Earlier this week, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton decided to share his personal remedy on conquering the astronomical homeless problem in New York City. Bratton said, “My best advice to the citizens of New York City: If this is so upsetting to you, don’t give. One of the quickest ways to get rid of them is not to give to them.”
Ambivalence and lack of compassion have helped foster the present state of homelessness not only across this country, but also around the globe. Though many of us pass by homeless people on a near daily basis, they often become invisible to us. Like a fire hydrant or some other sidewalk fixture, they are present but unseen. In his new film “Shelter” Director Paul Bettany gives voice to two homeless people that used to live outside of his apartment building.
Bettany recently sat down with the stars of “Shelter”, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie, to discuss the state of homelessness in NYC, preparation for the film, and what they all learned from this eye-opening experience. Here are some of the highlights.
On The Global Homeless Crisis
Paul Bettany: It’s no coincidence that Tahir is an illegal immigrant and a Nigerian Muslim. Nobody was talking about Boko Haram that I knew of three years ago, no one was talking about the refugee crisis three years ago. I simply don’t understand the refugee crisis. The history of humanity can be told through a story of migration and settlement. If I can’t protect my family, I’m coming to where you are; I’m just coming. It’s a round world, and we’ve all got to get on with it and move on. What frightens me is when you hear the rhetoric of [Donald] Trump and then his ratings go up.
On Choosing To Highlight Certain Issues The Homeless Face
PB: Well first off, when I started writing the film it wasn’t about homelessness, it was about judgment. I feel like the world we live in seems to be full of an increasingly grey area, but the culture that we live in seems to be getting really entrenched in black and white positions, and I think it’s urgent to talk about that because it’s going to kill us all. Before it was about homelessness, I wanted the film to be a romance. I wanted it to be about two people who are unforgivable on paper, and then make you forgive them. My experience of people is that they are infinitely forgivable.
On The Homeless Couple That Inspired the Film
PB: Around the same time I wanted to make a film about judgment, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Before the hurricane, a homeless couple lived outside my apartment building. They were a black man and a white woman, and I would see them everyday. My children would say hello to them, they would say hello to us and that was the extent of it. I’m ashamed to say that day by day, their poverty became more acceptable to me and they became invisible before they actually despaired. And then, Hurricane Sandy hit and I never saw them again. We were in mandatory evacuation of our area, and they used to live in this tiny little park. I noticed they seemed to complain a lot less about their circumstances than I did, and I admired that. When I didn’t see them anymore, I felt the instinct to write about them. However, I didn’t know who they were, so I thought it might be a very good way to discuss judgment, because I find that our response to homelessness really puzzlingly. It’s a peculiar response that people have.
On Anthony Mackie’s Involvement With the Project
Anthony Mackie: Before doing this project, I’d become sort of fed up and frustrated with the business, and I went to LA to see a friend. It was my first time going to Downtown LA, and outside of his window was Skid row. I just started reading up on it and learning about it, so I called my reps because I wanted to do something. A few months later “Shelter” came up. It was like kismet, it was fate. I just thought it was ironic that seeing that made me want to create something, and out of wanting to create, Paul gave me a gift.
On Doing Such An Intimate Film
AM: (Laughing) Well, there was no craft service. But you know what, it’s a give and take. I’ve done a few movies like this, I feel like some of my most successful movies including my first movie was like this, with a 20-25 day truncated shoot. It makes you appreciate the big budget movies, but doing the big budget films really makes you appreciate doing movies like this. It’s because this is like doing theater, you just have to hit the ground running
Jennifer Connelly: As an actress, I thought this was an amazing experience. I felt exposed but in a good way. I felt supported enough to expose things that I haven’t before, literally. (Laughing) That was for a number of reasons. It was because of the film that it was, the kind of film Paul wanted to make, and the performances that he needed from us. There was also the responsibility that he gave us as actors. In other kinds of films, which don’t get me wrong I love they’re just different kinds of creatures, everything is just so much more managed and decided on by a committee. An actor has so much less space and responsibility. Sometimes you come on, and there are already tape marks for where you are supposed to stand, and the dialogue is already decided on. If you want to make a change and contribute something, it has to be approved by a number of people. This was a very different project where everything was up for collaboration. Also having the knowledge that Paul and I have are very creatively aligned and also obviously the fact that I have so much trust in him. [Connelly and Bettany are married.] I felt that I was able to experiment, play, and try things. It was a very fulfilling experience.
PB: Just to add to what Jennifer said, more and more now when you arrive on set, you’ll find your marks already on the ground. You realize that someone has already worked out how you are going to move in a scene; it’s peculiar. You find yourself wondering as an actor, about what your job actually is. I think the film is exposing, because I wanted to know as the director how the actors wanted to tell this story I wanted to know what they thought. I don’t want to infantilize the actor; I want to empower the actor. Actors can be many things, but all of the really good ones are really great storytellers, and I’m interested in that. If you’re not interested in that as a director then you better be Stanley Kurbrick.
