Seeking ‘Shelter’: Paul Bettany directs wife Jennifer Connelly in gritty tale of New York City homeless

Movies Features

Often you don’t have to scratch an actor very hard to find the director lurking under the epidermis. Latest case-in-point is Paul Bettany, who switched camera positions the hard way—double-debuting as director and writer of Shelter, a grimly real urban drama in which Mrs. Bettany (Jennifer Connelly) and Anthony Mackie play a pair of New York City’s homeless, begging for coins and brandishing “I Used To Be Somebody” signs.

Bettany found his inspiration to make this switch practically on his Tribeca doorstep and, indeed, dedicated his film labors “to the couple who lived outside my building.”

Shelter, opening on Nov. 13 from Screen Media Films, is his imagined backstory of the two people who lived in the streets in front of his apartment house. “I would pass them every day on the school run with my children and try to talk to them,” Bettany recalls, “but they were quite recalcitrant and not interested in returning the serve. Eventually—I’m ashamed to say—they sort of became part of the landscape of the city and I never really saw them at all.”

That literally became true when Hurricane Sandy struck and there was a mandatory evacuation of riverside property in lower Manhattan. “In the madness of trying to get three kids and a dog and a cat in the car and head for higher ground, I never stopped to think whether this couple—my neighbors—would weather the storm. When it was over, everybody sort of returned to New York City—but not them.”

Bettany never saw them again, in fact—and he couldn’t stop thinking about them. As a direct result, a scenario started forming in his mind: Who were they, and what had brought them to the desperate place where their lives had intersected with his?

“We’re all one family tragedy away from that,” he reflects. “Last year we passed two milestones in New York City: the first apartment for $100 million sold, and there were 62,000 homeless people every night seeking shelter. Many of them were children in a city that is home to more millionaires than any other city on Earth.”

Before the couple literally and even figuratively entered the picture, Bettany had been pondering the possibility of making a film about judgment. “The world is increasingly a gray area, but we seem forever entrenched in black and white positions. I wanted to make a film that investigates judgment, and I thought this couple would make really good candidates for that. I wanted to make them the worst people imaginable—in America, that would be an ex-terrorist and a junkie mom who abandons her kids—and then make you love them because everyone’s worthy of forgiveness. I wanted you to think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

Street life proved the great leveler here for the audience—the relentlessly grueling nitty-gritty of everyday survival—and Bettany hooked up with several homeless organizations to keep him (and his screenplay) real. “They vetted the script. They let me make the soup runs, talk to homeless people on the street, all that. And they did the same for my wife. They were incredibly helpful with her character research.”

Connelly’s raw, wrenching portrayal of a heroin addict in freefall is the film’s chief calling card. A ravishing beauty in real life, she scruffed up quite credibly here—much to the consternation of her hubby-director. “She lost a terrifying amount of weight during the filming, and I was very anxious about that,” he admits, “but she is a remarkably committed actress—the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with.

“I remember we were up in Harlem in an alleyway, and the prop guy brought a retractable needle for her to inject with, but it wasn’t the same syringe. I told her I’d take the camera back 20 feet so nobody would notice, but she said, ‘No, don’t do that,’ and jabbed the needle right into a vein. That blood you see on her arm is real.”

Mackie plays a Nigerian Samaritan who breaks her downward spiral, an illegal immigrant nursing a terrible secret. Gradually, grudgingly, they form a relationship of co-dependency, which photographs much like love. Save for bits by Bruce Altman as her dad and Kevin Geer as a doorman, the two have the film all to themselves, just getting from A to B in the mundane grind of surviving the streets.

This is the Bettanys’ third picture together. They were Charles Darwin and wife in Creation and Russell Crowe’s best friends in A Beautiful Mind, and, for a while, Bettany was technically aboard Shelter as an actor. “I lied and said I’d be in it to get funding,” he sheepishly confesses, “but then I cut the scene. I didn’t want my first experience as a filmmaker to be linked to an acting job. Except for the obvious cheat of having my wife, an Oscar-winning actress, in the film, I really wanted it to be a first-time filmmaker’s experience. A lot of people on the film were students—recent students—and it was an intense, extraordinary time. I made it for $1 million and shot it in 21 days. You have to have a pretty good plan for that, but there’s nothing quite as important as a good plan you can abandon if something better comes up.”

Paula Huidobro’s camerawork gives into the grime of the situation but occasionally rises to shots of surprising beauty. “Our photography was handheld because we had no money, and I wanted to have a style of filmmaking that suited having no money,” Bettany explains. “The natural tendency is to shoot handheld for the grit. I had no interest in that. It was handheld because it was the quickest way I could shoot. I didn’t want to waste time on complicated shots and dolly tracks. I just had 21 days.”

This still allowed him to get in some impressive directorial flourishes. One scene in a blinding rainstorm has the couple falling off a curb into a puddle, which suddenly dissolves into an underwater sequence. “It took 20 minutes to shoot, up against a piece of black fabric—and with kids still swimming in the pool!” he beams. “That sequence was born out of practicality. The thing about coming off heroin is that you will have the worst flu you can imagine for three to six days, and then the rest of it is boring. So why film that boring part? And yet I had to let the audience know that she was now clean of drugs. And also I had to turn the story to winter. So I thought, ‘Why don’t they fall in water?’ Lots of things in the movie were happy accidents like that.”

Bettany turned back into an actor immediately on hanging up his megaphone. “I finished the shoot at three o’clock in the morning, got in a car and went to JFK to go do an acting job. And then the movie sat in bins for five months. I started going crazy. I couldn’t edit. Every filmmaker I spoke to—Darren Aronofsky and others—said, ‘Oh, my God! I love to put my film down for five months after shooting.’”

But first-timer Bettany was too antsy for that. He bought an editing program and whittled a 15-minute street-begging segment down to two minutes. Unfortunately, he hadn’t learned how to edit audio, so the sound of Connelly’s begging was scattered throughout the sequence, making the scene feel as if a whole day was passing. When the designated editor put the words in Connelly’s mouth properly, it played much too long. Bettany opted for his shortcut, and that’s what is in the film.

It was the actor in Bettany that unleashed the director. “Mostly, the days are gone when you have lineups,” says the 44-year-old Brit whose acting career is nearing two decades. “It used to be, when I first started in the business, you’d come to work in whatever state you were—hung over, alert, with your coffee—and you’d sit on the set with the director and the other actors and the director of photography, talk about the scene and rehearse it. Then you would invite the crew to see what you had done, and go away a couple of hours to get into makeup and costume while the crew and the director and the DP work out how they would cover it. So many times I’d come out of my trailer and find marks set for me to stand. Everything had been figured out. I found myself thinking, ‘Why are you paying me? Why didn’t we discuss this? Maybe I’d have come up with something cooler than what they thought of.’”

As the new director on the block, Bettany democratically let the actors have their say. “My obligation as a director is quality control and my story—not necessarily to tell the story exactly as I envisioned it—so I watch the actors, and if my actors are doing something that I never thought of, I’ll sit with myself and think, ‘Does the film that I need to tell in this moment support what they’re doing? Do I continue to tell the story if I shoot what they’re doing?’ It’s interesting. I’d never thought of that. If it did, I’d shoot it. If it didn’t, we’d talk—but nine out of ten times I went with the actors.”