The movie, Gimme Shelter (www.gimmeshelterthemovie.com) which opens in theaters tomorrow, January 24th, features a rising young star, the talents of a gifted director/writer, and a story based on inspiring true events. The star is actress (and singer) Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical series), the director/writer is Ronald Krauss (Amexica, Puppies for Sale), and the story is rooted in the work and experience of Kathy DiFiore, founder of Several Sources Shelters. The film depicts the struggles and eventual redemption of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Hudgens), a homeless and pregnant teen. Having run away from her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) and spurned by her white collar father (Brendan Fraser), she eventually meets a caring stranger (James Earl Jones), who introduces her to a shelter for homeless teenagers.
The movie has been praised by several prominent pro-life leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who described Gimme Shelter as a “moving film with an uplifting message of hope and the dignity of human life—and the fact that it is based on real people and events makes it all the more compelling. I hope that this film finds a wide audience—particularly among teens and young adults!”
I spoke by phone recently with both Kathy DiFiore and Ronald Krauss, and the passion of both for helping troubled youths and building a culture of life was obvious. Gimme Shelter, Krauss said, “was 33 years in the making”, a reference to DiFiore establishing her first shelter in 1981. He had heard about Kathy’s work through various contacts, and then he learned that her first shelter was less than two miles from his brother’s house in New Jersey. “I was immediately intrigued,” Krauss says. “I arranged to visit one of her shelters and I was awed by what I saw.” He visited and met Kathy, discovering a devoted woman who was humble and free of any interest in the spotlight.
Krauss was immediately moved by what he witnessed at the shelter. “I was especially inspired by a couple of the girls” as he learned about their pasts and their struggles. “This movie,” he explains, “is about the new face of homelessness: young women, mostly teens, who are often single mothers.”
He talked with Kathy about a possible documentary. True to form, she didn’t want it to be about her, but she did have an idea: making a film focusing on the girls and the shelters. Krauss began working on a script, spending time in shelters getting to know the people there and hearing their stories. He eventually spent a year visiting shelters, recording nearly 200 hours of interview with various young women.
“I’m just one link in the chain”, Krauss insists about the making of Gimme Shelter. The word he kept coming back to is “selflessly”: helping those who have no other means of support and assistance. In order to insure the film’s authenticity, Krauss had several of the girls help in the writing process, scheduling “script nights” where they would read some of the script while sharing their thoughts about the story line. “They helped me find the reality of their lives,” Krauss says about the process. “They shared their deepest emotions about what it is to be homeless, to not know where you’re going to be tomorrow.”
Krauss never thought he could cast an established Hollywood actress in the lead role, and planned to cast an unknown. But after meeting with Hudgens, he changed his mind. He noted her hunger for a different role; she wanted to challenge herself as an actress and a person. And after Hudgens accepted the role, Krauss was taken back by her intense preparation. “She spent three weeks living in a shelter, she gained weight for the role, and she chopped off her hair. She really did become ‘Apple’, her character!” So much so, says Krauss, that he would call her “Apple,” not “Vanessa”, even off the set—“that’s how much she became the character.” And that is what Hudgens was hoping to accomplish, having stated that it an “an opportunity to completely transform myself. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see myself. The story, which is based on the lives a several young women who stayed at the shelter, is completely terrifying, which was all the more reason why I wanted to do it.”
DiFiore began sheltering several young pregnant women in her home, free of charge, in 1984. Soon thereafter, the state of New Jersey fined her $10,000 for running an illegal boarding home. Her story and her work gained attention in the media, and eventually Sen. Gerald Cardinale sponsored a bill exempting non-profit groups from the legislation. When it appeared that the bill would be vetoed, DiFiore had the idea of contacting Mother Teresa to see if she could help. But she thought the idea was unrealistic—until the next day she “heard a loud voice telling me: call Mother Teresa!” She knew a man who worked in Mother Teresa’s soup kitchen, so she called him. His wife answered and told Kathy that her husband had just spoken with Mother Teresa the night before. After a few calls, she got in touch with Mother Teresa, who worked to help her get rid of the fine and to persuade lawmakers to pass the bill.
DiFiore has written a soon-to-be-published book, Gimme Love, Gimme Hope, Gimme Shelter, featuring stories about women like Apple, as well her stories about Mother Teresa and others.
As DiFiore continues her tireless work, Krauss hopes Gimme Shelter will open eyes and hearts. “This is a crucial movie for a crucial time,” he says, “It provides a window into our society. These homeless women are not outcasts; they could be anyone.” The movie, he reflects, will means different things to different viewers, depending on where they are coming from and what their own experiences are. “This is not just a movie; it is a movement to change the culture.”
Krauss sees a strong connection between the film and Pope Francis’ warnings about “a throwaway culture” and a “consumerist” mentality that is focused on things rather than on people. He hopes that Francis can see the film as it echoes his messages about the poor, needy. “The Prayer of St. Francis is in the movie,” he says, “and that was shot before Francis was elected.”