Stuck is an original musical film about a New York City subway train that stops in a tunnel beneath the city, with six complete strangers stuck inside the rear car.

The strangers are a cross section of New Yorkers, of different races, cultural backgrounds and ages. The emotions of the trapped, frustrated strangers explode as the subway car becomes a kind of magical, musical conduit cell—a place where strangers reveal, through song, more of themselves than any of them ever could have imagined.

The movie is based on the musical stage play by Riley Thomas, which I got to direct for the New York Music Theater Festival (NYMF). The whole time we were rehearsing the stage version, I kept thinking how cinematic it was and what an interesting film it would make. Turned out my producer agreed, and a year later we were building a subway set in Brooklyn, courting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the use of a real subway train and track for two days of a 22-day shoot.

How did we pull off a low-budget musical feature?

The Search for a Car

At first, it seemed wise to get a subway car and just use it as a practical set—but the problem is, a subway car has limited space in every way imaginable. Also, it’s shiny, with windows on both sides, so reflections of crew in shots could be a nightmare. Think about it: narrow space with little or no access to camera movement, permanent pipes that limit dolly moves to about three feet on a rig. While we could make specialty dollies for the narrow sides, we didn’t have time or budget for that. Steadicam works pretty well, but again, depending on the rig, it is limited on space, poles, etc. And after a while, you may want to see some other types of shots to mix up the look of a film that takes place mostly in one subway car.

We scouted a bunch of options, old subway cars first. We couldn’t get a match for the cars that are running now. The shuttle apparently gets regularly used for films and TV, but it was wrong for what we were doing. I was willing to change my mind on which train we were on, but none of the options made any sense—not to mention, the cost of rental was surprisingly high for what we were getting and the time that we needed.

So DP Luke Geissbuhler, line producer Billy Mulligan, production designer Maggie Ruder and I discussed the option that I had initially resisted: building a single interior subway car set. I initially didn’t want to do the build because I was sure the cost would be prohibitive to our budget, and I wasn’t sure we could build a good enough set that would match up and dove-tail with a real subway car (which we would be spending two short but very expensive days on, late in the shoot).

DP Luke Geissbuhler

Fact is, I have spent the majority of my career working in live theater where, much like indie film, there are always limitations with budget and space. In theater, sets are generally more conceptual; they only need to give the audience an idea of a time and place, rather than look practical. Most of the time, this budget-focused perspective has worked to my advantage in films. I think in minimalist terms and have learned the art of framing only whatever is necessary of a location set to tell the audience where they are in the story. The downside to unlimited funding is that it can sometimes inhibit your creativity in the search of workarounds, since you can just buy your way out of everything. (This is how I imagine it feels, anyway!) Everyone on the Stuck team had a healthy dose of experience and confidence about what we could execute with the limited funds.

Everyone went to work on the math and getting bids for what it would take for the set build.

The Pfizer Building

We figured out that we needed to build a subway car where we could remove parts of the roof and pull every vertical bar to allow for dolly and other camera movement. We also wanted to pop its windows, and we needed to run a series of flashing lights outside the interior set, along the sides of the subway car, to simulate movement when the car was supposed to be passing through the tunnel. Billy got a great deal on a large space for the build, as well as space to set up offices and department sections, in the bowels of the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn.

The section of the Pfizer building we were in was cavernous with a cement floor, metal cages and girders everywhere. It was reminiscent of a high-ceiling subway tunnel, and though not glamorous in any way, it suited the production like a glove. Maggie set up shop and began her study of every detail, down to the smallest insignia of the modern Local 1 subway train that we had decided was our subway for the movie. It was a specific number and type, with four doors and she gathered her crew to build the beast.

Working at the Pfizer building was both a blessing and a curse. The great thing about it was that there were a lot of different kinds of spaces—I wandered around the entire building and stuck my head into empty rooms and various sections. We could frame out these places for additional interior locations. Avoiding a company move saves you time, money and headaches, especially in NYC. So we milked that one building for as many spaces as we possibly could: a kitchen, a dance studio, a stairwell location, a flophouse, a green-screen area, a big wide shot of Ramon mopping in a warehouse, etc. We saved a ton of money and time by doing this, as it was far easier to roll stuff into a different room that we had dressed than to load up the trucks, get permits and park in NYC.

