The Visitor trailer and Q&A
The Visitor is a film about a man who discovers that a young foreign couple have been illegally living in his flat that he rents out. However rather than throw them out he listens to them and lets them stay. They form a friendship, and when the husband is taken away to a detention centre for illegal immigrants, he's the only one who can visit him and act as a go between for his family.
Now you're interested with the trailer, here's the Q&A session with the writer/director Thomas McCarthy:
Q: What inspired you to write the screenplay and shoot the film? A: I think it’s always difficult to point to the exact inspiration for a film. Usually I collect a lot of different ideas and keep them in one big file then start to sort out which ones are most resonant to me. I think in this particular case it was a couple things. I spent some time in the Middle East with the last movie I directed (specifically in Beirut), and it felt like I was reading a lot about that part of the world without understanding much about the people or the culture there. So I went back to visit a couple of times, started reading more and even began spending more time in the Arab community here in New York. Through my research, I came across a story of a young man who was detained here from the Middle East and put in one of these centers, I think in Queens. I started reading everything I could on immigration policy and specifically on our detention systems. How we’re dealing with people since 9/11, especially undocumented citizens, led me to this story. I also joined an organization called Sojourners based at Riverside Church in Manhattan and started visiting detainees. Separate from this, I had in mind this character of an aging college professor who had lost his passion for his vocation. Somewhere along the way the two stories came together. And the two characters came together.
Q: In developing “The Visitor” did you have a lot of interest in getting something out of it, or did you want to send a message about immigration laws? Was any of that part of the process?
A: That’s an interesting question. My primary concern is telling a good story. If I can shed some light on some issues that perhaps the general public is less informed about along the way then all the better. I think specifically what I was trying to do was take the immigration situation and put a human face to it. The best we can do sometimes is to remind ourselves of our own humanity so when we’re dealing with these issues, whether it be large issues like how to deal with problems in the Middle East or how to deal with our own issues like immigration, we always start from a place of remembering that we’re not just talking about issues but we’re talking about human beings. I think if we constantly remind ourselves of that, who knows? I guess it boils down to compassion in some way. Understanding. I think that’s what I set out to do. Whenever I brought people to these detention facilities they were always a little horrified that this is how we were treating people arriving at this country for the first time, and they were in there for a variety of reasons. A lot of the detainees didn’t have any legal representation, and a lot of them hadn’t committed any crime per se. It’s a complex problem, immigration. But we must maintain our sense of compassion when dealing with it.
Q: In developing the humanity and trying to get your message across, why and how did you choose Walter as your protagonist?
A: He’s a character that I’ve had in mind for some time: an aging professor who is rudderless, void of passion or action. And the actor, Richard Jenkins, is someone I really wanted to work with. He has such a wonderful everyman quality about him. He doesn’t immediately come across as an extraordinary person, but his talent is just that. He’s an actor’s actor. He’s been in so many movies and yet he always manages to continually create thoroughly original characters, disappearing into his roles. He’s just such a versatile actor. As a writer I’m interested in characters that fall between the cracks, who don’t pop right out of a crowd. Richard is the perfect fit. Let’s be honest, he’s not a classic leading man in many peoples eyes, but that is exactly what makes his performance so believable and so compelling.
Q: What about elaborating on ‘like everyone else’?
A: I thought of this character Zainab because I was fascinated with the concept of a young African who had come to the States really just to find a better life, make a better living, and pursue her art as a jewelry designer. From that these other characters come into the story. With Tarek's character I was trying to come up with a young man who had come here with his mother after the death of his father and was searching for safe haven. So once I had these three characters the movie started to write itself. Everything else comes out of that, even the political elements of this movie. It comes down to how these different people connect, how different they are, and at the end of the day how similar they are. I mean, you have Tarek, a musician from Syria, and his connection with Walter Vale, this aging economics professor from Connecticut, and these two find this common ground. It’s the beauty of this country and specifically with New York. You can’t deny the humanity around you. You’re on the subway, the trains, you’ve got people on top of you! I think what it affords, outside of the occasional headache, is the opportunity to connect with so many different people if you’re open to it. I think in this particular instance it’s something our main character stumbled into. He wasn’t looking for that. He wasn’t looking to expand in any sense. I think he was very detached but immediately found through music a connection with this young musician. I think in many senses Tarek becomes the heart of the story. He wins us over. His ambition in life is quite pure: to live a good life and to play his music. It’s something you would hope this country would afford a decent individual no matter where they’re from or how they arrived, but I think the times and circumstances of this country have altered that reality.
Q: Did you always plan to cast with international actors as opposed to actors transforming themselves into different nationalities, as often happens?
