Exclusive: Director Ronald Krauss Talks Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter's Ron Krauss speaks with us about what draws him to such human interest stories and his research of living in a shelter.

Ron Krauss has been writing, directing, and producing films since he worked with Jack Lemmon in 1998’s Puppies For Sale. A storyteller who alternates freely between narrative and documentary filmmaking, Krauss has remained very particular on the stories he’s chosen to put out in the world, specifically with messages of awareness. For example, his 2010 film Amexica dealt so acutely with the issue of human trafficking that it screened at the United Nations. In his latest film, Gimme Shelter, Krauss depicts the story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens), an unwed pregnant teen who is all but abandoned by her crack-addicted mother and is ultimately forced to seek refuge (and hope) in the Several Sources Shelter, founded by Kathy DiFiore in her own home. Even with names like Hudgens, and co-stars Rosario Dawson and Brendan Fraser, Gimme Shelter deals with a staggeringly raw setting, as it was shot in the real-life home and original Several Source Shelter of Kathy DiFiore. To prepare for this film, Krauss lived for over a year in that shelter and grew to know DiFiore, the shelter, and the two girls Apple Bailey is based on exceedingly well. He also was kind enough to sit down with me last week to discuss the process that led to this film. Den of Geek: How did you settle on this project as the film you’d devote so much time to make? Ron Krauss: Kathy DiFiore and Several Source Shelters have been sort of doing this anonymously for the last 33 years, and she’s been helping thousands of people. There’s never been any promotion or any sort of history of her work, other than initially when she opened up her shelter, and they tried to shut her down, because she was bringing people into her own home, and that was the spark that happened for her 33 years ago. So one day, someone came up to me and said there is this place in New Jersey or somewhere, this shelter, about this woman who turned her own home into a shelter. She was abused and homeless, and eventually bought a home, and fought the state of New Jersey with Mother Teresa, and changed the laws, and eventually ended up in the White House. I said, “Oh that sounds like a movie,” but that was about it. The following Christmas, I came to my brother’s house, he lives in New Jersey, and it just so happens…my brother lived about a mile from the shelter. Just a total coincidence. It was Christmas, and during the holidays I usually go to food banks and shelters and volunteer. So, I’m like “okay, this is the place this Christmas. I’ll go check it out, knock on her door, say hi to this woman, and see what she’s doing.” And I walk into that shelter, and I saw exactly what’s in the movie: mothers and babies. I thought, “strange.” I met Kathy, and I was really fascinated with what I saw. She’d been doing it for all these years, helping all these people, and nobody knew about her. This was something like one woman and her ministry. So, I offered to help her organize and document her legacy…I borrowed her camera and started to interview girls who were coming in there, and organizing her files. I came back each day, and I’d meet some of the girls, sit down with them, try to figure out how they ended up here, because it was like girl after girl coming through here. And they had a common story: it was always abuse and neglect, and bad parents, and addiction. The tapes started piling up. I must have shot like 40 hours of tapes before this one event happened to me. I came in the shelter this one night, it was literally four years ago [from the time of the interview], and it was a January like this, and it was freezing cold, and there was a young girl with no jacket on, standing in front of this shelter at 7 o’clock at night. I saw this girl and took her into the shelter—I thought she lived there, actually, but she didn’t—so Kathy showed up to meet me and sort of panicked, because in terms of safety there, you don’t just let anybody into these shelters, and she kind of lectured me. So, what happened was I said this girl doesn’t have a place possibly, and Kathy [met with her], and Kathy came back and said to me, “Why don’t you tell her that she can stay here? We have one extra bed.” I told this girl, and she hugged me so hard that she almost knocked me over. She touched me so deeply that I realized there are so many people out there just like her who need shelters….I ended up staying there another year. One scene I really appreciated was when they’re at the church and they’re actually asking for donations. It showed the practicality of this lifestyle, as opposed to glossing over the details. What draws you to depict stories like this in such a way? It’s funny, because I had actually filmed that with the real girls when I was doing my research at that very church with those baskets. That’s exactly what they do. They go, she speaks, and they stand there. So, I felt that was really [necessary] for the audiences to see the fundamentals of how they get their money. They sit and beg for it. I would ask Kathy where do you get money to operate, and she says, “We beg, and God provides.” She’s a woman of faith and that’s what she believes. And they really do. They go out, and these girls have to put their part in to help get the money to help themselves. What drives me to tell these kind of stories? I don’t know. I’ve been working in these kind of stories my whole life. I had a little bit of a challenged childhood and saw the world a certain way that I was as good as everybody else. Even since my very first film, which was Puppies For Sale—a film I did with Jack Lemmon, this was back in 1998 or something—was a film also about human compassion and love and disabilities. I was [also] a producer on Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which was inspirational. I had recently done a human trafficking film before this, which played at the United Nations. This is my thing. Woody Allen does his thing, and he does the same movie over and over. This is what I do: human interest, and I like to work with one character that really touches on a subject that affects us all. That’s usually the core of my work; it gives us a chance to explore things that we don’t normally see. And I don’t preach in my movies, I just normally show. I let the character evolve under the circumstances. For example in a movie like this, our society is so caught up with things like “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and all these sort of word-engineering things that split us apart and make us take sides. In my film, it takes no side. It just shows you what a person goes through and struggles, and it becomes less about people on the outside trying to define what is right for people on the inside. This shows you the inside, and what people go through. It really shows that kind of other stuff, which is really just political stuff, doesn’t have anything to do with the people who are really suffering. So, I just try to be honest and show the story, and let other people decide what it all means. Each person who sees this film leaves it differently, because we all have different experiences in our life that lets us view things differently and that’s why we all have our own point of view. Speaking of point of view, a character that has one in this film is Kathy. She is