Single Room Occupancy: Interview with Directors Artemis Shaw & Alexander Lewis

2nd July 2019

when the tide of gentrification reaches her Harlem single room occupancy building, a bond girl documents her mission to save her neighbourhood and her home.

I was able to catch up with co-directors Artemis Shaw & Alexander Lewis to ask them some questions about the making of Single Room Occupancy. If you’d like to see your film on, then please feel free to make a submission.

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MadeGood – Please give me some background on yourselves as filmmakers, and how you got into film making. You are co-directors of this film, what’s your working relationship like? Do you always co-direct your films?

Alex – Artemis and I are friends from college, but officially worked together for the first time on her first narrative short film Symposium, which I DP’d.

Single Room Occupancy is the only film we’ve co-directed so far and is a true mind-meld we couldn’t have made apart. We haven’t gotten to co-direct lately, but still always support each other creatively, whether it’s reading each others’ scripts or watching each other’s rough cuts.

Artemis started the dual degree MFA-MBA program at NYU not too long after we finished the film and is focusing mostly on fiction these days, and I started working on more documentaries and travel shoots which kept me away for stretches of time. We share a similar sense of humour and have very complementary skills so we’ll definitely work together again in the future!

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MadeGood – How did you find out about Max and Buzz, and what made you want to make a film about them? Is gentrification, and the wider topic of proper preservation of communities a topic that you have a personal connection to, or was it this particular story you wanted to tell?

Alex – Max approached me outside a community movie theatre in Harlem, just after being rejected from an adult documentary filmmaking course. (In the film, you’ll see that Max makes a habit of starting conversations with strangers, as do I.) I quickly let her know I was an aspiring documentary filmmaker and she quickly let me know she was a Bond Girl. We decided we should work on a film about her life together. Over the course of many years, we developed a friendship and the movie evolved from there. Max wanted to document her life, and travel shoots kept me away from New York for long stretches of time, so I gave Max a camcorder so that she could record on her own. Every few weeks, she’d give me a stack of memory cards to download. We continually found surprises in Max’s footage, and it pushed the film in a direction we never anticipated.

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Artemis – Gentrification is Max’s battle. Her camcorder footage documented confrontations we would not have otherwise seen. Alex and I have lived in New York all our lives, but were sheltered from the real violence of gentrification. We were struck by how the discussion around gentrification is often reduced to the annoyance of another trendy shop replacing a beloved family business.

We structured the story around the concept of a real estate broker tour gone wrong. We begin on our street, how most New Yorkers would see a single room occupancy building. Then we move into the hallways and finally into our subjects’ homes. We wanted the film to look and feel invasive.

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MadeGood – This film was completed over a year ago now, do you know how max is doing now?

We speak with Max regularly and visit as often as we can. The landlords still harass her and the other tenants. It’s definitely taken a toll on her physical and mental health to live in that hostile and stressful environment. She’s continued to document her struggles with her camcorder. Not all bad news however…. Max recently won a very important court case that would essentially make it illegal or very difficult for the landlords to rent out any units at all — giving them no incentive to push out the tenants they do still have. Max is truly fearless when it comes to standing up to them and is constantly educating herself on amendments to New York City housing policy.

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MadeGood – What are you working on next?

Alex – Well Groomed, a documentary feature I DP’d is making the rounds at festivals. It premiered at SXSW, and will play at Hot Docs, IFF Boston, SFF Film Festival Maryland Film Festival, and a couple more! You can see a list of upcoming screenings here. In terms of personal projects, I’m in the middle of production on a documentary short called Snowy: The Story of a Lonely Turtle, co-directed by Kaitlyn Schwalje, about my cousins’ pet turtle which has been living in a tank in their basement for the past 25 years.

Artemis – Safari Video, my new short documentary which stars my mother and a bunch of wild animals, premieres at the Maryland Film Festival next month. I’m also in pre-production for my graduate thesis short at NYU Tisch. It’s a satire of public apologies in the entertainment industry.

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MadeGood – Thanks guys! Sounds like you’ve got lots in the pipeline, good luck getting it all finished. Can’t wait to see the next one when it’s done.

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