Moloney revisits Woody Allen's Manhattan

Who: Christopher Moloney is a New York City-based, Canadian-born producer for CNN’s Erin Burnett: OutFront. The proximity of CNN’s Columbus Circle offices to Central Park, and a longstanding love of film, led Moloney to begin taking photographs of screen captures from his favorite movies that were shot on location in the neighborhood. His first photo was one of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rampaging down Manhattan’s West Side in 1984′s Ghostbusters. Moloney continues to post his film photos to a Tumblr site called FILMography, which he started in June 2012, and where he sells 8X10 prints of his work. One year and hundreds of photos into his project, Camera In The Sun talked to Moloney for a June 2013 interview about the evolution of his unique style of photography, his approach to composition, his opinions on various film locations… and the actor Christopher Meloni.

Why did you start with a picture of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?

When I started this, I just wanted show my friends “Oh wow, look, I work next door to where the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is.” I wasn’t really thinking of lining anything up. I just wanted to show this is where it was. And the first few pictures I took, that I’ve since redone, were me just literally holding up [a movie still] and not even lining anything up. Just being like, “Oh, here it is. I found it.” Whereas now, I’ve started to take some more time, take some more care, and try to make it look as close as I can possibly make it. The thing that’s interesting about it too is when I first started, I tried to pick sort of classic scenes — Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate [in The Seven Year Itch]. But now I actually find myself picking scenes that aren’t necessarily classic scenes, but ones that I know will work out well. So I like close-up shots of people, because it tends to be a better-quality picture, and it’s easier to match up. Because I literally just use a Canon Sure Shot, or something like that, to take the picture. I don’t have access to the different lenses that the cinematographers use to make it perfectly. So if it’s something close up, I know I have a better shot of doing that. And then I always look in the background, “OK, are there bricks?” or “Is there a crack in the sidewalk?” or “Is there something that I can line up to show you this is exactly where the spot was.” I’m not necessarily worried about recreating famous New York scenes anymore. I’m more interested in finding scenes that I know are gonna be good pictures.

I used to do it with the white edges around the picture, just because I was doing it really fast. And there’s one of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, where I saw someone walking, and I waited for the person to walk there, just to see if I could line it up. And I didn’t line it up that well. It just happened to be perfect when I pressed the shutter. That’s one time that I consciously did it. But there’s another one that’s Die Hard With a Vengeance, when they’re on the phone near a subway station, where I wasn’t even looking at the bottom of the picture. I was just trying to line up the Sleepy’s sign. So I didn’t notice that the legs matched up perfectly on two of the people. That’s the one that more than other picture, people comment on — like the artistry, and the fine technique. But I didn’t even know that until I got home, and uploaded it onto my computer. I was like, “Whoa, that worked out really well.” But I have absolutely no background in photography whatsoever. If I’ve improved at all, it’s just because of getting the reps. I’ve done something like 400 of them now over a year. So if I didn’t improve my technique, I at least improved how I lined things up.

I think the first 10-12 I did, I took on my Blackberry — like that Ghostbusters one. Then I had another camera. And if you look at the archive of my Tumblr blog, I only took one picture in March [2013]. And that’s not because I didn’t have time, or anything like that. It’s just that my camera broke on the second day of March, and I just didn’t have time to get back to Best Buy or wherever I bought it to grab a new camera. So then all these kids who follow my blog started tweeting me, messaging me, and sending me emails from my site, basically saying, “Why did you stop? Please come back.” And I just responded saying, “I didn’t stop. I just don’t have a camera right now. Sorry.”

How do you translate that interest into sales of your photos?

People were like, “I’d love to get a print or something like that.” And I said, “Well, that sounds like a lot of work.” So I just put them up there. And then actually, only recently have I been selling them to an American audience, which kind of makes me laugh. Probably the first 50-60 pictures I sold were actually all to Brazil and Japan, and places like that. It was to people who had never been to New York, but loved New York in the movies, and so wanted a piece of it. Whereas just recently, the site has kind of been discovered in Los Angeles. So I’ve had a lot of filmmakers who want to give them as gifts to their clients. Annie Hall‘s the only one that’s sold out. It’s funny, because the ones that are very popular online don’t sell. And the reason I think is because I sell the pictures for $39, which is kind of steep for kids who are just at home, and can probably just upload the pictures themselves. But they love The Avengers and Spiderman, and all those sort of modern superhero movies. One of my pictures of The Avengers I did that lined up really well has like 60,000 re-blogs or “likes” on Tumblr. It’s really, really popular. But no one’s ever bought that one, because kids don’t want to buy prints. They just want to look at stuff on the internet, and be like, “That’s cool. I like that.”

