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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Powerful Gimme Shelter hits theaters this Friday (1/24)

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Synopsis: Based on the inspiring true events, Gimme Shelter centers on the courageous story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) and her incredible path to motherhood as a pregnant, homeless teenager.  Forced to flee her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson), and turned away by her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), Apple finds herself on a desperate and isolated journey of survival.  In the depths of despair, she meets a compassionate stranger (James Earl Jones), who ultimately leads her to salvation and unprecedented support in a suburban shelter for homeless teenagers.   With gained confidence, and the warmth of her new home, Apple breaks from her inhibiting past, embracing the future with clarity and hope.
Distributor:  Roadside Attractions/Rating:  PG-13/Running Time:  101 minutes
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, James Earl Jones, Rosario Dawson, Stephanie Szostak, Ann Dowd, Emily Meade and Brendan Fraser
Writer/Director: Ronald Krauss
Producers: Ronald Krauss and Jeff Rice/Co-Producers: Joshua Amir and Dylan Russell
Executive Producers: Scott Steindorff and Paul Hellerman

Review: Readers of this blog know I’ve come to have a visceral negative reaction to anything marketed as being “edgy.” That’s not because I believe all movies should be about nothing buy sweetness and light. But because the word has come to be associated with an amoral form of storytelling that is all about the artists’ so-called brilliance while being devoid of any positive insight or empathy about the human condition. But if edgy means taking an honest look at a difficult subject through a kind lens that offers hope and a suggestion on how people can make this world a better place, then I’m on board. The problem is such films that strike that delicate balance of avoiding the sugar coat while still inspiring us to do better are few and far between.

Gimme Shelter, however, is one of those rare films. While certain scenes can be difficult to watch (particularly those involving Apple and her mother, the brutality that life can bring is balanced by the example of what human kindness can accomplish. And while the movie certainly depicts how faith often underpins compassion, particularly as carried out by shelter founder Kathy DiFiore (played with subtle strength by Ann Dowd), there isn’t one of those moments where someone cites a Bible verse that suddenly turns everyone’s life around. The road to wholeness for Apple is shown as being step-by-step hard and is completely believable. In that way, the movie reminds me of the Robert Duvall classic Tender Mercies which depicts an alcoholic country singer’s slow road to recovery.

Gimme Shelter is also a pro-life movie sans lectures. Organically, the truthfulness of the story simply is pro-life. I don’t think there’s any way you can view it as anything other — which makes it a brave undertaking for all involved. There’s no way you can’t root for Apple (played with remarkable vulnerability by Vanessa Hudgens) after she shows up at the door of her Wall Street broker father (married with a family of his own) and is quickly pressured into having an abortion. While Brendan Fraser (assisted by Ron Krauss’ masterful script) does a great job as portraying the guy as decent and genuinely concerned(as opposed to a pro-abortion cartoon stereotype), you just have to root for Apple after seeing a sonogram of her developing baby, the flees abortion clinic determined to save her child’s life. I get a lump in my throat just writing about the scene. And, again, her father isn’t portrayed as a clichéd ogre. He’s just a man trying to do what he thinks is best for Apple. Having a different point of view doesn’t make him a bad person. And that, in an age were tolerance is defined as universal agreement about everything (and deviance from prescribed thought as “evil”, is refreshing.

The film even manages to evoke our sympathy for Apple’s abusive train wreck of a birth mother (an awesomely intense Rosario Dawson). We know that through whatever combination of hard luck and personal choices got her to the sad point at which she finds herself, she’s a damaged human being deserving of sympathy, not scorn.  There’s really no one to sneer at in this movie. To the extent that there’s a villain, it’s human suffering and the all-too human tendency to look away from issues like poverty and homelessness. Abortion is just a symptom of that. Another poor child about to be born? Make her or him go away before we actually have look.

The heroes, on the other hand, are those that confront that suffering and honestly seek to heal it — such as Apple who’s determined to give her chance at life or those trying to help her, especially Kathy DiFiore. Another quiet hero of the movie is Father Frank McCarthy (the always-impressive James Earl Jones), the kindly priest who helps Apple connect to the shelter. No matter how the media often depicts Catholic clergy (i.e. hypocritical and/or perverted), the fact is that there many, many such servants of the Church who are compassionate and truly devoted to serving God by helping others. I know because some of them have touched my life.

