Immersion. It’s a technique favored by actors in advance of challenging roles, but the furthest thing from Gary Foster’s mind when the local newspaper thumped against his Los Angeles door stoop on an early summer morning in 2005.
Soon he would be reading the third in a series of rather infamous articles by L.A. Times writer Steve Lopez. Instantly smitten by the columnist’s portrayal of a homeless Juilliard-trained musician, the producer quickly kicked his deal-making connections into overdrive.
Life is good when you’re Gary Foster and your previous production credits include Sleepless in Seattle, Tin Cup and The Score among several other successful films. Calls to Steven Spielberg convinced Dreamworks to option Lopez’s columns. Another call lured Atonement director Joe Wright, which in turn created enough buzz around town that Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant was phoning to lobby Foster for first dibs on penning the film that would become 2009’s The Soloist.
With Oscar winners Robert Downey Jr. in the role of Lopez, and Jamie Foxx playing the enigmatic musician Nathanial Ayers, it was the kind of critically acclaimed project that a guy like Foster could feel good about making, even if the subject matter — homelessness and mental illness — made The Soloist a tough sell at the box office.
“The money, in this case, really didn’t matter to me in the slightest,” said Foster. “There are some stories that you just need to tell.”
And three years later, to be sure, Foster sounds like he’s still just getting started on a journey that began the moment he read Steve Lopez’s words back in 2005. Just as he chalked up his first visit to Skid Row as research, he now considers his sometimes daily visits to the embattled, mile-sized trapezoid of East L.A. as a deeply personal mission.
For most filmmakers, the immersion ends when the principal filming wraps. Foster, however, said he’ll never walk away from The Row until his city shows up and does the right thing by his new friends. To that end, he’ll premiere his documentary, Lost Angels, for a weeklong run that begins this Friday, Dec. 7, at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood. As much a love letter as it is an exposé, the film aspires to reveal warm heart and character, just as it rips the scab off the callousness of decades of cruel and unethical treatment of human beings.
MovieMaker recently chatted with Foster about his latest theatrical release and how Skid Row has become a second home:
MovieMaker: When you think Skid Row, you think hellhole. Crazy, even dangerous people. At least that’s the stereotype. I read in one of your previous interviews that, ironically, you felt like the odd man out when you first went there. How did that first come about?
Gary Foster: Well, when I first read Steve’s column it was very, very clear to me that there was grand theatrical potential in this material so I immediately called him up. He pushed me off to his agent, which I understood, but I knew her and I begged her to please get me in the room and get me a shot. When we first sat down for lunch with Steve one of his first questions was how we saw the movie ending. We didn’t see it with Nathanial standing on the stage triumphantly with the Philharmonic Orchestra. We wanted it real. When Steve heard that he immediately invited us to get up from lunch and go to Skid Row to meet Nathanial in person.
MM: And your first impressions?
GF: You walk from Pete’s Café on South Main Street to Skid Row in five minutes. In one block, it was a completely different environment. Tents on the streets. Drug deals. People shooting up. It certainly was not a comfortable place to be.
MM: But you kept going back? By yourself, right?
GF: A project like this becomes a Movie of the Week very quickly if you’re not careful. It would be so easy to make [The Soloist] into a more corny version of what the film should be about. I knew that part of what I needed to do was to get thoroughly committed to the community. It started out as a professorial chore. I had interest, but not deep. Every day, or almost every day, I went and sat at what is now called the Frank Rice Access Center in the courtyard. I’d spend an hour, two hours and soon enough the residents began to open up and talk to me. I did this for weeks on end. I found myself wanting to do it regardless of needing to do it for the project. The joy those people get in having people care about them is so inspiring.”
MM: If not for a few twists of fate the people living there could be living anywhere. They could be you or me.
(In the course of the film, Terri “Detroit” Hughes shows marked improvement since finding permanent housing at Lamp Community.)
GF: Exactly. These are very real people, with a very real illness for the most part, who have been stigmatized. Take Nathanial. He comes from a great family, a supportive family, with a scholarship to one of the finest music institutions in the world. But he got stricken by a mental illness and, before long, he’s living on the street. Then there’s “Detroit,” who is featured prominently in Lost Angels. She’s a wild, crazy, smart woman who was raised in a middle class family in Santa Cruz. She goes to high school, then college and becomes a registered nurse. Gets married, has three kids, living an idyllic middle class life. Then she gets sick, completely spins out of control, and ends up a crack whore in downtown LA. This is not a bad person. This is a person who needed help, a person I sponsor to this day because I believe in her so strongly. It just became a human connection and I just felt the need to be there to help.