I have these sort of film snobs — and I say that in the best possible way — in New York and L.A. now, who don’t really watch movies that were made after 2000. And so I’ve had people complain to me, “You do too many new movies. You have to do some more of the classics.” And then I have these kids saying, “What is this crap you’re doing from 1948? We want Ironman. What is wrong with you?” And because I’m 35 years old, I’m now at the point where I totally remember being a kid, and yet totally feel old. And nothing made me feel as old as just a month ago, a kid emailed me who was probably 10 years old, and said, “Can you please do one of Spiderman?” And I said, “Oh no, I just did a Spiderman one.” So I sent him a link to the photo with Tobey Maguire in front of the Public Library. And he responded almost immediately with, “I don’t want the old one.” He wanted the Andrew Garfield version. And I was shocked, because it seems like the Tobey Maguire Spiderman just came out. I was just like, “Wait, that’s the old one? What the hell is going on here?”

So it’s the ones like Woody Allen or Breakfast at Tiffany’s — those classic movies are the ones that sell really well. Like Annie Hall, I sold out that one probably in a couple weeks. And then there’s two Breakfast at Tiffany’s ones that I think I have one left of each picture. So those are the ones that are really, really popular. And then it’s weird — there’s one I did of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in North by Northwest, where he’s about to get on a bus, and I noticed that the buildings in the background lined up perfectly. So I did that one just because I thought it would be cool, and I’ve sold like 6 or 7 of them to people in London. Every single person who’s bought it is from England. So I guess it’s just the loyalty of, “He’s a British filmmaker, and I’m gonna buy that sort of thing.”

Who is your favorite filmmaker?

I love Woody Allen. I loved him as a stand-up. I love him as a writer. I love him as a filmmaker. Everyone uses the word “genius” too much, but I think he’s actually someone who’s had an original thought. He’s one of those people where you say, “Oh, that’s genius” all the time. But unless it’s something that’s never really been done before, you’re not really supposed to use the word. And I think he’s had a lot of ideas and thoughts that no one’s really ever had before, or at least put down on paper. And so for a great many years before I moved to New York City, his movies were “New York” to me in a lot of ways. I was telling someone that it amazes me that his New York, Martin Scorsese’s New York and Spike Lee’s New York are the same place. I’m so amazed at how different those New Yorks are. And yet, they’re the same city. I think that’s one of the reasons I love New York so much. You can have three people just do everything they know about New York, and experienced as New Yorkers, into their movies — and yet, they all come out so different through their own little prisms. And Woody Allen for me, when I was growing up, I was just like, “Wow, this guy is a nerd, but he’s cool. And I don’t really understand how he’s dating all these women.” I was so perplexed by the whole thing. And I was like, “That’s sort of what New York is. You can just be a nerd. And yet, you somehow not just survive, you succeed. What is this magical city?”

When I first did the Annie Hall photo, it was my favorite photo. And it still is in a lot of ways my favorite photo I’ve ever taken. Just because it’s a movie that I really love. There are some movies that I do that I didn’t really have any sort of film connection to. I was just like, “Oh, that’s cool. I know where that is. I’m gonna do that one.” But Annie Hall was a movie that I really just loved. It’s pretty close to a perfect movie in my mind. That location was a great scene of them arguing about driving, and they were holding tennis racquets. There were so many crazy things going on in that scene. Yet it was such a quiet scene, and not a very frenetic scene. The location was great, and it had the brickwork that I could line up. It was actually near where I live now. It’s in the 60s. I live in the 70s. So I could just walk there quite easily to do it. But the reason why it’s my favorite photo now has actually changed in the last few months. I get a lot of messages from kids through my Tumblr — as in 14-15 year-olds who don’t really know any movie that was made basically before 2000. And this girl emailed to tell me how much she loved that photo. She said, “I’m 14 years old. I live in New York.” And I was surprised that a 14 year-old kid would like Annie Hall. It didn’t seem like a movie that a 14 year-old kid would search out and watch. So I asked her, “Well, you like the photo, but what is it about Annie Hall that you like so much?” And she goes, “I don’t know what Annie Hall is. I’ve never heard of it. But that’s my school.” And so the building that was Diane Keaton’s, where they’re standing in front of, was actually this girl’s school. And she goes to that school, and that’s why she liked it so much. So I had to laugh, because my whole perception of this person before I asked that question was completely different from what it actually was.

