In Shelter, Paul Bettany’s directing debut, he pushes his wife, Jennifer Connelly, into dark places as a grief-stricken heroin addict.

Connelly plays a homeless woman, Hannah, who spends her days searching for a place to sleep and nights scrambling for drugs. To play a junkie, Connelly, who is already slender, became so gaunt the bones in her chest stick out. In a hard-to-watch scene her character shoots heroin in a vein in her crotch (yes, frontal nudity is involved). Then there’s the sequence, beautifully shot by DP Paula Huidobro, in which Connelly seems submerged under water forever.

Shelter, which Bettany also wrote, centers on the unlikely romance between Hannah and Tahir, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria (Anthony Mackie), who struggle together to survive on the streets of New York. Their love soon leads them on a higher quest for redemption, for deeds that seem on paper unforgivable, Bettany told me.

Bettany has leading-man looks but has kept busy the past 20 years in character roles, primarily. The British actor began in the theater and first came on the radar in this country in 2001 playing Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, co-starring Heath Ledger. Roles in Master and Commander (2003), Wimbledon (2004), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Creation (2009), to mention only a few, followed. More recently, he’s in both the Iron Man and the Avengers films, and his next superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War, also with Mackie, comes out next year.

Back in 2003, when I first interviewed Bettany, he was refreshingly candid and giddy, having just become a father. He met Connelly in 2001 when they filmed A Beautiful Mind, for which she earned an Academy Award. During our recent interview at a SoHo hotel where he promoted Shelter, I reminded him that 13 years ago he told me he wanted to direct a film starring his wife. “It’s taken me a long time to get on with it,” he replied.

Paul Bettany. Photograph by Paula Schwartz

Paul Bettany. Photograph by Paula Schwartz

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The production notes mention there was a homeless couple that lived near your apartment. How closely are they the inspiration for Hannah and Tahir?

Paul Bettany (PB): I wanted to make a film about judgment. I feel like I live in a world of increasing grey areas, and yet I feel like the culture that I live in is getting increasingly entrenched in black and white positions, and I just wanted to talk about that. And I thought maybe the way I would do that is to have a love story about two people who on paper are really unforgivable, so I had that much so far. And then Hurricane Sandy happened. There had been a homeless couple, a black man and a white woman, outside my apartment, who I saw every day on the school run. I would say “Good morning” and they’d say, “Good morning” to me and my kids, and that was kind of it. I’m ashamed to say they became invisible to me. Somehow I stopped being able to see them and somehow their poverty became more and more acceptable the more I saw it, and I stopped being able to see them even before they actually disappeared after Hurricane Sandy. And so then I thought, maybe a homeless couple that had done unforgivable things on paper. I though maybe they would be a good template from which to discuss judgment.

MM: The movie opens with a slightly out of focus shot of the street sign for Lafayette Street. What was pre-production like?

PB: Pre-production was the worst part of this. It was the only bit that I had absolutely no experience with and it seemed to consist of people just telling me what I could and couldn’t do, what we couldn’t afford to do. It was just awful and depressing and then Paula [Huidobro, DP] showed up and it became about we could do and that was just wonderful.

As for the design, I had just walked into a deli and I was passing a homeless guy and I put my hand in my pocket and I pulled out a note. It was a $20 note, and I gave him the note and he was blessing me and I walk in and get a pint of milk. I walk out and he hits me up for some more money! I went, “What are you doing? I just gave you the $20.” He said, “That was you?”

I thought, “Of course, my hand might have been in focus and the note was in focus but I just wasn’t in focus for him.” So we tried to design a sort of small horizon at the beginning of the movie where people were out of focus unless they were Anthony or Jennifer, or Jennifer panhandling the guy giving the cigarette. The cigarette and the hand are in focus but they’re out of focus, and then we broaden out when they get respite in the “Goldilocks” act when they find an apartment and their horizons start to broaden out. The idea, in fact, was that by act three we would be shooting really wide.

We were going to shoot the film with a hiatus but the schedule changed and the consequence was that we had to shoot the winter in summer—90-degree heat—and add all the snow. I defy anyone in New York city to find a street in New York city without a fucking tree in it. There is so much green. So then I had to shoot close and tight again which was a compromise because we’d really designed the film to open out and became quite operatic at the end, so we had to a make slight compromise there.

MM: Talk about the fantastical water scene where Jennifer and Anthony fall through a puddle into a pool of water after Hannah goes through a painful heroin withdrawal.

