Most tourists visiting New York City typically ignore the southernmost borough, Staten Island. In fact, many New Yorkers who’ve lived in the city their whole lives have never been, either. However, the boat that takes 24 million people per year from Manhattan to Staten Island and back again — the Staten Island Ferry — is one of the city’s most famous, most visited landmarks.
Traveling between the Big Apple’s two island counties by boat is a tradition that goes all the way back to the 1700s, when Cornelius Vanderbilt made his first profit sailing fellow Staten Islanders to downtown Manhattan. The iconic orange fleet of ships have been in service nearly as long, and are as much a fixture of New York Harbor as the Statue of Liberty. Look out the windows from New York Film Academy’s Battery Park campus in downtown New York City, and chances are you’ll see a ferry or two making their way to port, just yards away from the school.
It’s no surprise then that the Staten Island Ferry has appeared in many New York-based films. Sometimes, the ferries provide the setting for a key scene, sometimes they make brief cameos as part of the city’s backdrop, sometimes they’re the focus of the movie.
In the fourth film of Blumhouse’s Purge franchise coming out this summer, Staten Island takes center stage as the testing grounds for The First Purge. Don’t be surprised if the borough’s namesake ferry makes an appearance or two before Purge Night reaches dawn. In the meantime, here are five other films that predominantly feature the Staten Island Ferry:
(Warning: may contain spoilers!)
The second act centerpiece of Peter Parker’s very own entry in the MCU was so epic and action-packed that it became the focus of much of the film’s marketing and film trailers. Far from his friendly neighborhood in Queens, and far from the skyscrapers he could web-sling to for escape, Spider-Man found himself in the middle of New York Harbor battling Michael Keaton’s villain, the Vulture.
After the ferry is completely split in two, Spider-Man must work quickly to hold the entire, massive ship together with his own webs and Spidey-strength. At the end of the day, the ship is saved and its passengers kept dry, but only after some help from Marvel’s other iconic New Yorker, Tony Stark.
Working Girl was a box-office smash in the 1980s, back when Hollywood wasn’t completely dominated by superhero and sci-fi franchises. The romantic comedy, directed by legendary Mike Nichols, starred Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, and Harrison Ford.
Griffith’s sympathetic lead, Tess McGill, is a secretary from Staten Island who, like a lot of Staten Islanders, commutes every morning to Wall Street for work. The film’s iconic opening sequence featured Griffith, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, taking the Ferry along with an army of morning commuters. The scene featured Carly Simon’s Let the River Run, which ultimately went on to win the Oscar for Best Song and solidified the Staten Island Ferry’s place in Hollywood history.
Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
The title may not ring any bells, but 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, originally titled I Call First, is legendary for being the first feature film by director Martin Scorsese. Starring a very young, fresh-faced Harvey Keitel, the film deals with Catholic guilt as well as love and heartbreak for Italian Americans in downtown Manhattan, themes that would be even more fleshed out six years later in Mean Streets.
The film centers around the relationship between Keitel’s character, J.R., and his unnamed love interest, played by Zina Bethune. The audience’s engagement with these two characters relies on a key opening scene in the film — a lengthy, sometimes awkward conversation where the two leads meet while commuting on the Staten Island Ferry. In its own twisted way, it may even be one of Hollywood’s first meet cutes.
Notably, Scorsese’s first feature was filmed over several years, originally as part of his student film. Prolific Hollywood director Martin Brest also shot his student film, Hot Dogs for Gauguin, on the Staten Island Ferry, starring then-unknown actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman — solidifying the Ferry as a go-to location for New York film students.
While the Staten Island Ferry is a huge attraction for tourists visiting New York City, its greatest use is transporting commuters back and forth across the harbor. Many Staten Islanders work in Manhattan, whether as Wall Street brokers, with the NYPD, or in any number of white- and blue-collar jobs. These commuters often take the ferry every morning at the same time, and start to recognize one another and even form friendships.
In 2003 the documentary short Ferry Tales was released, featuring the stories of some of the women who got to know each other in the powder room of the ferry while getting ready for work in the city. These women came from all sorts of diverse backgrounds but, for twenty-five minutes each morning, bonded over their shared commute and shared stories both with one other and with the documentary crew, including subjects as heavy as divorce, domestic violence, and the struggles of single motherhood.
Early in the 2001 filming of the documentary, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 occurred, giving everyone on the ferry — and the film crew — an unobstructed front row view of one of the most horrific attacks to ever occur on American soil. Along with appearing in and winning several film festivals, Ferry Tales went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 2003.
The Dark Knight
Technically, the Staten Island Ferry doesn’t appear in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film. Instead, the third act climax revolves around the Gotham Island Ferry — two, in fact. However, you wouldn’t need an eagle eye or be from Staten Island to recognize the iconic orange ships — with the exception of the first word painted on the side, these boats are Staten Island Ferries both inside and out.
Whereas most of Gotham City in The Dark Knight was filmed in and based on Chicago, the island boroughs and harbor were more clearly modeled on New York — a trend that was even more fleshed out in the third film, The Dark Knight Rises. The final, master plan of Heath Ledger’s Joker involved strapping bombs to two escaping ferries — one loaded with innocent evacuees, the other with convicted felons. The Joker gave each group the opportunity to save themselves by blowing up the other boat. Christian Bale’s Batman held faith that neither side would give in so easily, and was ultimately proven right, much to the Joker’s disappointment. It’s a safe bet to assume the real life commuters of the Staten Island Ferry would make the same choice.
Interested in studying film or acting just yards away from the Staten Island Ferry? Check out the programs New York Film Academy has to offer HERE.