What has drawn you to take so many photos in Central Park?

I still am not at the point where I take Central Park for granted, like a lot of people do. I think it’s just because I grew up watching movies that took place in the park, where it seemed like such a mythical place. Almost like, “I can’t believe that Central Park exists, and I can walk through it every day.” The other interesting thing that I find is, of the New York pictures I’ve done, almost all of them — like 90% — were filmed in and around the park. I really haven’t ventured below 50th Street at all. I’ve done a few on Wall Street. So it just shows you how many movies have been filmed, and how untapped my scenes really are. Because I’ve only touched a small percentage of the city as a whole.

Wall Street is amazing, just because it’s that old stone architecture. Like Federal Hall, the Stock Exchange hasn’t changed in decades. It’s exactly the same. So I’ve done probably ten photos just in front of that statue by Federal Hall — On The Town, The Dark Night Rises, all these gritty and very architecturally-sound scenes. So that’s really popular. And then in Central Park is the fountain, which is in every movie that’s filmed there. I’ve done a lot on Columbus Circle as well, which is where I work. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man scene is on one side. And then on the other side is that statue, the gate where people enter the park on the southwest corner there. And that’s in a ton of movies too. And then of course, Lincoln Center is in probably like a dozen movies that I’ve seen just in the last little while. And it’s funny, that’s one where it’s amazing how many film photos I’ve done at Lincoln Center. And yet the one that would be the best, I could never do. Before Lincoln Center was built, that’s where West Side Story was filmed. It was all just tenement houses. And so when they did the big dance numbers, and stuff like that, it was right on the spot where Lincoln Center is. But none of those buildings exist anymore, because they were torn down to build Lincoln Center. Now dozens of other movies have been filmed in the same spot. But it looks completely different.

I wanted to do Harlem for a long time, and I finally did that. I love going up to Harlem, because the Apollo and stuff, it all just looks like another time. The buildings look so cool. The Royal Tenenbaums was shot up in Harlem. That house is amazing. It actually looks the same as it does in the movie.

I think the next thing I’ll do is I’ll start moving South down to like the Village and Chelsea and Tribeca, and stuff like that. Pete’s Tavern has been in a ton of movies. And everyone keeps saying, “Oh, you should do that one.” Then there’s a lot bars down in the 20s that have been in a lot of stuff too.

Do you ever run into anyone who doesn’t want you to take a picture of their location?

Doormen hate my guts. Because they’re like, “Why are you doing this?” Any building. Even if it’s not a famous building. I did one for Scent of a Woman, and the guy was like, “You can’t take pictures of the building.” And then I showed him what I was doing, and he was like, “No way. That’s this building?” So he had no idea. And then he was all like, “Hey, no problem. You want me to get outta the shot?” Like he was the nicest guy. I think it’s when they see that you actually have a purpose, and you’re not just gonna get them in trouble. So the Plaza Hotel was split in half a few years ago. And now half of it is residences, and half of it is the regular hotel still. And the worst thing for me — which again, me being selfish — is that the residents lobby is the lobby they shot all the movies in. So I can’t get in there. Like North by Northwest, I have one on the outside of that lobby, but there’s a great scene of him in the lobby too. I tried to get in there, and I tried to explain to the guy. But they were like, “No, people pay a lot of money to live here. And they pay us a lot of money so this sort of thing doesn’t happen.” So if you look at my Plaza photos, all of them are the exterior. Because all of the shots that I’d love to do in the interior are one of two places. Either that lobby in the residence, which I can’t get into to take pictures, or the Oak Room, which is under renovation right now — and has been for years. The Oak Room, there’s been like ten movies filmed there, and even episodes of Gossip Girl. But it’s not available. So when that reopens, I’ve heard they’re keeping it all exactly the same. They’re just cleaning it up a bit. So I’m curious to see. Unlike most people, I’ll know whether they made drastic changes, just because the pictures won’t work.

