Oren Moverman: In December 2012 I ran into Richard Gere at a party in Manhattan.
We’d met years before in Montreal, on the set of I’m Not There, and had what I now consider to be the only human conversation I had with anyone on that production: We spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We were quite simpatico—it was Canada, after all. I had started directing shortly after working on that film, and I didn’t think he’d remember me when I shook his hand at the Christmas party. Turns out he did. And that he’d seen The Messenger and Rampart.
He let it slip that there was a project and a character that he’d been obsessed with for years: a homeless man he was aching to play, a man lost in the shelter system in New York City. He had a script by the British screenwriter Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardner), but the story needed updating, reinventing and grounding, as it had been around for a long time. Gere asked if I’d be interested in reading it.
Fifteen months later, we were on the streets of New York, shooting Time Out of Mind. By then we’d spent countless hours talking about the project, visiting shelters, engaging homeless men and women, advocates, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Department of Housing, and many more individuals and organizations. Once the research was done, the script came together relatively fast, as did the financing. We felt blessed.
It was an experiential, immersive film, no good guys or bad guys. Everyone would have their all-too-human reasons for who they were, how they behaved, their place in the world. It followed one emotionally isolated man, George, through the process of hitting the streets, entering the shelter system, befriending another homeless man who may or may not exist (Ben Vereen), and trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Jena Malone). New York City was going to be our set. We needed to shoot the film in live environments, and we needed to let Richard Gere disappear into crowds of people who would ignore him, much as they would disregard most real homeless men and women. The moviemaking needed to be invisible.
As is now ritual, I called cinematographer Bobby Bukowski to let him know we’d be starting a new adventure. “We’re going to the men’s homeless intake center in Bellevue with Richard Gere, of all people,” I told him. “And we’re going to cook up something different, visually. We’ll shoot the movie from the city’s point of view, not the characters.’”
Bobby Bukowski: Oren immediately presented me with the photographs of Saul Leiter. As a native New Yorker, since the inception of my curiosity about photography, I have been enamored and beguiled by the New York School photographers. Suffice it to say, the reference aroused nostalgia: So many of my earliest memories of the city were about experiencing action through closed glass windows and doors. After all, NYC is a jumble of countless windows, all a tiny portal into the varied scenarios and lives that are played out behind them. This very selective perspective of the witnessing of human behavior was both familiar and personal to me, and it excited me greatly.
Oren was interested in throwing the actors into the teeming river of the city. He wanted all the havoc that the city promotes to be the canvas in which the characters would be behaving. And he wanted to position George as just a single one of the anonymous masses.
We discussed how we would physically remove ourselves—and the huge machine that is a film set—from the process. That conversation is where our idea of extremely long telephoto lenses was born. They’d enable us to get far enough from the action that we could allow the city, its denizens and rhythms, to continue around the actors. Yet being that far away from the action provoked many production questions and the employment of an extremely long lenses posed visual challenges. We were embracing chaos.
OM: An observational portrait of a homeless man is a narrative construct you have to engage with through your own actions and compassion. The movie plays with that perspective. It lets you get close from far away, and creates an impulse for taking interest in a man we normally wouldn’t notice.
These days when we introduce the film before screenings, I say, “Keep your cell phones on. Email. Text, if you need to. Answer a call if you get one while the movie is playing.” This is a story we see when we look up from our phones on the street. Through windows, from roofs, while sipping coffee or having a meal.
We spoke about the film as a collection of photographs where the city moved around the characters, but the camera hardly ever moved, except for the zooms that I’ve always been so obsessed with (blame Altman, Albert Maysles, etc.). And just like Leiter’s work, shots were designed to be observational, moody, layered.
And so we had to hide the camera. The footprint of the production had to disappear. When New Yorkers walk by a set but don’t see a camera, the set doesn’t exist and life just flows, even though we put down warnings in writing that stepping into a particular area would put you in a movie. If the camera is inside a tent, or inside a store or on a roof, the busy world around the actors keeps going obliviously. And so we took the camera away from the set completely.
BB: Fortunately, one of the characteristics of an extreme telephoto lens, particularly an anamorphic one, is that the depth of field is greatly diminished, rendering the plane of focus very shallow. With this, we stumbled upon a way to keep attention affixed to our protagonist. At the same time, this very narrow plane of focus had the function of separating George out from all those around him. It created a subjective rendering of what this character is experiencing anyway: exile and remove. And in night exteriors, the endless march of people would be supplanted by the riotous color and motion of blinking signs and the headlights and taillights of cars—again, also rendered in a blur, a veritable riot of streaking color and light.
OM: I always think of New York in black and white and gray. The process of making Time Out of Mind opened my eyes to the shocking saturation of colors that paints this city. The zooms were somehow defining our relationship with color, letting us see the city anew with our hidden moviemaking machine.