Written and directed by Paul Bettany, Shelter tells the story of Hannah (Jennifer Connelly) and Tahir (Anthony Mackie), individuals who come from two different worlds, but whose lives intersect because they’re both homeless on the streets of New York. As the details of their past unfold, their journey of loss, love, hope and redemption makes them more than the nameless and faceless.
At the film’s press day, first-time filmmaker Paul Bettany spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why this particular story was important for him to tell, what the editing process was like for him, screening the movie for fellow filmmakers and actors to get their feedback, how this ending came about, why Anthony Mackie was the right choice, and how much he’d love to direct again. He also talked about Captain America: Civil War, making an epic superhero extravaganza that also raising a really interesting social question, how Vision fits in, and what it was like to work with the Russos.
Collider: How did you go from observing and wondering about a homeless couple that you passed on the street to writing and directing this movie?
PAUL BETTANY: Well, I wanted to direct a movie. Ron Howard said to me, “Why haven’t you directed a movie yet?” And I said, “I think it’s because I’m waiting for the secret to be passed onto me.” He went, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “You know, the director’s secret.” He said, “There is no secret, Paul. You’ve just got to make mistakes and get on with it.” So, I started to get on with it. I was thinking about what I’d want to make my first film about, and I’m really intrigued and worried about the nature of our judgmental culture that we live in, both on a micro and a macro level. In a world of increasing grey areas, we are becoming more and more entrenched in black and white positions. But, I didn’t know how to do it. At the same time, Hurricane Sandy happened and this homeless couple who I used to see on the street right by our house disappeared. I’m ashamed to say they’d disappeared earlier. I’d stopped being able to see them. It was only in their actual physical absence that I was reminded of them again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I had the instinct to write about them and I thought they might make a really good template with which to discuss judgement. That’s how it happened.
The film focuses on who these people are, as human beings, as opposed to making a point to make a statement about homelessness.
BETTANY: I’m so glad you said that. I did not want to make a sweeping statement about how homelessness is bad or drug addiction is bad, or how people struggling with either situation are victims or criminals. I just wanted to get to know them better and to get to know that situation better. That’s what I set out to do. These people have both done terrible things. It was really important that they’d both done terrible things that, on paper, are unforgivable, but then you spend time with people and talk to them. We passed two milestones in New York last year, with the first apartment to sell for $100 million and 60,000 of the residents sleeping in shelters every night. That’s an extraordinary figure. And 24,000 of them are children, but we are all innocents, we’re all worthy of forgiveness, and we’re all fundamentally deserving of a home and a lack of judgment.
As a first-time director, how challenging did you find the editing process?
BETTANY: (Editor) John F. Lyons really let me find my film, which is really what you want, as a first-time director. Especially with the subject matter, I wanted it to be muscular and move at a pace. It is not a long film. I discovered some things in editing, when John and I were separated. When I finished the project, I had to go make a film, as an actor. It would be great to have that hiatus every time, but when it’s your first time, you want to know if the thing cuts and you’re anxious. So, I started cutting things and discovered ways, often through mistakes, to truncate time. We started off with a 15-minute sequence of [Jennifer Connelly] panhandling, which simply couldn’t be. I cut it down to about two minutes, and yet made it feel like time had passed through slipping her dialogue out of sync. And then, I did that again in the dinner scene. And then, I did that again, right at the end of the movie when he’s giving his final aria. It was a way to express time having gone by while keeping it taut.
You screened the film for other filmmakers and actors and got advice from them. How did you decide who you would screen it for?
BETTANY: After my actors, my next biggest resource was the people that I’d worked with or that I knew well, like Ron Howard, Darren Aronofsky, Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. They watched early cuts of the movie, and gave me advice and their thoughts, and were incredibly generous with their time.
Was this ending the ending that you had always wanted to this story, or did that change?