The tough part about working at the Pfizer building was that it was hot, dark and cavernous. No windows where we were. It was perfect for the production because it felt like we were underground the whole time, but tough on the cast and crew.

Stuck‘s crew prepare the subway set

While the work was happening on the set, Billy got us a series of meetings with the MTA. First it was with four reps who came out and walked through the Church Street station with Billy, Luke, Maggie, 1st AD Scott Lazar and me. While we moved to the various areas that I had scouted earlier on my own, I told them what I was planning to do. The reps listened and kept mostly silent as we walked through, nodding with tight smiles. Every once in awhile, one of them would say, “It’s OK with me, but you gotta ask Alberteen.”

Queen of the MTA

Alberteen was the woman in charge of all things film in the MTA subway system. Alberteen, it seemed, was legendary in the eyes of the other MTA people. They all appeared to have a history with her, and looked to her with a strange cocktail of emotions: a combination of fear, awe and a splash of anxiety. Billy had met Alberteen the previous day. I could tell by the way he spoke of her that he was kind of scared of Alberteen. Ged Dickerson, our legendary unit production manager, seemed kind of intimidated as well. Alberteen clearly called the shots. Whatever she said was how it would be.

The reps told me they were doubtful that Alberteen would allow for any of my ideas, as they seemed to have been down this road before. They were nice enough toward me, even sympathetic, but also made me feel like I was fooling myself that we’d actually do any of the stuff I was planning.

The MTA has rules about holding the doors, jumping on the train, running down the stairs, standing too close to the track and even carrying a stroller up or down the steps. All the simple stuff that people do every day is really against MTA rules, but everyone in New York breaks them all the time with little consequence. It’s part of the culture down there. Yet I was told that Alberteen would not allow us to break a single MTA rule, as this might shed a poor light on the MTA. And Alberteen would not have that.

I was to meet her the following day. When we heard on the radio that Alberteen had arrived, the tallest MTA guy looked at me, sympathetically, and said, “The queen’s on her way.” I felt a wave of fear and excitement as a small, elegant woman approached. I could tell in the instant our eyes met that there was no charm or BS in the world that would get me anywhere with this woman: She’d clearly not only worked with far more seasoned directors than me, but also taken them down quite easily. I moved toward her respectfully, introduced myself and started the negotiation that would continue on throughout the filming process.

Alberteen turned out to be a tough but surprisingly fair collaborator. I was completely honest with her the entire time, as I was scared to get caught in any kind of lie. I believe this was my saving grace—she seemed to appreciate it. As the shoot went on, she became more willing to at least bend things a bit our way. I still remember the other MTA supervisors’ surprise when Alberteen allowed us an extra hour to execute one last subway train sequence that I hadn’t gotten yet.


The cast for Stuck were Giancarlo Esposito as Lloyd, Amy Madigan as Sue, Ashanti as Eve, Arden Cho as Alicia, Omar Chaparro as Ramon and Gerard Canonico as Caleb. I had originally asked for two weeks of rehearsal with the cast—which, to me, sounded modest, given that for a stage musical, you generally get between four and 10 weeks. We had to settle for a one-week rehearsal. To make up for this, Tim Young—our music supervisor and one of the composers—spent lots of time with the actors via Skype and phone beforehand, teaching and working on songs. In many cases, he changed key and even the style of the song to suit the actors’ sensibilities, so that they would be as ready as possible when shooting.

Actress Reyna de Courcy and director Michael Berry on the set of Stuck

Once the actors arrived on site, we rehearsed for a week with chairs configured like the benches on a subway. We did scenes with a keyboard, so the actors could move through the songs. As things progressed, I pencil-marked movement and a seating chart into the script. We also printed out a bird’s eye view of the interior of the subway car on the blank side back of my script, so Luke could see what the movement plan was for where everyone would land during every scene. Arden Cho grabbed necessary moments with our choreographer Shannon Lewis whenever possible to learn the dancing that she was to do in the film. We also recorded voice tracks for the songs for production syncs that we used as playbacks during the shoot.

