The lobby of Trump Tower has been one of the weirder places in New York for a long time, but over the past two and a half months, that weirdness reached a level previously seen only in Dali paintings and David Lynch movies. As a parade of famous figures whose stature is likely to be remembered by history entered the lobby, filmmaker Alex Winter—who knows from surreal assemblies of historical figures—trained his camera's lens on them, capturing the power-players, political foes, ambitious job-seekers, and random celebrities who passed through the doors on their way to see man who'd just been elected President.
"I wanted to make something filmic about the strange circumstances of having our President-Elect conducting so much business out of his home in New York, and being a New Yorker, Trump Tower is a surreal place at the best of times," Winter said. "It’s kind of a combination of condo and shopping mall right smack in the middle of the tourist district, and so when I started seeing all of these people coming in and out on the news, and knowing the building pretty well, it just struck me as such a strange set of circumstances that it could be evocative to really pare way everything but the lobby and just focus on that to create an almost dreamlike—or nightmarish—montage out of that imagery."
The resulting film, "Trump's Lobby," runs five minutes and was released on Monday by Laura Poitras's Field of Vision (for which Winter had previously made the short documentary "Relatively Free" about journalist Barrett Brown). As they watch, viewers get a glimpse of the lobby as told through a montage of static images. Winter shot high-definition video, but as he developed the project, he made the creative decision to keep the images still, to better allow the viewer to focus on each of the subjects as they moved through the lobby on their way to see the man who would be President. As they do, Winter overlays audio from news reports about the visitors—catching the viewer up on the context of that photo of Al Gore, Chris Christie, Michael Flynn, or Kanye West.
The result is a repetition that borders on hypnotic, capturing the strange circumstances that surround both the visitor and the visited in that moment. Which, as much as anything, was what Winter was aiming to accomplish with the project.
To some degree or other, this always occurs. So what’s interesting about Trump is not just the controversial and provocative nature of who he is and how we even ended up with him in the first place—which certainly bears plenty of scrutiny—but the fact that because he is such a public figure as both a real estate magnate and a celebrity, it offers a much more transparent view of this process," Winter says. "This normally goes on behind closed doors, but because Trump lives in a public condominium in the middle of Manhattan, it suddenly became transparent. So it was kind of twofold for me: the weirdness and the surreal nature of Trump himself, and because of his environment, it put up the opportunity for people to watch this parade go down and see how power does gather around power, whether they agree with that power or not. They’re going to be there, they’re going to make a play for some aspect of something. Whether they’re currying favor or whether they have a specific cabinet position they want, of course these things always go on. But it’s very rare for us to have the ability to be a fly on the wall and watch that happen—and then on top of that is the strange environment in which it was happening."
Filming a documentary in Trump Tower is an interesting project to take on in the Trump era, and not just because of what it documents. Winter says that the election of Trump has transformed not just the identity of Trump Tower, but of the city of New York—the increased police and Secret Service presence among the reasons why. And all of that is on top of the fact that Trump's relationship to the press and the media is rather more hostile than the one that most of his predecessors had. Showing up with a camera crew is putting yourself in a position where you identify yourself as an enemy to some of Trump's supporters—which is part of why, at times, Winter would enter the lobby and take photos on his iPhone, in addition to working with the full crew. That approach also allowed him to avoid security checkpoints and capture people in a more relaxed state than he'd find them if they had a full camera crew in their faces.
That all sounds stressful for Winter, but he wasn't the only person it was stressful for. That was one of the more interesting things he learned through the process of making the film. "It was stressful for everybody," he says. "I think everyone is really under a lot of stress and feels very put-upon. The NYPD presence—those guys look really nervous. I feel bad for them, too. From a security standpoint, I think it was untenable, because the building is open to the public, even though there's security. So it was a combination tourists, and Secret Service, and police, and press—and then all of these most powerful people in the country."