Immediately judging others for being in dire situations can often make people easily feel easier about their own circumstances. While it takes more effort and compassion to fully connect with and understand those in need, including the homeless, offering them unbiased sympathy can actually lead people to feeling more fulfilled. First-time feature film writer, director and producer, Paul Bettany, along with his wife, actress Jennifer Connelly, and actor Anthony Mackie generously took the time recently to talk about the importance of supporting the homeless in their drama, ‘Shelter.’ The filmmaker and actors participated in a press conference at Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel to discuss that significant lesson and emotional driving force in the movie, which is set to be released in theaters at the AMC Empire 25 and On Demand in New York tomorrow.
‘Shelter’ follows Tahir (Mackie), a Nigerian immigrant whose visa has expired, and is therefore struggling to survive in Manhattan and reclaim his American dream. Despite his desperate circumstances, including having all his belongings stolen after being arrested for a minor offense, he’s determined to focus on the positive aspects in his life. He soon begins following heroin addict Hannah (Connelly), who’s also homeless, because he realizes she’s wearing his stolen jacket. While she’s initially distrustful of his intentions, Tahir’s kind nature convinces her to finally begin trusting him, which leads into a romance between the two.
The relationship between Tahir and Hannah deepens after they decide to stay in a luxury townhouse they discover was left unlocked by its owners, who are on vacation. While further connecting over what lead to their current circumstances, the two emotionally decide to stay together, as Hannah commits to stop taking drugs.
While their lives then begin to stabilize, particularly as they qualify for public housing in a hotel, a medical crisis threatens their newfound progress. As winter approaches, Hannah is determined to make her new relationship work in their new shelter. But Tahir has growing concerns that they won’t be able to maintain the improvements they’ve recently made in their lives, as a result of his immigration status, and they’ll be forced out on the streets again. As they strive to forgive and better themselves, they both must learn to have faith that they’re worthy of achieving a better life together.
Bettany began the conference by discussing his collaboration with ‘Shelter’s Director of Photography, Paula Huidobro. The first-time feature film writer-director-producer revealed that the pre-production stage was the worst experience he had while making the drama, as he didn’t have any in-depth previous knowledge of how to make a movie behind the camera. With ‘Shelter’s small budget, Bettany often heard about the things he couldn’t include in the film. “But when Paula showed up, it was all about what we could do,” he happily noted.
“We tried to design a really small horizon at the beginning of the movie, where people were out of focus, unless they were Anthony or Jennifer,” the filmmaker explained. “But we panned out when (their characters) find the apartment. Then by Act III, we were shooting really wide.” Bettany and Huidobro decided to continuously broaden what was in focus throughout the film, to emphasize how Tahir and Hannah were developing stronger emotions for each other, and finally realizing they needed to improve their lives.
Bettany then divulged his motivations in focusing on the lives of the homeless in New York City for his first feature film script. While Tahir and Hannah are struggling with being homeless, the filmmaker wanted the story to be focused more on their romance between two people “who, on paper, are unforgiveable. But they end up making you forgive them. My experience with people is that they’re forgivable. The story then became about homelessness.”
The filmmaker added that besides wanting to pen and helm a drama that focused on romance and judgment, he was also inspired to chronicle the struggles of the homeless. Emphasizing their conflicts was influened in part by a homeless couple who used to stay outside the apartment building Bettany shares with Connelly and their children in New York City. “The couple was a black man and a blonde white woman, who we would see every day. Our children would say hello to them, and they would say hello to us. I’m ashamed to say that every day, they became more and more invisible to me,” the helmer admitted.
“After Hurricane Sandy hit, I never saw them again. There was a mandatory evacuation in our neighborhood of Tribeca,” Bettany said. “They lived in this tiny little park. I noticed that they complained less about their circumstances than I did, and I admire that.” After the couple disappeared from the park, the filmmaker became motivated to write about them, even though he didn’t know who they were. “I thought that would be a good way to discuss judgment. I find our response to homelessness really puzzling.”
Mackie then revealed that as Bettany was finishing the script for the drama, he went to L.A. to visit a friend. It was the actor’s first time visiting the city’s downtown area, and “I looked out his window, and there was Skid Row. I thought, what is this? So I started reading about it, and contacted my reps,” he said. After that experience, the actor decided wanted to become attached to a project about the homeless. So he began researching the subject to help him decide what type of film he would become attached to that focused on the subject.