While all this was happening, the carpenters and art department raced to finish the build of the subway car down in the other room of the building. Maggie by now had become a subway car aficionado, and knew the ins and outs of the various subway cars of the MTA. Her design was nearly an exact replica, with the one exception, (which I only point out because she would’ve): the vertical and horizontal bar hand-holds, which were a quarter inch wider on our set than on the real subway car.

The Illusion of Movement

The majority of our movie happened inside that subway car, and we executed a lot using relatively simple methods. We set up exterior strings of lights designed to flash like chasers along a grid—when combined with sound of a train moving, it looks like the car is racing through the tunnel. We used camera movements and shakes and had the actors sell the movement of the train the old-school Star Trek way: with their bodies. For the stops and starts, we used a three count, and the actors pretended to lurch a little bit off balance. We added a bit of motion in post as well as added the sound of the train. I venture to say that even though we pulled center poles here and there on the set, we were pretty seamless with our shots between the subway set and the actual subway.

Before the first day of shooting, we went back and forth on whether to shoot on the actual subway or the set first. 1st AD Scott lobbied hard for us to shoot on the set, as he felt that the interior of the stopped subway was where the movie really lived the most. I ended up agreeing with him, and his advice turned out to be a godsend. The subway set was built to the exact specifications of a real subway, so by the time the crew got to the real subway, we were all experts on how everything fit and where all the angles and tough spots were. We had a 14-day education about the geography of the interior of a subway before we even got to the real one.

Because we’d perfected the illusion of movement on the set, we were able to shoot more footage than anticipated on set, so our days on the real subway were much less stressful. This gave us a bit of extra time to focus on outside shots of moving trains, which added immensely to the production value of the entire film.

We shot with two Arri Alexa cameras nearly the whole time. We shot through doors, through windows, from above, down the middle and even from a seated camera, for POVs. Luke and others learned as they went, and they took great measures to avoid crew reflections in windows and on poles on a set that was basically a house of mirrors. I am still amazed that, when we got to post, there weren’t far more reflections that needed VFX removal of crew and boom mics in our shots.

Stuck cast members Giancarlo Esposito and Tim Young with Berry

Pro Tip for Audio

One last bit of advice I learned the hard way: Always use Earwigs when anyone is singing. Earwigs are the little speakers that look like hearing aids, and these go in an actor’s ear so he or she can hear the music and sing in the clear. It helps sound record a clear take of the music, and it will help you tremendously in post: You may find that you want to use the production sound of the singing later. We got to use a ton of ours, but in a few spots we had not made the right preparations, so I had fewer choices in some places. And, always, always, do your best to track and put the Earwig in the off-camera ear of the actor! It will save you a tremendous amount of VFX removal time and money later. MM

Stuck will screen at the Raindance Festival, followed by appearances at Breckenridge, Woodstock and Heartland, Edmonton, Naples and Napa Valley, courtesy of Highland Film Group. Photographs by Phillip Caruso.


Morgan Freeman has signed on to star in John Moore’s The Manuscript, a high-concept thriller that Highland Film Group and CAA are introducing to buyers in Toronto this week.

Morgan freeman

Production on the cat-and-mouse thriller is set to begin on October 9 with Freeman playing an imprisoned genius who uses clues in the manuscript of his upcoming memoir to guide a junior book editor to a missing $20m diamond stash he stole years earlier.

As the ambitious youngster gets closer to the truth, he becomes ensnared in a criminal plot that places his life in danger.

Moore, whose credits include A Good Day To Die Hard and Behind Enemy Lines, will direct from a screenplay by Louis Rosenberg and Joe Rosenbaum.

Mike Witherill (John Wick) and Mark Williams (The Accountant) are producing The Manuscript and The Fyzz Facility is the financier. Highland Film Group handles international sales and jointly represents the US with CAA.

