. When they start talking at the end, I said, “Well I’ll be damned!”

SW: You’ve had screenings of the film in New York. Any other cities on the agenda?

CL: Not so far. It’s going to open for a week or maybe two in January in L.A. I know it will play in Chicago, Boston and Syracuse. It’s gonna be at a festival at Martha’s Vineyard.

SW: I know you said at the screening that it was risky to make a silent film in 1989, yet it still received much critical acclaim. Are you expecting even better reactions this time around?

CL: We traveled in Europe quite a bit in 1989 and won I think 12 awards. It felt great. At Cannes, people applauded for literally 12 minutes. I was nervous and didn’t know what to do. After 11 minutes I was like, “Let me sit!” I can handle it better now. Back then, the reaction was mostly positive. Maybe there were five to eight bad reviews. This time around, all the reviews, in France and New York, have been stellar. Mind you, we didn’t have as many, maybe 15 in France and the US combined.

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“There were two scenes where I needed intertitles. But I knew that to have intertitles in only two places would be terrible, because people would ask, ‘Where were the rest?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, he must have gotten into trouble.'”

SW: How did “Sidewalk Stories” get developed in the first place?

CL: I won a student award for “A Place in Time” at SUNY Purchase. The thing is, I never liked silent films very much. I didn’t have much respect for them, either. I was more about the technology of films now—sound, special effects. I was a bit of a snob as a kid, granted, but I knew I was a good filmmaker and a good storyteller, and I didn’t really have time for silent films. I used to cut my Cinematic Expression course. One night they were showing Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” and my friend said I had to go see it. I said, “You’re a political science major, I’m the film guy, and you’re telling me I have to go see it? That makes no sense.” But we went to class and I saw it and it was really cool.

So come 1975, my second year there, I decided to not be a snob anymore and really learn something about cinema. I had a disdain for silent movies overall, so I decided I was gonna make one the best I could, no intertitles, pure cinema. I knew I’d be a better filmmaker, a stronger storyteller. After “A Place in Time” I realized there’s a magic to silent film, and I was an idiot. And then I won the award for it, and I’d gotten it out of my system, so I moved onto sound pictures.

I couldn’t raise any money and I couldn’t get any work. Finally, my former lawyer Howard Brickner put up the money to do the film. It was a $150,000 budget and I thought it might be a smart thing to do a silent movie. I could make it look like a $500,000 or $800,000 budget because we’re gonna be on the streets. The one thing that separates the men from the boys of filmmaking is extras. But if you’re shooting in New York, you don’t need to hire a lot of extras. You have people just constantly bustling in the background. With a silent movie, I could make that look really good. So that’s what we did.

SW: I read that you were influenced to make the film when you were on the way home from a Sugar Ray Leonard fight and a homeless guy asked you about it. But what influenced the more personal parts of the story, like the artist’s bonding with the child? 

CL: It definitely came from “The Kid.” I knew it was handicapped on so many levels. On a feature film level, the novelty [of silent film] wears off quicker than in a short film, it’s not cute anymore. So I was constantly feeding it with what might be irresistible and more than palatable. The little girl, I was thinking, I have a daughter, a baby is always cute to look at but they’re difficult to work with. Impossible. That’s suicide right there. In “The Kid,” the boy was six years old and my daughter was two years old, so I’m saying, “I don’t know.”

Then there was this other movie, this old English film called “Tiger Bay,” with Hayley Mills and Horst Buchholz. He’s a sailor who comes home and discovers his girlfriend is fucking someone else. He loses it, she says, “Get out of my house,” she’s a tomboy, she lies about everything. He accidentally kills her, shoots her with her own gun. Hayley Mills witnesses this through the letterbox in the door. Buchholz hides the gun because there’s a cop who lives in the building, and Hayley Mills sees this and all she wants is the gun. She doesn’t give a fuck about the murder. He sees her grab the gun and he realizes she knows what he did, and he wants to take her somewhere and dump her. The film develops in this weird way because he grows to love this little girl, and she has no father and loves him too, and eventually she’s protecting him from the cops. That influenced me a lot, the story of my character and the little girl.

Also, I was fighting against the clock. I wanted to do the greatest silent film ever made in 1989. I needed tip top crew people and we had to shoot it in two weeks in seven degree-weather in New York.

SW: You shot the film nine months before it hit the theaters. How’d you get it packaged so fast?

CL: The Cannes festival obviously helped. And then Island bought it.

SW: Were there scenes that had to go?

CL:  No, I had a detailed script with dialogue. And it’s published. It’s in a book [“Screenplays of the African American Experience”]

SW: Why did you decide not to use intertitles?

CL: There were two scenes where I needed intertitles, I forget which exactly. But I knew that to have intertitles in two places would be terrible, because people would ask, “Where were the rest?” They’d say, “Oh, he must have gotten into trouble.” There was only one other silent film that did that. F.W. Murnau, “The Last Laugh,” there’s no intertitles.

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SW: I wanted to ask what became of your screenplay for “Skins.”

