Richard Gere's Mile in a Homeless Man's Shoes

Neta Alexander
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Richard Gere in 'Time Out of Mind' Credit: Splash News
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – A homeless man with a knitted winter hat that covers his forehead almost down to his eyes stands on a busy Manhattan street asking passersby to put small change in a disposable McDonald’s cup. As in all the clichés about the urban alienation in New York, dozens of people pass him quickly while talking excitedly on their iPhones, or pretending they didn’t see the desperate man begging for help.

Richard Gere, left, and Ben Vereen attend a screening of "Time Out Of Mind" at the New York Film Festival on Sun., Oct. 5, 2014 in New York. Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Had they bothered to look up from their screens for a second they would have discovered that the homeless man in front of them begging for a little bit of money for food was none other than Hollywood actor Richard Gere.

Gere, 65, has starred in dozens of Hollywood blockbusters including “American Gigolo” and “Pretty Woman.” Last year he decided to take a cinematic adventure that is no less than a social experiment. Together with his production company Gere Productions, he enlisted the Israeli-American director and screenwriter Oren Moverman (“Rampart,” “The Messenger”) and the two started working on an investigation lasting several months that included living in homeless shelters in New York and dozens of conversations with homeless people.

The result is “Time Out of Mind,” a drama that received enthusiastic reviews at the Toronto Film Festival and is now being screened at the New York Film Festival.

The pair decided to film all the scenes on the streets of New York with the real people passing by and not with actors and extras. Gere’s main fear was that he would be recognized right away, he told a press conference before the film’s Lincoln Center screening at the New York festival in late September. But he was surprised that no one identified him as the famous actor – but instead saw only a homeless man, a black hole, someone who embodies failure.

After watching the two-hour movie it is easy to believe that Gere is really George, a homeless man in his sixties who continues to insist that he is just between apartments, but has really been living on the streets for quite a while.

“There were two or three times where someone talked to me on the street,” Gere recounted. “One was a French tourist, a woman who totally thought I was a homeless guy and gave me some food. The other two times were African-Americans and they just passed me and went, ‘Hey Rich, how you doin’ man?’ No question about what I was doing there or ‘Have you fallen on hard times?’ and ‘What happened to your career?’ Just ‘Hey Rich, how you doin’ man,’ and they just continued on.”

Gere is a long-time active supporter of the New York organization Coalition For the Homeless, and had the idea for “Time Out of Mind” for years. He met Moverman in 2007 on the set of “I’m Not There,” the wild and experimental biographical musical film about Bob Dylan based on the groundbreaking and original screenplay by Moverman and director Todd Haynes.

A few years later Gere met Moverman again and proposed writing a screenplay about a homeless man who tries to survive alone on the streets of New York. Moverman agreed to take the reins, and wrote the screenplay for “Time Out of Mind” based on the inspiration of the 2005 autobiography “Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Street” by “Cadillac Man” (Thomas Wagner), which tells the tragic life story of an American man who lost his job and found himself living on the streets of Queens for years.

“There was a book by a guy named the Cadillac Man, a homeless man. It was a very unschooled autobiography, but it was by someone who was able to communicate his world. I knew this was the way it should feel, so Oren and I started talking about this film with that point-of-view ... What wasn’t clocking with me until I read Oren’s first draft is the sense of process being the movie. The process of [this character] going through the bureaucracy is enough plot – you don’t need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough,” said Gere.

Gere received what became the script for “Time Out of Mind” a decade ago. “It was written in the late ‘80s, but a lot of it was still relevant 10 years ago,” said Gere. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I bought it.”

Interestingly, Moverman and Gere chose to locate the entire film in the hellish present – for the 111 minutes of the movie we spend our time with George. There are no flashbacks or any other narrative attempts to explain how the main character found himself on the street, completely transparent and cut off from any form of human communication. Instead of psychological explanations, we are left with a depressing portrait of Manhattan from the perspective of someone who wanders about from the emergency room (the only place that has comfortable chairs that you can sleep in for the night) to public benches and finally a city shelter for the homeless.

At the same time, “Time Out of Mind” focuses on the complicated bureaucracy of the American welfare system: Without a wallet, passport, identification or a Social Security number, George is sentenced to hike from one government office to another in an attempt to reconstruct his birth certificate and be issued other documents that would force the authorities to recognize his existence. After a series of failures, George tells the homeless man who slept next to him in the shelter that he was not even sure he existed at all.

