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
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
unexpectedly discovered the subject of his next film.
There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a remarkable woman who was being
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
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
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
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
knocked me over. That hug was the inspiration for the movie."
The girl, Darlisha Dozier, became one of the primary inspirations for Apple's
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"I was already focused on Vanessa, but I needed confirmation from them," he
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
Apple, she is a far cry from the actress and pop singer that her fans look up
deglamorized, Hudgens is almost unrecognizable after adding about 15 pounds to
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
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
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
performances I've ever seen from an actress her age. It's very bold and very
Hudgens describes Krauss as an unusually hands-on director. "He did hair,
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
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
situation, in poverty really, so she knows these characters. It's another
Hudgens personally asked Dawson to play June. "She's such a rad chick," the
actress says. "She's down for anything. We both went to the most unattractive
places women can
Dawson responded strongly to Krauss' gritty screenplay and told him it was
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
The actress was deeply connected to the material, rarely breaking character,
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
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
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
"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
Brendan Fraser, who plays Tom Fitzpatrick, the father Apple has never met,
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
Hudgens, who got to know DiFiore well during her time at the shelter, says
embodies all of the warmth, kindness and strength of the woman who inspired her
was a warm, motherly presence on set," says Hudgens. "Ann was always trying to
everyone else was okay."
Kathy DiFiore's own story is as compelling as any film. A suburban wife and
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Krauss is honored and touched that Kathy DiFiore allowed him to be one the
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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