Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme Shelter
In 2009, filmmaker Ron Krauss (Puppies for Sale, Alien Hunter) paid a visit to his brother in New Jersey. While there, he learned about a shelter for young mothers, just a mile away. He decided to stop by, "with no agenda or intention." But what he saw there eventually led him to make Gimme Shelter, the story of Apple (Vanessa Hudgens), a teenage girl who flees an abusive home only to wind up alone and on the streets. She finds refuge in a shelter much like the one Krauss visited, but even there, she encounters crises both within and without.
Matthew Lickona: Kathy, you've said that in the past, you were hesitant to take part in media coverage of your work. What led you to say yes on this project?
Kathy DiFiore: When Ron came to visit, I opened my door and listened to what he had to say. When he proposed the idea [of a film], I didn't like it, because I like our privacy — I'm very protective of the girls. I've never gone out and given speeches — it's just the work. Help the work; help the girls. But Ron is a very special guy, very sensitive, very compassionate. I didn't want to trust him — he's from Hollywood, and I'm sorry to say it, but the image of Hollywood is that you don't trust these people.
Ron Krauss: Actually, I'm from New York.
KD: Okay, that's diferent. But I kept hearing this buzzer in my head: "Trust him." So I put him through the litmus test, which is the mothers. These young women have led hard lives. They've been conned by the best. And they really liked him. They told him more about themselves than they told me. That made me realize that God wanted me to work with him. Maybe it was time to change. Maybe it was time to get the message out. We took baby steps, got to like each other.
ML: Ron, I was struck by the scene in the hospital where Apple's mom (Rosario Dawson) is pleading with her to come home. Mom drops her controlling persona and opens up about her own suffering, her own struggles with single motherhood. She makes herself vulnerable to Apple, hoping to gain her sympathy. But Apple won't hear it. Could you tell me about that scene?
RK: First of all, her mother is a prostitute and a meth addict. We don't know what Apple has been put through, but when the movie opens, she's hiding in the bathroom, and we see that her mom beats her. She's given her mother enough chances. She wants to find a way for herself to have a better life, and not be her mother. Her mother tells her, "You are me; there is no better life." And Apple is saying, "I don't think so. I can have a better life."
We actually shot that scene six months after everything else. We tested the movie, and most people were saying, "We really want to know more about the mother-daughter relationship. So I wrote that scene, and Vanessa and Rosario came back and got back into character again. It was challenging, but they did such a good job — Vanessa reacting to the heartbreak of her mother. She was just incredible.
ML: I was struck, because even though her mom had done all those awful things, she was still mom, and here she was, pleading. It was tough.
RK: Apple really represents a lot of young women who fall into the shackles of the power of the mother — the destruction of another human being, from the mother to the daughter. I see it all the time. Probably the most influential person in most people's lives is their mother. Your parents really have a tremendous effect on how you are going to operate in your life — how you are going to treat other people, how you are going to survive. Or not survive.
ML: One of the young mothers decides she doesn't want to stay in the shelter; she feels she's being exploited for charity. What do you say to that kind of claim?
RK: Some of the girls would actually say that while I was there. And they would just leave. That's why I put it in the script.
Dancing with your demons
KD: We try to get the girls to understand that by staying, they'll learn new skills and be a better mother. But some of them just can't see it. They're maybe what you would call runners — they get on to the next environment, and when they don't like that, they run again. One of the things that the shelter director says in the film that I also say is, "Stop dancing with your demons. Throw that garbage out of your life and let us help you. Not everybody is going to help you. Listen to what the other girls are saying." But for some, they've been so abused and manipulated that they just see everybody doing the same thing to them. It's become part of their DNA.
It's very hard. Right now, we have a young lady who just got her nursing degree, but she's leaving us too soon. Her baby is about eight weeks old. We all recognize that she needs to stay with us until the baby is about six months old. But she doesn't want to hear it, and so we're all afraid for her. She's going to get right back into the culture, and she's not going to be strong enough. But she's 19, she can do what she wants.
Lana Del Rey — music to walk the streets in desperation to.
ML: Ron, could you tell me about putting the soundtrack together? You go from hip-hop when she runs out on her mom to Lana Del Rey when she's on the streets to Celine Dion at the end.
RK: That was one of the hardest things in the movie, getting the music. It's not just the music you want, it's the music you can get. The Lana Del Rey track took us over three months — sometimes, you just don't have time. I wanted the music to be eclectic, the transformation from the street girl to the mother. And what's in the middle are all these different kinds of music that emote the different feelings of the film.
ML: Any time you do a film in which a mother chooses to go ahead with a crisis pregnancy and not get an abortion, you're probably going to have someone saying it's propaganda. How would you respond to that?
Still from Knocked Up
RK: You could take the film Knocked Up and call it a pro-life movie, just because she kept her baby. Anytime that's part of the tapestry of the story, you're touching on the subject of a very personal issue. It's what each moviegoer brings inside of them to a movie. But the movie is not an abortion movie. It's not about whether she keeps the baby or not. This movie cuts to a deeper level of human compassion, and love, and family. It really touches on, "What is the definition of family today?" and "What is the face of homelessness today?" A film like this is not specifically about the shelters or the girls, but about the general message of helping somebody, taking initiative. Our society needs more understanding about helping other people and less about helping ourselves.
KD: This movie is about motherhood and babies and families and the culture that has divided us. It's not a movie; it's a movement. I'm hoping that people who see it will want to visit my website so they can get their kit to open up their own shelter, if they want, for free. You can learn about the common problems that these young women are having today — the ones that actually get them pregnant in the first place — and how to deal with them after they're pregnant, whether they're your daughters or your cousins. In this country, 750,000 teenagers get pregnant every year. It's an epidemic, and we need to do something about it. So Ron made the challenge, and I opened up the doors, and here we are.