Writer-director Tom McCarthy (right) on the set of The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins as Walter and as Haaz Sleiman as Tarek.
New York story visits global relations
The anticipated second feature from writer-director Tom McCarthy
By Rania Richardson
I equate shooting in New York with living in New York, says Soho resident Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed The Visitor. There are moments when I think Im the luckiest man
and then sometimes I want to leave screaming.
The film follows a staid professor who forms an unlikely bond with a young Syrian drummer and his Senegalese girlfriend, in a city that is by turns a melting pot and a culture clash. The Visitor is the highly anticipated second feature for McCarthy, who made his writing/directing debut in 2003 with the The Station Agent.
In the new movie, Walter (Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under) is a widower who leaves his mundane academic life in Connecticut to present a paper at NYU. He is startled to find an immigrant Muslim couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) in his little-used New York apartment. As illegal aliens, the pair are seeking refuge from their countries of origin. Walter is moved to help them and, in the process, his life is transformed.
McCarthy shot the film locally for the citys distinctive texture and kept the scenes neighborhood specific, with many settings in downtown Manhattan. Its easy to identify Walters apartment on Seventh Street between First and Second Avenue the Little Arabia of MacDougal Streetand the (former) Spring Street outdoor market where Zainab sells African jewelry. There is a spectacular shot from an NYU building overlooking Washington Square Park.
I was shooting in an outdoor café in the East Village, and a grate suddenly opened behind the actors and people started to come out of it! It was a sweatshop that was letting out. Things like that happen only in New York, McCarthy says.
When Walter hears Tarek playing the djembe African drum, the instrument inspires him. An invitation to a performance at the Antique Garage liberates his sense of rhythm. After a few lessons from Tarek, Walter finds himselfin full suit and tieunable to resist joining in on a colorful, multinational drumming circle in Washington Square Park.
In the excitement of the day, Tarek uses his subway fare to let a bulky drum pass through the turnstile and then hops over himself. His immediate arrest for the mistaken fare evasion is followed by imprisonment in a detention center and the bureaucratic nightmare of post-9/11 security. Walter seeks justice for Tarek and finds his life galvanized around this mission.
Walters journey is my journey into the world of detention centers, says McCarthy. I didnt know about the lack of rights or what these facilities were like inside. I chose Syria for Tarek because the stakes might be higher for him as an illegal resident, since its considered the evil empire by the current administration. I let my films speak for themselves, though, he continues. If I can be involved politically, great, but I think thats more something I would do personally.
Tareks mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes looking for her son and is disturbed but not surprised by the injustices. Another wall is torn down in Walters emotional life as he courts Mouna. I wrote the role for Hiam before I started to pen the script, McCarthy says. Did I just say pen the script? he asks himself aloud, catching his tendency towards formality.
I went to Paris to write one winter and knew she was there and contacted her. Working with her is like working with Patty Clarkson, who I directed in The Station Agent-- visceral and emotional in their method. Theyre like two sisters from different mothers, he says. McCarthy had admired her work in the Tunisian film Satin Rouge as well as Steven Spielbergs Munich.
I knew Id move here as soon as I could, the New Jersey-raised director says of New York. After studying philosophy at Boston College he attended the prestigious Yale School of Drama and began a career in acting. Admittedly choosier about selecting television roles such as Boston Public and The Wire, he has a long acting filmography, which includes Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, both starring George Clooney, as well as Meet the Parents, starring Robert De Niro. Currently he is acting in Duplicity, Tony Gilroys corporate espionage thriller now filming in New York. It stars Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, and his friend and fellow Yale alum Paul Giamatti.
I came to directing late in life. I came to everything late in lifeacting, personal development
, confides the 39-year-old McCarthy. Will he continue to write and direct intimate films or work with Hollywood studios as he does as an actor? Ill decide on a project-by-project basis. I plan on telling good stories, and depending on the role or story, if it needs a larger canvas, well have to see.