L a short film

Orpheus and Eurydice Orpheus and Eurydice inside the subway train.

'L' is an experimental narrative film based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Specifically, the film features the couple's precarious return from the underworld, during which Orpheus knows to avoid looking at Eurydice lest she fall back into the depths of hell. Yet, almost inexplicably, as their journey is almost complete, he looks at her. The film surmises the possible events leading to his tragic action.

origins and plot

First Ave North Platform on the L Train, NYC. First Ave North Platform on the L Train, NYC.

The initial idea for the film came from when I was thinking about directions to my neighbourhood — 'take the L train to Brooklyn'. The L train could be a train from hell or 'L'

The L train is one of the lines in the New York Subway, running from 8th Avenue in Manhattan to Carnarsie in Brooklyn. It is my local train, and I take it daily. In order to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the train must pass through a tunnel under the East River. This trip lasts about three minutes, and so does the film.

The idea of the underground passage reminded me of accounts in literature and mythology of journeys to and from hell. I considered the Decameron and the fates of the Titans. But I was struck by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the intriguing question left unanswered: Why had Orpheus defied the seemingly simple restriction that would have allowed him to retrieve his love from the depths of the underworld? The myth explains that Orpheus ventured into hell and charmed Pluto, Lord of Hades, to let his love return to the world. Pluto agreed but under the sole condition that Orpheus does not look back at Eurydice until they emerge from the underworld. But in the last moments before reaching safety, Oepheus turns to look at Eurydice only to see her fall back into hell.

The necropolis. The necropolis.

Why does he do it? I consulted a number of books of mythology and viewed many films dealing with these two characters. None explain Orpheus' motivation to look back. I decided that this was the crux of my film. Thus, when we join Orpheus and Eurydice, they are about to leave hell… on the L train…

cast and crew

Gary (Orpheus) and Trish (Eurydice) and the subway train. Gary (Orpheus) and Trish (Eurydice) and the subway train.

Being a first time director and not knowing many actors at the time, I decided to cast two first time actors and good friends who I felt fit the roles and were interested in acting. They are Gary French and Trish Nagy a couple who have natural chemistry.

My crew consisted of classmates from the New School and my friends:


Ultraa's logo. Ultraa's logo

The idea for L originated as I was finishing my first film (which has yet to be printed) Answers from a Backyard S.E.T.I. This film was a non-sync film (meaning that sound is not synced to the picture when it is shot) fulfilling the initial requirements of the New School Film Certificate. The film consists of shots at a number of cinematic locations edited together and set to music. The track, Answers from a Backyard S.E.T.I., was recorded at a live performance of the band Ultraa in which I used a laptop computer to play samples.

After deciding to shoot the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and set it on the L train, I began to plan how I would get the shots I needed. I was only allowed to have the Arriflex (crystal-sync camera) for three days. I realised that I had a number of logistic problems to solve before the shoot.

normal background The original train interior was shot on a miniDV camera. blue coloured background Which was then captured onto the computer and tinted blue. amber coloured background This is the same shot tinted amber, made into a loop and burnt onto a video CD.

Shooting on the actual subway is either illegal or expensive. There is no way I could afford to get permission to shoot on the subway. Shooting all the dialogue scenes (in what needed to be an empty car) without being caught by the MTA officials was essentially impossible. The solution I came up with, was to back project the subway car and shoot the dialogue scenes in front of this projection. The problem with this was that if I used a film projector to back project I would need a huge space to generate a large enough image to fit behind them. With a video projector I was afraid that I would have sync lines (the lines that flicker when you shoot TV or computer screens, because of different frame rates and scanning frequencies). The solution was to shoot it on digital video and then project in off video CD in Pal format (Pal's 25fps is closer to sync film's 24fps than NTSC's 29.97fps). So, I went out and shot an empty subway car on miniDV, digitised it and colourised it in the computer, then change the frame rate and burnt it as a video CD.

I needed a number of other shots without dialogue (MOS), some in the subway itself. Rather than take the expensive Arriflex camera into the subway and attract unwelcome attention, I thought it would be better to use a cheaper bolex camera at a later date. One of the problems with shooting against a back projection is that the camera needs to be parallel to the background. This severely limited the camera setups and angles. I wanted to shoot these scenes using a tripod over handheld (steadi-cam was not an option). For the dialogue part of the shoot, I wanted to use classic framing techniques, starting with a mastershot (which due to space considerations was a two shot), Then moving in closer as the argument and the narrative progresses and then closer again, until the final extreme close up. Accompanying these changing camera setups was the lighting, which changed colour according to the setup (blue, amber and red). The narrative was ultimately cueing the camera position and the colour of the light.

Rehearsals began. The dialogue was stiff and difficult, but they did a good job enlivening the rigid words. We were ready to go into production.


At the New School the sync camera package includes a lot of grip equipment and lighting. There was a large amount of equipment to bring to my studio in Brooklyn. I took the Friday off work to pickup and 'check out' the equipment.

Orpheus Orpheus tells his story.

