In Paul Bettany’s screenwriting and directorial debut, Shelter follows the lives of two homeless people who find love in each other despite all of the obstacles that stand in their way. Starring Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie, the film depicts the lives of the drug addict Hannah (Connelly) living on the streets and running into Tahir (Mackie), an illegal immigrant who escaped terrors from Boko Haram and tries to make ends meet. You can catch the film out in select theaters and read the interview we had with the cast and director below.
You worked with Paula Huidobro who is noted as being one of the best in her business of cinematography. Can you talk about your collaboration with her?
Paul Bettany: Yes I can. I can talk for hours about it. For me, pre-production was the worst part of this, it was the only aspect that I had no experience in and it seemed to consist of people just telling what I couldn’t do, what we couldn’t afford to do. It was awful and depressing. And Paula showed up and it became what we could do and that was just wonderful. And the design I had just walked into a deli and I was passing a homeless person and I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out a note and it was a $20 bill so I gave him the 20 dollar note and he was blessing me and Jesus and it’s his luckiest day and I walk in, get a carton of milk, walk out and he puts his hand out and I’m like, “Hey hey, what the hell are you doing? I just gave you the twenty.” And he was like, “That was you?” And I thought, “Yeah that was me. And of course the note was in focus but I just wasn’t in focus for him socially so we tied to design a really small horizon in the beginning of the movie where people were out of focus unless they were Anthony or Jennifer or Jennifer pan handling the guy for the cigarette- the cigarette in his hand are in focus and then we brought them out when they’re in the Goldilocks act, when they’re in the apartment and their horizons start to broaden out. And the idea was that by act 3, we would be shooting really wide and then we lost our hiatus and we were going to film it with a hiatus but our schedule changed and the consequence was that we had to shoot the winter in summer, in 90 degree heat with no snow and I’d find somebody who could find a tree in new York without a fucking tree in it. Just so much green. So I was close and tight again which was for me a compromise because we designed this thing that came out a little and became quite operatic at the end with the language that became more operatic so it ended up that we had to make a slight compromise. But she was wonderful.
What pointers did you gain from your collaboration with the NYC Coalition for the Homeless?
PB: When I was writing the film, it wasn’t about homelessness, it was about judgement. I feel that the life that I live in—we talked about the world that we live seems to be full of increasing gray area and the culture that I live in seems to be entrenched in black or white positions and I think its urgent to talk about that because it’s going to kill us all. So before it was about homelessness, I wanted it to be a romance, I wanted it to be two people who on paper are unforgivable and they make me forgive them because after the experience of these people, they are eminently forgivable and then it became a story about homeless but the idea of the love story was already well formed in my head.
How did you two get the physical scenes filmed and choreographed?
Jennifer Connelly: We rehearsed a lot actually- for our shooting schedule we had a significant amount of time to rehearse and then every day we rehearsed as well so before shooting commenced we had a rehearsal period and in some instances we were able to do it in their locations. For example the apartment that we were in, we went to that practical location, rehearsed all the scenes in there, and looked at all the options and that sort of thing. But all of our scenes we rehearsed—some of our scenes we just went out and did, the dancing scene for example, you know my character is drunk and high and is dancing, so that sort of thing we just jumped in and did but most of the scenes I think we had time to run through before we filmed.
Anthony Mackie: And Jennifer is very small so I’m glad that she was tiny.
Did you ever find the couple that lived in front of your apartment?
PB: Well about the same time as I was writing this film, that I wanted to make a film about judgement, Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. And it was at that point and we have a very similar story to Hurricane Katrina that it was, I don’t know it’s this nice apartment that I moan about because I’m now a new Yorker because I’ve lived here for 15 years and you know, you’re over caffeinated and shouting at cab drivers and everybody else. And outside my armament there was this homeless couple, a black man and a white woman and we would see them every day, we would pass them on a school run, my children would say hello to them, they would say hello to us, and that was kind of the extent of it. And I’m ashamed to say that day by day their presence became more and more acceptable to me and they became invisible before they actually disappeared, before hurricane sandy hit and I never saw them again. We were in a mandatory evacuation of Tribeca in our area and they used to live in a tiny little piece of a park, it’s laughably smaller than this room, on the corner of Canal Street and West Side Highway. They used to sleep under a plastic tarp over and I noticed that they used to complain a lot less about their circumstances than I did and I admired that. And I really didn’t see them anymore and I felt the instinct to write about them, but I didn’t know who they were but then I thought wait, maybe that would be the really good way to discuss because I find our response to homelessness really puzzling because it’s a peculiar response people have.
Do you want to direct Paul now?
JC: I don’t have any plans to direct—I’d imagine it’d be something that intrigues me and I’m not nearly ready to.
PB: Thank God.