Freeman recently co-starred in Going In Style with Michael Caine and Alan Arkin for Warner Bros and is currently in post on independent production Villa Capri,which Sierra/Affinity sells internationally.

Highland Film Group, led by Arianne Fraser and Delphine Perrier, is in town with a sales slate that includes Margot Robbie in thriller Terminal, and Jon Avnet’s Toronto Gala screening Three Christs starring Richard Gere, Julianna Margulies, and Peter Dinklage.

-Jeremy Kay


Jim Sturgess is also boarding the latest film in the ‘Cities of Love’ anthology series launched by Emmanuel Benbihy in 2006.

Love is in the air for Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jim Sturgess.

The trio have joined the cast of Berlin, I Love You, which marks the latest film in the Cities of Love anthology series launched by Emmanuel Benbihy that already has tackled tales of romance in Paris and New York.

Written by Neil La Bute and David Vernon, Berlin, I Love You segments are being directed by Fernando Eimbcke, Dennis Gansel, Massy Tadjedin, Peter Chelsom, Til Schweiger, Justin Franklin, Dani Levy and Dianna Agron. Josef Rusnak will helm the transition sequence that ties all the episodes together.

Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jim Sturgess join co-stars Diego Luna, Mickey Rourke, Toni Garrn, Sibel Kekilli, Agron and Rafaelle Cohen, who already boarded the project, which is being shopped to international buyers at TIFF by Highland Film Group and Disrupting Influence’s Glenn Kendrick Ackermann and Jason Piette.

The Cities of Love series launched in 2006 with Paris Je T’aime, which was followed by New York, I Love You in 2009. Berlin, I Love You will explore coupling in the German capital, where production is set to start by the end of September.

Claus Clausen, Edda Reiser (Walk on Water Films) and Josef Steinberger (Rheingold Films) will produce alongside Alice De Sousa (Galleon Films) and Skady Lis (Getaway Pictures). Emmanuel Benbihy is executive producing. CAA, which reps Mirren, Knightley and Sturgess, is handling U.S. distribution rights with Highland and Disrupting Influence.

Berlin, I Love You is part of a Highland slate that includes the Margot Robbie starrer Terminal, Jon Avnet’s Three Christs with Richard Gere (debuting here at the Toronto Film Festival) and the Lin Oeding-helmed thriller Braven, starring Jason Momoa.

Berlin, I Love You marks a reteaming for Mirren and Knightly, who recently co-starred in Disney’s upcoming live-action pic The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Mirren is currently in postproduction on Winchester for CBS Films, while Knightley has a number of films in the can including James Kent’s The Aftermath for Fox Searchlight and Wash Westmoreland’s Colette. Sturgess is currently in postproduction on JT Leroy, starring alongside Kristen Stewart, Diane Kruger and Laura Dern.

Knightley is additionally handled by United Agents and Sturgess also is repped by Garricks.


Steven C. Miller is directing the project, which will now be a China-U.S. co-production.

Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista will team up with Sylvester Stallone for Escape Plan 2, the sequel to the 2013 prison-break thriller.

Steven C. Miller, who’s helmed action thrillers such as Marauders and Extraction, is directing the project, which will now be a China-U.S. co-production via Beijing-based Leomus Pictures and Emmett/Furla/Oasis. Mark Canton is also among the producers.

The pairing of Bautista and Stallone is in line with having two high-wattage action stars fight against, then team up with, each other. In the 2013 movie, Stallone, playing a prison-security specialist who finds himself in a near-impenetrable facility, partnered up with his 1980s action rival Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Plot details are being kept in solitary confinement. The $20 million production is tunneling for a spring start in Atlanta.

Bautista is a former MMA champion who segued into acting, slamming through to star status with a scene-stealing performance as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians. He reprises the role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which opens in May.

He had a turn as a villain in James Bond movie Spectre and recently wrapped a role opposite Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. He is currently shooting Avengers: Infinity War and will then segue to Hotel Artemis, a sci-fi thriller with Jodie Foster.

