|The first homeless person Andy and I approached was a disheveled, middle aged man lying on a bus stop bench. He wore dirty shorts and a T-shirt, and shoes with no socks. We were nervous because we had no idea how we would be received.
As it turned out, Bob was most gracious. He sat up, asked us if we minded him fixing an instant tea, then proceeded to tell us, in halting, disjointed sentences, his life story. Bob reeked of instant tea - it emanated from his pores. When he bent down to put away the bottle, we noticed he wasn't wearing any underwear. This was the dubious beginning of "Easy Street".
The story we thought we were going to tell never materialized. Instead, we got an education in the how and why people live "houseless" in American cities. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to the numerous street people who accepted our explanation of why we wanted to point a small camcorder at them and hear what they had to say.
It turned out that small camcorders and little to no set up was the only way to go. The initial distraction
|of the camera was brief and most of our subjects quickly forgot it was there.
These days, many communities speak in terms of implementing a ten year plan to end the homeless problem. Homeless people don't see themselves as "the problem". They don't understand why they are persecuted for the particular lifestyle they lead. They don't want to bother anyone, they just want to be left alone. Perhaps, for meaningful dialogue to take place, both sides need to start with a new agenda.
|Oringially from Canada, Ashton braved the winters of Saskatchewan in the 70’s, got lost in Europe and taught English on the island of Crete in the 1980’s, and wrote and produced for Candian network TV until 1992, when he chucked it all and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 2004, Ashton and an employee, Andrew Lee produced a series of short documentaries for a local museum. The films profiled artists living and working in Florida. The experience was exhilarating and the finished pieces were some of their best work. That October, Ashton and Lee talked about doing another documentary, feature length this time, and as a personal project. 15 months later, Easy Street was finally completed.
“As first-time feature-length film makers working with a miniscule budget, we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for,” Ashton says. Roaming the streets in their spare time with a clipboard and a camera soon became a near fulltime obsession. “Homeless people have little need for appointments and none of them own cell phones,” he explains. “So if we wanted to see the same person again, we had to go hunting for them. It sometimes took several days or nights.”
After 12 months and 40 hours of footage, the filmmakers still didn’t feel any closer to having a film. “We learned a lot”, admits Ashton. “And the more we learned the more we realized the story we thought we would tell, didn’t exist.” Ashton claims the whole thing suddenly became clear one night when his partner said, “All we have is homeless people talking about themselves.”
That’s when he decided there was no need for a narrator, or experts in the field, or politicians or anybody else to comment on the homeless “problem”. “People who live without homes don’t see themselves as the problem”. So the film would be, quite simply, people telling their own stories. Five main characters emerged from a cast of dozens. The supporting characters became the people that homeless people come in contact with and directly affect.
A story line was developed and the editing began in earnest. Three months and many all-nighters later, it was done. Both Ashton and Lee agree they have been bitten by the filmmaking bug. “TV commercials and corporate stuff can be fun, but producing an entire film is an extremely satisfying experience.” They already know what their next project will be.
|Andrew Lee is a graduate of the University of South Florida, and has worked at editing and producing film and video for the past 4 years. In 2004, Lee worked with Director/Producer Stephen Ashton on a series of short documentaries funded by the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, profiling artists living and working in Florida.
During this time, he discovered a passion for documentary film making. When the series ended, he wanted to do more. When Ashton suggested they do a film of their own, Lee knew what the topic should be.
"Running along the waterfront after work, I saw homeless people camping across from the marina", he recalls. "They had the finest view in the city. As the weeks went by, the population grew. It got me wondering who they were, why they were there, and what were people doing about it?"
Lee spent the next year and half chronicling the lives of homeless people as he co-produced the feature length documentary entitled "Easy Street".