And Anthony, your plans?
AM: You know I thought about it—there are so many good directors, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to be a mediocre director when I can just work with good directors. It’s funny because of this project I was becoming just frustrated with the business and I went to see a friend it’s my first time going to downtown LA. And right outside his window was skid row, I was like omg what is this. And just reading up about it I called my reps and I said I wanted to do something vaguely, a short or a character study about it I could direct it or I could write it and this and that so I was just going over it and researching what it would be and a few months later, shelter comes across and it was like fate. I just thought that it was ironic and funny that seeing that made me want to create something and out of that yearning to create all gave me a gift.
You do all of these big block buster films. Did you feel a bit naked doing this small, intimate movie?
AM: There was no Craft services. Craft services is big—keep me happy. I want my cookies, I want my donuts I cut up and eat throughout the course of the day. Swedish fish. That’s what I do. But you know, it’s a give and take. I’ve done a few movies like this, I feel like my most successful movies—my first movie was like this, the 20 to 25 turn to shoot and it’s interesting and it makes you appreciate the big budget movies and all that stuff but doing the big budget movies makes you appreciate all this stuff. Because this is like doing theater it’s not all the other stuff going so you just got to get the ground running. So no I didn’t feel like they go hand in hand.
JC: Yeah I felt like exposed but in a good way like I was able to be – I felt supported enough to make myself to expose things that I haven’t before literally and more figuratively. And that was for a number of reasons, the kind of film it was, the kind of film Paul wanted to make, the space and traffic he gave us as actors, the responsibilities he gave us as actors. A lot of times in other kinds of films which I love, everything is much more managed where it’s decided on by a committee. an actor has less responsibility—you go on, tape marks on the floor tell you where to stand and the dialogues been written and if you want to make a change it has to be approved by a number of people. This is a different type of project where everything was up to grabs really but not to say it was improvised really but certainly open for collaboration and where we moved and how we interpreted what was on the page so it was a really wonderful experience and also having the knowledge that Paul and I had—we like the same films, we’re very creatively aligned and also that I have so much trust in him that was why I was able to experiment. It was a very fulfilling experience more.
PB: I think it was a new experience—I absolutely to add to what Jennifer said, sometimes more and more often there’s an actor who will walk out on set and find their marks—they’re pieces of colored tape set on the ground to help the camera focus there so you realize that someone had worked where you’re going to move in the scene because you find yourself generally as an actor—I wonder what my job actually is, because it sounds like my job is to make this dialogue sound believable or something, or invest it with some sort of vague emotion to make it seem real. Not capable of a little more than that? Of a little storytelling? You got it figured it, what the hell am I doing here. So I think it is a little exposing—I want to know as the director how do you want to tell this story, how do you think—and often times we would rehearse and they would find what would be so different than what I had in mind—so different. But I would sit by myself quietly and say, “does my story survive that interpretation?” and if I thought It did, id shoot it because I don’t want to infantilize the actor, I want to empower the actor—because actors can venial vain and self-obsessed but all of the really great good ones are great story tellers and I’m really interested in that and if you’re not interested in that in an actor, you better be Stanley Fucking Kubrick—if you’re not interested in seeing what these other human beings that you’ve invited into this creative process that are interested in doing themselves—those are the sort of movies that I like. And I would argue that movies like Five Easy Pieces are extraordinary because Lazlo Kovacs—because he is amazing in the camera in some sort of life process.
How important do you think it was including the marriages and children of the characters?
JC: Well part of why I think it’s important is that it’s sort of how the characters meet, they fell in love, and then they learn about each other and its very important to each other that they each embody a thing they ach thought they hated—they couldn’t tolerate, or in Hannah’s case, he took away exactly what was the man that she loved. so then the challenge was then how do they reconcile each other, do they still love each other despite that new beginning and new understanding—so I thought that was at the very core of the story and learning that backstory.
AM: For me it was very important because I realized that this story is all about family and family loss and how it influences your everyday life I met this one guy and he was telling me how he recently became homeless because he was in a fire. He lived in an apartment and his apartment building caught on fire and he didn’t have renters insurance and he just didn’t know where to pick up next you know. And I thought that was so interesting, that he didn’t have a family member he could go to or a second person he thought he could stay with, he could borrow clothes from or anything. He couldn’t figure out the next step so he lost his job and it’s just his emotional loss of baby pictures destroyed him—he didn’t exist anymore, he had no history. So when I read the script, I loved the idea of seeing and finding his piece, finding his ticket to heaven through her.
PB: I was really interested when the audience met the two characters and when they found out what their histories are so you meet some people, you like them you see they’re falling in love and then you find out these horrific things about their past and then you forgive them almost immediately and forget about their past. And it’s because there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in the world, we’re all so quick to judge.
