'Visitor' marches to different drummer

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: Reinvesting and re-engaging were driving forces behind Overture's immigrant drama.

It started with an image.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy (2003's "The Station Agent") had been reading a series of Georges Simenon novels when he started thinking about their characters. They were "people dropping out of society, dropping out of their old lives, dropping into new lives," he recalls. Then the image appeared: an older man who starts taking piano lessons.

"I asked myself why this man, who was relatively set in his ways, would take these lessons," he says. What he concluded was: "We can reinvest or re-engage in life at any point."

Reinvesting. Re-engaging. Those were driving forces for Overture Films' "The Visitor."

Made for a modest $4 million, the movie has already grossed $9.4 million domestically and become a serious awards contender-- something that seemed impossible for a Toronto pickup that tells the unlikely tale of a prickly widower recalled to life by an immigrant couple.

McCarthy had nothing but a protagonist without a plot when he put down Simenon and ventured to Lebanon, where he had agreed to work with some young filmmakers. Struck by their energy, he began to toy with the image of a second character, an immigrant drummer named Tarek.

"Once I had these two guys staring at me from my laptop," he says, "I asked myself, 'OK, now where do we go from here?'"

The answer eluded McCarthy until he started reading about detention centers and decided to visit one. "I had an experience much like Walter (Richard Jenkins) does on his first visit," he adds, "and as soon as I walked out of that place, the remainder of the story came together for me."

It would be two years before McCarthy finished his script, time in which he found ongoing employment as an actor in films like 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck" and 2006's "Flags of Our Fathers." As he typed away, he always heard Jenkins' voice.

Best known for HBO's "Six Feet Under," Jenkins was hardly a star. McCarthy knew him through their agent, Rhonda Price of the Gersh Agency, but when he approached Jenkins, the actor told him: "'Nobody's going to give you the money with me in this part.'"

McCarthy replied: "That wasn't my question. My question was, 'Do you want to do it?' "

With Jenkins on board, McCarthy now faced the challenge of finding money.

McCarthy sat down with Price, lawyer Andrew Hurwitz and "Station Agent" producer Mary Jane Skalski to compile a wish list of financiers.

One was Groundswell Prods., the production/financing entity created by Michael London (2004's "Sideways"). London had raised some $200 million to make films.

The picture was "pure risk," London says. There was no hope of arranging presales on a movie with no star, and no domestic distributor would commit. But London, whose sister is an immigration attorney, couldn't let go.

"It was one of those screenplays," he says. "I remember where I read it; I remember how I felt. Tom had warned me that the movie wouldn't make any kind of financial sense, but our company was new, and I was kind of cocky, and I thought, 'Well, this is why I was lucky enough to raise money.'"

At the same time, Participant Prods. joined the film. The company, founded with money from early eBay employee Jeff Skoll, is unusual among financing firms in that it has a moral as well as an economic mission.

A deal in which Groundswell and Participant split the production cost 50-50 was cobbled together in weeks, then casting commenced.

The role of Tarek, the immigrant drummer, went to Haaz Sleiman, a relative newcomer (Fox's "24"). His girlfriend, Zainab, was played by Danai Gurira, who was raised in Zimbabwe and educated at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. A third key part, Tarek's mother, Mouna -- Walter's love interest -- was taken by Hiam Abbass, a veteran of French and Middle Eastern movies.

Perhaps the root of the film's success came in the period before filming started in New York. McCarthy listened carefully to each actor's thoughts and incorporated them in the script.

"We were talking about Walter, saying that he didn't really do anything," Jenkins recalls of one such moment. "And so Tom wrote this speech and handed it to me."

The speech came when Walter tells Mouna: "I haven't done any real work in a very long time. I pretend. I'm not doing anything." It became a turning point in their relationship.

The 29-day shoot was particularly difficult.

With last year's "I Am Legend" and "American Gangster" -- two major studio features -- shooting in New York at the same time, "Visitor" was constantly battling for bare necessities.

"We couldn't find a truck to put our grip and electric equipment in," Skalski remembers.

The star's trailer was so small, she says, that if McCarthy wanted to talk to Jenkins, he literally had to sit on the toilet, which they jokingly referred to as the "director's chair."

During one very delicate scene at an outdoor restaurant on the Lower East Side, the noise from ongoing construction was so bad, "it was like living in Beirut during the war," McCarthy remembers.

Another time, when the shoot had planned to use a crowd that was expected outside the theater where "Phantom of the Opera" was playing at
8 p.m., no one showed. The crew learned too late that "Phantom" started at 7 p.m.

Production ended on Nov. 12, 2006.

Now, just at the point when most filmmakers could relax, "The Visitor's" backers faced their toughest battle: finding an audience.

"We went to Toronto with dreams of greatness. I'd never been so confident about anything I'd worked on," London says.

But, he notes, "we got our butts kicked. We walked into the buzz saw of a year ago, the beginning of the pain and misery, the plagues that have been visited upon the independent film world, the locusts, the frogs, the flood."

The closure or scaling-down of a host of specialty divisions, including Warner Independent and Picturehouse, diminished the potential distributors for finished films.

No matter how positive the audience's reaction, nobody wanted the film. Until Overture stepped in.

Recently established by Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, Overture was funded by Starz and had the money to acquire films, along with a new distribution mechanism to release them. Still, they were gambling on their first festival pickup.

"Even though we were a startup company, we believed we could make it successful," Rosett says.

He was right. "The Visitor" opened softly in April, playing art houses well into summer.


Behind the scenes

Producer Michael
London makes a cameo appearance in the film as a university colleague of Richard Jenkins' character.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy, along with his DP and his editor, screened 1957's "Wild Strawberries" and a number of other Ingmar Bergman films in preparation for their work.

Jenkins, who learns to play a West African drum called the djembe in the film, actually was a drummer as a young man. His son now drums on YouTube (search "ajenkins7383").

During its platform release, "The Visitor" repeatedly defied boxoffice patterns, earning $9.4 million while never playing on more than 270 screens.