CL: I really wanted to make that movie. It was an original piece, an interracial love story, between an Italian and an African-American. I couldn’t get the money to do it. After “Sidewalk Stories,” Island and I made a three-picture deal, and “Skins” was going to be my next movie. But then Disney came in and they wanted me to do “True Identity.” And they wanted to remake “Sidewalk Stories.” There’s something for your little tape recorder.

They kept throwing money at me and I just wanted to do “Skins.” And Disney ended up [offering] me a salary of over $600,000. The whole budget of “Sidewalk” was $200,000. So the wisdom was, make “True Identity,” make it into a really good film, then I can make “Skins” for $10 million if I want. It didn’t happen that way.

There was an article that came out that said I was gonna sue Spike Lee because “Skins” was my original piece and now “Jungle Fever” was coming out. But that never happened. He and I talked it out and it was no big deal.

SW: How did Disney get involved in the first place? Were they big fans of “Sidewalk Stories”?

CL: Yes, huge fans. They wanted a fresh, good director to do “True Identity.” They thought I was that guy, plus they wanted to remake “Sidewalk Stories” as a sound, color film. They saw wonderful family film potential, and they wanted Tom Hanks to play my part. He wasn’t the Tom Hanks we know now, he was big but no Academy Awards yet. He wrote a letter to Disney and said “I saw the movie ‘Sidewalk Stories’ and I think it’s a wonderful piece of work and unfortunately I’m going to have to pass because I don’t think I can bring anything to the story that Mr. Lane hasn’t already. But I’d love to meet him.” That was cool. But I had my $600,000 and a movie to make, so I wasn’t super impressed, as much as I am these days. But it was all positive.

I met Tom when I went to see—of all things—a UCLA festival, with Carl Davis doing live music to “City Lights” [in April 1991]. $150 a ticket. Now I’m Mr. Silent Films, so I took my composer and went to UCLA. Introducing the film was Chaplin’s son Sydney and Tom Hanks. After the movie ended, we left, and Tom Hanks and his wife Rita are talking to some people, and I pass him but I don’t say anything, because he’s busy. And he goes, “Wait a minute, I know you! Charles Lane, right?” And now everyone, with the applause—it was like Cannes. I got embarrassed. He’s Tom Hanks and I’m nobody, basically. For him to do that—people said, “Who is that with Tom Hanks now? Who is this little black guy?” It was very uncomfortable. But he was very affable, a very great guy.

So that was that, and then he becomes Tom Hanks. About five years later I saw him in my hotel—my star wasn’t high at all—and I said to him humbly, “I don’t know if you remember me, but…” And he said, “I remember you, you’re Charles Lane!” We talked a little bit and I asked if he might consider being in one of my films, and he gave me his agent’s number. I’d run into him occasionally. We never did anything together, but he’s a wonderful guy.

SW: What became of the remake?

CL: Tom didn’t want to do it, and by then Disney had me contracted to do “True Identity,” and I wasn’t keen on having the movie remade either. And then it kind of just went away.

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“I didn’t trust that Disney wouldn’t have me fired some day. I thought if I played Lenny Henry’s best friend, it will be hard to fire the director when the director is co-starring, and re-shoot all that. They’d have to listen to me.”

SW: I know Andy Breckman wrote the script for “True Identity” and that you changed a lot of the content. Was he amenable to the changes?

CL: Well, there wasn’t any friction between he and I. He was clear about wanting to be of any assistance. He had sold the script to Disney and they liked the idea but they wanted me to put my spin on it. One of the major mistakes for me was that the lead character was kind of boneheaded. He’s getting off on being in whiteface, and that’s offensive, that’s fucked up. If we have this device, it has to be that he has no choice but to do it. It was a television script, in a way, because it was based on the Eddie Murphy SNL skit “Mr. White.” But for a movie, you can’t do that. It was up to me whether I wanted to work with Andy or not and I chose to do it from scratch, to ground the thing in some reality, although it’s a farce.

The whole thing where the character was interested in “Othello,” that was my idea, because that’s an interracial story. The character that I played was a white guy [in the script] and I wanted to play the part and add the whole thing about him liking big women. The reason I wanted to play him is because I didn’t trust that Disney wouldn’t have me fired some day. I thought if I played Lenny Henry’s best friend—they had invested a lot of money in him, they wanted him to be the English Eddie Murphy—and I’m fighting on-screen with this bitch a lot, it will be hard to fire the director when the director is [co-starring with] their main actor, and re-shoot all that. They’d have to listen to me.

SW: Was it your idea to include the racist, condescending acting teacher at the beginning?

CL: I actually kind of stole that from Robert Townsend, from “Hollywood Shuffle.” I asked him permission and he was cool with it.

SW: What did Disney argue with you about?

CL: They argued that Lenny Henry’s character wasn’t goofy enough. When he kills the mafia guy in the waterbed, and they’re burying him in the car, I directed Lenny to look real serious. My justification was, taking away the comedy, taking away the whiteface makeup, he’s a kid from New York who wants to act on the stage. And now he’s seeing a dead body for the first time. Is he gonna be nonchalant? No, the reality is, he’ll be thinking, “What the fuck happened here?”