Finally, let devote at least one paragraph to praising the acting talent of Vanessa Hudgens. The actress gained fame though Disney’s High School Musical TV-movie franchise. I’ve never seen those films but, frankly, I’ve come not to expect too much from Disney Channel graduates. My personal prejudice was popped by her incredibly intense, vulnerable, sympathetic and totally-believable performance here. While Gimme Shelter opens late to qualify for this year’s Oscars, she’s definitely deserves to be kept in mind for next year’s nominations — although the calendar (January) and Hollywood’s notoriously short attention span probably works against her.  No matter. Awards are overrated anyway. In any event, I think she’s got a great career ahead of her.

Gimme Shelter is Highly Recommended.
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The man behind the camera. As writer, director and producer of Gimme Shelter, Ron Krauss has poured his heart and soul into a movie that he says has forever changed his life. I recently had the opportunity to speak with talented filmmaker who founded his Day 28 production shingle in 2009 with the intent of delivering high quality independent films with budgets ranging from 7-10 million dollars.

JWK: How did the inspirations for Gimme Shelter come to you?

RON KRAUSS: I think the way Kathy describes it is that it was many, many years in the making. How do two people meet from across the country? She’s in New Jersey. I’m in California. We work in completely different worlds.  She has a long history. She can track it back — she met this person, who met this person, who met this person and, somehow, it connected us.  I do documentaries and I do humanitarian work. A few of my films were based on subject matters that were human interest — human trafficking, disabilities and so forth. I did a film prior to this which was called Amexica which was a human trafficking movie and I screened the film with the United Nations.

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RK: I spoke at the UN. Kathy is a member of the Women’s Guild at the UN. Mutual people told me about several sources and on one of my trips back to New York, I stopped by the shelter and took a look.

JWK: What moved you to take that side trip to the shelter?

RK: I don’t know. Actually, the people who told me about it didn’t even explain what it was. They said it had something to do with human trafficking. So, they were sort of confused about it themselves. I’m talking about the people out here (in California). The people at the United Nations obviously know her very well. It seemed like something I was curious about but I didn’t have any sort of commitment into it. I just was curious and the shelter (is) about a mile from where my brother lives. So, I was visiting my brother. He lives literally about a mile and a half from the shelter, next to Ramsey (NJ).  So, I was there and I just stopped by and I met with Kathy and when I walked into the shelter, it was beyond fascinating.  It was sort of a holy ground of helping people. For me, I was fascinated in terms of, perhaps, letting other people know about this story and her life.

JWK: Were you planning a documentary at first?

RK: Well, I wasn’t doing anything at first. Just for my own interest I wanted to record some of the girls — interviewing them and sort of trying to understand what’s going on here because it was beyond my understanding what was working here and how it was working. Kathy has five shelters. As I discovered, it’s not all about teen pregnancy. There are shelters that just help women who are homeless. In the times that I was there — because I started going there four years ago — the economy had hit some bad times. It was a very rough time (with) the recession. You know, women who were there either…had been abused, came out of broken marriages or just had jobs (and were living) paycheck to paycheck and found themselves homeless (because of) the recession…When people think of homeless people they don’t think of women. They think of an old guy with a bag on the street or something. The homeless can be anybody. It could happen to anybody. So, I started meeting with some of these women and talking with them, realizing that, perhaps, Kathy could use my help, her cause could use my help. At that time I was just thinking about a documentary. So, I got more and more involved. Before I knew it, I was (practically living) at the shelter, I was spending so much time there. I ended up staying there and living there.

JWK: How long did this go on for?

RK: I was there for a year, at least. I lived in the shelter, documented all the girls. I got very close with them in the shelter and was really trying to understand everything. At some point…(I) actually was involved with helping a young girl get off the street and bringing her to the shelter. After talking with her and realizing that all these girls really need (is some help), I got inspired to write a screenplay. I thought this could be something that reaches more people on a broad level as a film…This girl, after helping her get a bed in this place (and) seeing what a miracle it was to have somebody that was helping these people, I just said more people should know about this on a much bigger level.