A: Yeah, I think authenticity is always very important. For instance, Haaz is Lebanese, not Syrian, but he told me this story the other night where he had to go to Syria to the American embassy to get his papers after being denied once because the embassy was closed in Lebanon, then he moved to Dearborn, Michigan, which is where in the story he and his mother go, and then New York to become an actor. His journey was incredibly similar to that of the characters, and that was developed in the story well before I met him. It can only feed his performance. I think with every character in the story there’s a little bit of a different scenario. I had Richard in mind from the beginning, and Hiam in a similar way. I saw Hiam in a movie when I was in Beirut called “Satin Rouge” and fell in love with her as an actress and kept seeing her in all these movies: “Syrian Bride,” “Paradise Now,” and then finally “Munich.” I thought, “Wow.” I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I went to write in Paris and set up a meeting with her and said I wanted to include her in this project. After meeting her and seeing her work with the character, the character became very clear to me. It’s a much easier way to write. The same thing happened on “The Station Agent,” sort of a combination of having an image of a character and a sense of the actor.
Q: Since you mentioned “The Station Agent,” you’re working with a lot of similar people that you worked with on that. Was that intentional or just because you shot in the NY area?
A: Mary Jane Skalski produced “The Station Agent” with Robert May, so Mary Jane was very involved in this from the beginning. Robert was tied up with another project. Rhonda Price (my agent) who’s been involved in every project I’ve done since the beginning has also been a tremendous constant. My cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, who shot “The Station Agent,” read a very early draft of this, Tom McCardle, my editor, and John Paino, my production designer. It’s a joy to be able to include these guys very early on because we share a common vision of the type of movies we want to make. And we started to develop a shorthand to working with each other. McCardle and I sat down a number of times before we shot the movie to just talk through all the things we might talk through after we shot the movie. It’s a wonderful opportunity to do that with an editor you trust. Oliver read many drafts of the script, so what happens by the time you actually begin shooting or to the design stage of the production or the editing stage, you have a history with these people and the story has a history among you, which is crucial. Honestly, sometimes they keep me on track and remind me of the vision we had when we started. It’s an incredibly wonderful and helpful situation.
Q: What was it like working with new people? You had some new crew as well as new partners with Participant and Groundswell. What was it like working with them?
A: Groundswell and Participant were two of the first companies we turned to when it was time to finance this film because of their commitment to telling original stories and their track record in making that happen. And quite honestly it all happened very quickly. They stepped right up. It was a ridiculously fast process. They had a lot of input and a lot of ideas along the way but they were also very committed to my vision of the film. I had some connection working with both companies in the past, primarily as actor in “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” with Participant and I was in “The Guru” for Michael London at Groundswell, so that made the process even a little bit easier.
Q: They never tried to pressure you to use different actors or techniques?
A: No. Not really. There was a lot of discussion along the way but that is part of the process. We were all very clear about the type of movie we wanted to make. And, for instance, casting Richard Jenkins, who normally plays supporting parts, in the lead role was an essential element to setting the tone of the film. Participant, for instance, was a big fan of Richard Jenkins. He was in “North Country” with a heartbreaking performance. It was just the right people at the right time in that respect. Michael worked on “Sideways” with Alexander Payne who had a similar recipe. None of these guys, Paul Giamatti for instance, were box office stars at the time. There’s an authenticity to finding the right actor for the right role.
Q: Given your unconventional journey to the inspiration, and even down to the elements of casting, what was the most challenging part of the process: the development, filming, etc?
A: Shooting in New York is like living in New York; you have days where you feel like the luckiest man in the world, and you have days when you want to leave the city screaming. New York can be your best friend one morning and bury you the next. We shot in the fall and the city was like a studio back lot, which is great news for the New York Film community, but it made it hard for us as one of the smaller films shooting in the city. It’s a difficult environment to shoot in, but it’s great because you get New York City and there’s no other city like it in the world. And then of course, specifically in terms of immigration, New York is just the perfect setting. Ellis Island used to be where people came through to become citizens and get naturalized and that's no longer the case. In many cases the new Ellis Island is detention centers. When people come through our airports and don’t have the proper documentation, they are immediately escorted to detention centers. Not to say the same battles on the immigration front aren’t being experienced in L.A., San Antonio, Florida, Miami, Chicago, and everywhere else, but I know New York.
Q: Do you consider music a character in the film?
A: Yeah, definitely. There are so many live musical elements, even beyond the fact that Tarek is a musician and Walter is fixated on learning the piano. Just walking around the streets of NY there are guys in the subway, guys in the parks, guys on the streets. It’s something we kept stumbling on in the research and writing stage and ultimately the shooting stage. We found a guy who plays the Eru in an upper west side subway and brought him down for a night to play for us. It’s a great sound -- an ancient Chinese instrument in the subway. There’s a unique sound quality to it, a haunting quality that you could never recreate. We were drawing on sounds like kids playing buckets in the street or the guys who play drums in the park. Tarek plays in a band, and we shot that live with wonderful musicians involved. My dear friend Mohammad Ali, a wonderful author and djembe player, was a huge help with this. He wrote a great book that I read when I was doing my research called “The Prophet of Zongo Street.” I read the back cover and it said Mohammed lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids and plays the djembe in a jazz band. I knew the main character Tarek was going to play the djembe so I called him and took lessons from him. He became a great resource and a great friend in the process. Again, it’s the kind of thing that would only happen in New York: within two days of reading this book I was in a café talking to him asking about taking djembe lessons. I did that because the author’s character takes lesson and I thought, “What better way than to experience it?”
