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GIMME SHELTER

AboutThe Production
Ron Krauss has been writing, producing and directing intensely personal movies since his first short film, Puppies for Sale (starring Jack Lemmon), began collecting rave reviews and international awards in 1998. Whether making documentaries or narrative films, Krauss' focus is always on reflecting real-life issues with compassion, hope and authenticity. When his recent project, Amexica, a devastating drama about human trafficking, was screened at the United Nations, Krauss unexpectedly discovered the subject of his next film.

There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a remarkable woman who was being honored at the UN for her work with teenaged mothers. Formerly homeless, DiFiore managed to put her life back together before founding Several Sources Shelters, a network of resources devoted to helping women in need. "I was immediately intrigued," Krauss says. "I arranged to visit one of her shelters and I was awed by what I saw."

At the shelter, Krauss met pregnant, homeless teenagers as young as 15 who had been turned out of their homes with nowhere to go. His initial thought was that he had found the perfect subject for his next documentary. Moving into the shelter to get an up-close look at the lives of these young women, their babies and the dedicated workers who support them, Krauss stayed a year and recorded close to 200 hours of interviews with the shelter's residents.

As he learned more and more about his subjects, the compelling stories he heard fired his imagination and he began to reconceive his ideas about the project. "The shelter began to seem like holy ground to me," he says. "As I became close to several of the girls and heard their stories, I began to write this screenplay based on their lives."

Being at the shelter was a profound, even life-changing experience, says Krauss. "It opened my eyes. Just like the movie, I went from fall to winter, spring and summer with the girls. Even for me, staying there was one of the hardest times of my life. The girls who live there are relying on this place for survival."

He witnessed first-hand how lives are changed through DiFiore's work. "When I'd only been there a short time, I saw a young girl standing in front of the shelter," the filmmaker recalls. "She didn't have a coat and it must have been 18 degrees outside. I thought she lived there, so I let her in. When Kathy showed up, it turned out she wasn't a resident. In fact, no one there knew her. She had heard about the shelter and walked about 25 miles to get there, with no coat and three months pregnant."

Fortunately, there happened to be a bed available at the shelter. "All this time, she had been acting like everything was fine, but in reality she was desperate for a place to stay," says Krauss. "When she heard there was room for her, she grabbed me and hugged me so hard she almost knocked me over. That hug was the inspiration for the movie."

The girl, Darlisha Dozier, became one of the primary inspirations for Apple's story.

"Darlisha came from a very abusive home," says Krauss. "There's a shockingly violent incident in the movie between Apple and her mother that really happened to Darlisha. She has a small part in the film, as does a girl named Alison Bailey, who also provided inspiration for the character. The story is real and the girls are real."

Another pivotal part of the story is Apple's relationship with Tom Fitzpatrick, her biological father. The character is based on a real-life Wall Street executive whose young daughter is a resident at the shelter. "Teen homelessness and pregnancy are not limited to any economic strata," observes Krauss. "It happens to rich and poor families. I felt those two characters embodied some of the most important things I learned."

To ensure the film would be as authentic as possible, Krauss began to involve the girls themselves in the writing process. He scheduled "script nights" where they would read sections of the movie and share their thoughts on the story as it developed. "They helped me find the reality of their lives," Krauss says. "They shared their deepest emotions about what it is to be homeless, to not know where you're going to be tomorrow."

When Krauss eventually showed his script to people in the entertainment industry, he was surprised by the overwhelming emotional response he received. "Homeless teens and crisis pregnancy are an unusual subject for a mainstream film," he says. "I wasn't sure anyone would care. In fact, there was enormous interest. Many young actresses saw this as a showcase for their talent. The character is in virtually every scene and goes through so much."

While he was writing the script, Krauss says he never imagined casting a Hollywood star in the lead role. He had planned to scour local high schools in search of an unknown with the emotional transparency and resilience to embody Apple's formidable spirit. But after meeting with Vanessa Hudgens, best known as perky A-student Gabriella Montez in the three High School Musical films, Krauss began to reconsider. "Vanessa was a little different from anyone else I met," he says. "And she was hungry for the transition."

