Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Howard Feinstein interviewed the key principals of The Visitor for our Spring ’08 issue. The Visitor is nominated for Best Actor (Richard Jenkins).
In 2005, Tom McCarthy, who has been acting for nearly 20 years, appeared in three films with strong political thrusts: Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Danny Leiner‘s underappreciated The Great New Wonderful. In The Station Agent (2003), his first feature as a director, however, McCarthy displayed the seeds of this social engagement. The Station Agent is not political in the issue sense so much as it is progressively anthropological in its observation of marginalized individuals attempting to function within the larger social order and with one another. Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf whose size is less of a problem than the self-conscious, frequently hostile reactions he gets from others. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) is a middle-class woman merely going through the motions of living, a result of the death of her young son. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is a Puerto Rican food vendor whose high-energy, working-class personality is at odds with the languorous rhythms of the isolated, lily-white township where he spends his workday.
Although comparing McCarthy‘s paid thesping to personal projects he writes and directs may seem glib, one can make a case for his attraction to films whose ideological underpinnings echo his own predispositions. McCarthy‘s second film, The Visitor, stars 60-year-old Richard Jenkins as plain, unremarkable Walter Vale, a lonely suburbanite who teaches economics in Connecticut. Walter undergoes a profound transformation after meeting two illegal immigrants in desperate straits. Here the filmmaker leaps from The Station Agent‘s peripheral social involvement into full-fledged (but never boring or p.c.) political commitment. The Visitor incorporates technical and dramatic elements McCarthy gleaned from his work on innumerable features and television series into an enlightened take on contemporary America in crisis. The brilliantly unobtrusive depiction is so au courant that one might expect it to have been realized as a quickie television doc instead of as a feature narrative.
The film focuses on immigration and, to a lesser extent, race. The immigrants are not from Latin America but from the Middle East and Africa. In the faux-angsty climate of America post-2001, these individuals are forced to fear brutal arrest, inhumane detention, and deportation in spite of possible retribution in their homelands for political activity. The racial issue in The Visitor is not the clichéd American whites versus American blacks but instead xenophobic American whites versus foreigners of color — here a black Senegalese woman, Zainab (Danai Gurira), and a brown man, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, not just a Third World nation but an officially demonized “enemy.”
McCarthy‘s experience researching in the Middle East flies in the face of the negative stereotypes that he exposes. “I spent time in Beirut and Oman and realized just how wonderful and warm and open and communicative and funny the people are,” notes the 39-year-old filmmaker, a Manhattan resident who grew up in New Jersey. “I was struck by how little I knew about the region, about the people, about the culture, and also by the fact that I had never seen such people represented in film. With all the news and the headlines, we can forget that there are human beings on both sides of this. So the best thing I can do is to share my feelings with people who aren‘t going to get on a plane and go somewhere like Beirut. Working on The Visitor sure took me into a world I wasn‘t familiar with.”
After returning home from the Middle East, McCarthy began research in New York City‘s Arab community, where he heard a story about a young man in a government detention center on immigration charges. He began visiting detainees and learned that most had no legal representation.
That people, particularly Arabs, are subject to the horrors of a dehumanizing set of detention centers is anathema to McCarthy, and he refuses in his film to simplify the system to make it palatable for the viewer. Rather, he deconstructs it, bypassing abstraction and honing in on one typically windowless facility in a rundown section of Queens as an archetype of its excesses. “These are not just horrible detention offices policed by bogeymen,” he explains. “Instead what you see inside them is a faceless bureaucracy. Many of these institutions are privatized, run by a huge company. They hire people from the usually depressed surrounding community and pay them a low or minimum wage.” The workers inside are distant, nasty. “These employees are not the most equipped at dealing with prisoners.”
The detention center itself is the only location in the film built on a soundstage for the rapid-fire 28-day shoot (the budget was around $5 million), only because McCarthy was not allowed access to any existing ones. The fake building is the exception in a movie that otherwise uses real exteriors and the actual interiors that match them. His choice to shoot on location was mainly, but not only, philosophical. “I wanted to create a real environment, real neighborhoods, a real world for the actors to exist in so that they can reach a full sense of reality. I think it‘s more nuanced that way. You can feel the artifice when you shoot everything on a soundstage.”
“For example, the exterior of Walter‘s East Village pied-à-terre [where he discovers lovers Zainab and Tarek squatting] is the same as the interior we shot in,” McCarthy explains. “It creates consistency, yet it also helps practically. You‘re there; you can move quickly by shooting at that location and then moving on. It‘s a case of the budget dictating the aesthetic, which I fully believe in.”
The Visitor‘s music is as genuine as the sets. The djembe, a large drum played in the Middle East, is almost a character. Tarek teaches it to the arrhythmic, atonal Walter, who is initially reluctant, precipitating the alteration of his persona, his value system, his sense of outrage. The djembe even provides a plot point: Tarek is so slow carrying the cumbersome instrument through a subway turnstile that he is busted by the cops who think he is a fare beater. At the denouement, Walter is cradling it. “I took djembe lessons from a musician friend when I was researching this,” says McCarthy. “He kept telling me, ‘Get out of your head, just listen, feel it, don‘t think about it, just start being in the present.‘ That‘s what Walter needed to do and what happens to him during the course of the film.”
