Friday, April 18, 2008

THE VISITORThe Evening Class Interview With Tom McCarthy

After drilling the dentist, I relinquished Jenkins to his next journalist while I walked across the hall to speak with The Visitor's writer-director, Tom McCarthy, a strikingly energetic and goodlooking man with a bright smile that helped me take root in the moment. He apologized for the interviews running a bit late. It was his fault. Hurrying down from his suite, he spilled coffee all over himself and had to rush back to his room to change.

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Michael Guillén: Mr. Tom, The Visitor is a wonderful film. Congratulations on following up on the beloved Station Agent with yet another film that audiences are relating to so well.

Tom McCarthy: Thank you very much.

Guillén: You wrote the script with Richard Jenkins in mind? What did you see in Richard?

McCarthy: First and foremost, knowing I was going to have four main actors, with three of them being non-American actors, or at least not very familiar to American audiences—Danai actually has dual citizenship with Zimbabwe and America—I felt like I needed a guy who could really not tip the scale. To throw a big Hollywood star in that role—although there are many wonderful actors—didn't feel right to me. There were many things but that's where it started. I thought, "Who could I get for this role who could disappear into it and who will represent an everyman? And an everyman that possibly is an extraordinary?" I started combing through a very short list of American character actors who I felt could fill that need and I just very quickly settled on Richard. I felt he was right in many ways.

We were working in L.A. together—well, not together, we were working on separate movies but we were both in L.A.—and we sat down and had dinner. By the end of that conversation, it felt right and I knew I was going to write the script for him. A year later I handed him the script.

Guillén: It's a great gift you've given to him and, by extension, to us because he is such a familiar face and this is the role that will give him the name recognition he deserves.

McCarthy: Yeah, it's funny, traveling with this movie in the last three-four weeks, it's been exciting to see him getting this sort of recognition and feedback, not only from the critics but from audiences. That's really the wonderful part of this junket circuit, when you actually get to sit in on all these screenings and get immediate feedback from the audiences. In a lot of interviews I do people say, "Wow, you were so brave to cast Richard in this role and to give him this opportunity" and then they always follow that in the same breath with, "But I've always loved him." [Chuckles.] So maybe it's not the bravest thing. I think it was just an obvious thing that a lot of people had overlooked because he was ready and—as you say—he is beloved.

Guillén: You're so multi-talented. You act. You write. You direct. As I was reviewing the press notes, I was intrigued by your process of casting while you're writing the script so that the writing becomes a process in which you hold the actor in mind. Can you talk a bit about the benefits or drawbacks of writing that way?

McCarthy: I don't know what the drawbacks are because—as you say—it's a process I've been adopting. There's a lot of how-to-make-a-movie guidelines; but, I think I constantly try to blur the line and put things out of order so to speak to get the most out of the people I'm working with. For instance, I would give my editor Tom McArdle a draft of the script before we even started shooting—maybe even a year before—and say, "Hey, read this. Let's start talking about it." And get feedback from this guy who I work very intimately with in the second half of the film process so why not include him earlier? See what he thinks about information about character, about style, y'know, how he sees it as an editor. It's a fascinating process.

With regard to casting Richard in the movie, it's just tremendously helpful to start writing. It makes the part so much more personal when you get a three-dimensional sense of who this person is. You can get a sense of their spirit and their personal rhythm and combine the two. That's always finalized in the two weeks of rehearsal. I always rehearse for two weeks prior to shooting. Part of that rehearsal is not just to make sure the actors understand what they're doing and get them on the same page; but, to fine tune the script. It's the final step in bringing the character and the actor together for me on the page. It makes the process more personal for me.

Guillén: From the page, then, to the screen, how do you develop the pacing and rhythm of the film? I was telling Richard about two of my favorite moments—among several moments in the film—but two which really stood out for me for subtly portraying such depth of grief and they were when Richard entered the apartment and glanced at flowers in the room. I read that as his being so detached from life that the evidence of life was startling to him. Richard credited you for those moments, saying you know how to let the camera linger. How do you figure out that pacing from the page to the screen?

