Omid’s well-intentioned desperate effort to catch a subway train results in a lost gym bag and a car full of confused and terrified passengers. In Subway, he tells the story in a comedic light, teaching you that sometimes, it may be best to just wait for the next train. Austin Duerst interviews Nicholas Ramirez and Omid Singh below.
“I knew by the middle of high school that filmmaking was what I wanted to do. I used to skateboard a lot with my friends, so by nature of the Tony Hawk video game era, you had to start filming your own skateboarding stuff. That’s how I ended up with my first camera. Once my friends and I realized we weren’t any good at skateboarding, that was the end of that. But the filming kept going. With that same group of friends, we made videos all the time. So I’ve heavily pursued filmmaking since, and through internships I ended up in New York. It was during that internship that I first met Omid Singh while we were both staying in a hostel.”
—Nicholas Ramirez (Director/Editor/Camera)
Had you and Omid always planned to collaborate?
Omid lives in LA now, but while he lived in New York we became good friends and always went to his stand-up shows. He’s a comedian, so there was always that idea of getting something of his on film to put out there and drum up interest. Subway happened while he was in town for a week and a half, and I had a slow period of not having too many projects. We decided to do something while having coffee one morning. We didn’t have a lot of time to plan big or pull a lot of things together, but we just wanted to do something. Following his stand-up material, we already had a built-in storyline. I had seen him perform the piece in the film a few times, and it was definitely one of my favorites. So I made a shot list in my head, and we went out to Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, which was the neighborhood where we both lived together. Since we were doing a subway bit, I wanted to use the above ground track because it had the source of light and looked nicer. We showed up on a Sunday morning back in February, and it was honestly the simplest form of shooting I’ve done since high school. Just a lot of me saying to Omid, “Go over there, do this, and I’ll take care of everything else.” [laughs]
How difficult was it shooting on the subway tracks?
It got very tricky in-between shots. I understood how ridiculous it was to try and do a subway scene without any control over the actual subway. I’ve worked on larger sets as a PA where we’ve done subway scenes, and even then, when you’ve got control over the train with someone from the MTA pulling it back and forward, it’s still a total bastard. So doing it with absolutely no control when I’m pretty sure there were some legal gray areas was tricky. But that was the charm of filming on a Sunday morning when it was quiet and there weren’t too many people around. We’d wait for the next train, get a shot, then wait for the next one. Very tedious. Also with this short in particular, we saved the shots of the bag catching in the door for last in case it lead to any issues. [laughs] People hold doors open for others all the time, but when you’re standing there waiting for the door to close, people are looking at you, the train conductor is looking at you. It was one of those scenarios where we said screw it, we’ll do it, and God forbid someone calls the cops on us.
A New York subway probably isn’t the most ideal shooting spot for suspicious behavior.
I’m not particularly proud of this, because I understand it’s not the smartest thing in the world, but there was one time where Omid was banging on the subway doors and it caused one train to slam on its breaks. [laughs] They thought something was wrong, and we had to briefly explain in a majestic way with our hands that everything was okay. After those moments is when we’d decide to get off the platform and go to the next stop. All the shots were on several different subway stops, because working on that kind of schedule would be impossible at one stop. So I decided continuity be damned, but I also figured you could take a lot of liberties with a funny short. That was a relief.
Stand-up relies heavily on surrealism and exaggeration, so I can see what you mean about being able to take liberties with the editing. Was that something you knew intuitively while you were creating the shot list in your head?
Yeah, when Omid and I were going through some of his bits, this one in particular we knew would work. It’s inherently funny; you could just shoot him performing it on stage and it’d be funny on its own. But living in New York, there’s a whole subtext to that joke. That perspective is the crux of it. It’s just a guy trying not to miss this train, but on the other hand it looks like something completely different. So I naturally felt like that’s what the audience would want to see. That’s what you imagine when you hear the joke. Little spokes in the joke provided narrative stuff to grab onto. Like when he “walks onto the train like a boss.” How do you show that? Well, you have a girl look at him. I couldn’t cast a whole train to look at him, so you play up the one look from a friend of ours who helped out.
Where was the stand-up scene filmed?
It’s actually a restaurant with a stage in it. It was at one of the smaller venues Omid plays when he comes to town. That same week we filmed the short [Omid] performed at Gotham, but we would have had logistical problems getting a camera in there. So the restaurant was easy. It was a late show and the owner didn’t care if we showed up with a camera. Part of me was kinda bummed that we had to shoot in a smaller venue as opposed to Gotham, but I think it actually worked out quite nicely. One of the things about a comedy club is that you’re laughing with other people, and there are always a few who are laughing harder than the rest. In a room that small, it wasn’t a crowd of a hundred with 20 people laughing—it was a crowd of 20 with 20 people laughing. So the jokes landed that much harder.
“This is one of the first sketches I’ve ever filmed. I mostly do stand-up comedy; that’s where I started from. Nick and I lived in a hostel together in New York, which is where we met. We’ve been friends since, and he’s always liked my stand-up, and I’ve always liked his film work. So we figured out a way to blend the two together.”
—Omid Singh (Writer/Lead Actor)
The narrative for Subway was a routine you already had?
Yeah, it’s the bit I usually close my show on. I’ve had that bit for two years now, and the short felt like a nice way to say goodbye to it and give it it’s due with Nick’s great vision.
Being your first acting role, was it challenging for you to perform in the non-stand-up scenes?
It just shows how terrible of an actor I am and how difficult it is, really. It’s such a process that’s so foreign to me. Not that I hated it, but the acting part is super difficult for me. I’m not used to taking cues, but Nick is an amazing director and editor, so he came in knowing exactly what we were going to do. There was no wasting time, no asking what I thought. He had the idea perfect and I just had to stand there.
Having had this bit in your pocket for so long, what was the experience like for you to see it come to life in the final product?
It was awesome. It was amazing. I knew Nick was going to do an amazing job, because he’s worked on such great projects like Hugo. So I knew it was going to be a hit from the beginning getting him to do my sketch. I haven’t actually seen the 100% finished version yet. I’ll see it at the fest for the first time. But I’ve seen the 90% finished version, and I was really happy with it.
After this experience, what do you feel are the main differences between performing stand-up and performing comedy for a film?
Stand-up is way more fun. Even when you’re bombing on stage, stand-up is much more enjoyable than repeating the same action for 20 takes and running towards a train. I’d rather be eating shit on stage. [laughs] Acting is more collaborative, so you have to please a lot of people besides yourself. In stand-up, you’ve only got yourself and the audience to please, so it’s a much smaller group. And there’s no retake. If you want to do it again, you have to wait and do it tomorrow.