Do you have trouble matching up older films to the city’s current architecture?

People are sort of amazed that there’s all these pictures I’ve done from the ’40s, the ’50s, and ’60s. Because they’re like, “I can’t believe those locations still exist.” But I find it much harder to find locations of new movies to do. Because nowadays, when they’re making movies, it seems to me that they’re not really using those sort of stone classic locations anymore. It’s, “Oh look, these two are in a coffee shop” or “These two are in a book store”. You know, book stores don’t exist anymore. So it’s not like I can go back and recreate that scene, because all that sort of stuff is closing. Unless it’s something like in Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s, everything changes so quickly. Whereas the scenes that they shot in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, they used classic locations, because I think they wanted to show people watching the movie, “Oh no, this is New York. This is a New York story.” Nowadays, it could really be any city. And most times it’s Toronto.

When I was growing up, almost every New York movie actually was filmed in Toronto. So I remember going to the movies a lot, and I would go just to see which of the locations I knew from Toronto made it into the movie. Originally, as a kid, I didn’t know everything was filmed in Toronto. I just thought, “Oh wow, New York looks just like my city.” And then later on I realized, “Oh wait, that is my city.”

A lot of times they’ll do it anonymously. Like Resident Evil I know was shot there. Police Academy was shot in Brampton actually, which is the city I’m from just outside Toronto. Child’s Play, all those movies were shot there. To Die For, which is that Nicole Kidman movie, was shot in Brampton. And so growing up, I would watch these things being filmed, and then I would go to the movies just to see, “Oh, I wonder if my school’s in this movie, or if this restaurant made it in.”

I think I’ve done 10-12 film photos in Toronto. And it always upsets people. For example, one of the ones I did early on was the bar from Good Will Hunting. And that’s such a Boston film. And yet, I’d say 70-80% of it was probably shot in Toronto. So like the scene with the toy store, that was the toy store I went to when I was in college. That’s down the street from my school in Toronto. The bar is in Toronto. So all those sort of classic Boston moments off that movie actually take place in Toronto.

Are there any Canadian directors whose films you admire?

It’s funny, up to a certain age, I didn’t know a lot of filmmakers that I really liked were Canadian. Like I was a big David Cronenberg fan. But I went to him just because I really liked his movies, and then I realized he was Canadian. And so I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” And with Dan Aykroyd, I went to him because I heard he was Canadian. And then later on, as I sort of understood, “Oh these are real people making movies,” then I started with Mike Myers with Wayne’s World. And then Atom Egoyan, I’m a huge fan of that guy. Lately, even though I live in the States, if a Canadian movie opens here, I try to go see it. I’m curious to see where Canadian film is, just because all you really hear about is the American media here. And the Canadian film industry, a lot of my friends have gone into that now. So they give me updates. But it is interesting that even in Canada, it’s like every other country in the world, it’s the American movies first. And you have to work hard to see any movies that are actually made in your own country, for your own country.

I was a big SNL, big SCTV fan. I was a big fan of sketch comedy. And then later on, Kids in the Hall came along. And its funny, because a lot of my friends were really big Monty Python fans. And I didn’t really discover Python until really late in life — like really into my late teens, early 20s. But I tended to watch shows like SNL and SCTV, and Kids in the Hall that were very Python-inspired. In a lot of ways, I saw the children of the movement, before I saw the actual people who inspired it. Growing up in Toronto, where they shot Kids in the Hall, I would see the [outdoor] skits, and be like, “Oh my god, I know where that subdivision is.” And something I realized recently, Fraggle Rock was filmed in Toronto when I was a kid. And all the scenes where the uncle goes off into the world to explore, when I watched the 30th anniversary DVD, it’s all locations right near where I grew up. So even Fraggle Rock, this kids show, the “big bad world” was Toronto.