In fact, the actress was so eager to play the part that she came to her audition in character as Apple. "I knew I could bring her to life," Hudgens says. "It was 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."

Her transformation and her enthusiasm for the role impressed Krauss, but the filmmaker kept his options open, narrowing down the field to a mixture of about a dozen rising stars and complete unknowns. Then, in an unusual move, he screened their auditions for the girls at the shelter.

"I was already focused on Vanessa, but I needed confirmation from them," he says. "They had no idea who she was. Some of them had never even been to a theater until I took them to a movie night while I was staying there. But they confirmed what I already felt. They said that Girl Number 8-Vanessa-was the most like them."

Landing the role was just the beginning of a long and challenging journey for Hudgens. As Apple, she is a far cry from the actress and pop singer that her fans look up to. Drastically deglamorized, Hudgens is almost unrecognizable after adding about 15 pounds to her diminutive 5'1" frame. The only makeup she wears is designed to mask her wholesome beauty.

"I chopped all my hair off," she says. "I had a neck tattoo with fake piercings and I wore baggy old clothes. When I walked around the building I lived in and no one recognized me, I started to get really excited about the role. The hardest thing was trying to stay away from paparazzi. I wanted the way I looked to be a complete surprise.'

To research the part, Hudgens eventually moved into one of the Several Sources Shelters, living side by side with the young women there for several weeks. "The girls really opened up to me and made me feel like I was one of them," Hudgens says. "At first, it was a little rough; it was unlike anywhere I'd ever been. There are a lot of rules, like no cell phones were allowed. But I felt very welcomed by the girls and I love kids, so playing with them was heartwarming. In the end, all the pieces of the puzzle fell together in a beautiful way."

Krauss warned Vanessa that living in the shelter was going to challenging in ways she couldn't imagine. "It was a very difficult and emotional transformation," he says. "But by the time we started shooting, I could only see Apple. In this movie, Vanessa gives one of the finest performances I've ever seen from an actress her age. It's very bold and very honest."

Hudgens describes Krauss as an unusually hands-on director. "He did hair, makeup and wardrobe. He gave specific line readings. It was amazing to have him at my side throughout this. He is a great partner in crime. Of course, there were times I wanted to poke his eyes out, but we really bonded. I love him and I think he loves these girls and their stories. It was a beautiful adventure to be able to embark on with him."

The actress also became very close to the girls she was living with, especially when they and their children joined the cast. "It was exciting for them to be a part of a movie, especially because the story is so personal for them," she says. "For the movie, having some of the real people on hand added that extra vibe of authenticity.

"At the end of the day, we were all the same," she says. "It was super humbling and taught me not to invest as much energy into material things. It also made me feel really grateful for what I have, especially my parents."

Rosario Dawson, who plays Apple's street-weary mother June, made her film debut in Harmony Korine's disturbing teen drama, Kids, playing a character not so different from Apple. "Rosario herself had a tough childhood, says Krauss. "She grew up in an economically challenged situation, in poverty really, so she knows these characters. It's another incredible performance."

Hudgens personally asked Dawson to play June. "She's such a rad chick," the younger actress says. "She's down for anything. We both went to the most unattractive places women can go."

Dawson responded strongly to Krauss' gritty screenplay and told him it was something she felt audiences needed to see. "I was blown away by the intensity from the first scene," she says. "I knew that it wouldn't be an easy job, but it would be interesting. The shoot was pretty rough. June is really tough and emotional and angry. There weren't a lot of fun days at work because it was so intense."

The actress was deeply connected to the material, rarely breaking character, according to Krauss. "Once while we were taking a break, I was having a casual conversation with her about some other movies and tears were running down her face," he remembers. "I realized she was still June. This was a deeply emotional and personal film for her."

