April 9, 2008 - Writer/director/actor Tom McCarthy follows up his 2003 hit The Station Agent with a film just as insightful and deep as that critically acclaimed rookie directorial effort. Similar in tone to The Station Agent, The Visitor focuses on socially inept economics professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, Six Feet Under) and his unlikely friendship with a young couple who've been tricked by a shady realtor into renting Vale's usually unoccupied Manhattan apartment.
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira), a jewelry maker, have nowhere else to go and Walter, very uncharacteristically, invites them to stay with him until they find a place of their own. Tarek and Walter discover they share an appreciation for music, and Tarek teaches the introverted Walter how to play the African drum. But the friendship is pulled apart when Tarek, in America illegally, is arrested and taken to a detention center. The changes brought about by Tarek's friendship prompt Walter into action.
Interview with Tom McCarthy
Are the characters in The Visitor based on people you've met? How do you go about coming up with, let’s say, the economics professor character?
“Not specifically. I think it really is just kind of like, you know, just kind of starting with an idea and age of a character. It really sometimes can be that simple, then kind of what does he do, where does he work, and it's kind of like investigative journalism but in fiction. You know what I mean? So I think there's always bits and pieces that I'll start to pick up. Like, if I start to get a hand on this guy being sort of a dysfunctional economics professor, I'll start talking to my friends in the world of academia. ‘Do you know guys like this?’ ‘Oh yeah, really? Give me an example.’ I had one friend who said there's this old guy who whites out his syllabus every year. To me that says so much about this guy, that not only is he using the same syllabus and just changing the date, but he's using white out as opposed to possibly his computer. Things like that I just sort of build on, I guess.”
When you're creating characters that way, how do you know which mix of characters to put together? How do you balance that? These characters have nothing in common to begin with, so how did you know they would eventually fit into your story?
“I didn't. I really started with Tarek and Walter and how would these guys meet. And then everything sort of spun off that. I gave Tarek a girlfriend and, in fact, they don't fit too well together, Zainab and Walter. Then I really wanted to use Hiam [Abbass] and that sort of made sense as Tarek's mother. I think some of the fun in a piece like this where you don't have, say, this heavy antagonist operating throughout the film, is the tension sort of derived from watching such different people kind of connect in this way. I think if the performances are fully realized, that audiences really enjoy it because they feel like they're just witnessing this kind of awkward coming together of these people.”
Where did the idea of using music as the connection come from?
“I think it was really because I had started with this idea…I liked this idea of this guy taking piano lessons. I really like the idea of taking piano lessons, I don't know why. It's such a basic idea that I liked of an older guy trying to learn the piano. Then when I thought of this idea of Tarek, I knew I wanted him to be an artist of some sort because he was an amalgamation of a lot of people, a lot of artists I met when I was in the Middle East. And I just felt like where the classical piano is so intellectual, especially in the onset when you're learning it, that I felt like the drums represented its polar opposite in many ways. I also like that it wasn't like Tarek was playing the ‘ud or some classic Arabic instrument but rather sort of the cross-cultural pollination that is music and that is New York City, so he picks up the Djembe.”
And speaking of New York City, the city itself is another character in your film. Was it always your intention to film there? How difficult was it and what specifically were the challenges of actually filming in New York?
“I always intended it to be in New York. I think we talked a lot, my cinematographer and I, specifically about making it sort of a New Yorker's New York, kind of an insider’s guide, that kind of thing, where we didn't try to overly sentimentalize or romanticize the city but see the beauty in the everyday of the city. So I think that's where we went with that. Filming in New York is like living in New York. You have those moments where all the stars align and you feel... Like the drum circle in Central Park. It was like, even though it was an October day, it was like 75 degrees and blue skies and just beautiful. You see that shot of them walking across Sheep's Meadow and the city in the background. That was like one of those beautiful days; it was so much fun. Then you have all these other things that happen in New York in terms of traffic and delays and problems and noise and construction and, you know, it's just like the city can beat you down. And it can beat you down if you're just living there, and beat you down if you're in production.”
The production notes say you did a month of rehearsals…
“No, it was two weeks-worth.”
Okay, because a month sounded like an incredible amount of time to actually get your actors together and do that.
“Yeah, no, that's insane. It was probably two weeks or just under. We just tried to get everyone together, and a lot of that time I'm actually honing the script. It's not just having the actors say the lines again and again. I end up doing re-writes and I'm playing with order. We're dealing with different elements of production, whether it's Haaz learning to play drums or looking at Zainab's jewelry designs or all these different things. Maybe working with dialect with Haaz and Hiam so that they sounded like they were from the same place, so on and so forth.”