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Actor Tom McCarthy made his highly acclaimed directing debut with The Station Agent; his second feature is also getting attention as he explores the forces of compassion in modern New York through a story of illegal migrants and a widowed, burnt out professor. McCarthy reveals some of his motives and processes in this Q & A.

Q: What inspired you to write the screenplay and make the film?
A: I think itís always difficult to point to the exact inspiration for a film. Usually I collect a lot of different ideas and keep them in one big file then start to sort out which ones are most resonant to me. I think in this particular case it was a couple things. I spent some time in the Middle East with the last movie I directed (specifically in Beirut), and it felt like I was reading a lot about that part of the world without understanding much about the people or the culture there. So I went back to visit a couple of times, started reading more and even began spending more time in the Arab community here in New York. Through my research, I came across a story of a young man who was detained here from the Middle East and put in one of these centers, I think in Queens. I started reading everything I could on immigration policy and specifically on our detention systems. How weíre dealing with people since 9/11, especially undocumented citizens, led me to this story. I also joined an organization called Sojourners based at Riverside Church in Manhattan and started visiting detainees. Separate from this, I had in mind this character of an aging college professor who had lost his passion for his vocation. Somewhere along the way the two stories came together. And the two characters came together.

Q: In developing The Visitor did you have a lot of interest in getting something out of it, or did you want to send a message about immigration laws? Was any of that part of the process?
A: Thatís an interesting question. My primary concern is telling a good story. If I can shed some light on some issues that perhaps the general public is less informed about along the way then all the better. I think specifically what I was trying to do was take the immigration situation and put a human face to it. The best we can do sometimes is to remind ourselves of our own humanity so when weíre dealing with these issues, whether it be large issues like how to deal with problems in the Middle East or how to deal with our own issues like immigration, we always start from a place of remembering that weíre not just talking about issues but weíre talking about human beings. I think if we constantly remind ourselves of that, who knows? I guess it boils down to compassion in some way. Understanding. I think thatís what I set out to do. Whenever I brought people to these detention facilities they were always a little horrified that this is how we were treating people arriving at this country for the first time, and they were in there for a variety of reasons. A lot of the detainees didnít have any legal representation, and a lot of them hadnít committed any crime per se. Itís a complex problem, immigration. But we must maintain our sense of compassion when dealing with it.

Q: In developing the humanity and trying to get your message across, why and how did you choose Walter as your protagonist?
A: Heís a character that Iíve had in mind for some time: an aging professor who is rudderless, void of passion or action. And the actor, Richard Jenkins, is someone I really wanted to work with. He has such a wonderful everyman quality about him. He doesnít immediately come across as an extraordinary person, but his talent is just that. Heís an actorís actor. Heís been in so many movies and yet he always manages to continually create thoroughly original characters, disappearing into his roles. Heís just such a versatile actor. As a writer Iím interested in characters that fall between the cracks, who donít pop right out of a crowd. Richard is the perfect fit. Letís be honest, heís not a classic leading man in many peoples eyes, but that is exactly what makes his performance so believable and so compelling.

Q: What about elaborating on Ďlike everyone elseí?
A: I thought of this character Zainab because I was fascinated with the concept of a young African who had come to the States really just to find a better life, make a better living, and pursue her art as a jewelry designer. From that these other characters come into the story. With Tarek's character I was trying to come up with a young man who had come here with his mother after the death of his father and was searching for safe haven. So once I had these three characters the movie started to write itself. Everything else comes out of that, even the political elements of this movie. It comes down to how these different people connect, how different they are, and at the end of the day how similar they are. I mean, you have Tarek, a musician from Syria, and his connection with Walter Vale, this aging economics professor from Connecticut, and these two find this common ground. Itís the beauty of this country and specifically with New York. You canít deny the humanity around you. Youíre on the subway, the trains, youíve got people on top of you! I think what it affords, outside of the occasional headache, is the opportunity to connect with so many different people if youíre open to it. I think in this particular instance itís something our main character stumbled into. He wasnít looking for that. He wasnít looking to expand in any sense. I think he was very detached but immediately found through music a connection with this young musician. I think in many senses Tarek becomes the heart of the story. He wins us over. His ambition in life is quite pure: to live a good life and to play his music. Itís something you would hope this country would afford a decent individual no matter where theyíre from or how they arrived, but I think the times and circumstances of this country have altered that reality.

Q: Did you always plan to cast with international actors as opposed to actors transforming themselves into different nationalities, as often happens?