Dawson volunteers with organizations including Boys and Girls Clubs of America and VDay, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. She felt this project dovetailed well with the outreach she does for them. "Sometimes you have an opportunity to do a film like this that zeroes in on one person's story, but it also shows how interconnected we all are," she says. "You don't have to be a teenage mom to connect to this. It's about finding a space where you can have trust and faith and belief in yourself. It's really a journey of discovery."

Dawson describes her character as a woman who is unable, or unwilling, to face her demons. "I think we all know people who are complete denial about their responsibility. June is unable to put a mirror to her face and be honest with herself, which is terribly sad. I can identify with how scary it would be to really acknowledge what you're doing wrong."

The actress says she found great inspiration and support in Krauss and Hudgens during the shoot. "Ron is really talented and really specific," she says. "He spent a lot of time in this world and he was very passionate about what we were doing. And Vanessa did a great job. She spent so much time with those girls that it became a collaboration. You can feel the intimacy when you watch the film. Everybody let themselves go into a very raw and vulnerable place."

But it's the young women from the shelter who are the real heroes here, says Dawson. "Violence and abuse carry a lot of shame in our society, so people often keep quiet. It was such a brave thing the girls did by exposing themselves like that. It's a big deal this film is getting distributed and allowing their voices to be heard almost documentary-style. It's a very powerful and beautiful film."

Brendan Fraser, who plays Tom Fitzpatrick, the father Apple has never met, contacted Krauss after reading the script. "Brendan said he wanted to do the film, but he understood that he might or might not be the right person," Krauss says. "He was the right person because he really believed in the project. He was always very gentle, considerate and compassionate, not just toward me as a filmmaker, but to everyone at the shelter. He even helped with the babies. On the last day of shooting, he quietly told Kathy that he was donating his salary to the shelter, so he actually did the movie for nothing. It was a complete surprise to all of us."

Fraser's thoughtfulness and generosity carried over onto the set and his co-stars as well, says Hudgens. "Brendan is so sweet and was always very supportive. He made sure I could stay as focused as possible. It was great to work with him because I've been a fan of his forever. I look at him and see George of the Jungle!"

Krauss notes that although Fraser is well known for playing lovable goofballs and larger than- life heroes, he is capable of playing far more nuanced roles as well. "Because of the success of the big commercial films he has made, people tend to forget the great dramatic performances he has turned in, in films like Gods and Monsters, School Ties and Crash. He's made a lot of very entertaining films, but he also knows how to touch peoples' hearts."

The actor delivers another memorable turn in this movie, Krauss promises. "The character has a big turnaround and he makes it completely believable. Tom's relationship with the daughter he has just met is extremely complex and always evolving. Brendan was always trying to give me what I needed to help this project. He was a tremendous asset to the film."

Apple's life is changed by an encounter with Frank McCarthy, a clergyman played by James Earl Jones, who guides the young woman to the shelter. "James Earl Jones is an iconic American actor," Krauss says. "He brought so much to this film. The character is a beacon of hope for Apple. The audience will identify with him in a very positive way. We shot in difficult locations, like abandoned buildings with no air conditioning in the middle of the summer. James is 80 years old and he worked as tirelessly as anyone on this film. He gave his heart and soul to it, as well as bringing his own wisdom and compassion to the character."

To play Kathy, the character inspired by Several Sources Shelters founder Kathy DiFiore, Krauss turned to an actress whose face may be far more familiar to audiences than her name. Ann Dowd came to the film fresh from her acclaimed performance in Compliance. Her long history of stellar performances has made her a mainstay of stage, film and television in New York for many years.

"Ann in real life is very connected to helping children," says Krauss. "She's been involved in foster care, among other things. And her audition was spot on. She had a clear command and understanding of the role. She's been in a lot of films and always turns in a very solid performance."

Dowd and DiFiore met and instantly bonded, according to the director. "Ann spent a lot of time with Kathy. She became the character with a delicate, complex and layered performance that I believe will be widely admired. I felt fortunate to have her as part of the cast, especially in such a crucial role."

