In director Oren Moverman’s latest film, “Time Out of Mind”, the camera follows the painful life of a homeless man named George (played by Richard Gere). Moverman – who also wrote and directed “The Messenger” (2009) and “Rampart” (2011) – provides the audience a front row seat to George’s difficult daily existence on the streets and in the shelters of New York City, and his film offers an eye-opening, big screen experience on the plight of the homeless. I spoke to Mr. Moverman about “Time Out of Mind”, and we had a thoughtful conversation about George’s state of mind, some key learnings about homelessness and how the general public actually ignored Richard Gere during the filming because he played a homeless person. “Time Out of Mind” opens on Sept. 25.
JM: Even though George (Gere) is surrounded by life in every direction in New York City, he is an isolated individual. Isolation is probably a common occurrence for the homeless in any city, but does NYC bring a different dynamic?
OM: I think it does. Generally, isolation is at the root of a lot of problems in life and definitely for homeless people. New York is quite an overwhelming city in terms of the mass volume of humanity in your face all the time. The more people there are, the more alone you can be. When you have so many people (in one place), then they (simply) do not see each other. So, I think the state of homelessness – that kind of isolation – leads to deprivation of very basic needs. The lack of eye contact or human contact just makes the problem worse for sure.
JM: Wherever George went – whether he was in a shelter or on the street – he hardly ever had silence. Was silence as important to him as finding something to eat or a place to sleep?
OM: Yes. When you think of silence, the first thing that comes to mind is peacefulness. There’s no rest for him in this movie. He is constantly bombarded by the sounds of the city that just keep going. All of these stories (conversations of thousands of people) are happening around him – and (the impact of the noise) is very much a reflection of his mental state. He cannot get to a place of privacy, silence and a quiet mind. It’s actually quite turbulent.
JM: Why do you suppose George kept refusing medical care even though he clearly needed it? Is it because he was singularly focused on the basics first?
OM: Yea, there’s something “off” about him. We don’t call it by name, but there is definitely something off about him. He struggles with even the idea of existence. He doesn’t allow himself to be called homeless until very late in the movie. He doesn’t want to acknowledge his state in life. In his mind, he’s living the life he was living before, but now he’s gotten off track a little bit. He doesn’t have a lot of self-knowledge and understanding of what can make his life better, so he is just wrestling with that. I think all that’s on his mind are very basic needs like food, shelter, warmth, a place to be, a place to rest, and everything else just falls by the wayside.
JM: I was shocked to discover Kyra Sedgwick and Ben Vereen played George’s “friends”, because they were unrecognizable to me, especially Sedgwick. On the other hand, Gere was easily identifiable. When Gere was on the street and in character, did people recognize him during the filming?
OM: That was our biggest worry: Are we going to get away with putting Richard Gere in this environment. We tested it. What we discovered – when we hid the camera, because we didn’t want the camera in people’s faces to give away the fact that we’re shooting a movie – is they didn’t recognize him at all because they didn’t look at him. It was a very deliberate, very understandable, very human, and a very New York approach. Urban dwellers would just walk past this homeless guy, and maybe someone would pay attention and maybe someone would give something, but ultimately no one looked him in the eye. It wasn’t as if he was unrecognizable as Richard Gere. He was unrecognizable as a movie star, for sure. He was unrecognizable in his clothes because that’s not how you would expect to see Richard Gere. The fact that no one looked him in the eye, it was a lesson for us when someone in that position becomes quite invisible to the people around him. He did get recognized twice in Grand Central Terminal when two people walked by him and said, “Hello”. It wasn’t sort of “Oh my God, it’s a movie star. Let me take a picture.” It was more like, “Hey, he looks like Richard Gere. It looks like he is having a hard time.”
JM: Did you interview homeless people – either prior to shooting or during the filming – and what did you learn about the plight of the homeless?
OM: A lot, actually. The whole movie is based on conversations with homeless people and the people who work in the shelters. For me, it was a huge education on a personal level where I’ve learned about all of these stories, and I saw things that were next to me for many years, but I never really noticed. It changed my perspective, and it changed my outlook and my engagement with homeless people. I do think that the acknowledgement and the engagement (of the homeless) is a short step in dealing with this problem. I’ve learned how to engage with people who are in this situation and listen to what they need.
JM: I really liked how you filmed George behind glass or behind a guarded gate(s). He seemingly was on the outside looking in, and when he was inside a shelter, at times, it felt like a prison. Coming away from this experience, are there any solutions to grant these individuals their dignity back?
OM: Absolutely. The truth of the matter is we know that homelessness could be ended. We know the key to the solution is to support housing. We know we have to come together and provide people with housing. Not only housing, but support services that deal with the problems of homelessness which are mental illness, domestic abuse and HIV. All of these things are key issues that contribute to homelessness on top of housing. We have programs around the country, and the best example of this is what’s happening with veterans. We are on the road to dealing with the homelessness problem in the veterans’ community. That was one issue that Republicans and Democrats could agree upon and provide what’s known as “housing first” programs where people get vouchers. (Once) they have their own space, their own mailbox and their own dignity, then they can start dealing with other problems to get them reintegrated back into society. To have a place that is your own is the key to that, and it just takes political will, which really is the difficult part.