The Shoot Must Go On, but Not While There's a Burning House Nearby

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The third dispatch from a first-time filmmaker chronicling his experience for The Atlantic

drumming fire 615.jpg

I wish I could say that, in addition to all of the other talented professionals working on my film, I had a pyrotechnics team capable of creating the startling effect in this photo. Unfortunately, this really happened. It was probably no more than an hour after sundown and we were crammed into a private house in Bed-Stuy prepping for a quiet scene between two leads—characters in the earliest stage of romance.

Before anything could ignite between the actors, however, the air began to fill with the sounds of fire trucks arriving. Crew members lingering out in the yard rushed inside to inform us that a home several houses down the block had caught fire. I was loathe to stop rehearsal because we were already running late and had plenty of work to do. It's New York—Brooklyn, no less. One hears sirens all the time.

But I went outside to look. Flames leapt into the sky just a few houses away. Red and white engines clogged the corner near us. Firemen with axes and tools jumped out and raced past where a dozen of us filmmakers stood gawking. A woman creeped out onto her front stoop in slippers and a bathrobe to ask us what was going on. My sound man and his assistant began eyeing their equipment nervously. Even the big, scary dog next door stopped barking long enough to look worried. Back inside, our set was filled with smoke. Another crew member panicked.

No choice here, the assistant director informed me soberly. No shooting through the chaos. No waiting it out. We pull the plug. We still had at least an hour and a half left in that space and were desperately trying to make up for time lost the prior day. Admittedly, it took me a second to shake off the frustration of more setbacks, but, of course, it would be ridiculous and callous to put the safety of anyone in my charge in jeopardy. (That didn't stop the more intrepid from risking their own skins. Our cinematographer yanked his camera off the sticks and rushed outside into the haze to photograph the blaze. My on-set photographer Richard Louissaint snapped the image above on his cellphone.)

Choking and shaken, we piled everyone into vans and vehicles and waited anxiously as the fire department let us pass through. Everyone was eventually shipped off home. I stuck around late to lock up our set and was glad to see the fire finally tamed. By some accounts, the house that caught was completely destroyed. Ultimately, as always is this case with this sort of terrifying event, whispers circulated briefly about who might have been at home, but nothing was substantiated. My crew and I don't really know anyone on that Brooklyn block. We were guests. None of us live in that area and would probably never learn the truth. We'll say what you always say on days like this—"I hope no one was hurt"—and push on.

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Neil Drumming is a filmmaker, screenwriter, and journalist. He is a former staff writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, and his work has appeared in Wired, The Washington Post, Vibe, Rolling Stone, Essence, and Vanity Fair.

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