'Look, 99 percent of what happens in my life I’m not paying attention to,' says the actor. 'It’s so demanding. So how do we stay open?'
Richard Gere gives a tremendously moving performance in Time Out of Mind, a tough, lyrical, decidedly uncommercial drama from director Oren Moverman, who guided Woody Harrelson to an Oscar nomination six years ago in The Messenger. He very well might do the same for Gere.
In the film, the 65-year-old actor plays a homeless man in New York City named George, though we don’t even learn his name until the halfway mark. That’s typical of the movie’s non-expository tone. We piece together other parts of his backstory — a failed business, an alcohol problem, a deceased wife — only from flyaway dialogue and gestures. Many segments of the film were shot with hidden cameras, through windows and storefronts, allowing Gere to panhandle next to real people and be totally unrecognized. And while the guerilla-style filmmaking is a challenging aesthetic choice that might take a few minutes for some audience members to adjust to, the concept provides the movie with a profound metaphor for an epidemic that we choose not to see, even though it’s right before our eyes.
Gere spoke with EW about his role in the film as both an actor and a producer, blending in on the streets of New York, the two situations — both humorous and poignant — in which strangers did stop to notice him, and whether he was purposefully tweaking his charisma-soaked, white-collar image to play a down-on-his-luck person searching for a connection to the world around him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After I saw the movie, I walked down an avenue in New York City and I saw three homeless guys. They might have been there on my way to the screening, but they’d been totally invisible to me.
RICHARD GERE: Right, right. I understand.
It really exposed a vulnerability in me. I mean, at one point you’re standing in front of the big cube at Astor Place in New York City, and everybody is walking by you. I’ve walked past that spot a million times and would’ve walked right by you too.
That was the first thing we shot when we were experimenting to see if this would even work. It comes later in the film but that was a 45 minute take. We shot on digital so we could shoot very long takes. We have raw footage from when we were filming, like that one at Astor Place, and they’re just mesmerizing. Forty-five minutes of me on the street and no one paid any attention.
What did you learn from that first day?
I could tell when people from two blocks away had made a judgment about me on the corner. Just by the vibe I was giving off and the fact that I was standing still in a city that’s always moving. I wasn’t harassing anyone. I had a coffee cup but I wasn’t shaking it in front of people’s faces. But people are used to making judgments about situations, consciously and subconsciously, from two blocks away. And from that far away they’d make the decision not to engage.
Where was the camera for that shot?
It was in the Starbucks across the street. We had different strategies of where we’d put the camera. Sometimes it was in apartments or on top of buildings. We also had a “Men at Work” tent, which people are used to seeing in the city, and we would shoot from in there.
How many people were in the crew?
Oh, it was very small. The footprint was very small. As was the budget. None of us made any money on this.
How many days did you shoot?
Twenty-one. That’s the shortest shoot I’ve ever done. I didn’t even know you could make a movie in 21 days.
There’s a great stylistic choice that was made in addition to the hidden cameras, which was to oftentimes record the audio from where the camera was placed as opposed to where you were.
We had options. We recorded it both ways. But, yeah, there was one in particular where the camera is shooting me in the homeless shelter and it’s shooting from an apartment across the street. And Oren decided to let the audio track be the sound on the TV inside that apartment where the camera is, and of the couple talking about what they want to watch on TV. That is the only sound you hear. And there’s the homeless shelter, between two panes of glass, in another universe.
It’s so different from the way movies are ordinarily made. Had you ever been involved in something like this?
I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone has shot like this before. We had these extraordinary German zoom lenses on this. And a really great cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, who’s shot all of Oren’s films. There were only two lenses, 600 and 900 millimeter zooms, anamorphic. And if you really look at the images, there’s no distortion in them. The sound recording is incredible. That’s where we spent the money, on those things. This was as guerilla as you could get in New York and still be working with professionals.
This is a script that’s been around for a while, right? Or some version of it?
Yeah, the first version was written by Jeffrey Caine [GoldenEye, The Constant Gardner] in 1988. And it was given to me years later, late ’90s or 2000. And there was definitely something there, but it veered a little too much toward a TV movie of the week about a homeless guy. And the script dealt with a court case and other predictable stuff — but the best part of it was the unpredictable stuff, the mysterious stuff, just being immersed in this guy’s life without being told what was going on.