We had a big fight on-set because they wanted Lenny not to wear the James Brown wig and I did. We were at loggerheads and couldn’t shoot until the decision was made. David Hoberman [the head of Touchstone/Disney] gets on the phone after we’re held up for about an hour, and he said “You’re driving the bus. If you want him to wear the goddamn wig, fine.” And I said, “Thank you, that’s all I wanted.” When they saw the dailies, they said I was right.

We had arguments about casting. I wanted Nastassja Kinski to play Frank Langella’s wife and they didn’t want her. For every battle I’d win, they’d get two other things, which takes a lot of energy.

SW: So they chose Lenny Henry?

CL: Yeah, and I wanted Darnell Williams [who appears as the little girl’s biological father in “Sidewalk Stories”]. I thought he’d bring a lot of gravitas to the role, and comedy. Disney already had a deal with Lenny Henry and didn’t tell me. They told me, “We kind of like Lenny Henry for the lead,” and I said, “I kind of like my guy.” They gave me a budget of $62,000 to do a screen test. They built an airplane set for me, they had some extras, they had an editor ready to go. I had Darnell do the scene and we had to edit it within a day and a half and give it back to Disney. They said, “Charles, he’s very good, but I’m afraid we’re gonna have to go with Lenny.” I said, “These motherfuckers used me!” Because I can’t complain! They gave me sixty-two grand, which shows how sincere they really are. They wouldn’t commit that much if they weren’t fair.

SW: How was it working with the late J.T. Walsh, and Michael McKean and Frank Langella?

CL: All of it was a dream. They were wonderful to work with. They’re all different and all professional. What a charming, charming time I had! Frank Langella and I became friends. J.T. Walsh had his son come on the set a few times. Michael McKean was more of a cut-up. In fact, I saw him a few months ago because he got hit by a car. He was in a play and this car hit him and fucked up his leg. So I spent some time with him and his wife [Annette O’Toole]. There were no conflicts, no egos.

Frank attributed “True Identity” to resurrecting his career because he hadn’t worked in awhile. He didn’t have to audition. He was on my list. I had seen him do a lesser film called “Sphinx,” which I liked. And then he did a Sherlock Holmes movie for HBO which I really loved.

SW: And you got along with Lenny?

CL: Yeah, we got along great. I don’t speak to him much [these days].

SW: Overall were you happy with the experience of making that movie, besides the headaches with Disney?

CL: It’s mixed, because the headaches were massive. They kind of fired my composer, Marc Marder, behind my back. I went to see him and he was packing his bags. He’s a soft-spoken guy and he said, “They let me go.” He had already written some of the music. I got livid and I said “Don’t move.” I went over to [producer] Jeffrey Katzenberg’s office. I said, “Your guys have been up my ass. You’re a good guy. I know they can’t do this stuff without your permission. My guy is in the fucking room packing his bags. You want to bring in this new guy, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because he’s not gonna get any help from me.” He said, “Charles, I’m glad you talked to me. I didn’t know. I don’t want you to let us shoot ourselves in the foot or any other part of our anatomy.” From that point on, they backed the fuck off. Marc was rehired. But that kind of stuff takes energy.

SW: Was it tough overall to adjust from the guerilla filmmaking of “Sidewalk Stories” to a $16 million budget?

CL: The answer is yes and no. It’s a lowercase “yes.” I’m an independent filmmaker, and the second day of shooting, I wanted to move this couch about two feet to the left. I picked up one side of it, and they said, “No! You’re not supposed to touch the furniture. The union crew is supposed to do it.” That adjustment, where I don’t touch anything, where I’m elite, not [working] with the crew, was a small issue. It was an eye-opener. The rest of it was easy. Pampered like a motherfucker. It’s easy to get pampered.

SW: How was the audience response to the movie?

CL: Audience-wise it did OK. Box office-wise, it did badly. It made no money.

SW: I think that’s because the US audiences weren’t used to Lenny Henry.

CL: There were other factors. It’s not a bad movie, it’s a fun movie. Disney advertised it properly. But in 1991, there was a big scare in Hollywood because no one was going to the movies. From March to December, most of the movies tanked.

SW: Do you have any desire to make “Skins” now?

CL: No, I’m not interested anymore. It was hot, explosive stuff when I wanted to do it. It’s not the same world anymore. Interracial relationships, gay rights—a lot of things have matured since 1990.

SW: Though there’s still a lot of insidious bigotry.

CL: Of course, but like, if “Philadelphia” had been made today it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I’m working on something now called “Herman,” about an intersex person—that’s the politically correct term for hermaphrodite—from Butte, Montana, about 24 years old, who comes to New York looking for true love. It’s a comedy. There’s nothing funny about the subject, some consider it a tragedy, but Herman says having sex with him is a mind-blowing affair because his body’s a theme park of love. Or something like that. Carlotta is interested in possibly doing something, especially if “Sidewalk” does well.

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