A 50-something man walks into his New York City apartment. He opens the bathroom door and finds an unknown Zimbabwean woman stark naked in his tub. Her Lebanese boyfriend throws the apartment owner against the wall and demands to know what’s going on. It turns out that all three have become victims of a subletting scam. The men soon bond while playing together in a Central Park drum circle. (You read that right, a drum circle.) Then the Middle Easterner is arrested—he and his girlfriend have been living in America illegally—and the older man must negotiate the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system in a post-9/11 landscape in order to keep his newfound friend from being deported.

It’s worth recounting the central premise of Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor to emphasize that what sounds potentially cloying or cringe-worthy on the page, and would probably sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to studio executives in a pitch meeting, can become something graceful, intimate and incredibly moving in the right hands. The emotional journey taken by Richard Jenkins’ (“Six Feet Under”) closed-off college professor never strays into movie-of-the-week territory; even his embrace of some rather hippie-dippy pastimes feels strangely organic. Connection, the movie says, can often be found in the most unusual circumstances.

Of course, if someone had tried to describe the gist of McCarthy’s 2003 directorial debut, The Station Agent (a grieving mother, a lunch truck owner and a little person all hang out together at a former railway station), you might have politely passed… and you would have missed one of the best independent films of the last 10 years. Though the 39-year-old McCarthy has spent several decades as a versatile character actor—most recently as a journalist with a Jayson Blair-like imagination on HBO’s “The Wire”—his “side job” as a writer-director reveals a distinct humanistic voice and a knack for getting amazing performances out of his actors. The Visitor not only confirms that this moviemaker’s original oddball ménage a trois character study wasn’t a fluke, but showcases a knack for dealing with big issues like immigration and national security without resorting to preachiness or treacle.

MM spoke with McCarthy at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Visitor screened to enthusiastic crowds.

David Fear (MM): The idea for The Visitor dates back to your days working on The Station Agent, right?

Tom McCarthy (TM): You can trace the movie back to a couple of moments of inspiration. Someone asked me about the drum circle yesterday and it occurred to me that my fascination with the Central Park drummers actually predates any thoughts on, say, the immigration issues. I have photos of those musicians on my computer that date back to early 2004; I’d wanted to use that in a film for a while.

One was from my trip to Lebanon, when I went to screen The Station Agent there. I met a number of artists, filmmakers and musicians who live there, and ended up going back a few times to visit. There’s a very vibrant nightlife going on, lots of cafes… the country has a very Mediterranean feel. I remember thinking, ‘Why have I never seen this side of Lebanon on-screen? Why have I never seen these people portrayed the way they are?’ [The character of] Tarek’s sense of humor, charisma and generosity all come from my Lebanese friends. I had the central idea for Richard’s character—this closed-off man coming out of his shell—in mind as well, but that idea wasn’t attached to anything. It really does come down to a process of taking all these free-floating elements and putting them together.
MM: When you were writing the script, was there a part of you thinking: I have to be careful not to get polemic here?

TM: You mean, to avoid getting on a soapbox and just screaming the message out: ‘Immigration policies must be reformed right now!’ (laughs) It’s certainly there, but the intent was always to focus on these four disparate individuals and how they eventually make a connection. That was my “A” storyline, you might say. Tarek’s predicament is the engine that drives the story, though I always found myself burying that aspect of the narrative when it started moving to the forefront too much.

MM: This is the second film you’ve written and directed that revolves around a group who is displaced—either geographically or socially—and ends up forming its own makeshift, misfit community. What is it about that particular set-up that fascinates you so much?

TM: I’m starting my third script now, actually, and I have to keep fighting the impulse to go back to that exact scenario. ‘No, Tom, no… These people have to have known each other for at least a year. And they all have to be emotionally stable!’ (laughs) Seriously, I don’t know. I think it was Renoir who said that filmmakers essentially make one movie over and over again, and every movie they make is just part of a larger picture of themselves. There must be something about that concept that plays into who I am. Maybe once I figure that part out, I’ll be able to do something else.

It’s funny, there was a day when I was working with my editor on a scene. I remember he turned to me and said, “You’re so good in these social situations, you seem like such a happy guy, you’ve got a good family and friends all around you. Why the hell do you keep writing these movies about lonely people? Is it some sort of cry for help?” (laughs) But someone else also brought up the fact that these stories are all optimistic at their core, that they speak to a belief that people really can connect with each other.

MM: You filmed The Visitor in New York City. How hard is it to film there these days?

TM: We were there in the fall, and it was the busiest fall on record for film production. I Am Legend was shooting all around the city, so whenever we’d get ready to shoot at a location, their crew would already be setting up shop. I remember we needed to grab a couple of pick-up shots at Washington Square Park and I Am Legend had just shut the entire thing down. There were plenty of days when we were trying to do scenes in Central Park or down in the subway tunnels, and I just kept thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? What did I get myself into?’ But there’s an authenticity you get when you shoot in actual New York locations that makes the hassle worth it.

MM: Do you think it’s harder to get films like this financed now, as opposed to when you were looking to get The Station Agent off the ground?

TM: I’m not sure, but I do know that it was personally easier for me this time because I’d already done The Station Agent. I took that script around to everybody, and nobody wanted to do it. I was an inexperienced filmmaker who just had some acting credits to my name. Besides, my writing is very spare and it’s hard to see the humor on the page. Finally, this guy Robert May read it and said, “It’s great, let’s do it!” Once people saw the finished product, they said, “Oh, I see. Yeah, you can do this.” It’s an execution-dependent business. But this time, since people knew I could execute…

MM: …the coffers just opened up.

TM: Ha! Right.

The Visitor, an Overture Films production, is in theaters today.