On The Importance Of Including the Characters’ Back Stories In the Film
JC: In the film these two characters meet and they fall in love, and then they learn about each other. I think their back-stories are essential to that. So the challenge became, how can they reconcile their back-stories ad love each other, and forgive one another. So I thought that was the heart of the story; learning where they came from.
AM: For me, it was very important because I realized that this story is all about family, family loss, and how it influences you day to day life. I met this guy who had recently become homeless. His apartment caught on fire; he didn’t have renters insurance, and he didn’t know where to pick up next. I thought that was so interesting. He didn’t have a family member he felt he could go to, he didn’t have a second person he felt like he could stay with, or someone he could borrow clothes from or anything. He just couldn’t figure out what the next step was so then he lost his job. The emotional aspect of losing things like his baby pictures just destroyed him. It was like he didn’t exist anymore. So when I read the script, I loved the idea of Tahir finding his peace, or his ticket to heaven through Hannah.
Lessons Learned For The Film & Its Characters
AM: I learned so much about myself from reading this script and doing this movie because the level of judgment and the lack of humanity I saw in myself was disgusting. I never took into account what a homeless person might have been through. It really blew my mind learning what I learned about homeless people. It reminded me of the prison system, and the lack of rehabilitation there. It was just troubling and eye opening, and I never really took into account the number of homeless families. As a kid, we used to feed the hungry at my church every other Saturday, and one day this kid from my school was there. Somewhere between that moment of realization and appreciation for what my Dad sacrificed for us to have, and me becoming “Anthony Mackie” I lost it. This movie really made me realize that, and it was very humbling and very sickening to see that within myself.
JC: It’s so hard to keep perspective and keep things in context, and it’s so easy to get distracted. This film reminded me how important it is to remain aware, and to keep seeing the things that are happening around the world. We’re blessed to be worrying about the silly things that we worry about when people are worrying about where they are going to sleep, and what they are going to feed their kids every day.
On Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Statement On the Homelessness
PB: I’m not one to say anything rude about anyone else, but ignoring the homeless is a fucking stupid idea. Especially when there are 60,000 of them on the streets of a city that is home to more billionaires than anywhere on earth. An apartment sold for $100 million dollars last year in New York City; a city that I love and have lived in for 15 years. In that same year, 60,000 people slept in shelters and tonight 24,000 of those people will be children; 19,000 of them are women. Half of NYC’s homeless populations are families. In the last ten to fifteen years this city has lost 32% of its public housing. You can draw a line there. Homeless people have been ignored for too long. I’ll just say this: If you are a family on the brink of eviction you are 80% less likely to get evicted if you have legal counsel. However, there is no right to legal counsel in housing court. It would cost the city $12,500 to grant that family legal counsel. Meanwhile, the average stay for a homeless family in a shelter once they have been evicted cost the city $45,000. So not only does it seem like the right thing to do morally, it’s also the right thing to do fiscally.
On Romance & Homelessness
PB: An agent friend of mine who will remain nameless said you can’t make a romance about homeless people; nobody wants to see them kiss. And I thought, what a repulsive, repugnant, extraordinary thing to say. I had to think about the fact that the world is probably full of other people who feel like that. The very idea that we spend time trying to humanize humans is extraordinary to me.
On Preparing to Portray A Homeless Person
JC: It’s very dangerous for women in shelters and when they are living on the streets. The Coalition for the Homeless was very helpful to me; I spent time with them going on their food runs with them at night. Every night they stop at certain points around the city, and I me and watched and learned from a lot of people. I also went to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Program, I spent a lot of time there at that location going on their walkabouts, and talking to people. People were very generous with their stories and their time. It’s kind of a fine line for me doing because I really wanted to watch people, and look at people and learn, but at the same time I didn’t want to feel like I was exploiting anyone so it was a little bit delicate.
AM: It’s interesting, we were shooting up in Harlem one day and we were on the sidewalk and I hear, “Yo! Mackie”, I look up and my friend has pulled over and he’s running up asking me, “Are you alright?”
PB: (Laughing) Yes, the camera was right there and Anthony is like “I’m good man, I’m in a film”, and the guy is looking like he thinks Anthony is delusional, but there was a camera right there.
AM: (Laughing) Yes, and he was like why don’t you come with me to the barbershop; I’ll get you a cut. I’m like dude, I’m in a movie! That was one of those moments when I was like, I must be doing something right, I really look homeless.
On Being Allowed to Tell This Story
PB: People have suggested that perhaps we are too affluent to be telling this story, which is amazing to me because then I wonder what story I am allowed to tell. I’m a guy who is married to an actress, who has three children, and lives in Tribeca. Where do you draw the line on what I am allowed to discuss? Also, having been working with the homeless for the past three years, I noticed lots of things about them, but one thing I really noticed was that they were probably too busy just getting though the day to make a film about themselves.
“Shelter” opens in select theaters and on VOD today, November 13th
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami