Vanessa Hudgens further distances herself from her Disney days with a starring role in Gimme Shelter, a gritty drama from writer/director Ron Krauss. Hudgens is barely recognizable as Apple, a pregnant teen with an abusive, drug-addicted mother and a wealthy father (with a new family) who’s never been involved in her life. Homeless and desperate, Apple is taken in by Kathy DiFiore (played by Ann Dowd)
who runs a home for pregnant teens and young mothers who’ve nowhere else to go.
Apple is based on more than one of the young women who called the shelter home, but Kathy is a very real, very passionate caregiver who runs a series of shelters. And the real Kathy DiFiore joined writer/director Krauss on a multi-city publicity tour to promote the film and to raise awareness of the need for more shelters.
Ron Krauss and Kathy DiFiore Gimme Shelter Interview
You started out thinking this was going to be a documentary?
Ron Krauss: “I didn’t even start out thinking it was going to be a documentary. I thought it was going to be just something I was documenting, and then it was a documentary and then a film.”
How did that decision evolve?
Ron Krauss: “Well, I’ve worked in this kind of work for many years, doing films that are inspirational or socially aware, or human spirit-kind of films, and I just did a human trafficking film prior to this film. Kathy’s been doing this work for 33 years. It’s growing.
People talk about it and person-to-person, and I guess I became sort of this link in the chain where it reached so far out that, even in California, somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you should learn about this place – an underground place that’s helping people.’
Kathy doesn’t just help pregnant, homeless teens, she also has shelters for just homeless women. She’s involved in [helping] gangs and youth, and all these different things. She’s just selflessly helping people as best as she can, with no government support or anything.”
Which is incredible.
Ron Krauss: “Yeah, just being a person that makes a difference, wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to go out on the street and I’m going to find people. I’m going to bring them into a home. I’m going to help educate them, I’m going to get them off the street. I’m going to get them a job, put them back in school, something.’ It’s because she was homeless herself, and she knows what it’s like to climb out of that hole.
I heard about it and it just so happens I went back for the holidays and my brother lives about a mile from the shelter. I literally showed up one day and met her and walked into this shelter, which is what you saw in the movie – that shelter. She has five shelters now. I walked in there and just was an observer, and was fascinated by seeing these girls walk around with babies and stuff. I started to talk with Kathy and was even more fascinated by her and what she’s doing, and how does somebody get so motivated to, in a way, dedicate their life to other people.
We started talking, and I would interview some of the girls. She gave me permission to just kind of go around and see what’s going on. I was interviewing the girls and I decided, you know, at some point I was going to do a documentary for her and the shelters. Then at some point it elevated. I was there more days; I kept coming back and interviewing, and I was like, ‘Well, this would be a great documentary! People would be fascinated by this story.’
Then one night I actually took in a girl myself, into the shelter. I came early one night to the shelter and there was a girl standing in front of the shelter. It was in the middle of winter, about 20 degrees out, with no jacket, and standing there. I didn’t know, I thought she lived in the shelter. She was right in front of the door. I brought her in and we were talking and Kathy showed up and asked me, ‘Well, who is this girl?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I thought she lived here,’ and she didn’t. Kathy interviewed her and I asked, ‘Is there another bed here? Can you help this girl?’ She said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and tell her we can probably take her in. There’s another bed.’
When I told her, she literally grabbed me and hugged me so hard she almost knocked me to the ground. That was the hug that sort of inspired me, that there’s something bigger here that everybody needs to know. I went home that night and just felt that hug, and I was thinking and thinking. I came to Kathy and I said, ‘We should think about doing a feature film that can reach so many more people, because this is not just about a shelter of young girls. This is about a place like a holy ground that can inspire other people to make shelters, to just be helping people on a general note.”
Kathy DiFiore: “To open up, period. Open up their heart.”
Ron Krauss: “Yeah, and just help people. In a general note about our society, we need to help more people because that’s the core of how to uplift our society, and right now we’re not going in that direction. We’re all about helping ourselves and that needs to change. That’s why this film goes into family and all these things – the definition of family, and which compares the Brendan Fraser, American, kind of ‘I made it’ family, versus Vanessa Hudgens’ family of shelters and support. Then, in between, single mother, single father, all these things…it really defines the landscape that no matter who you are today, you’re not an outcast if you don’t fit the classic archetype of what an American family is today. There must be some sort of syndrome that affects people going into the world, that they don’t have the same as their friend or something that has this classic family, and they’re sort of just a single mom or dad or something. Hopefully this film can get out there to people and uplift them and make them feel like they’re as good as everybody else. No matter what their situation is, they shouldn’t give up. There’s always hope somewhere, if they keep pushing forward.”
Kathy DiFiore: “It’s hard to remember that, though.”
You’re obviously very protective of these women and the work that you do. How did you know it was okay to open up to Ron and to let him tell the story?
Kathy DiFiore: “I didn’t. He was Hollywood when he knocked on the door.”
Ron Krauss: “New York.”
Kathy DiFiore: “I had to graciously allow him in the house, but I saw him as a possible interloper. I had been called by everybody, you name it, over the years. Two or three times a year they’d call with these absolutely ludicrous requests. I don’t know if I ever told you, Ron. ‘Okay, do you have a pregnant teenager whose mother is also pregnant, and the father is the father of both, and would they be willing to come on my talk show? Could he be black, could they be white?’ It’s like, ‘I just was wondering.’ It’s like I have a cookie jar and a whole series of pregnant people, and if you could produce this one, and if you could produce that one. I would just say, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to them about it,’ but I never mentioned one word to a girl in 33 years about anything. I just protected them. I was afraid they’d say yes, and the next thing they’d be exploited and wouldn’t know how to face their own family and friends. Their lives would go on. I just said no to everybody.
But, you’ve seen Ronnie now. You’ve been in his presence. He had a different aura about him. He’s a gentleman, and when I took him into the shelter, I called it this divine timer. I’m a very spiritual person and I say my prayers every day. I was praying for Ron while you were asking him the questions, that God would give him guidance on how to answer them. This is the way I live my life. When he came in, I call it the divine timer, and I will swear to my grave I heard, ‘Trust him.’ It kept going off, like every five minutes, ten minutes. ‘Trust him. Trust him.’
Now, I’m not the type of person that opens up that way. This is totally against my grain; someone from Hollywood walking into the shelters. I kept hearing, ‘Trust him.’ I said, ‘Okay, Ron. Let’s talk a little more. Let’s see.’ Because if that really was God saying this to me, maybe it’s from my guardian angel or whatever, I kept hearing this message.
I let him come in and meet the girls. Now, you might get to me…being charming and good-looking and all the things that Hollywood people can be.”
Ron Krauss: “Is that what you’re saying I am? Charming and good-looking? Thank you!”
Kathy DiFiore: “Well, exactly, yes. Yes. But those girls… well, lady, they’re street girls. They could rip you up one side and down the other. One in particular I knew there was no way he was going to get to this one. Yet they all came in and they all wanted to talk to him. Not only did they talk to him, but he would keep coming back, like he said, and there’s a special diner they go to; the one in the movie. They go there to hang out and have something after work. We’d sit in the diner, and he’d start telling me things about the girls that they never trusted me to know. One girl was a prostitute. She never told me that. He just casually would say something and he assumed that I knew it. He’d be eating his soup and he’d go tell me something, and I’m ready to fall on the floor under the table. Then I said, ‘God must have picked the right guy,’ and maybe it was time.
I have a phrase … you know, Ron tells me don’t say it, people can take it the wrong way, but I had a Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. What that meant, I always wanted to keep it small. I always felt that God didn’t want me to warehouse these girls; that it wasn’t supposed to be a McDonald’s chain. For them to change their lives, they had to build motherly love. They had to feel that they were being nurtured and that God wasn’t going to look at me when I passed away and judge me based on how many girls I helped. He was going to want me to do the best I could with the girls.”
Quality, not quantity.
Kathy DiFiore: “Exactly!”
Ron Krauss: “I’ve been working on this film for almost four years now, since I started there. And I ended up living at the shelter for a year writing the screenplay. Then on top of that, I came back to the shelter to shoot the movie. I lived in the shelter when we were shooting the movie. What a lot of people don’t know, too, is that a lot of the girls, quite a few of the girls, are acting in the movie with Vanessa. She came and lived in the shelter also, and bonded with them. And 23 babies from the shelter are in the movie.
Kathy was very involved in the movie. I don’t know if she wanted to be, but she became very involved in it when we were filming because we were filming in her shelter. Then it became like a something she had never expected.”
Kathy DiFiore: [Laughing] “A circus.”
Ron Krauss: “A circus! She had to protect her shelters and protect the girls. Literally, she had to find room for the girls, and they were all over there, and everybody was getting all kind of tense – especially the movie people.”
Kathy DiFiore: “How about when I walked on the hot set?”
Ron Krauss: “Yeah, and the crews and the movie people…this was a certain kind of filmmaking that they were not expecting, where you’re intermixing the real people on the set. No one knew how to handle that. The Screen Actors Guild, everybody was sort of confused. All the unions, everybody was confused about what’s going on here because is it a documentary? Is it a feature film? It was a hybrid. It was shot like a documentary; it was shot at the real place, with the real girls and the mothers and the babies, but then you’d have actors in there.
There was always this fine line when we were talking about what we’re doing, it’s like a documentary but we’re also doing this feature film. We’re mixing them. It’s true, because at the end of the movie we have some documentary footage and you have the real girls, and you have all this stuff. You have some great, great performances by actors in the film. Ann Dowd, who plays her, is incredible. Rosario Dawson, James Earl Jones, and so forth. These kind of films today cannot exist without the help of people like yourself and other people to get the word out, because there’s no superheroes and explosions and this and that. They’re not these big films, which those films are good too, but as people we exist on stories, and personal stories that motivate us and lift us, and get us going in life. We need these films. We need help, people to – especially with all the tools we have today: Facebook, Twitter, and all these things – get the word out. Instead of it being a movie, it’s a movement of hope. To get people out to spread the word.”
How much pressure did you feel in getting this story right?
Ron Krauss: “I didn’t even really know how much. The girls are tough. I mean, one girl emphasized to me that she was in a gang and that she’d knock me right out, kind of thing. She didn’t say it to me, but she was hinting that her life of where she came from and where she doesn’t want to go, and doesn’t want to deal with any kind of nonsense. She’s not going to take it.
One thing is it was an I was helping them and they were helping me kind of thing. You know, because they were showing me the way about life. They have their feet on the ground, they are very genuine. You ask them a question, you get a direct answer. Everybody has an agenda. They have no agenda. Their agenda is surviving. That’s their agenda. Surviving has no tolerance, you know what I mean? There is no cutting around the corner and it’s very direct.
There’s honesty in that, and there’s something really refreshing about that, when you meet someone like that. When you’re used to dealing with other people in life, and you meet someone like that, it’s hard to forget about that. It’s hard to not learn from that.”
How do you move on to another project after this? This has been life-changing, I would imagine.
Ron Krauss: “It’s a journey and it’ll help me on my other projects, for sure. It’s helping me grow as a filmmaker and as a person. I learn from each project, and the project I did before this was equally as tough. I get into these worlds and they’re complex, and they’re worlds that most people turn away from. They don’t confront them. They look away. My films are interesting because they don’t look away. You get into it, and you discover and you learn, and you’re entertained, but you’re emotionally moved. So I’m sure there’ll be another subject I feel after this that maybe needs attention or awareness. It could be a continuation of this, something from this world, or something completely different. I never know. It just comes to me and I say, ‘Oh, that is it. I think I should do something like that.'”
And you also have a book coming out?
Kathy DiFiore: “My book comes out right around the time the movie comes out. It’s called Gimme Love, Gimme Hope, Gimme Shelter: The Inspiring Story Behind the Movie, by me. It’s got nine other Apples in it and it starts with my lines, Kathy’s lines, and it describes the development of these women. It’s really a wonderful book for people that are interested in this type of issue in our culture, in our society.
It talks about the other work that I’ve done with the United Nations and work with the homeless women network, and things like that. Also, for anyone that wants to open a shelter, go to the website severalsources.net. I have a kit because we need more shelters.”