“The whole thing was predicated on the fact that I would be on the streets, and New York would be passing me by as if I was who I was supposed to be,” said Gere during a press and industry post-screening Q&A, ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere. “The camera was in a Starbucks, no one on the street could see. I’m out there for the first time to see if this is gonna work — and I’m still making movies, I’m still out there, so I was scared and anxious. … [at first,] no one paid any attention to me. I had the cup. I started talking after a while. … ‘Can you help me out? Spare change?’ No eye contact. Even when someone gave me a dollar bill, no eye contact. That to me was the first time I really felt the inside of what that is. … You’re radiating failure, being homeless on the street.”
Only twice did passerbys notice the producer and star: a French tourist, who believed him to just be homeless and gave him food, and two African-American men. “They said, ‘Hey, rich! How are you doing, man?’ No question whatsoever about what I was doing there, ‘Have you fallen on hard times?'” he laughed. “White people, we’re very much in our capsules — we get from here, and we know where we’re going to, and we see very little between here and there. African-Americans are much more—they see the world around them, for whatever reason, so that was a very interesting process.”
Written and directed by Oren Moverman, Time Out of Mind follows Gere as George, a homeless man in New York City. The film also features Jena Malone, Ben Vereen, Steve Buscemi and Kyra Sedgwick, who based her character on a woman she met while researching the role.
“We always approached this film as an exercise in compassion and perspective. … The nonjudgmental part of this movie is everyone’s fighting a great battle,” said Moverman. “We’re not trying to solve homelessness, we don’t have the answers — we have one person, one story.”
That one person doesn’t have much unique detail in the film, as the audience has no idea what job George lost or who the mysterious Sheila is that he keeps muttering on about. Gere said of the decision, “Neither of us needed the audience to know the backstory. Look, in our lives we make judgments about people without knowing anything about them.”
Gere, a longtime supporter of the Coalition for the Homeless, kept his eye on a script written in the ’80s for the past ten years, which he still found all too relevant. At an Academy event, he approached Moverman, a friend after the experimental Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, to helm the project.
“I had a sense of what I wanted to do with this film, but couldn’t quite get it there,” said Gere, who noted that Moverman’s new script was influenced by the Cadillac Man’s Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets. “It was a very unschooled autobiography of someone with really wonderful talent, who was able to communicate his world with great peasant poetry, with no sense of self-pity. It was dry, and I knew that’s the way it should feel … to have a very attuned bullshit barometer.”
Moverman’s observant visits to homeless shelters sourced Gere’s character struggles: finding a place to sleep, begging for change and applying for governmental help without any access to forms of identification. Said Gere, “The process of living and going through bureaucracy is enough plot. You don’t need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough.”
The film was shot using three large, long lenses, hidden from pedestrians by shooting from behind store windows, through fences and on rooftops, and with “always something getting in the way, because we wanted to be a real New York movie,” explained Moverman, who was influenced by the photographs of Saul Leiter and didn’t use a camera dolly until the last scenes. Attendees at friends-and-family screenings were encouraged to keep their phones on, take calls and note the interrupted experience (or lack thereof). Said Gere, “We wanted to make a movie from when you look up from your cell phone or email. … We’re asking people to watch something they don’t really want to watch.”
Gere and Moverman made sure they could “spend the money to get good sound” like ambulance sirens, car horns, clacking heels and jingling change, because “it’s not words in his mind, it’s space, and the only thing that penetrates that space is sound. Most of us in the city feel this way,” said Gere. To further capture that sense of others’ lives constantly being lived, Moverman walked the streets and secretly recorded overheard conversations: “I apologize if anyone recognizes their voices — thank you for that!” he joked of adding what is absent in other New York films. “The sound of people being busy, and not recognizing other people in peril and living dramas around the corner. … I’m one of those people who didn’t recognize it either.”
Gere, who sat in a parked rental car between long takes, found himself initially looking for more things to do onscreen, to Moverman’s dismay. “I felt like something in me said, ‘This is gonna be boring,'” he recalled of fidgeting and picking items up off the street quickly. “He came over and said, ‘Take your time; however long it takes, it takes.’ Okay, alright, so that’s how we’re gonna do this. I started to get intoxicated with this other sense of time. … It’s definitely on its own time, where time in fact doesn’t become a factor anymore. We’re just there with this guy.”
“[We are] all yearning for love, for affection, to be seen, to be embraced, to be part of. It’s highlighted and very clear in a homeless person. … That kindness of someone looking and smiling and saying, ‘I wish you happiness,’ these guys don’t get that, and how quickly this other thing starts to happen that’s dark and deeply lost,” Gere explained of the film’s main takeaway. “I don’t believe we’re seeing a homeless guy by the end of this. We’re seeing ourselves, our naked, yearning selves. … That’s our common denominator right there. We all long to be seen.”