On Saturday morning, we built the 'video set' in the main room at Hope Street. The set was simply the screen to back project onto and the lights. However it was a complicated master shot to get just right. Lighting the actors properly but not shining on the screen. My crew worked quickly and efficiently as Greg DJed for us. Jane Watson was the cinematographer and Takai and myself gaffed the lights. The actors arrived a little later, Trish's roommate Consuelo came to do the make-up. Lizzy got breakfast together as we set up. We had only five setups to shoot and I wanted two good takes of everything. When we were ready to roll, Takaki was the cameraman, Greg was the soundman and recorded on a Nagra. Jane was the cinematographer taking readings with the light meter and Eyal projected the set. We ended up only shooting 400ft of 16mm which is about 11 minutes. It was a fast eight hour shoot that went very smoothly. To celebrate we went to my local pub and had a few pints.

Three months later, I shot the location scenes (the rest of the film) on a Bolex. Myself, Greg, Gary and Trish went into the subway at 4am, one Saturday morning. It was very difficult to get the shots of them on the platform and them entering the train without other passengers in the shot. But after eight trains we had enough coverage. People were drunk and excited to see us 'guerrilling it' in the subway. One person shouted out "sorry about your Grandmother" to Trish. I was very glad that we weren't trying to record sound!

The train The train approaches the platfrom.

I was the cameraman for these shots and Greg recorded location sound. The equipment office had made a mistake and the tripod they had given me wasn't the right one for that camera. So Greg and I devised the crutch-cam, whereby we strapped the camera onto an old crutch, and covered the camera with a black cloth bag. It was an odd looking thing to carry around on the subway but worked well for guerrilla style filmmaking.

The next day, Saturday afternoon, we shot Gary at the graveyard and on the east river (there are actually two graveyards in the film). It was very cold and windy. Gary, Lizzy and Greg put up with the cold as I shot the various scenes. We used the crutch cam again. You can see the windiness by the unsteady shots.

Pluto Pluto, Lord of Hades.

The next day, Lizzy and myself shot the special effects scenes: bath shot with fake blood, and the Cow Skull scene with cigarette smoke. Finally Greg and myself went back into the subway that Sunday night to get some shots and some stereo recordings of the train. We brought my bike for the fluorescent tunnel dolly shot that opens the film. We strapped the crutchcam to the bicycle and wheeled it along. We then got shots of trains coming into the station and from the first carriage and that was the wrap.


Orpheus isn't happy. Orpheus isn't happy.

I originally planned to edit the film using a steenbeck 6 plate flatbed. But that class at the New School was cancelled due to lack of enrolment. So I had to edit on an AVID instead. I am glad, in retrospect, that this happened because I was able to finish the film with the same level of refinement.

The film was developed at the lab and then telecined onto a Beta SP tape. I had them sync up the dialogue at the lab (though it is really easy to do yourself so I don't recommend paying for it) and then captures in the AVID and started to edit it.

I found the AVID interface intuitive. I had used premiere and Final Cut Pro before, so it wasn't a giant leap. In fact, there was only one thing that I had to ask the instructor about. After a number of rough cuts I was happy with the edit.

Blood bath. Blood bath.

I created the titles in flash, exported them to illustrator and then printed each frame on acetate. I was planing to use the schools animation stand but I learnt it was broken. So I had to shoot them off a light box mounted on the wall. I was not pleased with results, so I tried correcting them in the optical printer but that too wasn't satisfactory. I created the freeze frame on the optical printer (which is out of registration). I decide to cut my losses and use the crooked titles for the film, and fix them for the video and web version.

I exported the six audio tracks and brought them into my studio's computer and opened them into Pro Tools. To keep sync, I had put a beep tone at the start of each track (3 stereo tracks) with a copy of the film in quicktime format. Greg mixed the soundtrack of the entire film and composed the music, including an audio logo for the alien resident presents logo.

Inside the train. Orpheus and Eurydice inside the train.

I sent the EDL, the final edit on Beta, the source Betas and the negative to the negative cutter Nick. He confromed it to the Beta and the EDL. I then brought the A and B rolls to the lab. They created a silent print so I could have the sound transfer people check the sync, before they made the optical soundtrack, the soundtrack came from a CD of the soundtrack that Greg and I had created. Then back to the lab to print the final answer print. I talked to the colour timer a number of times until we a got a reasonable looking print. The final print arrived on the day of it's world premiere.

world premiere

Premiere at Hope St. World Premiere at Hope St.

Finally after two years of work and thousands of dollars. I was happy to present my film "L".

I had the world premiere in my work space on Friday November 16th 2001. I projected the brand new 16mm print. The cast and crew was in attendance, I bought three cases of beer to help lubricate the audience. I requested people to also BYOB (as I was a broke filmmaker).

Mark Reilly Filmmaker, projectionist and usher.

If you want to see the flash invite, then click here
(Needs flash plug-in)

I was rewarded with a good turnout. I projected the film three times that night on my new projection screen bought especially for the occasion. Greg was good enough again to DJ during the party.

festivals and screenings

Eurydice (Trish) questions Orpheus. Eurydice (Trish) questions Orpheus.

World Premiere
Friday November 16th 2001 — 10pm
Hope Street Theatre,
11 Hope Street,
Brooklyn, NY 11211.

Manhattan Premiere
Friday November 30th 2001 — 7pm
New School University
Tishman Auditorium,
66 West 12th St. (between 5th and 6th Ave)

Konundrum Film Series
Saturday April 13th 2002, 5–7pm,
Collective Unconscious Theater
145 Ludlow St. btw Stanton and Rivington
(1.5 blocks below Houston)