There's a film coming out this weekend called GIMME SHELTER, and I guarantee that you've never seen anything quite like it. It stars Vanessa Hudgens, once again shattering all remembrances of her Disney days. But rather than go the fun-and-games-and-guns route of SPRING BREAKERS, in GIMME SHELTER she plays a homeless, abused, pregnant teen named Apple who bounces from her addict mother's "care" to her stock broker birth father's mini-mansion to her last salvation, a home for pregnant teens/new mothers run by Kathy DiFiore (played in the film by Anne Dowd).
If the film sounds a little rough around the edges, rest assured: it is. I didn't even recognize Hudgens the first time she appears on screen, let alone when she self-chops her hair off and just looks generally abandoned and deeply depressed. While the character of Apple is based on a could of different real people, DiFiore is a very real person with very strong Christian beliefs and a strong need to reach out and help those in need. She runs a string of such shelters in New Jersey (and other nearby locations), and not long ago, she and the film's writer-director Ron Krauss came through Chicago to chat about this hard-hitting work.
Krauss has made a couple of strange little films in his career, such as RAVE and ALIEN HUNTER, but in 2010, he made another issue-driven work called AMEXICA about a young boy from Mexico who is sold by a human trafficking ring. It's a nasty piece of work that brings to light some truly awful practices. AMEXICA and GIMME SHELTER are similar in that they give shine a light on characters that rarely get time on the big screen (or any screen). And by showing us the plight of these young people, he makes it that much more difficult for us to simply ignore their struggles.
I'll have a separate interview with Vanessa Hudgens very soon, but for now, please enjoy my talk with Ron Krauss and Kathy DiFiore…
Capone: Nice to meet you both.
Ron Krauss: You too. I do want to say I love Ain’t It Cool News and Harry Knowles.
Capone: That's very kind of you. I just saw Harry last month in Austin.
RK: Yeah, it’s a great site, and I always read it and just really glad you guys are here asking questions. I saw that you guys put the trailer on the site, which we appreciate.
Capone: This story is not based on a book or any article, which means you had to meet each other, and you had to probably interview Kathy and many other people. How did you first come together, and how did you share stories?
RK: Well, it happened like you said. In other words, I work in this specific type of film; it looks a lot easier than it is, but there's a lot of work that goes into this minimalistic-realism type of film, and then you have to make it look so effortless in a sense. When the film comes, it has to look like it’s not a film--that’s the style of it. It’s an homage to neorealism or minimalistic films of the '60s, Italian cinema and all these things. So as a filmmaker, that's what I was going for here. I did a film before this that was a human trafficking film. A lot of my films have a social idea in their core, and I like to take characters that can get involved in a bigger thing. Something that effects us all and watch the plight as they go through it, and then they can relate to our own lives.
The thing about GIMME SHELTER is that it's not about one thing. It's about family, poverty, kindness, compassion, love, homelessness and so forth. The least thing it’s about is teen pregnancy, which is the thing that people hone in on. Kathy’s been doing the work for 33 years, and she’s remained anonymous in those years. She’s been asked to go and do promotions and talk shows and Oprah and this and that. She never does any of that stuff. Someone told me about her shelters, and at Christmas 2009, I was visiting my brother who happened to live a mile from the shelter. So I knocked on the door one day, because usually during the holidays and Thanksgiving, I’m always looking and researching where can I give some of my time, share a meal, and this seemed like the perfect thing, and someone told me about it and said, “You should really learn about this place.” And I did exactly what you said, I met Kathy, interviewed her, looked around, came into the shelter, and I saw exactly what you saw in that movie, which was this incredible place where this woman was selflessly helping people, and kindness.
I didn’t have any idea to do like a movie or anything. I just was there, and we started talking and I was bonding with the people there, learning about their stories. And at some point, I was talking to Kathy about maybe documenting some stuff for her because I didn’t want this to go unnoticed, all these years and nobody’s taking note of this. So I was interviewing some of the people, and I was giving these tapes to the shelters, and we were making things and saying here, there is this girl and here’s another girl. She just came in, and I’d stay there and ended up being there for a year and would tape after tape after tape. And I said to myself, “Well, what are you going to do with all of these things? I don’t know, maybe we’ll make a documentary.” And she said, “Not about me.” And I was like, “Okay.”
