When you are a movie star, touring the county promoting your film, it is all in a day’s work. Not so for Kathy DiFiore. While not a movie star in the new film Gimme Shelter, she is very much a part of the film. She’s the inspiration for it.
I met Kathy at a screening of the film in Seattle recently. She came walking into the theater lobby with her hand-held video recorder recording her whole experience. Instead of the talent, she looked more like a tourist. When I asked Kathy if she was familiar with this type of tour she responded, “Are you kidding? Augh! I don’t even know where I am. I wake up and I’m like, what time zone am I in?” This is understandable as she is pretty much a home-body and doesn’t travel much. “I’ve met some wonderful people and I truly wish that I could spend more time with them. In my work, I tend to stay in this one little world, so this is opening it up.”
Kathy and director Ronald Krauss were on hand for a Q and A with the screening audience on the film Gimme Shelter which opens in theaters nationwide on January 24, 2014. The film tells the story of “Apple” Bailey, a pregnant teenager played by Vanessa Hudgens, and the terrible abuse she received at home before coming to the Several Sources Shelter designed for pregnant teens. It is the shelter that Kathy has been running for over 30 years.
It is a miracle that this shelter even came about at all. After a difficult divorce, Kathy found herself homeless. Raised as a Catholic, Kathy had good foundation for her faith, but acknowledges that one’s faith deepens when one goes through personal hardship. “When you are at your lowest is when you need God the most. Once I saw that I was getting out on my feet, there wasn’t any pride left in me. Just humility.” Through that humility, Kathy began to see how she could help others by offering to help a sick friend, visiting the men at the New Jersey prison and then her biggest step, allowing four teenage girls to move into her home with their babies. Her life has never been the same since.
It is this story that inspired Ronald, to write, produce and direct the movie. “I’d like to say that I’m just a link in the chain,” said Krauss in my interview with the couple the next day. “One day someone just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you should hear about this place.’ It turns out that ‘that place’ was about a mile from my brother’s house in New Jersey.” So, on his next visit during the holidays, he made a point to visit the shelter. “I work in this kind of sector of human compassion and I did a film on human trafficking before this, but I haven’t seen anything like this before. [This shelter] was completely a different thing because it was self-sustaining…no assistance from anybody…and they were just helping people from the real ground level up. Helping people without expectations except for them to do their best. I met Kathy and we started talking and I talked with some of the girls and just sort of walked around being a fly on the wall to see what was happening there. Then it just sort of expanded. I kept coming back. I just never went away.”
Ronald would visit the shelter often taking notes. Then he started bringing his camera and began interviewing the residents there. “I told them that I was just doing some research. In my mind, I thought that this could be an interesting documentary or something, but at that time I was already involved in another film, an action movie or something. But the more I got involved in this, the less interested I became with the other project. I just started seeing how other people needed to see this place.”
This went on for some time and Ronald became a fixture of the place. “The mothers really loved him and gave him the title of honorary housefather,” adds Kathy. One night he showed up early and there was girl outside the home waiting to meet Kathy. He didn’t know at the time that she wasn’t already a resident and he let her in. The girl came from a very abusive home life and had walked about 30 miles to come to the shelter. “That girl sent a bolt of electricity through my body when she hugged me when I told her that she could stay there,” he remembers. “Well, I got inspired and said, ‘Kathy, I know that I’m doing this little documentary here, but, I have this idea. If we make a film, we could reach so many more people.” Kathy agreed as long as the film focused on the service of the shelter and not on Kathy herself.
Given that challenge, Ronald began to live at the shelter, writing day and night. He would hold script readings after dinner with the girls to get their impressions, suggestions and to see if the story sounded real enough. After about a year or so, he came back to Hollywood and started handing the script out to a few people.
Brendan Fraser Wants In
“It was bizarre because I just gave it to a few people and before I knew it, I got a call from someone who represented Brendan Fraser saying that he wants to meet you. I remember that I had dinner with him once and he said, ‘Look, I may or may not be the right person for this role that you have in mind, but I want you to know that I’m passionate about doing this film. Just let me know.’ I thought about it and it was about a month or two later and I called him and asked, ‘Are you still interested?’ and he said, ‘absolutely.’”
The Transformation of Vanessa Hudgens
Practically the same thing happened with Vanessa Hudgens but Ronald wasn’t so sure. “We had been contacted by a number of Hollywood actresses and I didn’t think that a Hollywood actress could play this role. I didn’t think it was possible. I was looking for an unknown. Someone from the inner city. Someone who really was this character and could somehow transcend and evolve into this film. The only problem I discovered was that you did need someone with some acting skills.
Hudgens lost 15 pounds, cut her hair off and lived in the shelter for three weeks to transforms into this character. “I never really met Vanessa. She became Apple. I only called her Apple throughout the entire time of filming. And when it was over, it wasn’t until months later that I saw Vanessa and I didn’t even recognize her. People asked me, ‘How was it working with Vanessa?’ and I would say, ‘I never met Vanessa.’
Hudgens went through such a transformation that she is hardly recognizable and you would never know that she had a role in the Disney High School Musical movies. Even when they were filming and the paparazzi was out looking for her, she would walk right past them and they wouldn’t even know it.
The end result of the film is a life-like story based on true events that happened to many of the girls of Kathy’s shelter, especially the one who represents Apple. So true to life, that she actually has a role in the film as well. Today, she has received her nursing degree and is helping to run that very same shelter.