A: Yeah, I think authenticity is always very important. For instance, Haaz is Lebanese, not Syrian, but he told me this story the other night where he had to go to Syria to the American embassy to get his papers after being denied once because the embassy was closed in Lebanon, then he moved to Dearborn, Michigan, which is where in the story he and his mother go, and then New York to become an actor. His journey was incredibly similar to that of the characters, and that was developed in the story well before I met him. It can only feed his performance. I think with every character in the story thereís a little bit of a different scenario. I saw Hiam in a movie when I was in Beirut called Satin Rouge and fell in love with her as an actress and kept seeing her in all these movies: Syrian Bride, Paradise Now, and then finally Munich. I thought, Wow. I couldnít get her out of my mind. I went to write in Paris and set up a meeting with her and said I wanted to include her in this project. After meeting her and seeing her work with the character, the character became very clear to me. Itís a much easier way to write. The same thing happened on The Station Agent, sort of a combination of having an image of a character and a sense of the actor.

Q: Do you consider music a character in the film?

A: Yeah, definitely. There are so many live musical elements, even beyond the fact that Tarek is a musician and Walter is fixated on learning the piano. Just walking around the streets of NY there are guys in the subway, guys in the parks, guys on the streets. Itís something we kept stumbling on in the research and writing stage and ultimately the shooting stage. We found a guy who plays the Eru in an upper west side subway and brought him down for a night to play for us. Itís a great sound -- an ancient Chinese instrument in the subway. Thereís a unique sound quality to it, a haunting quality that you could never recreate. We were drawing on sounds like kids playing buckets in the street or the guys who play drums in the park. Tarek plays in a band, and we shot that live with wonderful musicians involved. My dear friend Mohammad Ali, a wonderful author and djembe player, was a huge help with this. He wrote a great book that I read when I was doing my research called The Prophet of Zongo Street. I read the back cover and it said Mohammed lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids and plays the djembe in a jazz band. I knew the main character Tarek was going to play the djembe so I called him and took lessons from him. He became a great resource and a great friend in the process. Again, itís the kind of thing that would only happen in New York: within two days of reading this book I was in a cafť talking to him asking about taking djembe lessons. I did that because the authorís character takes lesson and I thought, ďWhat better way than to experience it?Ē

Q: So you personally took the lessons? You werenít just referring to your actors taking it?

A: I took the lessons to experience it as a writer. When I cast Haaz in the role he went into a self imposed djembe boot camp for 8 weeks. Richard didnít have to; he takes his journey in the movie. He never gets that good at it in the movie. I think he played percussion as a kid. Heís pretty good at it. I think his son plays drums, too.

Q: So weíre watching his evolution
A: Yeah, there's sort of a musical evolution in the movie. But more importantly, it deals with how music transcends boundaries and transcends cultural divides. Itís something that unites us all. Thereís something very elemental and powerful about the release that one can find in music. Thereís a reason music can make us so emotional: because itís pure. I think thatís something Walter discovers in the course of the film.

Q: Did you ever find yourself wanting to take a role in the film, or do you prefer to keep your acting and directing occupations separate?

A: No. Itís not so much that I have an overriding theory about that because some people can do it. Woody Allen made a career of it. Heís a genius. Personally I donít think I could handle it. I think writing and directing are enough hats for me to wear, and theyíre both completely consuming. Having been an actor for so long I have too much respect for what it takes to be prepared and focused on the day of shooting to show up and give it your best. I think if youíre distracted with too many other elements you canít achieve what great actors achieve on film. People ask me all the time why I donít put myself in my films. The reason I became an actor was the element of storytelling through performance. Itís so exciting to be on the other side of the camera watching a wonderful actor work. It just blows me away. That was the fun thing about this project. I had four main actors all from different parts of the world; two veteran actors in Richard and Hiam and two relatively young actors in Haaz and Danai. It was really interesting for me as a writer director and even an actor to watch them work off each other and come together as an ensemble.

Q: Do you think this film is a love story, or do you see it as a story of friendship?
A: Both actually. The story keeps evolving in a very simple way. There are funny moments, tragic moments, even mundane moments. I think itís reflective of how life unfolds. And I think itíll take a long time for me, well after this movie is released, to really understand what itís about.

Q: Do you see The Visitor being political?
A: Yes, to some degree. At least in so much that the characters are embroiled in a situation that is very much on the national conscious right now: immigration and detention. I didnít set out to make a statement per se but rather to put a human face to something that was quickly becoming an ďissue.Ē That really sustained me in writing and directing and editing. It didnít feel as if all of my energy and work was separate from what was really happening around me. It may not change the world, but at the very least itís reminding us of the human element and consequence to a very divisive issue. I guess, in some small way, Iím holding up the mirror up and saying, ďThis is whatís going on. Do we like it? Do we not? Is there room for debate?Ē I donít think itís our job, as filmmakers, to provide answers all the time, but to certainly raise questions. I think thatís something this movie does very well on a personal/emotional level and on a policy level, but never at the expense of a good story. If you can tell a good story, itís the best chance you have of affecting people.

Published August 14, 2008

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