So did you think about making the movie back then?
No, I decided not to make the film but it kept on my mind and finally I ended up buying the script. The turning point for me was when I read a book called Land of the Lost Souls by a guy named the Cadillac Man. It’s a beautiful book and very moving, but there’s no dramaturgy in it. He just tells it very hard-boiled, not editorializing about his situation or making things overly artful. And I knew that was the way to make this movie.
And how did Oren Moverman become involved?
I ran into Oren at an industry event for new Academy members. And I told him, “I know you don’t have time, I know you’re doing a hundred things, but I need someone who’s drawn to this kind of naturalism.” Kind of a neo-realism. And I sent the script to him and he called me right back and he said, “I totally get it. Let’s jump right in and do this.”
Did you think about your iconography as an actor as you approached this? With the exception of Days of Heaven (1978) and one or two other films, you’re known for playing suave businessmen and lawyers, white-collar guys. Pretty Woman, Chicago. That image we have of you makes it more powerful when we see you panhandling here.
I honestly didn’t think about it. Everything I’ve done I’ve just seen as different characters. I don’t want to program anyone’s experience of this, but I wasn’t thinking about me being a homeless guy. I was just thinking about a very naked kind of yearning to belong. To find community and have connections with the world. And that yearning is universal. There’s probably nothing else as universal as that.
Right, and as you say, the film really resonates for how specific it is to this one guy’s experience while also being very much about our experience of watching it.
Sure, I mean, I was hoping it would go in that direction and would deliver on that level. It’s about that guy on the street who we don’t pay any attention to, but we don’t really pay any attention to each other anyhow. Look, 99 percent of what happens in my life I’m not paying attention to. I’m not feeling truly compassionate about much, because I can’t take it. It’s so demanding. So how do we stay open?
It’s amazing that you chose not to disguise yourself. You’re not wearing a wig or a beard or sunglasses. There’s a scene where you’re walking through Grand Central Station — and you look exactly like Richard Gere.
That was one of the later scenes we shot. By then I had learned already that we could shoot in public and no one was going to pay any attention to me. In Grand Central, I was getting so brazen with it that I was really in people’s faces, looking right at them and engaging them. And still, nobody saw me. The only two people who paid any attention to me in Grand Central were two African-Americans, and that was just in passing. They walked by and went, “Hey, Rich.” I think they assumed, “Oh, hit some hard times, huh?” But also a little touch of, “Yeah, we understand. There’s ups and downs in life.”
Two people out of the thousands in Grand Central recognized you. In what amount of time?
We were there maybe three hours shooting. We were doing 20-minute takes. But that’s how much people go by the visual. They just saw the guy I was and didn’t want to engage.
Were there any moments of uplift?
Well, I knew this was going to be a potentially profound experience for me to go through as a person, and it was. Realizing how fragile the sense of self is and how easily that’s damaged. The one moment that really touched me, and it ended up being in the New York Post, was when we were shooting outside of Grand Central and a woman came up to me with a bag of food. I was going through trash cans at that point. She came up with food for me, and I was startled because she was the first person who had engaged me for days. And she gave me the bag and she went away.
Was that on camera?
No, unfortunately it wasn’t captured on camera. We probably could’ve used it. But there was a paparazzi who found out we were shooting and published these photos of the woman giving me the food. It was in the Post for a week and they went looking for this woman and they found her. Turns out she was a French tourist. She wasn’t even a New Yorker.
Does it bother you that there probably won’t be a big audience for this movie?
No, no. It is what it is. The good thing about having a minuscule budget is that we didn’t have to make any compromises. It’s exactly the film we wanted to make. And I’m going to try my best to convince people to give the movie a chance.
I hope they do. But when I tell people there’s a really good movie opening, but it’s about homelessness, I can just see the look in their faces change.
I know, I know. But IFC Films is very committed to this film. AMC, which is the parent company, is also very committed. We’re going to do some social action through this and get involved with some legislation. And AMC hired a lobbying group in Washington to work on this. We’re trying to put together advertisements with quotes that don’t make it sound like required viewing. It’s an immersive film experience and I’m pretty hopeful that people will respond to it.
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