Hudgens, who got to know DiFiore well during her time at the shelter, says Dowd truly embodies all of the warmth, kindness and strength of the woman who inspired her character. "She was a warm, motherly presence on set," says Hudgens. "Ann was always trying to make sure everyone else was okay."

Kathy DiFiore's own story is as compelling as any film. A suburban wife and mother, she escaped an abusive marriage only to find herself homeless and on the street. Eventually able to reclaim her life, DiFiore's recovery fueled a desire to help others turn their lives around. When she made her home a shelter for pregnant women, the State of New Jersey raided it and levied huge fines for running an illegal boarding house. A devout Catholic, she decided to reach out to none other than Mother Teresa.

"Together they fought the state and managed to change the law," says Krauss. "Now she runs five shelters in New Jersey that give people a chance to get back on their feet by providing them with education and helping them get jobs. Her shelters are run 100 percent on donations, without any public funding, for 35 years now."

Honored by three American presidents for her work, DiFiore has tried to maintain as much anonymity as possible, refusing frequent opportunities to appear on television and in print. "People from all different media have asked me to get involved in one thing or another," DiFiore says. "But I never met anybody that I trusted before Ron. He is unique among the people I've met in the entertainment business. He sees the world from a different perspective.

"When I invited Ron to come and see the shelter, I was trusting him with the most precious thing in my life-these mothers and their babies," she continues. "But he's a really special person. He spent time with the moms and they really liked him. They would tell him things about their lives that they never told us, as if he was their brother. They even named him the Honorary Godfather of the shelters. They haven't given that title to anyone else."

DiFiore's work with her girls and their babies keeps her so insulated from pop culture that she had never heard of Vanessa Hudgens before the actress was cast as Apple. "I can't remember the last movie I saw," DiFiore says. "My life is consumed with these mothers and children. I didn't know Brendan Fraser or Rosario Dawson either. But I admit, I do know James Earl Jones. I loved Star Wars and Field of Dreams, so I was thrilled to have him on the film."

Along with the mothers from the shelter, DiFiore viewed tapes of the finalists' auditions for the role of Apple. "Ron was on the West Coast and we were in New Jersey, all scooted up around the television to watch together. He didn't tell us which one was Vanessa or that she was his first choice. The girls really decided that Vanessa was the one."

Hudgens impressed DiFiore with her willingness to live Apple's life at the shelter before filming. "She was in a completely unfamiliar world and she seemed pretty fragile," says DiFiore. "We had a couple of the girls work closely with her, because living in a shelter is not what she's used to. She had one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the shelter at first, but after a while she got her balance."

Di Fiore was also recruited as the film's "baby wrangler," in charge of the almost two dozen infants and toddlers who appear in the movie. "All but one are from the shelter," she says. "Some had gone home to be with their grandparents, so it was like a reunion."

Simply changing the lives of the young women she is in direct contact with is not DiFiore's ultimate goal. She hopes that her work will inspire others to reach out a helping hand as well. "I've had people from as far away as India and China contact me and I try to help them get started. I have even put together a kit to show them how to start a shelter and when anyone contacts me, I send them one."

DiFiore's work has far-reaching consequences, says Hudgens, and the movie will serve to spread the word more widely. "It will remind young women that they have choices," she says. "And when we see someone like Kathy doing a great job serving others, we should recognize and honor them. We're all in this together and when we embrace that we begin to come together as a community."

Krauss is honored and touched that Kathy DiFiore allowed him to be one the first to highlight her work in such a public manner. He believes that DiFiore's willingness to be involved in Gimme Shelter stemmed in part from the fact that the story is not about her. "It's about the girls and the work of the shelters," he says. "And once she committed she was completely there for us. A week before shooting, she had a 17-hour brain operation. When it was done, she used the nurse's cell phone to call me and say, don't worry, we can still do your movie. She really is a miracle and I am thrilled to be able to tell a story inspired by her work."

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