Director Gary Weis on His Influential, Long-Lost Doc ’80 Blocks from Tiffany’s’
In 1979, the South Bronx was a veritable war zone, bustling with crime and violence, and littered with burned-down buildings, abandoned lots, and empty storefronts. Neglected by indifferent city officials, the decaying South Bronx of that era is a part of New York history that was rarely captured on film, due in part to the nationwide, crippling fear that surrounded that part of the city, and served to isolate it for decades. Nevertheless, in 1977, Saturday Night Live director Gary Weis—inspired by Jon Bradshaw’s investigative feature for Esquire on New York gangs, “The Savage Skulls”—ventured into the South Bronx with a small film crew to document street gang culture. The result was 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, a raw, sobering, and humanistic portrait of the young African-American and Puerto Rican men and women who made up two of the most notorious South Bronx gangs, The Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads. Then, the film was shelved.
80 Blocks from Tiffany’s was what The Warriors, the cultish and campy Hollywood street gang movie involving roller skates and a race to Coney Island, could never be. It was real.
Shot over the course of a couple of weeks in the summer of ’79 (as the seeds of hip-hop culture were slowly sprouting in the BX), 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, produced by Lorne Michaels, veers away from the social commentary typically associated with gang exposés. Instead, the 60-minute documentary focuses on the personalities behind the news reports, including a tough NYPD detective from the Bronx Youth Gang Task Force and a sympathetic community activist.
Apart from being used briefly as an educational video in 1985, the film was never released commercially and lay dormant for the last 30 years. In that time, the only celluloid record of the Skulls and Nomads era reached cult status, with die-hard fans shelling hundreds for the obscure VHS. Although it still remains mostly unseen, on November 23rd, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s will finally get its long overdue release on DVD. “It’s incredible that after all these years there is an interest in the movie and that fleeting moment in New York history,” says Weis, who chatted with us about shooting this hidden gem. What’s the story behind 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s being shelved until now? I made this film along with three others to take the place of the hour and a half programming when SNL was on summer hiatus. It was paid for by the entertainment division at NBC and it was not a very big budget at all. After it was made, NBC loved it, but then ABC had just been sued for a movie they made in their entertainment division of the news. NBC was afraid to show it. They said it would have been fine if the news division had done it. Back then the film was too hardcore for NBC. It’s a nostalgic film about a part of New York that is long gone. As bad as it was then, these guys are nowhere near as bad and organized as the gangs we see today. Fortunately, in the last five years, interest has grown a lot and the film has been screened at a number of places. Tackling a serious topic like street gangs in South Bronx seems light years away from the short comedic films you directed for SNL. Were you nervous? I am a voracious reader of non-fiction and I’ve always loved documentaries. Even though I was always into comedy and this story was so far from me, I was fascinated by this world. A part of it had a lot to do with Jon Bradshaw’s article, which just really drew me in. I’m not a thrill seeker, but I knew I wanted to go to the South Bronx and tell this story.
Had you ever been to the South Bronx before you started shooting? I would go to Yankee stadium, but I had never been to the South Bronx before we began scouting the area. I haven’t been back since shooting the film, really. It was like a bombed out looking area. It was a new experience witnessing the desolation of this place. You could not believe people lived there. A great deal of people in this neighborhood never, ever went into Manhattan, which was just 40 minutes away. Of course, things have changed today.
The media did not make too many trips to the South Bronx back then. How did you manage to gain access to the Skulls and Nomads, and was it hard getting them to open up? I met them through Jon’s contacts from working on his article. He was very helpful in getting us in with the gang members and the police. I was a little nervous, but then I was a lot younger and pretty doofy. I got along with all the guys I spent time with. I spent more time with the Nomads than the Skulls. The Skulls were a little edgier. I came there with a very small crew and I think they trusted me because I spoke to them on their own terms. I had no agenda besides capturing what they wanted to say. Nobody ever took the trouble to talk to them about their lives, so they were open.
The Esquire article paints a more sinister and darker picture of these two battling gangs. Did you intentionally delve more into their personalities with the film? I’d like to say it was, but I think maybe it was just organic. I never like when people talk about their motivation behind their work. To be honest, I just went there with no agenda and shot what we found. I just did the same thing I was used to doing in my short films for SNL, with the Joke Store Lady or Garbage Guy, I just let them talk. I wanted to hear what these guys had to say. What do you think of some critics who say you were too enamored with the Skulls and Nomads? What was I suppose to do? Take the parts out of the movie that showed them as charming? I mean they were criminals, but they were also charming, especially the Nomads. I was even warned by the NYPD detective Bob Werner not to fall in love with these guys.
One of the most surprising elements in the film is the relationship between detective Bob Werner and the gangs. Chances of seeing a cop today play fighting with gang members or showing up at their block parties today are slim to none. As Crazy Joe Alverez recounted in the film, he was just walking with an ax handle and Werner just took it from him and that was cool. Werner understood them. The other thing with Werner is that he had enough hard edge discipline and enough understanding to do his job right. Most of the cops in the Youth Gang were either too hardcore or too soft. Werner had the perfect balance for what was going on.
You had the guys re-enact their crimes. This concept was unheard of then, but it lent a bit of humor to the documentary. Would you agree? A lot of that stuff can be ironically funny. Scenes like Fly climbing up the side of buildings or a kid using crutches as a weapon possess some comedic charm. A lot of today’s reality shows manipulate stuff and that’s why I really dramatized those scenes. I did not want anyone mistaken that this is for real. While the film does not make mention of hip-hop, which was on the verge of exploding, signs of its birth are in the film, which is considered an essential record of hip-hop’s early years. Were you aware of this new movement at the time of filming? I’m glad the hip-hop community took this movie in. I was surprised at first when I would get calls about screening the movie at hip-hop events or hip-hop film festivals. What I understand now is that time and moment was the start of something big. Those who are into the history of hip-hop, the time and place it came from, find the movie fascinating.