And as I was there longer and longer, I came up with an idea and said, “This needs to be seen on a much bigger level. This could reach so many people.” And I told her, and she said, “Well, maybe about the work. If you were to show the girls in something,” she said, “that can inspire other people to maybe open up shelters, to maybe be kind to their neighbor, to maybe help somebody. Go do that.” But that’s a big, tall assignment. How do you write a script about that? And who cares? And if you make some script that ends up being some melodramatic thing that ends up on Hallmark, which is great too for people, but not exactly what I was interested in. And it would not reach as many people and effect many people.
So, that’s how we ended up meeting, and eventually I wrote a screenplay. The difference between this film and a film, for example, based on a true story like LONE SURVIVOR or something like that? Pople say to me, “Well, what’s the difference between fact and fiction 'based on a true story?'” Most Hollywood films say "based on a true story," and they're told after the fact. LONE SURVIVOR is about a war from whenever. I wrote this script in the moment, with the real people. It was happening simultaneously as I was writing it. It was fresh right there. And I went back and shot it in the real shelter with the real girls who were acting in the movie with Vanessa, and it helped support Vanessa’s performance almost like a barometer. She could see the real people, she’s in there, she’s living in the shelter.
Capone: There absolutely came a point late in the film where I realized that this story was about Kathy. I thought, “They’ve taken this side door to get to Kathy’s character, but I see what this is about.” Once we got to the shelter, I realized that this is what the movie is about.
Kathy DiFiore: You’re the first person that’s said that.
RK: You’re the first person.
Capone: I told Vanessa earlier, "I hate to break it to you but this movie isn’t about Apple." I almost never read press notes, but I read the press notes on this because I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t, and who was real and who wasn't. I was surprised how many of your performers were first-time actors.
RK: Yeah, did you see the end of the movie when all the real people in the photos.
Capone: I assume that confidentiality is important to what you do, especially in these homes with the pregnant girls. How did you work that out that it was okay to open up what you did for this project, and why Ron? Why did you think he was the one to chronicle what you do?
KD: I’m a very deep, spiritual person and I don't know how you feel about that, but I heard a voice that I could trust and I did. And four years later, I still trust him. And as far as the first part of your question, I did find that a little bizarre that he came into our lives when he did, because in 33 years I didn’t give my life story. The girls never told their life story to anybody else, but it’s kind of based on the first half of the question, since they trusted him and I trusted him, we told him the truth about what happens to us, and he’s handled it with dignity and grace, and there’s nothing in the movie that is there that we don’t approve of.
Capone: Did it make a difference to you that he wanted to use some of the girls in the movie?
KD: As long as they were fine with it, I was fine with it. There was definitely women who said, “I don’t wanna be involved in the movie. I don’t want to be seen, I don’t want my story involved.” But the four women who are in are thrilled. They can’t wait.
RK: And 23 babies. They’re all from the shelter. 24 or 23?
KD: It’s 24--there's a baby in the womb.
RK: The baby in the womb, yeah. It’s interesting, they always say when you’re making a film, babies are the hardest to work with. These babies were the best. They just were so comfortable in their own environment. But I will say this, you said you felt that the film came around and was sort of about her work and her, but were you at the screening last night?
RK: When you see this with an audience, this film means something different to every single person who watches it, and you find that it’s about her work. Because I do think, when I watch the film also, that it’s about Kathy and Apple and the work. But every single screening is like an intervention or something. I never expected this movie to be like so meaningful to people in a sense. I was ust doing the film. We’re spending hours afterwards, listening to people who are emotionally breaking down like an intervention. I feel proud to be a part of this movie. I don’t even feel like, "Yeah I’m the filmmaker." I was the driving force behind the film. There's one producer on the film, and it’s me. There’s one writer and director. That’s why this movie took so long to get out.
Capone: I was going to ask you about that becuase I know you shot it a couple of years ago.
RK: Yeah, well it took me a year to write the script, I had to raise the money, I had to go and cast it, bring everybody back to the shelter, edit the movie, find the distributer. So the actual process of the movie from shooting it was almost just as normal as a regular movie. From the time I shot it which was almost two years ago through the editing process, that whole thing was almost like a regular movie.
But the process before--a year in the shelter is not exactly standard. If I send you right now, you’re going to do a job and work and research, and you’re going to be a year in some shelter, you’re going to be like, “Well, I’ve got my family…” That’s exactly what it is for me. But I’ve never seen a film where emotionally it grabs people in so many different ways, and that’s because every single person that sees this movie differently. Like I was saying, movies effect people in different ways. It’s what you have inside here, for this movie, what you bring to the movie is what you get out of this movie. If you grew up with a single mom, people come to me and they say, “Wow, I didn't realize how much my mom struggled to raise me.”
