James Sanders, Author of ‘Scenes from the City,’ on New York’s Filmic Presence

'There has been this incredible explosion, not just of a lot of films, but a lot of great films.'

James Sander. (Illustration by Paul Kisselev)
James Sanders. (Illustration by Paul Kisselev)

James Sanders is an Emmy-winning architect, filmmaker and writer fascinated with New York as it’s represented in the movies. His 2006 book, Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York, chronicles the city’s filmic presence since the founding of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting almost 50 years ago. In the expanded version, recently reissued, Mr. Sanders takes a look at the last decade of film in our great metropolis.

How did you go about whittling down movies to focus on? You’re trying to index and celebrate the great films of the last eight years, and there have been so many great ones. That’s sort of the point of the book: that there has been this incredible explosion, not just of a lot of films, but a lot of great films.

There’s also been an explosion of good TV made in New York. That’s the big story, from the industry’s point of view. The single biggest accomplishment of the beginning of the 21st century was going from a situation where you had only six episodic television shows being shot in New York, to 29, which is what it is now. That’s just a titanic increase.

How effectively has 9/11 has been addressed on film? My first book, Celluloid Skyline, literally was going to press the week of Sept. 11. And a lot of people were coming to me in the months and years afterward saying, “What’s going to happen now?” There was a lot of concern. Would people want to see New York in movies anymore? And the answer, I think, turned out to be “yes.” Every romantic comedy seems to be set here. The superhero tradition, this idea of cavorting around the skyline, has come back in a huge way, too.

As an architect, what do you make of One World Trade Center? It’s more evocative of the older generation of towers that got smaller as they got taller, and at the same time evokes this very modernist icon of the original Trade Center. I have no doubt that it will begin to take its place in films almost immediately. In fact, you’ve begun to see it as it was going up in older films.

How does cinematography play into the evocation of the city? The late Gordon Willis, who shot The Godfather, Annie Hall and Manhattan, among many others, comes to mind. Talk about a subtle and complex art form. I once got a chance to watch As Good as It Gets with the cinematographer John Bailey. I spent the whole night with him, by his side, as he explained how he takes the real night of New York and makes it into the movie night that you have in the film. Nothing comes naturally. It’s just this incredibly constructed thing. The punch line, of course, is when you watch the movie, you’re not supposed to be noticing it at all.

With that in mind, do you ever find it disappointing that Woody Allen’s New York doesn’t actually exist? It’s a funny thing—it does and it doesn’t. I think that’s the power of a great artist, whether it’s Stanley Kubrick or Spike Lee or Woody Allen, to bend reality so that when we see something that’s actually real, we go, “Wow, that’s just like that Stanley Kubrick movie.” So I don’t think we live in Woody Allen’s New York, because we can’t, literally, but how many people have come to New York because of Woody Allen’s city or whoever’s city? Maybe now it’s Lena Dunham’s city. 

James Sanders, Author of ‘Scenes from the City,’ on New York’s Filmic Presence