Guerilla art

As this existential crisis shows, Moverman’s film is light years away from any of the movies that made Gere famous and a big-time Hollywood star (and a sex symbol, as a Brazilian journalist insisted on reminding him during an especially embarrassing moment of the press conference). It seems this project was also intended to provide Gere with a springboard for an artistic comeback, and it is possible it will also turn into his first Oscar nomination.

The way Gere gave himself over totally to the character he plays makes the film riveting. He is present in every scene, and responds to what is happening around him with a mix of confusion, desperation and mostly great fatigue.

To achieve this effect, Moverman – who drew inspiration from American urban photographer and painter Saul Leiter – decided to use special lenses that can film from great distances. As in an independent guerilla project, he and the film crew hid on roofs, inside coffee shops or behind windows, and allowed Gere to move about freely on the streets of New York in a tattered coat and a winter hat.

“I’m out there and I was a little scared and anxious,” Gere recounted. “And nobody saw me! I started approaching people and asking, ‘Can you help me out, spare some change?’ There was no eye contact, even when someone gave me a dollar bill. That was the first time I really felt what that [experience] is.

“I think we all have a yearning to be known and be seen,” he said. “I come here and you want to hear what I want to say. But I’m the same guy that I was on the street and no one wanted to hear his story. I could see how quickly we can all descend into [scary] territory when we’re totally cut loose from all of our connections to people.

“The whole thing was predicated on the idea that, for a lot of this, I would be on the streets and New York would be passing me by. If that didn’t work, I don’t know what we would have done.” 

Real people, not actors

Unlike Gere, who has spent most of his career on the sets of big productions, Moverman, 48, represents a very different cinematic school. He was born in Israel, grew up in Givatayim, and moved with his family to New York when he was 12 years old. He returned to Israel at 18 with his Israeli partner Yael – who later became his wife – and the two were drafted into the Nahal Brigade. After finishing his army service, he went back to the U.S. and studied at Brooklyn College. Later he started writing screenplays for full-length movies, including “I’m Not There” and “Jesus’ Son,” which he also produced.

In 2009 he switched from being a respected screenwriter to a director and shot his first movie “The Messenger,” a drama about two American soldiers whose job is to inform soldiers’ families of the their deaths in the fighting in Iraq, starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. The movie, which critics lauded, earned Moverman an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. In 2011 he directed his second movie, “Rampart,” a police thriller which also starred Harrelson.

Moverman has managed for the past decade to succeed outside the regular Hollywood scene and create challenging projects that became film festival hits.

In Moverman’s script for “Time Out of Mind,” George spends most of his time in an attempt to create a relationship with his daughter, who he abandoned when she was 12. His complete isolation is breached occasionally through the use of chance encounters with other homeless people. These supporting characters allowed Moverman to bring to the set a number of well-known actors who appear for only a scene or two, including Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick.

At the press conference, Moverman said it was a completely independent production. Between takes, Gere rested in a rented car parked on the street. There were no trailers and the crew was very limited.

Gere, sitting next to Moverman and nodding in agreement, explained: “Oren has an original, bizarre sense of time on film. He doesn’t feel rushed. He doesn’t care about cutting. It’s not what he does. He just wants us to be in the movie with these people, and he doesn’t want to manipulate it in any way whatsoever. And I’m quite aware of two hours in storytelling, and he kept telling me ‘slow down. You don’t have to rush through this.’”

“It was about finding Richard in the environment that surrounds him,” said Moverman. “The movie was really about having the perspective that we all have every day in our lives, doing our thing. We don’t try to solve the homeless question. We don’t have answers. We have one story of one person.

“The idea of shooting through windows was finding the reflections of the rest of New York. We shot through store windows, through apartments, there was always something getting in the way. We wanted it to be about perspective. How do you get the perspective on something that is happening and unfolding outside your window? For compassion, to recognize somebody else. We wanted to make a movie that is about what is there when you look up from your cellphone. It’s not glamorous, just bare-bones filmmaking.

“You’re walking on the street and there’s violence, conflict, drama happening to everyone. Part of the non-judgmental approach of this movie was that everybody is fighting a great battle. I walked around the city and recorded secretly, covertly all these conversations of real New Yorkers. I am not accusing anyone of living their lives and not noticing that around the corner there’s a long line of men trying to get into a shelter. I never saw that long line at Bellevue until I actually started shooting there,” said Moverman.