MM: And not just Detroit.
GF: Oh, no. So many of them share a common thread with amazing stories of where they came from, from an Olympic track champion, to a woman who looks like she could be anyone’s sweet grandmother. It started out that I would give them a few bucks to get a hotel room or buy some groceries and quickly snowballed into something that mattered to me. I’ve been doing this now for four years.
MM: It’s a great part of the story in making The Soloist that you hired Skid Row residents to play themselves as extras. But when filming of that movie ended you still thought there was a larger story to tell in a documentary?
GF: When Joe [Wright] and I made The Soloist we insisted that we make it with the community and not just about the community. As a consequence of that decision, every day there would be a story or drama or human conflict that we were dealing with over and above the challenges of normally making a film. Originally we were just going to release Lost Angels as bonus footage on The Soloist DVD, but the idea grew into something larger to the point where Thomas Napper, who has worked with Joe on every movie, raised his hand and said, “I want to (direct) this and commit a year of my life to this and talk honestly about the plight of these people.”
We are all just compelled to do this. None of us took any fees. Making Lost Angles was as bare bones as it could be. But when you look at how my city was treating human beings . . . I know I was completely mystified that the city even allowed Skid Row to exist. On top of it all, the city launched this utterly horrible Safer Cities initiative that had the cops arresting anyone for J-walking, or possession of shopping carts or milk crates. There was horrible brutality being committed on a daily basis.
MM: And you were able to get cameras right in the middle of all that.
GF: Thomas lived it. He started out with a hidden camera, but eventually earned the trust of Skid Row and was able to use a standard size camera with the protection of the residents. He spent many nights living in a tent on the street or on the floor in somebody’s room. He was there. At a certain point they didn’t question his commitment. They accepted that there was a camera and we were able to get all the amazing footage that you see in (Lost Angels).
MM: It looked as if your team might have been in real danger at times.
GF: Were there times when we wanted to get in our car and drive out at 10 at night? Yes. We heard gunshots. We came across drug dealers who thought we were infringing on their territory. You lose some sleep, but ultimately you never lose the vision of opening the door wider and showing people really what’s going on with Skid Row. It’s absolutely appalling, it’s a stain on this community that has existed for way too long. We have mayors and council supervisors who talk about improving people’s lives, but it’s total bullshit. It’s a slum, the lowest standard of living in America, a place where people are kept and watched and the rest of the city is sheltered from it and led to believe that it’s the residents’ fault for being there in the first place.
MM: So realistically what can Lost Angels accomplish?
GF: You just hope to motivate politicians and the philanthropic community by telling a good story. A real story about who are these people. A good chunk of them are really decent human beings who have no choice but to live there. They are not criminals. They are not freaks. The have the same hopes and dreams as anyone, but their circumstances make it difficult for them to achieve it. It’s been this way ever since Reagan closed all the mental health facilities and essentially dropped off all the patients on Skid Row and said, “Good luck.” These people don’t deserve a roof over their heads? I think LA, and all of America, has turned a blind eye to the homeless population for long enough.
MM: It’s been nearly three years since principal filming ended for this, which suggests it’s been a struggle, even for you, to get this project to the finish line. What are your realistic expectations for the project? Will people watch a film like this?
GF: Look, we were enormously fortunate to have Dreamworks and Paramount and Participant (Media) get involved in The Soloist from the beginning. We were very lucky. They’ve been wonderful for allowing us to play Lost Angels in festivals. I was trying to get them to distribute it theatrically, but it’s not the business that they’re in. That’s when Cinema Libre showed up (to distribute) and I think if anyone can find an audience for this, they can. You hope to be successful enough in our first run that we can get it outside of California.
MM: This is definitely an issue that touches everyone. Can’t a guy with your resume pick up the phone and talk HBO into putting this on the air?
GF: [Laughs] I only wish I had that kind of power. If HBO or Showtime would agree to put in on the air, hallelujah.
MM: Let’s hope. Meanwhile, you’re still on Skid Row every chance you get?
GF: I’m on the Board of the LAMP Community (www.lampcommunity.org). We work with TakePart.com, and with Project 50 to help the government understand how to help the population that is chronically homeless. And, yes, my staff knows to interrupt whatever I’m doing if the phone rings and a [Skid Row] resident needs to talk. It’s a part of me now, that’s for sure.