McCarthy: That's a great question. It's a process that continues right through the editing. I turn that back to Tom McArdle, my editor, and say, "How can we keep things moving and stay out of the audience's way but at the same time maintain the pace that we think is necessary to let this story unfold?" A big part of that is in the storytelling and in the editing, just to hang a little bit ahead of the audience. So we're cutting from Walter walking out into the street and saying, "Do you have a place to stay tonight?", not having them answer, but all of a sudden he's back in the apartment and Tarek emerges from the bedroom. It's little things like that which keeps the movie paced at a rhythm that is consistent with our style; but, at the same point, we maintain a tension in the movie. We subtly try to stay ahead of the audience and I think it creates its own tension, so to speak. It keeps the audience involved in the film, both in an emotional way and intellectually on some level.

Guillén: Speaking of tension, the political tension in The Visitor takes something of a back seat to its character-driven narrative and, yet, it's quite present, quite evident, quite relevant. As I discussed with Richard, I appreciated that the film does not offer false remedy. We also discussed how Walter's marrying Mouna could have resolved some of the heartbreaking issues of the film but that such a remedy would have rung false.

McCarthy: Right. Absolutely. We get that question a lot, especially with the more general public. Really, honestly, practically, that couldn't happen that quickly or that easily. Most importantly, in my mind, emotionally these two people aren't those type of people. They're not 24. I have two friends in New York, a young woman who just married this gay man because he wants to live here with his partner and they're all best friends. They didn't even think twice about it; but, they're all much younger than me. I asked them, "Have you guys thought this thing through? [Laughter.] It's wonderful. I love you all; but…!" I felt like this old man. I'm trying to do the math in my head. They got married, had the wedding, had a big party, it was a lot of fun. And I think it will all work out. There's that carefreeness, that courage and abandon at 24, that I think Walter and Mouna don't have.

Guillén: And for young people a year or two means nothing because in their minds they have so many left.

McCarthy: Exactly. That's exactly how they all treated it. That said, they have the time, it's a lot of work, like a credit to them, they put in their time taking pictures, visiting families, all these things they have to do to say, "Hey, we're getting married" not just to have a green card. It's a long process. So we find things speed up in The Visitor in a way we can't predict, especially regarding Tarek's fate, and—although Walter marrying Mouna to resolve these issues would be nice—I don't think it's realistic for this one.

Guillén: I'm grateful you didn't take that route. So though The Visitor offers no false remedy, the film is being heralded as having much hope. Can you speak to what it is in the film that's inspiring that hope? And how it works against the frustration most Americans are feeling in the face of these nearly inhumane bureaucracies?

McCarthy: That's a really good question actually. I think the hope comes out of the connection of these people. I know from traveling quite a bit and seeing people in all walks of life, that I'm always amazed at how we hear one thing about, let's say, the Syrians and then you go to Syria, you meet the Syrian people, and what a great group of people. Whenever that happens, whenever I connect with people, let's say I'm sitting at a table in New York with a guy from Israel and a woman from Lebanon and they're getting on fantastically weeks after the invasion happened two years ago, or something like that, and discussing it in an open and honest, give-and-take way. There's a lot of hope in that. The Visitor has that. Ultimately, we put our hearts into these characters who do connect in a dramatic, awkward and—at times—a funny way; but, they do connect. There's hope in that. A government can't take that away. They can control so many other things but that's something that can survive. Quite often after this movie people want to know what happens next to these characters; they're that invested. Last night at the screening up at San Rafael, the audience kept asking, "What happened to this person? To that person?" When that happens, when an audience is connecting with the characters in such a way, we've done our job right. It's a real credit to the actors.

Guillén: You present empathy as a political option.

McCarthy: Right. Or as a starting place. And I don't try to answer a lot of questions in this movie. Rather, I say, "Hey, as we move forward—especially in the run up to the elections where this has suddenly become a front page issue (when I wrote this three years ago, it wasn't such an issue)—hey, as we're talking about this issue, remember it's a human issue first and foremost and not just a political issue. It's a social issue. It's a human issue." It's easy to forget that, even for a lot of very smart people.

Guillén: In terms of shifting gears, you've finished up The Visitor and are now acting again in Duplicity for Tony Gilroy? Is it hard to shift gears?

McCarthy: No! It really isn't. I love acting. First and foremost, I'll always be an actor. It's such a pleasure to go work with people who I respect and enjoy so much. I love being on set and thinking about nothing but acting. After you write and direct a movie, and your mind is going—in a beautiful way—in a million directions, it's so nice to be on set and be like lah lah de dah. I think I'll go chat with Julia Roberts for a while. I think I'll watch Tom Wilkinson work for a day and chat him up. I'll watch Bob Elswit, who's shooting the movie, because I've known Bob for a while now. I've worked on two movies that he's shot. It's a joy. It's pleasant and very informative in a lot of ways to just be a fly on the wall for all these wonderful directors.

