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Best known for films like “The Messenger” (his directorial debut) and “I’m Not There,” which he wrote alongside director Todd Haynes, writer-director Oren Moverman has crafted his career around making films about off-beat characters in unique situations that force audiences to engage with often unexpected material and emotions. With his latest film, the Richard Gere-starring “Time Out of Mind,” Moverman continues that pattern in a big way.
In the feature, Gere plays George, a homeless man staggering through life in New York City. Alone, ill and resistant to change, George has long been unable to succeed in even the smallest of ways, and Moverman’s film tracks him as he starts to make a series of tiny changes — not all of them good — that impact his future and those around him. Shot mostly through long lenses around New York City, the film is both exceedingly intimate and strangely discomfiting, but it’s also a major part for Gere and a compelling step forward for Moverman.
Moverman recently sat down with Indiewire at IFC Films’ office in midtown Manhattan to discuss “Time Out of Mind.” In person, the filmmaker is both gregarious and thoughtful, the rare big talker who also has something of substance to say — a perfect fit for a film that comes complete with its own messaging, the kind that’s delivered with care, not heavy-handedness.
Richard Gere was attached to the project first and then you came on, a bit of a reversal from the normal procedure.
The project came with Richard. He approached me, he told me about a script that he had, an old script, and a character that he’s been obsessed with. That’s where the conversation started. In a way, the movie came pre-cast. Otherwise, I would never, ever cast Richard Gere. [Laughs] You can quote me on that. The truth is, I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have thought of Richard Gere playing this character, if the script was just something I had. I don’t think Richard’s name would have ever come up.
That was kind of the beauty of it and the excitement for me: Here’s someone who is coming to me, how lucky am I, and he’s saying, “I want to make this and I think you could be right for it and I want to play something that no one would ever think that I could do,” and do it in a really special way with a lot of license to experiment. It was such a gift that, a) you can get a movie made because Richard is in it and b) you can surprise yourself and people seeing it with this familiar face who doesn’t belong in this role, at least in the conventional sense, and then it goes into deeper places.
It goes into place where you feel, “Well, if Richard Gere can stand on a street corner, and kinda look like Richard Gere if you look into his eyes — if he can disappear and become invisible and be ignored and become this black hole where people walk around him and don’t want to deal with him, and nobody looks at him, what does that say about the rest of us?”
Were you all shocked that no one recognized him when you were filming so many of the film’s scenes outside in extremely crowded places in the city?
We were basically sure that our plan was not going to work. I’ve been with Richard on streets, I’ve been with him in restaurants, I know what it’s like. People in New York actually tend to be really cool about these things, but no one ignores him. They look at him, they talk to him, they take pictures with him, he’s very gracious about these things. We were pretty sure we were going to go out there, put him in Astor Place — we’re hiding in Starbucks with a long lens, we’re just shooting him — but we thought we had two minutes of footage before we got caught. And then 45 minutes went by. I think the feeling, you could feel it actually, that like, two minutes into it, “Oh, wait, no one’s actually looking at him.” After twenty minutes, it was just, “This is awful.” I mean, it’s wonderful [for the film]. “This is amazing, this is amazing! This is horrible.” It was so sad.
I didn’t make this film as some homeless advocate who is in the trenches for years, or as anyone with any kind of righteousness or superiority on this issue. I’m just like anybody else, I ignore people as much as anyone else. I think we all live complicated lives and we have lots going on. We have a lot of narratives happening in our hand and strands of communication. Reality is really something that we have to block out sometimes, or we can’t help but block out. I think that the movie opened our eyes, for sure, to noticing people more and to maybe being more conscious about it, which is the only thing you can hope for. It’s not a movie with a solution.
Did the film make you feel any differently about New York City?
Yeah, and on different levels. One thing — and my kids don’t believe me when I say this — I always think of New York as colorless. Man, there’s so much color in New York, and it was through the lens that I started seeing New York in its colorful glory. That was something we really wanted to emphasize in the movie. The sound, obviously there was a huge sound design, the sound in the city is so — it’s really interesting how much we block out, because if we actually stand still and listen to it, it is the sound of insanity. To think of being homeless, being on your own, suffering from some sort of mental problem, walking around at your own rhythm, listening and letting all this sound in, anyone would lose his mind. I think that was sort of interesting, and something that I became very aware of. Too aware of.
I’ve been here twenty-seven years, I love this place, and I kind of still do, with all its problems.
You and your DP Bobby Bukowski shot a lot through glass and with these long lenses, which seems to work both on a practical level for the guerilla-style of filming and also in terms of how it adds to the film stylistically.