Bautista is repped by Gersh, Meisner Entertainment Group and Mitchell Silberberg.

-Borys Kit (The Hollywood Reporter)


After years of quietly assembling an eye-catching stable of sales titles, Highland Film Group is poised to step up to the major leagues with its upcoming slate.

Highland Film Group, the West Hollywood outfit run by CEO Arianne Fraser and COO Delphine Perrier, is at the European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin with plans to launch a production division this year, invest in bigger projects and build on its reputation for sourcing compelling titles. The expansion is a logical progression for a popular, hard-working team with a penchant for action fare and a knack for pulling projects together quickly and smoothly.

Titles such as The Trust starring Nicolas Cage, The Life And Death Of John Gotti with John Travolta, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which A24 will release in March, the upcoming Terminal with Margot Robbie and Braven starring Jason Momoa have kept buyers happy and are true to the company’s roots.

“I started Highland seven years ago not really knowing what that would mean in the long term,” says Fraser, who cut her teeth in senior executive roles at First Look International and Arsenal Pictures. “Our focus was reverse-engineering content for direct-to-broadcast. We would make these dragon movies [Dawn Of The Dragonslayer and The Crown And The Dragon, to name two] for a price and sell to broadcasters all over the world.”

Fraser learned early on how to maximise spend to deliver the most efficient return on investments. “You have to back into budgets for the content that makes sense,” she notes.

Universal language

It is a strategy that still holds true at Highland and has earned the company a loyal network of partners around the world. “A lot of people gravitate towards us because we understand what the buyer wants — action films that translate into every language and are easier to sell to territories,” says Fraser.

Perrier entered the picture in 2012. Fraser met the former Paramount Vantage and Odd Lot International senior executive at a dinner party in Monaco. Six months later they met again and decided to go into business.

“We have a great partnership — a fantastic understanding of each other and we trust each other,” says Perrier. She echoes Fraser’s belief that while female executive empowerment at Highland is a source of pride it does not inform a particular mission beyond supporting quality commercial fare.
The women have moved quickly on a slate that covers most genres. They spotted the talent of Margot Robbie in The Wolf Of Wall Street and signed her up more than a year ago to noir thriller Terminal before she became a household name with Suicide Squad.

Highland boarded Final Score starring Dave Bautista and Pierce Brosnan, which, thanks to producer Marc Goldberg at Signature, incorporated the partial demolition last autumn of Upton Park football stadium, the former home to English Premier League side West Ham United. Safe to say, the upcoming siege thriller is on the radar of UK filmgoers.

Mindful of the turbulence that continues to unsettle the film world, Fraser and Perrier are keen to diversify and take more control of content, not to mention a move into television. By reinvesting profits into projects, they remain deeply invested, in more than one sense of the word, in what they make.

In addition to production ambitions their goal is to move more aggressively into financing smart, appealing content. Hence the investment with Samuel Hadida’s Davis Films and Electric Shadow on The Crow Reborn, a reboot of 1994 cult classic The Crow that starred the late Brandon Lee.

The parties will finance, produce (with Ed Pressman) and distribute the film, and anticipate a production start towards the end of this year or early 2018. Highland says it will start talks with buyers at the EFM but the real push starts in Cannes once more elements have come together.

“We organically grew to a place that gave us the opportunity to become the rights holder of the source material, granting us more autonomy,” says Perrier. “We look forward to more of those opportunities.”

The Berlin sales slate includes The Last Draw Of Jack Of Hearts to star Josh Hartnett as a former black ops soldier left for dead who resurfaces to avenge a betrayal and reclaim the love of his life. Guy Moshe will direct from his own screenplay.

The project is one of several new titles in the pipeline as Highland responds to the challenges of economics, streaming giants and the draw of television with optimism and vigour. “We’re having to adjust and adapt to the realities of the markets and distribution models,” says Fraser. “But as long as we stay open-minded about what that means, there are smart ways to make movies.”

-Jeremy Kay (Screendaily)

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