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The Visitor - Thomas McCarthy interview

Thomas McCarthy wrote and directed The Visitor.

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Thomas McCarthy talks about some of the issues surrounding The Visitor, his brilliant follow-up to The Station Agent.

He also reveals why he wrote the role of The Visitor specifically with Richard Jenkins in mind and why a trip to Beirut provided the original inspiration for the project…

Q. Were you conscious when you were making the film how relevant it would all be when you finally got it out there?
Thomas McCarthy: No. I will admit as we were getting deeper and deeper into production and post-production, especially in our country, it became more and more of a relevant topic. It was something that was grabbing headlines, not just because of the issue itself, but certainly with the election and things. People were talking about it more and more. So, that was pretty interesting.

Q. Because there’s some irony that a country [like America] seems quite anti the idea of immigration when it’s completely constructed by it…
Thomas McCarthy: Fascinating. It’s like “us and them”, except we are them! So, look at who you are [laughs]. It’s really interesting and that, unfortunately, is part of the problem because it’s often like, “well, it’s the Mexicans…” But it’s not just the Mexicans. Or “it’s the Arabs”, but it’s not just the Arabs. It’s all this kind of thing. I talked to this Irish guy earlier today and there’s a lot of Irish people locked up right now. It’s like every wave of immigrants have come over and made our country what it is. And there is some sort of a detachment from logic with that because it’s an emotional reaction driven by fear. So, there’s no room for logic.

Q. Was the film something that came about as a reaction to September 11?
Thomas McCarthy: No. It’s funny because I’ve heard the term “it’s a post 9/11”… But in New York everything is post 9/11 and everything in the world is post 9/11. I think we can mark that history and I feel like we can never forget that moment. But we don’t have to use that… I have a problem with that in a way because I feel like there’s other horrible things happening around the world that are defining us also. Look, Clinton put in past legislation in 1996 that started this ball rolling in I think a negative way. And then what happened once 9/11 happened was that a lot of this was sped up and certain things were put into place by the Bush administration, such as profiling, that certainly play a part in the story. But it wasn’t so much that I was commenting on. It really was just the plight of these people in this situation.

Q. But it does touch on the fact that this situation has sped up since 9/11?
Thomas McCarthy: Yeah, the lawyer says that in one scene and that’s true because I was talking to a lot of immigration attorneys who were saying “the problem is, because legislation has happened so quickly, people don’t realise that their status has changed at least in the eyes of the government”. They know they haven’t changed at all, but they didn’t realise that they can be grabbed and pulled off the street and put in these centres. There’s a lot more attention paid now than used to happen. So, that lawyer’s moment is true. It has been going on for a while. I don’t know why I’m so reticent to classify it that way. I think even the Sundance [Film Festival] catalogue sent me an early synopsis at one point and they were like: “During this war on terror…” I was like “no, no, no… please no Fox News part of war on terror wording for this type of thing!” I take offence to that.

Q. Are you still actively associated with the Sojourners [an organisation that visits detainees]?
Thomas McCarthy: No, I haven’t been visiting recently. When you get to make a movie everything sort of goes by. But I still get their updates and we’ve done screenings with them and outreach programme stuff and involved them with participant films. So, that’s been really cool. I’ve also got a lot of emails from people. But I feel like that it’s probably not my calling to continue to be involved. My calling is to kind of be involved with them for the purpose of research and to possibly shed some light on the issue. That’s what I do and there are other people who do other amazing things. But there are some really selfless people out there.

At one point I was in a van going out with the Sojourners and, literally, I was sitting next to a Jewish guy, a woman from Sweden, a single mum African-American from the suburbs of New Jersey and two other people. I was just like: “Look who’s in this van, going to visit immigrants in a detention centre!” It was amazing and we were all having this great conversation about what we did and why we were doing this. There were moments like that when I realised that this is a cool country and I liked the people who make it up. And that’s good to feel sometimes when you have a lot of reasons to feel otherwise.

