By Matthew E. Milliken
April 27, 2015
As I was saying the other day, a few times a year, my parent and I and the beloved dog-in-residence will drive down to Piermont. We’ll park in the big lot behind the shops and restaurants and walk up Ferry Road to the end of the pier and back.
The view out there is great, especially from the large concrete platform where the pier ends near the middle of the Hudson River. A few miles to the north, the Tappan Zee Bridge reaches from Nyack on the western bank to Tarrytown on the east. The span carries a seemingly endless river of cars and trucks.
If it’s a nice day, there’ll be lots of recreational boats, often wind-powered, zipping back and forth. (You’ll also find plenty of folks fishing in the Hudson River from multiple points along the pier when the weather’s good.) In any conditions, you can watch the occasional chain of barges cruise slowly up or down the river; now and then, a freighter or two will sail past them.
At regular intervals, a silver MetroNorth caterpillar crawls along the rails on the river’s eastern shore, pausing at the Irvington station before continuing on its journey. And once, I saw kayakers cutting through the water on the pier’s north side.
In the past few years, the waters on the far side of the Tappan Zee have been populated by a growing collection of barges, cranes and construction equipment — the start of a replacement for the existing bridge.
Sometime in 2013 (I think), the Parental Unit, dog and I were returning to our car from a stroll along the pier when we noticed a large truck in the parking lot. For some reason, we were sure it carried production equipment for a movie.
We wandered over to the truck and found a worker there. This person told us that yes, a movie was being filmed nearby, and that the story concerned a reporter who becomes involved with a murderer. This movie was True Story; my parent and I saw it last week, and unfortunately, we weren’t all that impressed.
But the viewing experience was interesting for reasons that had nothing to do with the story. The P.U. and I recognized different locations that were standing in for the Oregon community where Christian Longo was accused of, and tried for, murdering his wife and three young children. My parent nudged me when Sparky’s Diner made a brief appearance onscreen; it didn’t look familiar to me, but the P.U. recognized this fairly unremarkable Garnerville restaurant after seeing it during a 2014 car trip.
The scene that captivated me for non-cinematic reasons came about two-thirds of the way through the film. Shortly before Longo’s trial gets under way, a state investigator of some sort comes up to Jonah Hill’s character, journalist Michael Finkel, in the courthouse hallway. He asks if they can chat; Finkel agrees, and the man suggests they go somewhere a little quieter.
Cut to the men conversing by the water. I instantly recognized the location — a marshy, crescent-shaped shore around where I think the pier proper begins. (Ferry Road is inaccurately labeled Paradise Avenue on this New York State Department of Environmental Conservation map; for instance, compare with this Google Maps view.)
From one camera angle, I saw the back of one of the distinctive wooden signs often placed at the entrance to area parks. (See the top image on this page for an example.) As the scene played out, I tried to ransack my memory in hopes of coming up with the words on the front of the sign. I’m not sure, but I think it says “Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve” or something like that in embossed yellow letters against the brown wooden slats.
For most of the scene, the camera looks south. The two men are in the foreground; the water and the distinctive profile of Tallman Mountain are in the background. I knew that view; hell, I’m pretty sure that I’ve taken pictures of my Parental Unit with the exact same background as one of the shots of Jonah Hill in the movie.
I also knew that, were the camera to be shifted a degree or two to the left, the George Washington Bridge and New York City would peek out from behind Tallman Mountain, thereby spoiling the cinematic illusion that this conversation was taking place outside a small Oregon town.
In truth, of course, I knew to expect a few familiar sights in True Story. But the movie featured one location that was completely unexpected.
In the very final scene of the film (relax — no plot spoilers here), Finkel is reading from his memoir, True Story, at what seems to be a New York City bookstore. Much to my surprise, this space appeared to be the very same one I had seen the prior week at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival screening of Alex Winter’s new movie, Deep Web.
True Story uses multiple camera setups in the scene filmed in this space. Deep Web, I believe, had just a single setup: The camera looked directly at the parents of federal hacking defendant Ross Ulbricht as Winter interviewed them about their son’s prosecution.
During this conversation, the Ulbrichts, like Hill’s character in True Story, have their backs against a railing. They appear to be sitting directly on some kind of balcony. Behind them, one can see a large chandelier suspended at more or less the same height as the railing. Beyond the chandelier, there are arched windows overlooking what appears to be a busy urban street.
I can’t imagine there are too many spaces that resemble this one, and so, when I saw the backdrop for Finkel’s reading, I experienced a jolt of recognition.
So True Story turned out to be electrifying — but not, alas, due to the story or characters, only due to the places it was filmed.