Waiting for my ten minutes with Richard Gere in Karlovy Vary, sweating it out with about 20 other journalists in a cramped and steamy anteroom of the neo-baroque Grandhotel Pupp, I felt as though I was auditioning for a role in an Eastern European production of “A Chorus Line.” (When the door finally opened and I was nudged inside, I half expected to be facing a young Michal Dûglašek shouting, “A five, six, seven, eight!,” or, more likely, “Pět, šest, sedm, osm!“) But, no, it really was Richard Gere, looking not at all 65 with his boyish smile and perfect white hair.
Having arrived the day before to hundreds of cheering fans outside the dark grey functionalist Hotel Thermal, the hillside home to KVIFF, Gere was here to screen his new film “Time Out of Mind” for the opening night gala as well to receive the festival’s main award, the Crystal Globe for Artistic Contribution to World Cinema. The ceremony was festive, of course, but Gere did speak of the Dalai Lama and commended former Czech president Vaclav Havel for ignoring pressure from China and welcoming the Dalai Lama to Czech Republic, one of the few countries to do so. He intimated that the Czechs understood all too well what it’s like to live under communist rule, and preached patience for Tibet. “It will change eventually as it changed here,” he said, “and there will be a Prague Spring in Tibet.”
Gere seems to be having a moment, and making the most of it. He came to Karlovy Vary with two films, the second being Andrew Renzi’s first feature, “Franny.” And with “Time Out of Mind,” in which he plays a homeless man losing himself on the streets of New York, he clearly has ambitions, both personal and political. His movie-star status may help in the latter arena, but I’m not so sure about the former. Absurd as it sounds, it may come down to his hair, which is not easy getting beyond, even when it spends much of the movie under a beanie. Take the beanie off and there it is again, about an inch-and-a-half long in that ubiquitous style known as “movie star messy.” In all seriousness, it distracted me from an otherwise compelling performance, and those who don’t much like “Time Out of Mind” tend to mention his hair, as in they simply can’t buy Richard Gere as a homeless man.
Gere and director Oren Moverman were very much aware of this risk, and to be fair, it’s not an easy balance to find. At his press conference in Karlovy Vary, the actor told of a test shoot they made prior to committing to the film: a beanie-clad Gere was sent out into lower Manhattan’s Astor Place to beg for change. If he was recognized at all, they knew the film wouldn’t work; if he wasn’t, it might. For an hour or so the actor asked passersby for change as Moverman and crew filmed from a distance — and not one person recognized Gere. But then, as far as I know — a bit of the scene remains in the film — he didn’t take off the beanie, which may well have made a difference.
“Time Out of Mind” was intended to be (and is) a different sort of film – immersive rather than propelled by the usual narrative tricks – and this is both its strength and weakness. “You can imagine if this was a TV movie,” Gere told me, “there would be bad guys, the original script had a court case, it would end up going to such normal expected places in terms of story telling. We stripped away everything we felt we’d seen before and went more directly into what it feels like, not where the narrative is pulling you towards something but just to get at what it feel like immersively. That’s why the sound became so important.”
The sound is indeed notable — loud, close, jarring, claustrophobic; you hear and feel the city, as intended. But Gere’s true co-star is the photography. Watching the film, I thought of the work of the late street photographer Saul Leiter, who in the 40s and 50s captured New York in warm colors, often through windows or in reflection. It turns out that in fact Leiter inspired the look of the film: Moverman and his DP Bobby Bukowski always carried a pane of glass with them, said Gere, and shot from a real distance so that Gere’s George Hammond is always alone, surrounded by actual life rather than a movie crew.
Martin Harrison, author of “Saul Leiter Early Color, writes of Leiter, “He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances.” That’s a fairly good representation of “Time Out of Mind” as well.
“He’s a very still character,” said Gere. “In a moving, vibrating city, he stands out because he’s silent and still. He doesn’t say anything. Again, the film is immersive in what it feels like, not what it does. And to me that was much more important than trying to string together a kind of recognizable narrative.”