The other instrument, intentionally less appealing, is the living-room piano which his late wife played, and which Walter tries in vain to learn from a mortified neighbor. “Walter uses the piano to hold on to the past,” McCarthy explains. “It‘s like he‘s trying to escape from prison by scraping his way out with a spoon to find some sort of life. Unfortunately, he has chosen something he has no talent for.”
Walter, Tarek and Zainab form an unlikely triumvirate, not unlike the odd threesome in The Station Agent. Both films feature a misfit (extremely shy Walter, diminutive Fin), an appealing extrovert (vivacious Tarek, gregarious Joe), and a troubled, defensive woman (mistrusting Zainab, irrational Olivia). In The Visitor, the triangle is squared when gorgeous, middle-aged Mouna (the great Israeli actress Hiam Abbass), Tarek‘s mother and a political refugee in the States, arrives in Manhattan to find out why she has not heard from her son, by then in detention. She forges a bond with Walter that soon becomes romantic. “I wrote the part of Mouna with Hiam in mind,” notes McCarthy. “I went to Paris and sat down with her just as I was beginning to write the script.” The trajectory of Walter and Mouna‘s relationship supplies The Visitor with a rich personal drama that nicely complements the film‘s political conflict.
Jenkins, a prolific film vet known to many as the ghost of the family patriarch on the television series Six Feet Under, provides a human-scale credibility that makes The Visitor a great movie as opposed to a very good one. McCarthy, who has worked with nearly 40 different directors, recognizes what makes a fine actor. “I start to think, ‘this doesn‘t work; why?‘ ” he asks. “Actors know when they are working with actor-directors. It‘s a confidence question. The more confidence you build, the quicker you can work together in developing a shorthand. Richard is the perfect example. By the end, I would just use catchwords.”
“Tom‘s an actor,” says Jenkins. “There‘s a common language between the two of us. I‘m not usually crazy about rehearsing movies, but the three weeks of rehearsal was really productive. It helped me know him. In fact, it helped for everyone to know one another, not to mention changing the script. Tom didn‘t pretend there was a camera there, like most directors do. When the camera comes, everything changes.”
“As unlikely of a leading man as Richard might seem, he does have that confidence, vulnerability and openness which can translate into something sensual, if not sexual,” says McCarthy. “He is in some ways uncomfortable in his own skin. I saw him in a movie I didn‘t like, Shall We Dance, and the heat is with him and Susan Sarandon, not Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. It‘s his confidence that makes it come out like that.” “I don‘t see myself that way,” counters Jenkins. “I act like I‘m confident. Actually I‘m more confident acting than doing anything else.” The affable thesp slides into joking mode. “I‘m just a sex bunny! I‘ve got women hanging all over me!”
“You could see the joy in Richard and Hiam‘s working together, and it comes through in the film,” says McCarthy. “There were moments doing two-shots when we just let them do their thing. We thought, we don‘t have to pop in. The camera trusts both of them.” Though the Galilee born, Paris-based Abbass is more than 12 years Jenkins‘s junior, she is just as fine a performer, if very different. “Hiam has endless resources of emotion to draw on, plus a great sense of pace,” notes McCarthy. “With Hiam, there‘s no filler,” adds Jenkins. “She would ask the question, ‘What does this mean?‘ It made me examine what we were doing in a scene. It would cut to the heart. And Tom or I would have to answer it.”
McCarthy believes that The Visitor has the feel of a European movie. “I have been heavily influenced by European films,” he says. “Foreign buyers in Toronto were over the moon about it.” Brit Bill Stephens, one of the partners in K5, the international sales agent that bought the film soon after the festival, agrees. “Tom‘s storytelling is very European, and in many ways akin to the likes of Ken Loach, who covers serious humanitarian issues like immigration or the plight of the underdog. I went to see The Visitor because I loved The Station Agent, but The Visitor rang many bells for me. It has a more universal theme and I think it will succeed with Europeans.”
The Visitor possesses an organic cohesion rare in American filmmaking (ensemble work is much more the norm in countries with a smaller movie pool). “The filmmaking process is delicate because the film is so collaborative between me, cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg and Tom McArdle, the editor,” says McCarthy. Bokelberg and McArdle had previously worked with the untested director on the $500,000 Station Agent and had far fewer resources. For The Visitor, Bokenberg labored in areas not traditionally delegated to a d.p. “My relationship with Olly goes deeper than the typical director/d.p. one,” says McCarthy. “For example, Olly has a great sense of story. He must have read 10 drafts of the script and made helpful notes along the way.” About McArdle, he says, “Tom and I sat down a number of times before we shot the movie to talk through all the things we would usually talk about after shooting. In general, I made sure that we were on the same page, beginning with his work on dailies. By the time we were in the editing room, there was a shorthand.”
That word again. It may just be the operative term to describe what differentiates The Visitor from most of what‘s out there.