Capone: You've build many different stages of Apples life in the film. You have her with her mother, with her father, and in the shleter. Was that by design? Did you want to break it up and chapterize?
RK: The film was very precise. That’s another thing about my work, I don't do that many films. Some filmmakers, they turn a film out fast. They just do it or these big films, they’re on schedules. And those are great films too. But for me, the greatest special effect in film is human emotion. That’s what gets people excited about cinema. That’s what started cinema. The very first person who saw a movie, they got into a small dark room, and what fascinated them was watching other people on the screen. If you don’t have that connection, you have nothing. I don’t care how many aliens and explosions or whatever you have. And a woman stood up yesterday at the screening and she said, “This film brings me back to the theater. It brings dignity to Hollywood films, and I can identify with this film where other films push me away.” And people started applauding. She said, “This film brings me back to the theater. I feel like this is a film where I can come see this movie, and it’s entertaining.” It has some quality to it that resonates with them. We had another guy who was a big burley guy, and he raised his hand and said, “I want you to know I cried my eyes out after this movie. I got out of prison, I had a tough life, I was homeless, and I can identify with this film.”
KD: You didn’t tell him the rest about the award.
RK: Oh yeah, he said that wanted for us to get a Golden Globe. It’s interesting when audience people refer to awards. And I told him,“You're my Golden Globe, because the fact that this movie touched you so deeply means everything to me." That’s why I made the film. I don't care so much about awards. Awards are great, people like recognition, but that’s not in the scope of my work.
Capone: I’m a big Ann Dowd fan. Last weekend, I binge watched Showtime's "Masters of Sex" she's in almost every episode. But the idea of an actor playing you, how did you wrap your brain around that? And tell me about meeting Ann the first time and spending time with her.
KD: It really goes back to trust. Once you trust the director, you wind up trusting his decisions, and when he cast her, I said, “Okay.” And then when I met her, the first time I met her I fell in love with her, just physically being in her presence. We just connected. It was almost like we were sisters. We hung out together the whole time, and Ron let us work together the whole time, and he gave me that privilege. He said, “Talk to her, tell her what you think of this particular scene.” And then she was kind enough when she played the scene, she’d come back and say, “Did I do it okay?” And I’d say, “Wow, who am I to tell people what to say or do about acting? I don't know anything about acting.” So I just like Ann. I’ve got her home phone number. She has a child that she calls me about once in a while.
RK: She helps people, Ann. And it’s an interesting part of the casting. First of all, she turned in the best audition out of all the people. She was very strong and resonated and understood, and as we talked to her, we found out she helps foster kids. So she was really the right person for this film. She worked very closely with Kathy, she really wanted to get it right. I’m going to tell you, I didn’t make it easy for people on this movie.
People do "based on true stories," and once in a while you’ll have the real inspiration in and out of the set, but because we shot this movie in the shelter while it was still going and people were around, it made it harder that the people were always there, and they’re part of the movie, and I know this film was very difficult for people. They didn’t know where I was going with this movie. They really didn't. There was a lot of people resisting this movie when we were shooting it. A lot of people coming up to me and saying, “Are you sure about this? These are the real babies form the shelter. These are the real girls. What are they doing in this movie? I’m uncomfortable here.” There was a lot of this going on.
Capone: Who said that? People working on the film?
RK: Yeah. More people than less, because you have to understand, what we did here was like a neorealism thing, and a lot of people don’t get it. This is not a typical mainstream movie. And people were resisting me left and right, and I said, “Trust me, this is what we’re doing here, just be with me or not.” And many people left. Week after week, we would loose crews. Nine people, 10 people exiting the movie left and right. I’m telling you, the first week I lost 10 people in the crew. I had to re-crew that weekend. I wake up, I’m exhausted, I’m re-crewing the whole crew. Next weekend, we’re shooting, I lost those people.
Look, everybody has the right to work on things or not, and I think it was very difficult for everybody because they wanted to run it like a movie, and I was trying to shoot it like a documentary, and people didn’t understand that. The funny thing is, now that people are seeing the trailer and it’s coming out, those people are coming back to me and saying, “Wow, I really like what you did here.” I have no feeling other than being proud of being a part of this movie, even though I was the person driving and pushing people.
Capone: Did you shoot this chronologically?
