Volume 77 / Number 46 - April 16 - 22, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933


Film

The Visitor
Written and Directed by Tom McCarthy
Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston Street
(212-330-8182, landmarktheatres.com)

Photo by JoJo Whildon © 2007 Visitor Holdings LLC.

At Soho’s (former) Spring Street market, Walter (Richard Jenkins) accompanies Mouna (Hiam Abbass) in looking for answers regarding her son in “The Vistitor”

© 2007 Visitor Holdings LLC

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 I’m 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 city’s distinctive texture and kept the scenes “neighborhood specific,” with many settings in downtown Manhattan. It’s easy to identify Walter’s apartment on Seventh Street between First and Second Avenue— the “Little Arabia” of MacDougal Street—and 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 himself—in full suit and tie—unable 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.

“Walter’s journey is my journey into the world of detention centers,” says McCarthy. “I didn’t 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 it’s 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 that’s more something I would do personally.”

Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes looking for her son and is disturbed but not surprised by the injustices. Another wall is torn down in Walter’s 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. They’re like two sisters from different mothers,” he says. McCarthy had admired her work in the Tunisian film “Satin Rouge” as well as Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

“I knew I’d 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 Gilroy’s 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 life—acting, 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? “I’ll 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, we’ll have to see.”

 

 

 

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