JWK: Is Apple a composite or based on any single person?

RK: She’s based on two girls. The story’s true about the Wall Street executive and all that. That’s a real person…and the story’s true about his daughter and, you know, that she had gotten pregnant by an African-American gang member and was thrown out of her house and all that stuff. But I incorporated also the girl who inspired me to write the movie, Darlisha Dozier. I met her when I found her in front of the shelter. I thought she lived in the shelter and she thought I worked at the shelter. When I got her a bed there, she hugged so hard she almost knocked me over. That hug was what inspired me to write the screenplay.  She’s in the movie. She acts in the movie. Like four of the real girls who lived in the shelter are acting in the movie. And we shot the movie in the real shelter. We went back and shot at the real place. Those are the real babies from the shelter and the real girls from the shelter. They’re acting in the movie and they still live in the shelter. Darlisha still lives in the shelter. Now, Darlisha has become a housemother there. She also just took her exam to be a registered nurse. This is a girl that was on the street when I met her and was three months pregnant with no jacket and it was 18 degrees out in the middle of the winter. I was involved in helping her and I (still) talk to her all the time. I mean she’s a friend of mine.

JWK: So you keep close to Kathy and Darlisha and the others.

RK: Oh, yeah — all the girls there. I talk to them all the time.

JWK: It sounds like your experience making this film changed your own life.

RK: It absolutely did. I lived there for about a year. I wrote the screenplay I was helping change their lives and they were changing my life. Not only that but I went back and forth for the next two or three years. This project’s been going on for four years now.

JWK: How did you assemble such a cast? Besides the girls from the shelter, you have Vanessa Hudgens, James Earl Jones, Brendan Fraser and Rosario Dawson.

RK: The script…People really responded to the script…I don’t know what it is. You know, the script was really good. Everybody really responded to it and wanted to be in it. I didn’t expect anybody to be in it. I didn’t think we were going to get a (name) cast. I didn’t think anybody would embrace a movie that dealt with homelessness and teen pregnancy in Hollywood.

JWK: Especially since I think this would be considered kind of a pro-life film.

RK: You know, for me as a filmmaker, Kathy’s shelter is 100% pro-life. Kathy is a very spiritual and godly woman. But, for me, it was honoring the story. As a filmmaker, I don’t really take a stance. I try to just serve the story for what it is without having an opinion about it. I don’t want to push it either way. I want people to really experience what’s the truth in the shelter — about how Kathy’s helping people. So, the film is about a lot of things. The film is about poverty, homelessness, foster care. It deals with teen pregnancy. And, to me, the film is about family. That is the one thing to me that I…wanted to address. What is family? Well, family today is different from family of yesterday. Today, it’s single moms, single dads, foster care, even a friend. As long as you have somebody (you have) a family. And everybody needs a family. So, I really felt this is a film of compassion, of family and hope and it doesn’t matter what (your circumstances are). There’s a chance for you in life. You shouldn’t give up.

JWK: I checked you out on IMDB and it seems to me that you’re attracted to stories with a lot of heart. Amexica was about human trafficking. You also did a film called Saving Angelo which was about an abandoned dog.

RK: Right. I also did (a TV series called) Chicken Soup for the Soul.

JWK: That was on the PAX Network. I used to work there myself on a show called Faith Under Fire.

RK: Oh, yeah.

JWK: My point is that in all your projects — whether on television or theatrical films — you seem to be drawn to stories that touch the heart.

RK: I care about people and I think that more stories should help people. There’s enough films that are made that are ultra-violent. They don’t need me for that. You got everybody making that. There are less people doing what I’m doing and I’ve been doing that since I started. I don’t know why. It’s just my nature. The very first film I did was Puppies for Sale with Jack Lemmon.

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JWK: Also about a dog.

RK: Yeah, well it was a film really about disabilities…That movie was only ten minutes long. (It was) my first film and it got licensed by Disney. (They released it) in the theater with The Little Mermaid. Imagine a short film playing in the movie theater.