What about other cities outside the U.S.?

I was in Asia a year ago, and I did a couple in Ho Chi Minh City, just of the movie The Quiet American. I was new to the film photos at the time, and had just started doing it probably a week before I went on my trip. So I wish I had done more there. But I was more excited to go to The Continental Hotel, where I shot the pictures. Not because of the movie, but because I’m such a Graham Greene fan. He’s the author of The Quiet American. I knew he had written a lot of it there in the Continental, and had stayed there during his coverage of the Vietnam War. So I was more excited about that. And then when I got there, I realized, “Oh my gosh, they actually shot the movies at this location.” Because there was one in 1958, and one in 2002. So I walked into the hotel’s business center, found pictures online, printed them off, walked outside, and took the pictures. I didn’t have any preparation.

I don’t really need to use the internet to find the locations in New York. I’ll see something in the background, and be like, “Oh, I know that fountain.” Or “Oh, I know that statue.” That sort of thing. So in New York it’s very easy, because I’ve lived here for a decade now. Whereas when I went to Los Angeles, I’ve only been to L.A. about 4-5 times in the past, and never for more than a few days. I just go for a few days to work, and then I come back. So that’s the one time that I really had to go online. Like I wanted to do The Wonder Years house, because I knew that was actually shot in L.A. And so I went online to a Wonder Years fan site, and someone talked about like, “Oh, and the house exists. It’s right here,” and gave the address. So I just drove to the street, lined up the shot, took a couple pictures of the Wonder Years house. And as I was walking away, the owner of the house drove up, went in the driveway, and she went inside. And she didn’t even bat an eye. I guess this sort of thing happens a lot. But it was just funny to me that a) it’s a real place, and b) a human being lives there. And it’s not Fred Savage. It was just kind of crazy to me.

Any memorable attempts that failed because of urban development?

I was trying to line up a scene from Taxi Driver. So I was crouching on the ground holding up the Taxi Driver shot, and I realized that the entire city in that area had changed so much in just the last few years — like I remember these building going up on Eighth Avenue — that nothing matched. I couldn’t find one single building that matched the scene that I was trying to do from Taxi Driver. And so while I’m literally in the gutter, kind of upset that, “Oh, the history’s gone, and the past is over,” and all that sort of stuff. And the actor Christopher McDonald, who I’ve done in film photos in Toronto for the movie Dirty Work, walked into frame dressed in his costume from Lucky Guy, the Broadway show he’s doing with Tom Hanks. So he’s wearing like the old ’40s fedora. And so it’s just crazy to me that as I’m mourning the loss of the city’s past, a guy dressed in period costume from the 40s just walks into frame. So I snapped that picture instead, and it was a nice sort of second shot to get.

One that worked that I was surprised at was one I did from I Am Legend, the Will Smith movie. I saw a picture online about the overgrown Time Square with lions and stuff like that. And the whole thing was completely drawn by an artist recreating New York. So I went to Time Square anyway. I just happened to have this picture in with a few other ones. And I held it up. It matched perfectly, even though it wasn’t real. It was from the guys imagination, but he used the buildings, and he used all that sort of stuff to create this thing. And I was just amazed that something animated will line up perfectly, because they used an actual picture, and just drew over the image.

What has been the response from professional photographers to your site?

Actually, the first people that sort of embraced the blog were photographers. Surprisingly, because I thought people were gonna say, “Oh, this is so schlocky. This is so lame.” That sort of thing. But it’s people who I think do it for a living, and know how difficult sometimes it can be to line those things up, who appreciate it the most. You know, people who have never taken pictures — which is basically who I was before I started doing this — would just be like, “Oh, that’s cool. That must be so fun and easy.” Not realizing that when it comes to the wind, and the sun, and the rain — that sort of thing gets in the way. And it’s funny, I had heard my friend talking about the site Dear Photograph, which is where people do the same sort of thing with old family photographs. And then there’s another one called Sleeveface, where they basically hold up album covers that are photographs. When I found out that those existed, after I started doing this, I realized, “I bet I’m gonna be compared to those people.” I feel bad, because their sites are really, really good. Their photos are digitally done in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of technology involved. And I’m literally just with my hand in the picture. All of the photography people actually asked me if I was a big fan of Kenneth Josephson, who’s a photographer who was doing the same thing. Not necessarily lining them up with things, but just holding pictures in pictures in the ’60s. And I knew of him, just because one of my art teachers in high school was a big big fan of his, and always used him as an example in our image-making class. And they would ask me if I was inspired by that. I’d say, “No, I literally just wanted to show my friends that I worked near the Ghostbusters place.” That’s all I really wanted to do. It wasn’t any sort of grand carrying on of a tradition of the photographer. It’s just me basically having fun. And I’m such a big movie fan. I just really wanna see where those locations are.