PB: Ask anybody who knows anything about getting off opiates and they will tell you the first three to five days are really dramatic and traumatic and camera-worthy, and then the rest of it’s really boring, so I didn’t want to shoot that bit. I thought, “We just had her suffer through withdrawal. How do I now tell the story that Hannah’s clean without doing some ghastly montage?” I thought, “What happens if they’re cleansed in water and why can’t they just fall through a puddle?”

MM: What inspired the look of that scene and the rest of the film? The photography is particularly beautiful given the movie’s grim story.

PB: I’m hugely influenced by American movies of the 1970s. Often they were the movies I was thinking about, and they were shot in New York. There’s also a sort of a huge school of European movie making that I’m influenced by. This is a gritty street story, but why doesn’t one afford the same visual poetry to it that you would afford a quote-unquote more important member of our society? Why don’t you lavish that same sort of visual poetry on a homeless couple? Because there must be something more to say than, “Look at it, it’s dirty! And aren’t you lucky it’s not you?” There must be something more to say about homelessness than that.

MM: You wrote some very raw dialogue and put your wife in some very dark places. How was it directing her in those scenes? And did you always want to write as well as direct?

PB: I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a director and I had a story in my head that I wanted to tell. The problem before getting to direct it was that it didn’t exist yet.

But as far as putting Jennifer in some humiliating situations, which I’m totally aware of, I really did consciously surround her with a very female-oriented set. Paula Huidobro lit it and she also shot it. She operated the camera. The best boy was a woman. There are many exquisite scenes where I was the only man in the room. It was so she felt comfort in those moments… and she knew she could kick the shit out of me for the next 20 years if I got it wrong.

MM: There aren’t enough complex female roles for women in film. 

PB: There really aren’t. And I think it’s a real shame. Men and women do great things went they get to their 50s and 60s. Throughout history for men that’s their time, yet for women the roles dry up as just as they’re becoming really, really interesting and complex creatures.

Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie play homeless lovers in Shelter

Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie play homeless lovers in Shelter

MM: Jennifer looks painfully skinny in the film. How did she prepare?

PB: It’s a difficult one to talk about because it always feels a little like politicians kissing babies when you discuss the weight loss of an actor. But she did. She lost weight. Initially we were going to shoot the film with a hiatus to wait for winter and for her also to put on weight. You know she’s an incredibly fastidious actress. She was a card-carrying member of the needle exchange program in New York City and she was working with the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. She was in Tompkins Square Park Outreach Program. There were so many things she did. Her knowledge of how to use intravenously was watertight. She worked so hard on it.

MM: What do so many actors want to direct? Your wife just finished American Pastoral with first-time director Ewan McGregor, for example.

PB: They understand the process… More and more often as an actor, you’ll walk out on set and you’ll find your marks, the pieces of color tape that are put on the ground to help the cameraman focus the camera there, and you realize that somebody else has worked out where you’re going to move in the scene. Which is peculiar because then you find yourself as an actor going, “I wonder what my job actually is? Right now it seems that my job is to make this dialogue sound believable or natural or invest it with some sort of vague emotion to make it seem real. I feel like I’m capable of a little bit more than that, maybe taking part in the actual storytelling…”

Often we would rehearse for Shelter and the cast would play and it would be so different from what I had in mind that I would sit with myself quietly and think, “Does my story survive that interpretation?” If I thought it did, I’d shoot it. I don’t want to infantilize the actor. I want to empower the actor. Actors can be many things—venal, vain. I’m self-serving, self-obsessed, but all of the really good ones are really great storytellers. I’m interested in that. If you’re not interested in that as a director, you better be Stanley fucking Kubrick.

I don’t know about whether I’m well-suited to being a director, but you do find during shooting you’re uncomfortable to be around. That sequence where we were struggling with the underwater stuff, we had 20 minutes left and I was monstrous. I became a monster. Not in an aggressive way, just that I will do absolutely everything to get this shot, including take the camera off the person using it and go down myself if I have to. You just find this bit of yourself that’s kind of a little monstrous. But the sequence, I think is beautiful, and we only got umpteen minutes of time to shoot it in. And they were in a swimming pool with kids and aerobics classes going on. We just hung a piece of black cloth in a public pool and they’re both in the water. But not as long as you think. If you look at the shot, you’ll see nobody’s under the water for more than five seconds. I put a lot of five seconds together.

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