JWK: And Jack Lemmon was in it!

RK: And Jack Lemmon, yeah! It was his last movie and my first film. I went to the theater and I watched this movie with the people in the audience. And I saw people crying — in ten minutes! I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what I did. I was like “What did I do here? It’s ten minutes long and people are crying!”…I did some mainstream films too. I did a science-fiction film (Alien Hunter) with James Spader and Columbia Pictures.

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RK: But since (Puppies for Sale), Gimme Shelter is the most-important film I’ve worked on. It embodies that same spirit. Even the trailer — which is only two minutes and thirty seconds — people are telling me the trailer moves them. This is my specialty to really observe and to work on subjects that don’t turn away. They confront life straight on.

JWK: May I ask about your own family background?

RK: I was born in New York City. I grew up in a working middle-class family — where work was the ethic and there’s no shortcuts in life. I had really great parents. I still do. I love my parents who have taught me well about people and caring and…I think that’s what really it stems from. That’s your gift in life. If you’re fortunate enough to have a great family, you really have an opportunity. And, if you don’t have a great family, you still have an opportunity. You have to just work harder to and get past the beginning that was less fortunate. A lot of my films are about family and the gift of family.

I did a film called Rave which was a young-adult movie that people thought was going to be about a sort of gratuitous rave scene and it was really about family. It was about all the different multi-ethnic families in Los Angeles and how they all sort of come together at this rave party.

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RK: I think I’m blessed in that way. My parents are married for fifty-one years now.

JWK: I know you have one brother. Do you have any other siblings?

RK: I have an older brother and a younger sister. I’m the middle child.  The thing is, again, it was always about that no matter what we had in life, it was always just about that we have each other — and (being) strong and close. Life’s hard enough.

JWK: So, you have your own production company called Day 28 Films.

RK: I do. I’ve had a production company for years. What people don’t know is I started out working in music videos and commercials. I’ve worked on over a hundred — at least — commercials and music videos with some famous artists — you know, many popular Grammy artists, Whitney Houston, Nas and all these people over the years.  That was my training. My first job out of college was for Roger Corman, one of the most famous independent filmmakers.

JWK: What did you do for him?

RK: My background is design and illustrations. I started out in the art department working for Roger Corman at the Venice Beach Studios in Venice. He started the careers of many famous filmmakers and actors — from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Jack Nicholson to Stallone, all these people. He’s very infamous. The studio is no longer there. Roger made 200 B movies. He taught people how to make films from scratch. That mentality has helped me and carried me all these years to be able to do production and be very improvisational in terms of how to do it. I don’t think without that training I could have made this movie because I’m the producer, writer and director of this movie. I single-handedly was working with a very small crew and,…understanding production, I was able to manufacture this film…

JWK: Do you feel that it’s actually important for people to view films like Gimme Shelter?

RK: I do. I think that it can help people understand other people, help show the world (that) the world is not just what your life is when you wake up and go to work and interact with the same people and go home and repeat yourself every day. There are other things out there. There are people who need help. There are people that can help you (because) giving is receiving. Everybody needs help no matter who you are in life. So, it’s important to show people all sides of life because there’s very little difference between the person who is suffering and needs help and the person who is not. It’s just (that) in life we all go through things and we have to understand that we’re not immune to anything and that we must help each other. Helping each other is the only way society can survive — not the other way around, not helping yourself. Helping others is the way our society functions. It’s the gift and we must all partake in it (but) my films aren’t preachy.

JWK: Gimme Shelter certainly isn’t. That’s what I like about it. I didn’t feel preached at all. Whatever message there was came through organically in the storytelling.

RK: Yeah, it just says look, this is what’s going on right now in the world at this place in New Jersey and here it is. It’s going on and, you know, it takes you out of your world and lets you see (another part) of the world. And it makes you appreciate what you have — or don’t have. If you have a lot in life and your life’s going good, you appreciate it. And, if you don’t have a lot in life, then you appreciate that — because you know there’s hope. You know what? This is a true story. This person survived. I can survive…That’s why I named to baby Hope in the movie…But that is the key no matter who you are. If you think you’re on top of the world, you can certainly appreciate this movie because you’re doing well and others aren’t. And, if you’re not, then this gives you something to look forward to because it gives you the inspiration to say “You know, things can get better.” This film will lift you…There’s different ways of looking at it but there is a very, very strong hand of God in this film. This film is very powerful and sends messages.