BETTANY: (SPOILERS) There were different ways of arranging the ending, but it was always going to end with him dying. The reason was that it started off as an idea in my head about a ghost who has done terrible things wanting to go back to be with his family, and he meets a girl who thinks she’s a ghost. If he can just get her back to her family, because she has something to live for, he can then go and be with his. That was the shape of the structure, which is a really classical structure. It was always going to end with his self-sacrifice.
Aside from the fact that you’re both a part of the Marvel Universe, what was it about Anthony Mackie that made you see this character in him?
BETTANY: By the way, I worked with him first, as a director. We hadn’t worked together as actors yet. I think he’s a really fabulous actor who endlessly surprises. Part of the experiment was to create two, on paper, unforgivable people, and then make you love them. It’s hard not to love Anthony Mackie. It really is.
This story is such a fascinating character journey that could have been nothing but sad and depressing to watch, and while it is a sad story, it’s not just a sad story.
BETTANY: Yes, it could have, and I have no interest in those movies. I have no interest in movies that take you somewhere dark and leave you there, for no reason. It’s dark, but so is Death of a Salesman. Does it stop it being a great play? There’s not that many jokes in The Crucible. Not that I would ever liken myself to Arthur Miller. I don’t quite understand this fashion, at the moment, for everybody going, “Dark is not really my cup of tea.” What are you talking about? Hamlet is dark. Macbeth is dark. And again, not to liken myself to those masters, but the notion that things have to be filled with light, I don’t understand. However, I do think that it is a story that absolutely provides hope at the end of the movie. Whether or not I succeeded is for other people to say, but those are the only films that I’m interested in. I don’t like movies that just say, “Look at this. Isn’t it bad? Aren’t you lucky you’re not homeless?” It’s really not about that. I have an interest in giving people a cathartic experience, and making them look at homeless people differently, and making them question how they judge people, in general. My father, who was a very religious man, would say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” when he passed a homeless person on the street. I love that sentiment. It is an admission of how precarious your position actually is and how it could so easily be you.
Now that you’ve survived the process of directing a film, is it something you’d like to jump back into again, as soon as you have the opportunity?
BETTANY: Oh, I’d love to direct again. I loved the experience of doing it. It was a new way of telling stories for me. I love telling stories, and this is a new way in which to do that. If I’m allowed to, I’d love to.
We keep hearing that the script for Captain America: Civil War is fantastic. I know you can’t reveal details without the penalty of death, but what was your reaction when you read it?
BETTANY: It’s going to be a lot of fun. I think it’s really interesting, the way that a huge, epic superhero extravaganza is discussing a really interesting question, which is about people unilaterally going into other people’s countries and their intervention there. It’s actually an interesting thing to talk about in a massive forum like that.
Will Vision be playing into the changing team dynamic?
BETTANY: What I love about my character is that there are so many places for him to go. I think he’s very interested in what it means to be human and what love is. The only way one can guarantee one’s loyalty is love. Loyalty is beyond logic, really. Logic doesn’t really provide for loyalty. If your logic changes suddenly and things not make sense, you can alter your allegiance, but love stops you from being able to do that.
How did the process of working with the Russos compare to Joss Whedon?
BETTANY: They both have a really different approach. I loved working with all three of them. The really great thing with a cast that big is that you have two directors. You can always get one of them to have a chat with about what’s coming up next, and that’s great. I’m really excited to see what they do with what we shot.
It’s amazing how, when you think there’s no way that these Marvel movie could get any bigger, they do, but they still manage to keep a sense of humanity to them that keeps you connected to the story and the characters.
BETTANY: Yeah. I think fans feel that they’re in safe hands, and the reason they feel like they’re in safe hands is because the films are being made by fans and they remember what it is about these stories that connected with them, in the first place. That’s why they have heart.
After directing a film yourself, you must have even more appreciation for the directors who tackle such an enormous production.
BETTANY: I have no idea how those sorts of movies are made. I really don’t. The puzzle pieces are huge, and then they become infinitesimal, as the shoot goes on. There are smaller and smaller and smaller pieces, and how do you know what you need? I have no idea.
Shelter is in theaters and on VOD on November 13th.