On January 21, at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Forward caught up with Ronald Krauss, writer and director of “Gimme Shelter,” which opened in theaters January 24. The movie stars Vanessa Hudgens as Apple Bailey, a desperate pregnant teenager who runs away from a cruel drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson). Apple tries to connect to her wealthy dad (Brendan Fraser), but things keep looking bleaker until she meets Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). He introduces her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a shelter.
Krauss, 43, has been writing, producing and directing movies since his first short film in 1988, “Puppies for Sale,” which starred Jack Lemmon. The seed for “Gimme Shelter” came when Krauss’s previous movie, “Amexica,” a drama about human trafficking, was screened at the United Nations. There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a woman being honored at the U.N. for her 30-plus years of work with homeless teenage mothers. Krauss arranged to visit one of her shelters and thought he’d found the perfect subject for a documentary. He stayed a year and recorded 200 hours of interviews. “The shelter began to seem like holy ground,” said Krauss, “and the research launched my screenplay.”
Dorri Olds: What inspired the main character, Apple?
Ron Krauss: Exactly four years ago today, I saw a young girl standing outside the shelter. She had no jacket and it was freezing. I brought her inside. Her name was Darlisha Dozier and when I told her there was a bed she hugged me so hard it sent a jolt to my heart.
How did you choose Vanessa Hudgens for Apple?
When I went back to Hollywood with the script, every famous 20-something actress wanted the role. I never thought a Hollywood actress could do it but I auditioned a bunch. One day, Vanessa Hudgens showed up telling me this part was for her. She had a swagger and heart the other girls didn’t but I needed the approval of the shelter girls. I sent them a link of eight girls who’d auditioned — some were famous, some local girls from a high school. Vanessa was in that group. The girls watched the link, having no idea who Vanessa was. They all said, “That’s the girl.”
Was it Vanessa’s idea to live in the shelter?
No, mine. I had rules. She moved in and they took her cell phone. She cried a lot. At least that’s what people tell me.
How long did she live there?
Three weeks but I think she was upstairs sneaking calls. [Laughs]
What was she crying about?
She’s someone so used to getting attention and went from having everything to nothing. I lived in the shelter myself and it’s hard. Later, Vanessa told me she called her mom the first couple of nights and whimpered, “What am I doing here? This was a mistake.”
What was her adjustment like?
Vanessa started to break. She went through this total transformation, gained 15 pounds, and cut her hair off.
Were the physical changes from your direction?
Yes, I had exact drawings of what the character would look like, including the hair and neck tattoo.
Where did you shoot the film?
In the shelter. Four of the girls are in the movie. They’d been neglected, abused and abandoned and told they’re no good their whole life but Kathy gives them opportunities. Through benefactors they go to college. These girls blossom like a withered plant given water.
Was the wealthy Wall Street father played by Brendan Fraser fictional?
No. There really is a Tom Fitzpatrick. It’s Kirkpatrick. Everybody is based on people I met at the shelter. Apple is based on two girls — Darlisha, who also acts in the movie, and Tom’s daughter.
How did you trust that Darlisha could act?
She is so talented — very entertaining and uplifting, especially for a person so abused. Scenes you see in the movie come directly from her life. Her mother really did that to her face with a razor blade. One of the girls said to her, “You hate her right now but deep down inside you love her and that hurts even more.” It’s true. When the cops came, Darlisha wouldn’t turn her mother in. Even after the years of abuse, these girls all wish their mothers would say, “Hey, I’m sorry.” But that never happens.
How is Darlisha now?
She went back to school and passed her exam to be a nurse. She’s also a housemother employed by the shelter. It’s like a full circle.
What’s the story with Tom Kirkpatrick’s daughter? She got pregnant by a gang member and Tom wanted no part of that so he kicked her out of the house. She ended up in the shelter. When the baby came, just like in the movie, it reunited them. Now the girl lives with her father.
What kind of input on the script did you get from the girls in the shelter?
Every night I’d call a dinner meeting and pass out sections for their feedback. At the time, I hadn’t realized this film would turn into an intervention, a movement.
How do you mean?
As I was writing the screenplay we were going through some of the worst economic times in this country. It redefined a lot of things about family and homelessness. Many families were broken. A lot of dreams were crushed. People lost their jobs. The face of homelessness has changed in our society and so has the definition of family. The majority of families today are single moms, single dads, foster care, a blend, a hybrid, so the message in the movie is that as long as you have somebody, you have a family. It’s strange how good things come out of giving to others. That’s what the movie is about.