Guillén: Does acting inform your writing?

McCarthy: Absolutely. Now it all informs each other. I don't even know what's informing what anymore; but, it's all the same process. It's storytelling. I'll sit down on the set and talk to Tony about this, that or the other and—when you get right down to it—there aren't that many directors, especially people whose work I really respect, so that when you have the time to work with these guys, not just be on the set but intimately involved in the work process, it's incredibly informative. You get to sit there and talk in a way that's very personal and communicate on issues that we as directors understand and confront. I've only directed two movies, as has Tony once he's finished this one, so it's great and incredibly helpful to have that kind of exchange.

Guillén: Well, on my part, I feel personally grateful to have the opportunity to thank you, Tom, for this film. It puts a human face on such an important issue. I can already rank it as one of my top ten of the year. It's such a lovely film. I missed it when it played at Toronto because it's such a quiet film that it got run over by so many other loudmouths; but, I'm delighted its reached its theatrical distribution and hopeful that audiences will appreciate its value.

McCarthy: I hope so. It's been a lovely journey. You're right about Toronto. It was such a crazy, huge festival and by the end people began talking about The Visitor, and afterwards people were talking about The Visitor, but while we were there it was a small film in a big sea. We had a wonderful premiere at Sundance and, since then, the movie has rolled out in a slow, gentle way. People have really been responding and, of course, that's the most gratifying thing.

Guillén: On that note, my final question regards being a small film among big films cohabiting New York City locations. I was laughing at something Richard said in one of his interviews where he quipped that they'll gladly close Central Park for I Am Legend but good luck for The Visitor.

McCarthy: We were, of course, shooting in Washington Park also because it's right outside NYU and it's where Richard sees the stick drummers and has a couple of scenes in there. We see him again listening to them while he's eating the pizza, which is a scene I really love in the movie. I Am Legend shot in there a month before us. They weren't supposed to, of course, but they bought the whole park and I live there, I walk my dog in that park, and it looked like a military operation, literally, they had so much equipment. I guess they really ticked the City off by doing things they said they weren't going to do, including setting off some explosions. So the City blocked it off. They said no one can use that location for three months. We said, "Well, we've already shot the first half. We need to go back and finish it." No. No. No. Finally, and luckily, they said, "Okay, you can go in but no equipment. You can bring a camera." [Laughs.] So we were in there with everyone holding something that they could possibly work. Fortunately for the film and our style, we could make that work because it was a very personal, intimate look at New York and we weren't doing anything too technically crazy.

Guillén: Thank you very much for your time today, Tom.

McCarthy: A real pleasure. Thank you for your comments.

Cross-published on Twitch.

04/20/08 UPDATE: Michelle Martin conducts an NPR interview with Tom McCarthy, Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman.

Elizabeth Blair's NPR podcast teases out how the spare classical piano and the rhythmic djembe summarize—by contrast—the plot of The Visitor. Tom McCarthy says Walter's experience with the two instruments "says a lot about how the character gets transformed over the course of the film." Both Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman discuss how learning to play the djembe helped develop their characterizations. Blair's podcast includes McCarthy's comments on how he recruited acclaimed composer Jan Kaczmarek—himself a Polish immigrant—by sidestepping salary and contract issues and delivering a copy of the film directly to Kaczmarek who, upon seeing it, made himself available. Further, he discusses how he researched the immigration and deportation issues at the heart of the film.

Bob Mondello adds in his own NPR podcast that Tom McCarthy "isn't intent on drumming messages into the audiences' head so much as he is in using drumming to reveal character through smartly nuanced performances."

As Rob Davis phrases it in his Paste review: "[W]e discover that Walter's late wife was a pianist, which makes his desire to play the piano wonderfully ambiguous. Is he seeking something new or trying to reconnect with something lost? He may not know himself, but when his interest serendipitously turns from the piano to the drum, McCarthy seems to offer a window into Walter's soul." Rob offers additional commentary on his Errata podcast from Sundance, where he caught The Visitor.

04/21/08 UPDATE: Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker writes: "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 Filmmaker photo of McCarthy is courtesy of Henny Garfunkle/Retna Ltd.]