RK: No, which was difficult for Vanessa because she came, she lived in the shelter, we cut her hair off. We started her hair short and then put pieces on to make it longer as she did the transformation. You would think we shot it chronologically, but a lot of people don't know the filmmaking of this thing. We shot this whole movie in 30 days over a summer. It was like 90 degrees. But, if you look at the movie, the movie starts in the fall and transforms through winter in the snow on the streets, and ends up in the spring over nine months. There are like 300 CGI shots in this movie.
RK: Yeah, first to make all the transformation of Vanessa; second, the whole change of seasons. Remember, when I shot this, it was 90 degrees. They were in winter coats, but I had to put snow on the streets, I had to put cold breath, and people don’t think about it because when they watch the movie they look at it and say, “Oh, it’s the winter. Oh, it’s the spring.” But there is a lot of filmmaking that goes into preparing. Does she have the belly? How many months pregnant is she? Is her hair long? Is it short? It was very confusing.
Capone: I saw that Apple is based on a couple of different real people, but rather than have it just be a single real person you made her a composite of two people. Can you talk about the work you did with Vanessa to create Apple? Her personality, the way she looks, her history?
RK: I spent a year in that shelter. I watched girls come in as street girls and watched as they transformed into mothers. I met a young girl, Darlisha, who's in the movie, she inspired me to write this movie. She came one night to the shelter, she had walked 30 miles in the freezing cold without a jacket to find this shelter, and I didn’t know this. When I told her I found out they had a bed for her and that she could stay there--Kathy told me, “Why don’t you tell her?”--she grabbed me so hard she almost knocked me over. And that hug inspired me to write this film. And I was there at the birth of her son Julian. She came from the street and now she’s a house mother there, and she helps others and she’s also studying to be a nurse. I experienced it first hand--the transformations and what happens. Her mother attacked her with a razor blade, that's in the movie. That’s true, that happened. I was there when it happened.
And I also understood, for example, when she couldn't turn her own mother in, which is, you love her but you hate her even more for all the things, and that hurts even more. This whole understanding of what it means. So, first of all, the girls cast Vanessa. I had a couple people I was interested in and I was focusing on Vanessa, but they didn’t know who she was and I sent a link of Vanessa to the shelter to Kathy, and the girls and they said, “This girl.” They had no idea who she was. They picked her.
And she came, she lived in the shelter for about two or three weeks. She broke down at first, crying wondering what she was doing there, if it was the right choice. And then, she came and I cut her hair with her. I literally, physically cut her hair off. And more tears in her eyes. She gained about 15 pounds and she lived with these girls, and I never saw Vanessa again. She became this girl, literally. Even now when I look at her when she speaks, you met with her and you’ve seen the character in the movie, it’s almost impossible to think they’re the same people
Capone: I didn’t recognize her from frame one.
RK: Yeah, it’s almost impossible. And all these things about wardrobe, tattoos, piercings, shooting on super 16mm to push her back so you don't realize. It’s not this beautiful film, 35mm; it’s 16mm, so that the depth of field is different. I really did everything that I could, including the lighting--I was lighting all from the ceiling and not directly on the actor, so it’s all just flat. And Vanessa’s complete, die-hard willingness to do everything she possibly could within her soul to turn this character, and she did it.
Capone: Kathy, what do you want people to get out of seeing this film? What are you hoping people step away from this film thinking?
KD: Love, hope, compassion, joy, a new lease on life. When they walk out and look at their own lives and look at their neighbors life, they should say, “Boy, that movie changed my life. I’m really thinking about my brother or my sister, my neighbor. I want to go back and see that film again and bring some more people to it, because there’s something about that movie that’s right here [puts her hand over her heart]. It’s right here.”
Capone: Do you see it as a call to action?
KD: I absolutely do. If you go to severalsources.net, we have a "How to Open a Shelter" kit and we need more shelters. There are really only 550 shelters for pregnant women in the whole United States, and we need more shelters. I’ve done a book on not just how to open a shelter but the work. That’s also on the site. But, I think of it as more than just pregnant women. I think of it as homeless women, we have our neighbor or even our own sister who’s being abused, who’s in an abusive relationship with her husband. Maybe it’s time to take her out to dinner and start talking, guiding her a little bit. Hugging her and talking to her, “How long are you going to put up with this? Maybe you guys need some family counseling. Stop taking the easy way out of problems.” That's what I’d like to see.
Capone: Alright, well thank you so much. It was really wonderful to meet you.