a very spiritual person. Do you see this story as a spiritual story or do you want audiences to take away a spiritual message from this? I didn’t make it as a faith film. Kathy is a faith-driven person. Her shelters are faith-oriented. It’s a big part of her life and an important part of her life, so I’m glad that that came through in the movie. I was just trying to serve the story. That’s even why I had the character Cassie who leaves [the shelter] in the movie, because it’s not for her. So that was my message: it works for some, but it doesn’t work for others. And there were girls who come and leave all the time there, because it is for them or it’s not for them. There is a strong message—because I am a person who believes in God—there is sort of a message in there that no matter how bad your life is and no matter what you’re facing that God has a plan for you, even if you don’t realize it. Even this Apple character who looked like she was going down, having the worst life, somehow ends up at a place with people like herself. I’m happy that the faith community is embracing the film. We’re coming out of the woods, but we were facing some of the worst economic times in our history, and people need each other; they need to help each other. Many of my friends and family members suffered, lost jobs, and found themselves without a home. I got people sleeping on my couch. I’m doing everything I can to help, but I’m just one person. Hopefully, this film inspires many people to do the same and to reach out and help people. It does have a strong message, but you’re also a documentarian. What makes you decide to make one subject matter a narrative versus a documentary? I was inspired here because I was touched so deeply from these young girls who were suffering out on the street, and I brought some people into the shelter myself. It’s a funny thing, I don’t really pick these subjects; they pick me. It’s a weird thing that happens to me over the years. I never know what I’m going to do. If I come across something I feel needs exploring, or needs more work, or needs to be paid attention to, it becomes a subject for me. It becomes something that I feel us, as a society, could improve with just a little more understanding in our busy lives. We’re so busy, all of us, that perhaps this movie can show a side that people would never have an opportunity to understand. We can learn from it as a group and as a society. We can learn and we can improve ourselves, and we can help others. So, that’s what inspires me on a subject. Documentary versus film? Documentary reaches a limited amount of people. A film, if you have the opportunity to make a feature film, it could reach much more people, especially with young people because of the way everyone’s watching films on their iPad and phones. Which is a feat in itself. Yeah. But you also mix in reality. Like you’ve said several of the girls from the shelter are in this movie— Four of the girls are from the shelter. We shot it in the real shelter. Four of the girls who are acting in the movie are from the shelter. They went from homeless to being in a Hollywood movie. And 23 babies. Including Apple’s? Yes. Apple was based on two characters. The boy Julian who crawls on the bed after [the character] Apple has her baby in the hospital, and they all come to visit her, and James Earl Jones comes in, and then Julian crawls…that’s [the son of one of the girls Apple is based on]. She gave birth when I was in the shelter, and she’s in the movie as well. She’s the girl I brought into the shelter. She’s a terrific girl and smart. She now went back to school and just passed her CMA to become a nurse, and she also works at the shelter as a house mom to help other people. So, she’s giving back by helping other people, and she’s in the movie acting as one of the shelter girls, and her son’s in the movie. You include pictures of all the characters at the end. But June is missing? I couldn’t get a picture of her. I actually had her on video in an interview, but you know—some of the abuse these girls went through is so bad, I couldn’t put it in the movie. I couldn’t even write it, it was so bad. You think the razor blade thing is bad? It’s worse. Their real lives are much worse in terms of the abuse of what they struggle through than what’s in this movie. The June thing stemmed into a lot of other things [like] racism and different things that I cut back on in the film, because I felt like we covered that, and people already understood that, and it wasn’t going to help the film. When I met with her, it was—tough. And I didn’t have the rights to include her or anything like that, because you get the idea when you see her in the movie. And so she just wants no part of her picture in that. Rosario told me the razor blade scene was based on a real event that you witnessed. That you were in the church when this happened. Yes, I did witness it; I was there. It didn’t happen in the church, it happened in the parking lot. When she came out, the mother was waiting for her. It happened to [the girl Apple is based on]. Cut her shirt open, her bra, everything. Attacked her. When the police came, she couldn’t turn her own mom in, because like in the next scene I wrote, you hate her for what she does to you, but deep down inside you love her, and that hurts you even more. That’s how these girls are. They just wish one day their mothers would come to them. After all the abuse, they’d say, “Hey, I’m really sorry, I love you.” Everybody dreams—they all are yearning the love of a parent, and we can all relate to that because everyone has a mother. I asked Rosario and Vanessa about this: at one point in the movie June tells Apple, “You are me.” I asked Rosario, and she saw some truth in that, as June did not have the opportunities that Apple did. But when I asked Vanessa the same question, she said that addicts are manipulative. I thought that was interesting. How do you interpret it? I think they’re both right. That’s something for the audience to determine, because addicts are manipulative. In that scene, there’s a talk about her trying to get the money for addiction. So, that’s one side of it. The other side of it is, I agree with Rosario, because it is about opportunity. And that is what Kathy’s shelter gives these girls is opportunity, and education, and so forth. June did say something in there like “I didn’t have a social worker like you,” and that’s about opportunity. And she fell. Hard. Trying to raise her child, and she got into drugs, and so forth. So, they’re both right. One talks about a state of mind for now, which Vanessa is talking about, which is the addiction. Rosario is talking about the state of mind that got to that addiction. How it got so bad. They’re both covering the whole story. One’s just talking about the beginning, and one’s just talking about current. It is a story of struggle and sometimes addiction. You are drawn to human interest stories. Do you know what you’re going to do next? I’m open if people want to send me stories, and anybody can reach me at Ronald Krauss on Facebook or ron_krauss@yahoo.com. These stories call me…This story really affects us all about poverty and homelessness and family and all these things. So, I never know. I always go with my feeling about where we’re at as a society and what can help us. How can we progress amongst each other, and those are stories I look for about learning and helping each other. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!