Israeli-American director discusses film with ‘homeless’ Richard Gere on NYC streets

In character as a homeless man, Richard Gere attracted little attention on the streets of New York City during filming of ‘Time Out of Mind.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

A movie where Richard Gere plays a homeless man — the idea may make you scoff. Israeli-born American director Oren Moverman had a similar reaction at first. But then Moverman came up with a unique approach:  In his new film, “Time Out Of Mind,” Moverman dressed the movie star as a homeless man and sent him out on the streets of Manhattan among ordinary New Yorkers, while filming from hidden cameras. No one recognized Gere despite his famous face, which says a lot about how invisible the homeless truly are.   

Gere turns in an outstanding performance as George, a man who seems to have teetered on the edge of homelessness for sometime in this subtle drama shot in a striking realist style. Moverman, whose film credits include the “The Messenger,” plunges right into this story, without giving us any kind of background for George, slowly revealing details as we follow him around New York City.   

The Jewish Light spoke with the New York-based director by phone recently. “Time Out Of Mind” is now playing at the Plaza Frontenac cinema.   


You are an American citizen but you were born in Israel. Did you grow up in Israel?  

I did. I grew up in Israel. I spent time in high school in New York City, and then I went back to Israel and served in the military for almost four years. And a couple months after the military, I came back to the States.   

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Although the main character isn’t Jewish, do you feel this story has a link to Jewish values and traditions? 

I definitely feel there is a link to the history of Judaism — homelessness has always been a big part of Jewish history… A people who have experienced thousands of years of wandering around the world without connection to their real home…[Everyone has their own philosophy of what makes you Jewish but I think the kind of values of taking care of the poor, of charity and of social responsibility…helping those who are underprivileged…that is at the core of what I perceived to be Judaism.  


Your film is set in New York, but homelessness can happen anywhere. Is it a significant problem in Israel? 

Oh yes. I was in Israel a couple of months ago and, yeah, homelessness is a real, visible problem in Israel now where it didn’t used to be. It is a phenomenon of the last few years actually. Israel has transitioned from a society that had a very defined safety net to one that is much more capitalistic and privatized. There is that, and there are lot of housing issues in Israel, which is really, really problematic, and some immigration issues, [which have] created a significant homeless problem.    


The visual and sound approaches of your film are quite striking. Usually, a film about someone who is homeless or down-and-out is shot in muted tones, and everything is gritty and dirty. Your film is not like that — the main character is moving along clean, brightly lit, color-filled streets, and amid bustling, ordinary life. 

In this story, we are dealing with a man who usually… because . . . we are all busy doing our jobs, we don’t even notice. We don’t even pay attention to [the homeless] on the streets because there are so many of them. It is quite overwhelming, and it has just become part of the fabric of society. 

The point-of-view of the movie is that of the city. So it is really about a man moving at his own pace… and we get to see him from the vantage points where we would see him in real life — through cafe windows, from apartments or rooftops, on the street through traffic. A certain amount of effort has to be made to get to know a person like that, and the movie is making that effort for you — it is finding character slowly and patiently, at his own pace, with respect to him and his mental state and life, telling a little more and more of the story.  


I read that the idea of the film originated with Richard Gere and he approached you about it. At first I was skeptical about a star like Richard Gere playing a homeless person but you really did make it work. You could put him in a huge crowd, and we would search for him and be able to recognize his face. If it had been a less recognizable actor, those scenes would not have worked. 

That’s exactly it. Also, if [a star such as] Richard Gere didn’t want to make a movie like this, it would never get made. Just the fact that he …would be in the credits…means a lot — it makes it possible. When he approached me and said he wanted to play a homeless person, my reaction was kind of like yours —Richard Gere is the last person you would think of as a homeless person. But then it interested me that he wanted to work so far outside…his celebrity, his image…that was a big attraction for me. And then, the truth of the matter is that you start the movie off, and you go, ‘oh, that’s Richard Gere,’ and as you go through it, the fact that it is Richard Gere going through all this, you get the feeling ‘there but for the grace of God’ — it really does feel like someone could fall that far.  


It underscores that the character in the movie could have been an ordinary, even a successful person before and still end up homeless. 

Absolutely. There are plenty of people in homeless shelters who a few years before would have been considered middle class, normal members of society. I have heard stories of homeless doctors, you see all kinds in that world. You don’t know how many wrong turns in life are going to lead you to that.