The Subways Cough Up a Screenwriter

On a rainy afternoon in March of 2004, M.T.A. subway worker Michael Martin was in his silver Lincoln Mark VII,

On a rainy afternoon in March of 2004, M.T.A. subway worker Michael Martin was in his silver Lincoln Mark VII, stopped at a red light at the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Quentin Road in Brooklyn, when suddenly: Screeech! He heard a crash, looked in his rear view and saw a car careening toward him. It slammed into the back of his car, sending it directly into oncoming traffic. The good news: no second impact. The bad news: Mr. Martin’s Lincoln was damaged beyond repair and he had a bulging disc in his back, which meant three-months leave from work, thrice-weekly physical therapy sessions and a staggering amount of time to kill in his apartment near the Bronx Zoo.

“It was a lot of Netflix, and just sitting at home searching the Internet,” recalled Mr. Martin, 30, last week, speaking by phone from his mother’s apartment in East New York, the neighborhood where he grew up. He was in town for the March 2 premiere of his new movie, Brooklyn’s Finest, directed by Antoine Fuqua; he’d flown in from L.A. just in time for the recent blizzard. “I had all this time on my hands and I had to fill it with something.”

Mr. Martin studied film at Brooklyn College; he just never had the time, or the reason, to actually create a movie until that fateful moment in Brooklyn.

He started writing. Every day. A few hours in the morning after waking up around 5 a.m., and again at night, picking up wherever he’d left off, watching as many movies as possible in between. (At the time, he said, Italian neorealism was the focus of his Netflix queue.) The idea was to win a screenwriting contest sponsored by the New York arm of the Independent Feature Project, an indie-film nonprofit organization.

‘I’d talk to him and he’d still be on the train tracks!’ —Director Antoine Fuqua.

Mr. Martin finished the first draft of Brooklyn’s Finest—116 pages—in under three months, just in time for the contest deadline. The prize was $10,000, more than enough to buy a new car. “I wish I could say all I was thinking about was what actors would be in my movie or what director would be perfect for it, but cars were the only thing on my mind,” he admitted. “I kept telling people, I don’t know if I should get the 2000, or this older model, or this one.”

After being notified he was one of 40 finalists, and receiving some encouraging feedback from one of the judges (“You always held the interest of the reader. I wish I had more to tell you, but I just really liked it”), Mr. Martin was certain the vintage Mustang he wanted would be his. Alas, he came in second.

But during the contest, Mr. Martin caught the attention of Brooklyn-based producer Jeanne O’Brien, who helped him sign with the Brant Rose Agency. (He’s now repped by ICM.) In the spring of 2005, he landed a gig writing for the Showtime miniseries Sleeper Cell, prompting a temporary move to L.A. He also was hired to write a sequel to the 1991 neo-noir crime thriller, New Jack City. In the meantime, his agents were busy shopping Brooklyn’s Finest, which portrays the dark and violent parallel tales of three unconnected inner-city cops, broken down by the realities of policing a dangerous Brooklyn precinct. (See our review here.)

“It’s the type of situation that could be on the brink at any moment, when a cop goes into a dangerous neighborhood and deals with tensions,” said Mr. Martin of the story. “I wanted it to be frighteningly real.”


WHEN MR. MARTIN was 18, right out of high school, he took a job as a road checker for Command Bus Company in Brooklyn. He was still working at Command in February of 2006 when it was absorbed by the M.T.A. The following year, he started a job as a subway flagger, one of the guys who sets up lights and warning signals so construction workers don’t get mowed down by passing trains.

The job, he said, was painfully tedious: “You come into work at your station, sign in, wait a few hours, play dominoes, watch TV, then you head up to the construction site, wait for the contractors and go with the other flaggers to set up the warning lights.”

After that, you pretty much just sit there.

“About 150 feet out from the station,” Mr. Martin continued, “between the local and express tracks, you’ll find a white bucket. You sit on it. There’s layering so that in case your foot moves, you don’t touch the third rail. So you just make a little setup for yourself. You’re there for six hours. Whenever a train goes by, you’ve gotta swing a light and blow your whistle. Most of us would put flashlights in our helmets. You’re not suppose to read but we’d all do it anyway.”

It was while sitting on those white buckets that Mr. Martin would work on his screenwriting, be it new projects or polishing up Brooklyn’s Finest. (New Jack City 2, he said, was almost completely written in the New York City subway system.) “It was a way I could get through that job,” he added.

By the spring of 2008, Brooklyn’s Finest had found its way into the hands of Mr. Fuqua, director of the 2001 Oscar-winning police drama Training Day.

“I got this grip on my gut,” Mr. Fuqua said. “It just seemed to have a clear voice and the characters were coming from a very real place. Like it was ripped right out of the headlines.”

Indeed, Mr. Fuqua thought the script was so good that he was certain it couldn’t have been Mr. Martin’s first; there had to be a ghostwriter involved, or something, he said. So he decided to give Mr. Martin a test: write the script for a mini-movie/music video that Jay-Z wanted him to direct. Mr. Martin turned it around in about a week, flawlessly, and Mr. Fuqua enthusiastically signed on to direct Brooklyn’s Finest, bringing with him an all-star cast, including Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes and Ellen Barkin. (The Jay-Z video was never made.) “I’d talk to him and he’d still be on the train tracks!” said Mr. Fuqua. “I finally said, ‘You’ve gotta quit, because you’re talented and this is a big opportunity and you don’t wanna miss this experience.’”

That April, after Mr. Martin had attracted some media attention (including an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and an item on this newspaper’s Web site), the M.T.A. gave him a disciplinary hearing, charging he’d violated protocol by having a second job. He said he won, with the help of the union, by arguing that selling a screenplay does not employment make. The next day, he said, an M.T.A. communications officer approached him to do some press about being a transit worker in the spotlight.

“I said no; they got pissed,” Mr. Martin recalled. (That spokesman, Charles Seaton, said he was unaware at the time that Mr. Martin had just been brought up on disciplinary charges, and that he had no further interest in speaking with Mr. Martin “since he did not wish to speak with me.” He declined to comment on the hearing.)

So Mr. Martin used up his few dozen remaining vacation and sick days and quit as soon as they ran out. He was on set with Mr. Fuqua at the Van Dyke housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, by mid-May; filming wrapped in August, and shortly thereafter, Mr. Martin moved to L.A.—where he now lives, about 10 minutes outside of Beverly Hills, with his wife, Maria, and 2-year-old son, Ricardo—to become a full-time screenwriter.

“It felt great,” he said.

These days, Mr. Martin spends most of his time writing and reading; his agent at ICM sometimes sends over book adaptations or screenplay rewrites. He’s completed four scripts to date, and is currently adapting a crime thriller novel for GK Films. He drives a white Chevy Malibu, though he said he misses being able to walk everywhere and take the train.

“Working for the M.T.A., I always felt like, I’ve got this thing in my way that I’ve got to fight through in order to get what I want,” he said. “Now I get to do what I love and get paid for it.”