“Then a few months later, the script for ‘Shelter’ came in, and it was fate,” Mackie added. “I thought it was ironic that seeing that (area of L.A.) made me want to create something,” and then he had the chance to become involved in the drama.
Connelly noted that once she and Mackie signed on to star as the lead characters in ‘Shelter,’ they had a lot of rehearsal time together, especially for the shooting schedule they had. “In some instances, we were even able to go to the locations, like the apartment we were in. We went to that practical location, and rehearsed all the scenes in there,” the Oscar-winning actress noted. “We had time to run through most of the scenes before we filmed them.”
Mackie also commented on the process of making ‘Shelter’ independently, as opposed to starring in such studio films as this year’s hit superhero sequel, ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ with Bettany. “I’ve done a few movies like this; I feel like some of my most successful movies have been shot in 20 to 25 days,” Mackie admitted. He added that the independent films he has worked on, like ‘Shelter,’ “make you appreciate the big budget movies. But doing the big budget movies also makes you appreciate doing movies like this.”
The independent drama’s lead actress called ‘Shelter’s shoot “an amazing experience. I felt exposed, but in a good way. I felt supported enough to expose things about myself that I haven’t before.” Connelly explained that the secure feeling she had on the film’s set came from its subject matter, the type of movie Bettany wanted to make and the trust and responsibility he gave Mackie and her as actors.
“A lot of times other types of films, which don’t get me wrong, I love, are different types of creatures, and everything is much more managed,” Connelly revealed while further discussing her appreciation for the creative freedom Bettany gave her as an actress. “The choices are made by a committed on those films. The actors come onto the set, and there are tape marks where they want us to stand.”
The Golden Globe Award-winning actress added that the final dialogue between the characters in bigger films has already been decided on by studio executives. “If we want to contribute something, it has to be approved. So this was a very different kind of project…Not to say everything was improvised, but the dialogue was open to consideration.” Connelly also divulged that the way Mackie and she moved was also open to their interpretation, which she called a wonderful experience.
“The knowledge that Paul and I have are incredibly aligned. We have the same taste in films. Obviously, I also have so much trust in him,” Connelly also revealed. That interest she shares with Bettany helped her feel confident in trying different things while filming ‘Shelter.’
“Just to add to what Jennifer just said, often times you’ll walk out onto set and find your mark,” the film’s director noted. “You realize that somebody else has already figured out where you’re going to move in the scene. As an actor, you start to think, I wonder what my job really is. Right now, it seems like my job is to make this dialogue sound believable and natural…I feel like I’m capable of a little bit more than that. You’ve already got the storytelling figured out, so what am I doing here?”
Bettany also said that he thinks acting in independent films is more emotionally exposing. So with the director on ‘Shelter,’ he wanted to know how Connelly and Mackie wanted to tell their characters’ stories. When they rehearsed, the actors did things “that were so different from what I had in mind…But I want to empower the actors…All of the great ones are great storytellers,” the filmmaker said, before noting that directors should be interested in helping their performers thrive.
Connelly then explained that she felt it was beneficial for her as an actress to contribute to developing and showcasing Hannah’s backstory in ‘Shelter.’ “The way the film’s constructed is that the characters meet and fall in love, and learn about each other along the way. They each embody things that they love and hate. In Hannah’s case, (Tahir) represented what was taken away from her,” she revealed.
The performer then posed the question of how the two leads reconciled that struggle that they’re both in, as well as the conflict that’s between, them. “But they still love each other, despite that new understanding. I thought that was the heart of the story,” Connelly added.
Mackie also divulged that creating the backstory for Tahir was very important to him. “The story is all about family and family loss, and how it influences your day-to-day life,” the actor noted. He also explained when he read Bettany’s script for ‘Shelter,’ he was intrigued that Tahir “was finding his peace and ticket to heave through Hannah.”
The actor also divulged that he in part drew inspiration for his role after he “met a guy near my place who told me that he recently became homeless because of a fire. He lived in an apartment, and the building went on fire. He didn’t have renter’s insurance, and he didn’t know where to go next.” Mackie added that he was drawn to the fact that the man didn’t have a family member he felt he could rely on and stay with. “It was like he didn’t exist anymore, and didn’t have a history.”
Bettany then chimed in on the importance of infusing the two lead characters’ backstories into his script. He revealed that he was specifically interested in when the “audience met the two characters, particularly when they find out what (Tahir and Hannah’s) histories are. You see them falling in love and are wishing them well. Then you learn these awful things about their pasts, but you learn to forgive them again.”