Q: So you personally took the lessons? You weren’t just referring to your actors taking it?
A: I took the lessons to experience it as a writer. When I cast Haaz in the role he went into a self imposed djembe boot camp for 8 weeks. Richard didn’t have to; he takes his journey in the movie. He never gets that good at it in the movie. I think he played percussion as a kid. He’s pretty good at it. I think his son plays drums, too.
Q: So we’re watching his evolution
A: Yeah, there's sort of a musical evolution in the movie. But more importantly, it deals with how music transcends boundaries and transcends cultural divides. It’s something that unites us all. There’s something very elemental and powerful about the release that one can find in music. There’s a reason music can make us so emotional: because it’s pure. I think that’s something Walter discovers in the course of the film.
Q: Because your first film was so popular do you see any comparisons?
A: I guess it’s nothing I can control. I imagine when I make my third movie it’ll be compared to my first movie and my second movie and so on and so forth. It’s nice that you have a movie that’s remembered and well received enough after your next film, but that’s for other people to do. My job’s just to keep creating original work and being honest to the type of story I want to tell. I suppose I’m working toward developing a style that people will come to recognize, but that will take a few more films for me to really start to realize that. I will say that to some degree I played a little bit on the expectations, especially the beginning of this movie. I had a lot of fun playing on that and how the reality of the world we live in sort of infringes on the story and the lives of the characters. That’s what I love about great novels. A character’s predicament looks like it’ll be the paramount focus of the story and then everything suddenly shifts on one small moment, one tiny decision on whether its to take a left or a right, or in this case pay a subway toll or not.
Q: Well that happens several times.
A: Yeah, I believe in that. I think that’s what makes life fascinating -- not necessarily the huge moments, although those moments are important. It’s always little decisions we make. Many of those that take us in a completely different direction in life are almost are arbitrary. I think that’s the magic of life, isn’t it? That’s what’s beautiful about it. It makes us realize, as much as we like to imagine we have control over our fate and destiny, we really don’t. That’s something that happens in this movie. Walter has no intention of going to the conference. He does everything he can to get out of it. One thing unfolds, he makes a decision to help two kids out in a jam, and in doing that he discovers a new musical life. Who could predict these things? Some people say there’re only so many original stories in the world, and I believe that, but I think what is original is the human experience in those stories. That’s something you can’t account for. Your life may be very simple and plain in comparison to everybody else’s, but it’s your own human experience that’s very unique. I think if you take the time to notice that, it can be very magical.
Q: Did you ever find yourself wanting to take a role in the film, or do you prefer to keep your occupations separate?
A: No. It’s not so much that I have an overriding theory about that because some people can do it. Woody Allen made a career of it. He’s a genius. Personally I don’t think I could handle it. I think writing and directing are enough hats for me to wear, and they’re both completely consuming. Having been an actor for so long I have too much respect for what it takes to be prepared and focused on the day of shooting to show up and give it your best. I think if you’re distracted with too many other elements you can’t achieve what great actors achieve on film. People ask me all the time why I don’t put myself in my films. The reason I became an actor was the element of storytelling through performance.
Q: You’re right, that’s a common thread between each of these roles – actor, writer, director.
A: Right, it’s an obvious extension of that. I get the same high off writing and directing that I do acting. It’s so exciting to be on the other side of the camera watching a wonderful actor work. It just blows me away. That was the fun thing about this project. I had four main actors all from different parts of the world; two veteran actors in Richard and Hiam and two relatively young actors in Haaz and Danai. It was really interesting for me as a writer director and even an actor to watch them work off each other and come together as an ensemble.
Q: Do you think this film is a love story, or do you see it as a story of friendship?
A: Both actually. The story keeps evolving in a very simple way. There are funny moments, tragic moments, even mundane moments. I think it’s reflective of how life unfolds. And I think it’ll take a long time for me, well after this movie is released, to really understand what it’s about.
Q: People see different things.
A: Yeah, I had the same thing again with the organic unraveling of this movie in terms of relationships and shifting relationships. With “The Station Agent,” people constantly come up and say this is their favorite character. Some say it was a comedy, some say it was a drama. With “The Visitor” there are probably more dramatic themes, but ultimately I think people will connect with the film in different ways and through different characters.
Q: Do you see “The Visitor” being political?
A: Yes, to some degree. At least in so much that the characters are embroiled in a situation that is very much on the national conscious right now: immigration and detention. I didn’t set out to make a statement per se but rather to put a human face to something that was quickly becoming an “issue.” That really sustained me in writing and directing and editing. It didn’t feel as if all of my energy and work was separate from what was really happening around me. It may not change the world, but at the very least it’s reminding us of the human element and consequence to a very divisive issue. I guess, in some small way, I’m holding up the mirror up and saying, “This is what’s going on. Do we like it? Do we not? Is there room for debate?” I don’t think it’s our job, as filmmakers, to provide answers all the time, but to certainly raise questions. I think that’s something this movie does very well on a personal/emotional level and on a policy level, but never at the expense of a good story. If you can tell a good story, it’s the best chance you have of affecting people.
The film goes on general UK release on the 4th of July.