But of course when you take away narrative, you also lose something. And while Gere and Moverman avoided the usual tropes, the film also leaves one wanting a bit more. Of Jena Malone, for one thing, who as Hammond’s estranged daughter is but an occasional wisp of wind and still manages to be sharp and memorable, especially in a final scene all the more moving for its remarkable subtlety. (“Most of our emotions,” said Gere, “are in the silences” and the filmmakers have set out to prove it.) This ending almost makes you fully content with Moverman’s stripped-down drama, even as it underscores just how much the film might have benefited from more of Malone.
“She’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with,” Gere said. “Of being real and affecting and alive in the moment; totally reactive. There are some actors where if you do something different, they don’t do nothin’ different; they do what they are programmed to do. She’s extremely alive, and both those scenes that we had were for me incredibly moving to be part of.”
The film also includes a small, nicely weird turn by Kyra Sedgwick as a homeless woman who takes up with Hammond briefly – in what is sort of the homeless version of Tinder. (Hammond is left half naked in a city park, lying on some flattened box cardboard.) And then there is Ben Vereen’s spectacular performance as Hammond’s homeless friend Dixon, who may or may not be a jazz pianist and never stops talking, talking, talking and/or yelling obscenities – and may in fact exist only in Hammond’s increasingly damaged mind. Notably, other than his voice, Vereen is unrecognizable.
“There are two ways we could have gone in terms of casting Dixon,” Gere told me. “In the original script, the character Dixon really was a pianist, he was what he said he was. And I had gone to see real jazz guys, like Dexter Gordon, thinking to get a real guy, not to put any pressure on him to act, but just to let him be. That was one way of doing it. The other way was to find an actor who could immerse himself enough to do this but without too much baggage. There are a lot of black actors who could have played this part but they bring so much of where they’ve already been. So the decision was made, Let’s go with someone who can really act; he’s going to have almost all the dialogue so it has to be someone who can handle that. And Ben came in and he just kind of blew everyone away with his audition; he wanted this part very badly, and fought for it.”
As did Gere himself, who developed “Time Out of Mind” over the course of 12 years. For most of that time, he also worked on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless, acting as spokesperson and also contributing financially. He hired Moverman, the talented Israeli writer/director known for “The Messenger” and “Rampart” and the screenplays for “I’m Not There” and “Love & Mercy.” The two of them whittled and honed the script down to its current, almost audio-visual skeleton. One of the things that particularly impressed me about the film is the way it represents through several small roles the many thousands of men and women who work in homeless shelters; these characters felt especially real and honest, as if we had suddenly found ourselves in a shelter. I asked Gere if for this film he was thinking beyond the usual creative motivations, if he imagined it playing a more social role.
“I was thinking beyond but that wasn’t the reason to make it,” he said. “I think this is one of those few instances when you can make a good movie, be as creative as you can possibly be, but it also can be used for social change and policy. And so we’ve all been putting a lot of energy into exploring that side of it as well. On July 15, I’m speaking at the national convention of homeless organizations in Washington, and we have a screening for senators and congressman. And we’re going to do the same thing in the major markets where we’re showing it.”
“Time Out of Mind” is clearly closer to Gere’s heart than “Franny” in which he costars with Dakota Fanning and Theo James. Gere’s titular, extravagant billionaire is everything “Time Out of Mind”’s homeless George Hammond is not, and his performance here is far broader, louder, messier. In “Time Out of Mind,” he actually plays a little jazz piano in an improvised scene that became key to understanding the film; in “Franny,” he briefly fronts a rock band in a scene that should be forgotten as quickly as possible. The two films are oddly paired: high and low; both dealing with issues of addiction and mental illness; embattled lives; a man trying to connect with his daughter in one, the daughter of his dead friends in the other. Renzi’s film has its moments, though I’m having trouble remembering anything but the wacky hair piece and beard Gere wears in an early scene; “Franny,” both character and movie, wears thin and eventually out.
Back at the Grandhotel Pupp, a Gere assistant began leaning in to our collective space – my ten minutes was up. By way of saying goodbye, Gere recommended a couple of Saul Leiter books to me, and readied himself for the next interviewer. Rinse and repeat.