How did you negotiate your two exhibitions in Europe?

I didn’t even actually go. Which is strange. I probably should have. Belvedere Vodka does a thing called “la Chambre Noire”, or “the dark room.” Every year at Cannes, they pick two artists to showcase in their room, and I was one of the ones that got picked. Which was funny, because there’s so many people that I know personally, that are so much more deserving of that sort of thing. But it was just the idea that it was a film-related thing, and that’s what really got them excited. They asked for 15 photos. I’m not sure how many actually went up. They had their photographer, their guy who has actual skill, take pictures of the stuff for me, which was very nice. Then the Ischia Film Festival, I’m going to that one, which I’m excited about. I’ve been to Italy before, but I’ve never been there. And every year they pick something that’s art to hang up in the castle there. So they reached out to me like a year ago, just as I was starting this. It was crazy. And I was like, “Oh yeah. Well, how many pictures do you think you’ll need.” And they’re like, “Oh, about 20″ And I think at time, I’d just taken my 20th picture. So I was like, “Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem. Yeah, I’ve got 20.” I just sent the pictures to them. Oh, and the guy who’s running the thing, his name is Michelangelo. It’s the craziest thing. He’s like, “This is Michelangelo.” And I was like, “This is the greatest thing ever.” But he asked me for my 20 pictures, and it was really tough for me to go through and pick my 20 favorites. Because I go, “Do I pick movies I like? Do I pick the ones whose photos are the best?” I ended up asking my parents, and said, “Hey, which ones do you like?” And they went through and picked them.

Do people ever confuse you with the actor, Christopher Meloni?

My name is Christopher Moloney, and I’m only the third-most-famous [person with a name like that] at this point. Because the guy who was a big favorite on The X Factor in Britain, his name’s Christopher Maloney. And people hate his guts on Twitter. They hate him so much. He’s “M.A.L.” and I’m “M.O.L.”, but the kids in Britain misspell his name my way all the time. And I immediately re-tweet anything really mean, like, “I wish this guy was dead.” Because I think it’s hilarious. And then they get really pissed, like, “I didn’t mean you.” But then the funniest thing is my parents were getting really worried, because I didn’t tell them what I was doing. And my mom was like, “What? Why does everyone hate you?” So she’s really concerned about it. But the other guy, the Christopher Meloni from Law & Order SVU, it’s really funny. Because for years, whenever I got mail from HBO for work, they would write it out in his spelling, because they didn’t know over the phone it was just Christopher Moloney. So it would arrive, and all these people in the mailroom would get real excited that Christopher Meloni was working in the building. It was really, really funny to me. So then one day, I’m walking into a deli to get like a Diet Coke, or something, and he’s in front of me in line. And I’m so excited, because I’m like, “Oh my god, the other Christopher Moloney.” I can finally tell him, “Hey, for years people have been like, ‘Oh, like the actor?’” But his kids were there with him. His daughter was dressed as a princess, and was like spinning around in circles singing really loudly. And his son was dressed like Batman, and was just knocking things off the shelves. And I could just see he was kind of on his last nerve. So I was like, “Ah, I don’t really want to have a bad experience with this guy.” I was just getting an energy bar and a Diet Coke, so I said, “Let’s see how the other Christopher Moloney lives.” And I peeked around him, and he’s getting a six-pack of Heineken and a dozen eggs. So in my mind, I just pictured that this dude likes to get drunk and egg houses, or something like that.