Around 40 million people visit Las Vegas every year, many walking the Strip with a frozen margarita in one hand and a smartphone in the other, with no idea that an entirely different world exists beneath their feet.
There are 500 miles of flood channels in the valley, 200 of which are underground. Las Vegans know about the tunnels, and the homeless people who live in them. “Homeless” may even be a bit of a stretch, some say — many of the people who live in the tunnels have mattresses, and furniture, and sometimes welcome guests into their dwelling.
It’s a different way of life, but one worth understanding, according to filmmaker Mike Langer, a student at the American Film Institute. The University of Utah graduate is working with UNLV graduate and fellow AFI student Jeremy Cloe to tell the story of the people who call the tunnels home.
“This is about trying to get people to understand that the people who live down there don’t easily fit the homeless stereotype,” Langer said. “They have personalities and stories, and if you want to explore it, they’ll tell you about it.”
Cloe, who is from Las Vegas, had grown up hearing about the people in the tunnels. When it came time to start planning for his thesis project at AFI, he invited Langer to join him. The revelation about the Strip came as a shock to Langer.
“Really somewhat naively, I said, ‘We should go down there,’” he said. “The first person I encountered, I found out they have entire habitats down there — mattresses, tupperware, furniture. He was asleep and woke up and saw me, and was immediately very upset with us.”
Langer said earning the trust of the homeless was a challenge, but the filmmakers were ultimately able to delve into the backgrounds and daily lives of many of the people they met.
They weren’t the first people to explore the tunnels, and they won’t be the last. Frustration comes when stereotypes are put before having an open mind, Langer said.
“It’s just a matter of understanding their point of view. They were absolutely right; we were coming down there and invading their community where they’re safe,” he said.
Some of the tunnels’ residents were willing to share their story, though, hoping to fight some of the prejudices against them. They’re all drug users, many believe. They’re all alcoholics, people say, or criminals, people not fit for polite society.
Others, like Langer, would say they are individuals with stories as unique as those of any one of the millions of tourists who walk overhead every year. Some try to find a way out, but many call the tunnels home.
“You think people would be down there wanting to get out of there, but that is their home, their safe place, their place to live,” Langer said. “Some of these people, this is just who they are. There are so many layers to life down there.”
It’s a complicated story to tell, and Langer said the team has about 20 minutes and $65,000 to make it work — that is, assuming they can raise enough funding to see the film through production and graduate. The AFI is a nonprofit organization and relies on donors to help with student film production.
The most challenging aspect of the film, titled “This Way Up,” is the flash flood scene, based on true events. When flash floods wash through Las Vegas, it is the people in the tunnels who stand to lose the most.
Langer and Cloe spoke with a man who nearly died in a flash flood and left the tunnels because of it, but hasn’t left the area he called home for so many years. That those who live there are often willing to risk their lives to stay, though, meant the flood became a priority for the filmmakers.
Because much of the film will be shot in Los Angeles, the team had to document and measure the tunnels and rebuild the set above ground. Having to create a flash flood on set ate up much of their budget.
“We have to visualize this scene that happens underground in Las Vegas and recreate it above ground in Los Angeles, and have to think about what we’re going to shoot in Las Vegas to make it more real,” Langer said.
The film, though based on real ideas, is a mix of events from the lives of many who live in the tunnels. Langer said the film centers around the idea that though the homeless call the tunnels home, many work hard to keep their situation a secret from those they know.
“Why would someone stay in a situation like that instead of going to someone for help? Is it embarrassment?” Langer asked. “There was one man who was keeping it a secret from his daughter and was asked, ‘Why don’t you tell her?’ He said, ‘If she came here and found out, I wouldn’t know what to do.’”
For Langer, the idea that millions of people have no idea the world below them exists is motivation to tell the story.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind. This is a real problem,” he said. “But who are we to say this is the only way to live life? The world is a little different than we think sometimes as we’re walking the Strip.”
“This Way Up” does not have a set release date and is a not-for-profit film. For news about festival showings, visit the film’s website: www.thiswayupfilm.com
Contact Stephanie Grimes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @steph_grimes on Twitter.