JWK: Do you believe in God?

RK: I do — but I feel my personal beliefs are my beliefs. Again, I don’t put my beliefs onto anybody else. I don’t feel that in film people should do that…Films are interesting because they’re personal. Films affect every person differently. In other words, when you see a film, no two people in the room are effected the same way because everybody’s life experience is different. When you come to a film, it’s what you bring in your bag (that determines) how this film will affect you.  If you’ve been dealing with a life of abuse, this film is going to affect you one way (whereas) another person doesn’t understand abuse. If you have a single mom or a single dad — all these things are very personal and affect how you view this film. If you’re even a person who likes the color blue — and there’s blue in this film — you’re going to enjoy this film better than the person who loves green next to you. It can be something simple like that. But films are very personal and affect every person differently. No two people see the film the same way — and that’s the power of cinema.

The greatest special effect in the movies is human emotion. It’s greater than any visual effect…It’s been the thing that about movies that has fascinated people the most since the very beginning of movies. From the first time a projector hit a screen, seeing people (be) people is the fascination of movies.  Special effects help it but, when you make a movie with too many special effects, it loses the emotion. Human emotion is what movies are about. It’s what I do.

JWK: Anything else you’d like to add?

RK: I will say about Kathy (that) she is one of the most dynamic, inspiring women I’ve ever met. She’s dedicated her life to helping others. She’s an incredible role model. She’s been doing this for 36 years. In the course of all this, she’s been battling cancer. I don’t know if you know that.

JWK: I didn’t know that.

RK: She doesn’t talk about it but she was homeless, she was on the street. She walked the walk and talks the talk. She got her life together and now is helping others. (She’s been) honored at the White House, worked with Mother Teresa and I hope that this film brings attention to her and the dedication and the life that she’s committed to of helping others — because she doesn’t talk about it. She hasn’t done any publicity in 35 years. This is the first time — and this movie’s not even about her. It’s about her work. So, I do hope people understand the tremendous humanitarian and gift she is to the world…Two weeks before we started the movie she had a brain operation. They told me it was going to take six months for her to learn how to walk and talk again. She lost her hearing, her sight and she fought back (and) within weeks was able to get on her feet and be involved in the movie. She worked every day on this movie.

JWK: Her own story is a story of hope too then — I mean with all she overcame.

RK: Oh, my God! She is hope. She is incredible. This whole movie and story couldn’t be without her. She’s led an incredible life of (courage) to help other people. I don’t know anyone so selfless. I’ve never met anyone like this in my life — and I’ve met a lot of people. She is a modern-day Mother Teresa. There’s nobody like (her). She was honored in Congress…So, people are catching onto her. She’s been honored by presidents of the United States. She doesn’t talk about it but she’s met three presidents…She only talks about Reagan but she’s met Nixon and she’s met Ford.  She’s very low-key but she only cares about helping people…The only reason she’s even participating in doing promotion on this film is (that) she wants to help people. She doesn’t care about herself. It’s not about her. She is the inspiration (for this movie). We’re lucky to have her in this world.  Even though the movie’s not about her, I hope people really start to look into her shelters and what this woman has been doing.

JWK: So, it sounds like over this process you have become a very close friend.

RK: Well, you know, she’s all about the business of what she does. It’s about her work. When I talk to her she’s telling me about her babies. Close, I wouldn’t say. We’re respectful of each other and appreciative. She does what she does and I do what I do. They’re two different universes.

Note: Krauss’ Day 28 Films is currently in final negotiations on its next project, the Anthony Hopkins’ starrer Go with Me which will be produced by Krauss as well as producers Gregory Jacobs and Gotham Group’s Ellen Goldsmith-Vein & Lindsay Williams and executive produced by Day 28’s Joshua Amir. Go with Me is slated to begin production in January 2014.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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