Q. The other thing that the film captures is that you have this middle-class, late middle aged, white-bred American guy who is totally disillusioned with his life who becomes re-engaged with the real world through this shocking event. Did that develop out of character?
Thomas McCarthy: A little bit out of character. Sometimes you’re writing from a more thematic storyline and sometimes you’re just writing what could happen next and this feels right, or feels exciting, or I haven’t seen this. So, you’re writing from a bunch of different sources of inspiration. But then I liked the idea that Tarek quite literally shakes this guy back to life in that first scene. I liked that his first encounter was violent. It’s almost like for revolution to occur there has to be violence, some would say. So, something had to really wake him up and scare the hell out of him. It happens dramatically in that moment and then slowly happens throughout the picture.

Q. Then there’s almost the last scene where he’s confronting the guy at the detention centre and this is the voice of almost the American establishment realising the full horror of what the state does in his name…
Thomas McCarthy: Yes, there’s that and also just being a frustrated, angry individual… I’m sure Walter is probably frustrated with the state of the world in many ways. I’m sure he’s frustrated that he’s lost his wife to cancer and could do nothing but sit down and watch her die. I feel like he’s also a man who’s frustrated he’s stuck in his life and is full of self-loathing. Sometimes, we explode in those moments and they’re not just about what’s happening in the moment, but everything else as well.

Q. Is it true that you wrote the script with Richard Jenkins in mind? And what was it about him that appealed?
Thomas McCarthy: Yes I did and I had that age and type of character in mind… that sort of 60-year-old everyman-ish guy who was a good professor but not the brightest mind at Harvard. It wasn’t a Good Will Hunting kind of thing, but more just this guy who was a career academic, in whom the flame had been somewhat extinguished. There’s a lot of these guys who sit around… A friend of mine, who is an academic in New York, I actually got the idea of him whiting out that thing from her because he said: “Oh, I’ve got that guy in my department. We don’t know what he even does anymore. And not only does he use the same syllabus but he whites it out! It’s like, at least use your computer… you’re still using white outs!” And that was awesome because it says everything about that guy being stuck in another period in his life. I had this short list of people and I felt that Richard was just right. He’s got that sort of strong, stern quality but can also play other sides of himself. He’s innately funny and I just always had him in mind.

I was in LA working on a film at the same time as he was and we stayed in the same hotel and had dinner. It was like our first date and we didn’t really know each other. By the end, I was like: “I think I’m going to do this.” But I didn’t say anything to him. And then a year and a half later I just gave the script to his agent, who is my agent… I was such a tease [laughs]. It was like: “See you in a year and a half!” So, then we had our second date and I was like: “Do you want to do it?” And he was like: “Yeah.” And then it was a case of “so now what?” It was like asking someone to go out in middle school and then having nothing else to say. But he was funny. When I asked him if he wanted to do it, he said: “Absolutely, I’d love to do it but I will say you’ll never get the money if I do it.” But I said: “Fair enough, let me worry about that and let me know.” So, we started talking about the movie right then and never stopped. He would call me all the time even though it was another six months before we got the movie up and running. But it informed the script and I would steal his language all the time and put it into the character.

Q. The movie does work, in a lot of ways, because of the strength of his performance. But I’m sure you must have had conversations with people who said they’d give you the money if you got someone like Robert Redford?
Thomas McCarthy: Exactly… and Paul Newman and Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. But then what’s Morgan Freeman doing with those three people we’d never seen before. There’s a status thing that’s implicit in that casting that you can’t ignore. Those guys are extraordinary individuals. They made their life being extraordinary whereas Richard hadn’t. He’s made his life acting ordinary and living in Rhode Island. It’s a small thing but it’s very tangible and that’s what makes Richard such a beloved character actor, in my opinion. He brings the same work ethic to every role, which is really just playing the stakes of that scene and really being whoever that scene needs him to be.

Q. And it’s for that reason we don’t know how the movie is going to turn out…
Thomas McCarthy: Yes. And another interesting thing about Richard is that you don’t know that much about him and we don’t tell you that much about him, so that creates its own tension in the film. We’re always learning little bits and pieces about this guy. Richard had a funny comment during the opening scene with the piano lesson, when he said: “You know, I kind of think the audience is thinking, ‘oh God, I hope we’re following the piano teacher here and not the boring white guy because she’s more interesting’.” And we very well could have gone out the door with the piano lady and had a very entertaining movie because she’s a great actress.