You’ve worked with a number of great directors before, did you reach out and talk to any directors before you went on with this?
PB: No, no I didn’t but they were some of the biggest resource for me in showing them early cuts of the movie. Ron Howard, Darren Aronofsky, lots of people that I’ve met, not just directors, Joss Whedon—just lots of people that I’ve worked with and trust and lots of people, but I did that afterward. I really kept my eyes open. You see it when you meet a young actor on set, you can see whether they’re the sort of actor who’s going to bullshit that he knows what he’s doing or those who asks loads of questions and that’s the actor I was. I was that sort of actor when I was them at that age and I’ve been watching and there’s a thing I noticed with the great directors and actually I recognized it in peter weir is that he knows who’s telling the story, whether it’s the actor holding responsibility or whether it’s the camera holding the responsibility. And if it’s the actor holding the responsibility, every take is the actor’s, and by that I mean there’s no complicated crane move, and coming to catch the tear rolling down your cheek and 8 out of ten of them are out of focus because of all those specs are for the crew. Every scene that’s held by the actors is simple camera work, nothing can be out of focus, every take going to you the actor, just generous, every take. And when it’s the camera you better be on your fucking mark because they’re the ones telling the story and I thought I about that a lot and I thought about who was the most powerful, and it was me.
What was the most important thing that you learned about the homeless population from the film and what do you think about Commissioner Bratton’s quote that the best way to get rid of the homeless is to not give to them?
AM: I am not going to get myself in trouble. I think for me, the interesting thing I learned was that I learned so much about myself reading this script and doing this movie. The level of judgment and lack of humanity I saw in myself was disgusting. Every time I walked past a homeless person, I would say “get up, get a job” and I never took into account what happened to get that person to that place. And it really just blew my mind learning what I did about homeless shelters and just finding a warm place to sleep at night, it reminded me of the prison system and the idea or lack thereof of rehabilitation, just trying to get a good night sleep within incarceration, and you know it was just troubling and eye-opening and I never really took into account the number of families. When I was young we used to do this feeding thing at my church and it blew my mind one day when I was scooping out food and this kid from our school was there, I was like wow oh that’s the kid that we go to school together. And somewhere between that moment of appreciation for what my dad sacrificed for us to have and me becoming Anthony Mackie, I lost it. And this movie really made me realized and it was really sickening to see that within yourself. And now I make my kids scoop chicken on the weekends and if they don’t do the right thing I take their shit from them and give them to other kids
JC: I don’t think ignoring a problem is ever a solution—
PB: That’s what we have been doing.
JC: That’s what we have been doing and creating an invisible group of people who we’re not supposed to look at and it’s not true, there’s no group of people are to be denied basic human rights. Were all entitled to the same human rights and have our rights met. There’s an amazing organization, the Coalition for the Homeless, they helped Paul when working on the script. I spent a bunch of time with them when working on the script. They’re wonderful organization here in New York so I think for people who want to get involved and do something about it, it’s a great place to start. If you wanna get involved and help financially, with your time, it’s a great resource. And in terms of what I learned about myself- it’s so hard to keep perspective and keep things in context and so easy to get distracted and I think it’s hard to lose context and its important in reminding me how important it is to stride to remain aware and to keep seeing where we are and how blessed we are and there are other things to worry about when there are people who are worried about where they’re going to sleep and how they’re going to get by in the day.
PB: I’m not one to say anything rude about anybody else, but that’s a fucking stupid idea, to ignore a homeless. Especially when there are 60000 of them on the streets. I mean they’re staying in shelters in the city that’s housed more billionaires anywhere on earth. Apartments sold for 100 million dollars last year in New York City, a city I love and have lived in for years and that same year 60000 people slept in the shelter system every night, 24000 of them children, 19000 women, ½ of New York City homeless pop are families. Now in the least ten to 15 years, this town has lost 32% of its public housing. You’d be called a communist to draw a line between losing 32% of its public housing and 60000 people seeking shelter every night. I know Bloomberg has done some amazing things and I think he’s got a lot of things right, for example the parks are beautiful and so they should be because there are a lot more fucking people sleeping in them. I can’t believe that someone would say ignore homeless people and frankly its absolutely the reason—I think its urgent, I’ve spent three years bleeding into a movie that’s trying to talk about exactly that so forgive me if I get a little bit heated because that sorts of mentality just drives me up the wall. They’ve been ignored for too long. If you are a family on the brink of eviction, you are 80% less likely to be evicted if you have legal counsel, but there is no right to legal counsel in housing court. It would cost the city 12500$ to grant that family legal counsel. The average stay in a homeless shelter for a homeless family once they have been evicted costs the city$45000. So not only does it seem to be the morally right thing to do, it just seems like the fiscally smart thing to do. You’re thinking outside the box. The interesting thing—all of these figures I have in my head because I have been thinking about this for a long while, I say them in front of audiences and I know they’re kind of numbing and that’s the interesting thing about narrative. Narrative can breathe live to those figures that can be baffling and peculiarly they become the more poignant the smaller they get and that’s why shelter is about two people, and two people who need forgiveness. You know what, it’s not just those 24000 children because what I see is always the audiences goes ahh, but not children but innocents who are all worthy of forgiveness and deserving of a home.