It was the first decision we made. We looked at Saul Leiter’s photographs — Saul Leiter was an early New York school of photography photographer who basically shot in color and has these very kind of observational, layered photos that sometimes you don’t even know what the subject of the photo is. It’s New York, so a piece of a store window and somebody moving around, and it’s shot through glass, so maybe there’s some dirt on the glass. There’s all these photographs with these layers, that’s really how we live in New York. We see so much from windows or from stores or restaurants, we see all the time. It was going to be the approach from the beginning, to have a layered kind of texture to it. And then we really needed to have no footprint on the movie, we had to do it from far away. We had to kind of hide, sometimes we were inside tents, and sometimes we were on rooftops, and through windows.
We played a lot with that, to the point where maybe even too much. There’s so many scenes that happen though window frames. It feels like the movie is making an effort to find the person, watch him, tell his story. I think that that’s kind of imitating the process of how we deal with the homeless. We do have to make an effort to give ourselves an opportunity for compassion. By the end of the movie, all the glass goes away.
Richard is the main event here, but the film also features really lovely turns from Jena Malone and Ben Vereen as supporting characters.
Both of them, beautiful, beautiful people. Jena, I worked with on “The Messenger.” That’s where I met her, and she’s — there’s no one like her. The thing that makes Jena an amazing actress is, she doesn’t act. She goes into a character, she does the character, obviously she does a lot of work, but there’s no artifice to it, ever. She’s really in the moment. I wrote a role for Richard’s daughter, and we were looking at different people, and I said, “You know, I really feel this one is Jena. I really feel that she can really do it.” Richard didn’t really know her, he didn’t really meet her before, so the first scene we shot together was him walking into the laundromat to confront her. We did one take, and he walked out of there and he was in shock. What she gives back to an actor is so intensely real and truthful, there’s no faking it.
Ben Vereen, we went through a list of names, sent him the script and I got a call that Ben Vereen wants to come to New York. Fly in for a couple of hours, and basically said, “Let me explain to you why this is mine. I have to do this.” We sat in a room and he read it. We taped it and I sent it to Richard, and I said, “I really think Ben Vereen is our guy” and he watched it and said yeah. The thing about Ben is, his life is publicly so complicated. He’s such a spiritual man.
Your films tend to do very well on the festival circuit. “Time Out of Mind” was at TIFF and NYFF, and you have a long history with Berlin. What has the festival experience been like for you over the years?
It’s strange. It’s strange because it’s the first time that you’re showing the film, it’s kind of a process of letting go and yet you’re in the middle of everything that’s happening with it. I’m not sure my experience is everyone’s experience, because usually when we go to festivals with these films, we’re going to festivals to sell the film. That’s a different kind of pressure. Of course, what happens is, you show the film, the next morning, you get Variety and Hollywood Reporter thrown at you, first thing. The kind of films that I make don’t always sit right with those [critics]. So there’s that, that sort of moment of, “am I going to let this get to me or not?” It’s those kind of pressures.
The thing I love most about film festivals, to tell you the truth, is you do the screening, you do the Q&A, and then there’s some sort of something after, drinks or party or something, but usually you walk out from back of the auditorium, and then there are people there, sometimes, mostly. And usually what they have to say is really, really interesting, because they’ll just talk about one thing, but it’s so specific. That’s the kind of stuff that’s unusual.
I can’t imagine this movie is for everyone. I can’t imagine this movie is for anyone who loves “Pretty Woman,” and thinking, “That’s the Richard Gere I want to keep seeing.” I can’t imagine Richard wanting that. He’s very proud of this movie. You can’t let that stuff get to you. I try to take the compliments in the same way I take the criticism, which is sort of like, “You had a personal experience with it, I thank you if you didn’t walk out, I thank you for sitting through it even if you hated it, having the relationship with it.”
We were at the Sarasota Film Festival, we opened the festival, and so the opening night, it was a very misleading thing, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. And it was interesting, because afterwards, there was a party, and there were couples who were arguing. Basically, the men, in general, didn’t like the movie. They were like, “I had hard times, he should have gotten a job, he should have pulled himself together, he had a kid.” They were very tough with him. And the women were, “No, you don’t understand, he had mental illness, he was broken, he lost his wife.” They were much more understanding toward him. I just stood back and thought, look at this.
“Time Out of Mind” opens in select theaters this week.
Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for September’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Love & Mercy,” “The Overnight,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Cop Car” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.
Editor’s note: This feature was originally published on September 10, 2015.