Q. Where did the Arab time line comment come from?
Thomas McCarthy: That came from a friend of mine. I spent a lot of time in the Arab community in New York literally just hanging out and spending more and more time. One of my friends is an Arab comedian and she said at one point: “I think people think you’re Mossad right now…” But another friend of mine, who is Palestinian, took me to a concert at City Hall and we were having a drink beforehand and I was like: “We’ve got to go, it’s almost time.” But she was like: “Don’t worry about it. It’s Arab time.” And sure enough, we get there and everyone is out front, talking and milling. I was like: “This is insane people, Marcel is playing!” So, we go in and it’s half full and I’m like: “That’s too bad.” But he plays two songs and 20 minutes in the doors open and 150 people come in… and not tip toeing to the seats. He’s just sitting there waiting for them to sit down. But then he plays two more songs and 20 minutes later, doors open and there’s another 150 people. By now, we’re hysterical. So, that was a little nod to her. In fact, the last lady that came in was carrying a crying baby! The spirit is great and literally it was that spirit that was the jumping off point for the movie because I’d never spent any time in the Middle East before but when I’d finished The Station Agent the State Department sent me over there to screen it. And I ended up in Beirut…

Q. Why did the State Department want The Station Agent screened in the Middle East?
Thomas McCarthy: Well, that’s a great story. I thought it was a joke when they called me. They sent The Station Agent and The Fog of War as a unique double bill. And Errol [Morris] wasn’t going out there. I was like: “No shit, Errol’s not going!” I’m the only idiot that would go. But we went to Muscat, Oman and Beirut/Lebanon and I made some great friends in Beirut. They invited me back, this organisation called Beirut DC, which is like a film collective. They run the Beirut Film Festival. But they asked me to come back and work with young filmmakers who were making their first short film and in that time I had so much fun. There were so many film geeks and writers and people in production. I was like: “Man, I haven’t seen this spirit captured before in a character on-screen.” I’ve seen a lot of other portrayals recently representing events supposedly. But I wanted to bring this character to the screen, so that’s where Tarek came from.

I knew I was on the right track because when we were auditioning I saw probably every young Arab character in that age frame there was in New York or LA and from London and Paris. It was almost like every guy who came in said: “Thanks for writing the role.” I know as an actor that it’s nice to see something that’s not just about this one portrayal that we’re getting a lot of work off right now. So, once I cast Haaz he brought his spirit to the role because Tarek is who that guy is. I wish he was with us on the press tour because he’s such a phenomenal guy… so generous and warm. He’s like his character in the movie… you can’t help but like him.

Funnily enough, he’s from Lebanon, moved to Michigan and then moved to New York to pursue music, which I knew after I cast him. So, he had a very similar voyage to that part. He had to learn to drum for the film. He had an African guy in LA training him and then when we got to New York I had this guy that I used. It wasn’t only about playing it, but also living with the instrument and feeling it. How a musician holds an instrument when he’s not playing it is as important as how he looks when he is playing it. So, there was a lot of focus on that.

Q. There’s another irony in that America is trying to create freedoms in parts of the world that they’re denying to people who are trying to escape those parts of the world when they get to America. Likewise, that some of what goes on is symptomatic of the police state referenced by certain characters in the film in regard to Syria. Do audiences get those ironies?
Thomas McCarthy: I think some do. I can’t answer that question. I remember being at a screening where some guy said: “Do you really believe that this country is like Syria?” And I was like: “Of course not! I think the Syrian regime has a lot of problems, as most regimes do.” But I do take the view that in that moment, that woman’s emotional reaction to what she’s experienced with her husband and bureaucracy and detention, it all feels similar emotionally to her. She says later: “I hate this feeling…” But she knows that feeling of not knowing where someone is and not having access or information. And that is scary and that is prevalent… the fact that many of these detainees are not afforded any sort of legal aid.

I think most Americans, if they knew, would be like: “What do you mean? Murderers are… killers are, rapists and paedophiles. They get it automatically, so how come a lot of these decent people who came here like our grandparents did to earn a better wage don’t get it if they’re in trouble? OK, we have to look at that.” So, that’s what I do… I make it and put it out there and if it starts debate that’s a good thing. I do have a belief – and maybe it’s naive and optimistic – that the American people, when they have the information, can enact change. It’s just a question of having that information.

Read our review of The Visitor

Read our interview with Richard Jenkins