How’d you come up with the idea of the friendships between the homeless and making the romance believable?
PB: Oh you’d be wrong about that, the comradeship among the homeless is there. There’s a movie that hasn’t come out yet called American Homeless Kid or something like that, I’m sorry forgive me. It is so moving the way these kids look after each other. But it’s interesting the way it is because an agent of mine that will remain nameless said “You can’t make a romance about homeless people, no one wants to see them kiss. And I thought “What a repulsive, repugnant thing to say. Let me think about it. And let me think about the world that is filled with other people like you.” And that’s why there’s sort of the Goldilocks act where they find a house and I thought “Well let me dress these people up and make them look like people you think you’d like to kiss. Maybe you’ll forgive them for being a bit dirty and on the streets.” This whole idea that we spend time trying to humanize humans is just amazing.
What was your preparation like for the film showing women’s bodies being vulnerable on the streets?
JC: Yea, I mean it’s very dangerous for women in shelters and on the streets. In terms of living life on the streets, again Coalition for the Homeless, they were very helpful to me in learning about going out there on food runs, which, every night to designated parts around the city and people rely on those. I learned from a lot of people from, there’s this place called the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center which started out just as a needle exchange program and it still is and has help support services and overdose prevention and other program and I spent a lot of time there and on their programs. People were very generous with their stories.
For Anthony, because they are married and have this chemistry, how did that affect you on set?
AM: You know, it was never an image. I jumped and laughed and said “I got to fall in love with Jennifer Connelly every day.” It was never an issue, it never came up in conversation. When I first signed on and had lunch with Paul, Jennifer showed up a little bit later to the lunch and I’ve been very fortunate with the recent run of actresses I’ve worked with and all of them have this quality where they were just over themselves. It was never “Ok, well Jennifer is showing up at 2 so …” That conversation was never had. The conversation of “Well, we have to shoot her first because she has to go.” It was never about that. It was always more so—the one thing I liked about this experience and this process was that it would be “What’s my motivation as an actor?” And I felt that Paul directed from the perspective of motivation as opposed to landscape and that was something that for me, was so helpful. Because when I was eagerly going towards my motivation, he coached me and was like “Good job, work towards that.” Boom, done. And when I wasn’t, he was like, “Alight let’s try something else.” And I love the actor-director relationship, and with that, it just made it easier and Jennifer was my costar and not his wife.
PB: True that, that was absolutely it. They were, by the way, you’re a director so this lizard brain just kicks in, like they kiss a lot. There’s a part of you going “Jesus, she’s really frail. Let’s shoot it!” This awful, hateful monster of you comes out like “Oh, she’s so skinny and in a pool and the pool’s really cold” and then she’s like “Can I come out?” And you’re like, “No, you can’t. Just stay in the fucking pool.” I’m ashamed to say.
AM: It was the water sequence when we were in the waterfall and we kiss. So we do the first take and I’m like (mimics a peck on the cheek). And Paul comes over and says, “Kiss her mate.”
PB: JUST FUCKING KISS HER! So I think he probably recognized the lizard brain. I just want my shot, I just want my take.
I also saw Shelter not only to be a movie about hope but also choice and the choices we make in our lives.
PB: Yeah and we’re in terrible predicaments at times. And I do want to say it just one more time, it’s a film about hope for me. The story was initially about a ghost who’s walking the streets of NYC who’s done terrible things and can’t get to heaven to see his family. And then he finds a girl who thinks she’s a ghost but he knows she’s still alive and he knows that if he can just get her to her family, he can go see his. And that was for me the moving, optimistic story. I don’t like films that take me somewhere dark and bleak and say “Look at it. Aren’t you lucky it’s not you?” Because I think there’s something more to be said. However, there’s a fashion at the moment where people say “Oh, the film’s a bit dark.” You hear all sorts of things. What are you talking about? The Crucible‘s dark. Agamemnon’s pretty dark. I mean do we not have films about redemption anymore? We have this horror, we want to gut things of all darkness but we can’t make a film about redemption without darkness. How could you redeem someone from a really happy situation to a really happy situation? Maybe I’m alone in the world.
AM: There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of darkness.
PB: Oh no you didn’t. The next movie is a comedy. About stupid rich people.