Ronald Krauss and Kathy DiFiore on the Making of ‘Gimme Shelter’
WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2014.
“Gimme Shelter” gives audiences one of the most intimate looks at life inside a shelter for those in need they could ever hope to see. It stars Vanessa Hudgens who turns in an astonishing performance as Apple Bailey, the child of an abusive and drug addicted mother. At the film’s beginning, Apple runs away from home and seeks out her biological father, a Wall Street banker named Tom Fitzpatrick (played by Brendan Fraser) who does what he can to help her out, but she ends up running away upon discovering she’s pregnant, and because Tom isn’t excited about her wanting to keep the baby. After a couple of nights on the streets and a nasty car accident, Apple finds her way to a shelter for young pregnant women run which is run by a spiritual woman, and it is there that she begins to feel a sense of hope for the first time in her life.
“Gimme Shelter” was written and directed by Ronald Krauss who actually spent some time in an actual women’s shelter run by Kathy DiFiore, a once homeless woman who eventually turned her life around and founded Several Sources Shelters which is dedicated to helping women in need. Krauss’ original plan was to make a documentary out of all the interviews he did with residents of the shelter, but in an attempt to show the world of the importance of the work DiFiore has done and to keep her legacy going, he decided to make a feature length movie instead.
I got to meet with Krauss and DiFiore during a roundtable interview at the “Gimme Shelter’s” press day held at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. It was especially nice to see DiFiore there as she does not do a lot of publicity. DiFiore talked about why she decided to let Krauss make this movie which was inspired by her work. Krauss went into detail about his experiences at the shelter, and he also explained how he came to cast Hudgens in the lead role.
Question: How are you?
Kathy DiFiore: Good but a little tired. I’ve never been to so many interviews (everyone laughs).
Question: Welcome to our world. So, what did you think when this guy (Ronald Krauss) shows up on your doorstep? I guess you’re used to having people show up on your doorstep, but this guy…
Kathy DiFiore: Usually they’re pregnant women (laughs).
Question: Yeah right. This guy shows up and I doubt it went like, “Uh, can I stay here because I’m doing research for a movie.” But how did you feel when he proposes the idea of doing a movie based on your thing?
Kathy DiFiore: Well, it didn’t happen that way. It happened more like he was visiting his brother who happens to live a mile and a half from the shelter, and he had heard about my work through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, and he volunteered. It was Christmas time and I let people come in to volunteer all the time, especially someone that has the talents he has. He eventually said, “Maybe I could film some of what you’re doing” which I wasn’t fond of because of the $10,000 fine. I didn’t want any publicity. I thought, let me just go quietly. No public relations. Over the course of time, and it took several months as he was doing the work speaking with the young mothers and they got to know him, they would come to me and tell me how much they respected him and how much he respected them. He felt they were giving him private information, but he was treating them with such dignity. You don’t hear those types of words coming out of the women that come to me. They’ve been abused and abandoned and are really confused by so many, particularly men, in their lives. And then I heard a little voice inside my head, I’m a very prayerful woman and I was asking God for guidance, and I heard, “Trust him.” And when I heard “trust him,” it kept going on. Trust him, trust him, trust him. I thought, okay holy spirit, okay, and then he and I talked about some of the things he looked at.
Ronald Krauss: I didn’t really have any sort of agenda when I met Kathy. I wasn’t really setting out to make a film. It just so happened that her shelter was a mile from my brother’s house and it was at Christmas time. Usually during the holidays I’m, like a lot of people, at food banks or something or shelters just reaching out to people who are less fortunate. I remember the first time I was there visiting Kathy and walked into that shelter for the first time and saw mothers and children walking around and it was really fascinating. It’s exactly what you see in the film because we shot the film at the real place. I had learned that Kathy had not done any publicity in her work. For the last 30 years she remained anonymous other than when she started with the $10,000 fine, and that was news of a woman who was homeless and was trying to give back to society by turning her own home into a shelter. The state came down on her, and that’s a whole other story. She reached out to Mother Teresa, and Mother Teresa came by her side and together they changed the laws in the state of New Jersey, and she was honored in the White House with Ronald Reagan. I learned all of this which was fascinating and I was sort of intrigued by her, but I was more intrigued by… the young women that struggled and were finding their way in life and the woman that was sort of selflessly helping them with her work in this shelter and five shelters she has now; some just for homeless women and some for teenagers and different things. My first thing was to sort of really help her organize so that her legacy and her work would continue. I didn’t realize that I was planting the seeds for a film that I was really trying to say that people need to learn about your work. I was thinking at first that I was going to document her work just for her own purpose so people could find out later. With any device that I found there, and I actually borrowed her camera, I started to interview the girls and record the girls and go through her boxes and look at all her old videotapes. It was a lot of stuff. I started filming one girl after the next, one after the next, interview and asking where they were from, how they ended up here, where’s their parents, where’s all these things and the tapes started piling up. I would put them in Kathy’s office in the back, and before I know it there was a whole stack of tapes of these girls and their stories and they were all very similar. They were all stories of abuse and neglect and abandonment. It was both something like a bad mother, bad father, nobody cared and the thing they had in common is that they didn’t pick this life. They didn’t pick these parents. They didn’t pick up parent who was a drug addict or an alcoholic, it just happened. And what do people do when these things happen? They just get abused and they struggle in life, and they think there’s no hope. A lot of times the will of the parents and the people who are bad, it gets thrown onto the kids and they become angry and bitter and they fight and rebel and they run away and become homeless, and so it’s a vicious cycle. I think the turning point of the whole thing for me was I kept going back and back and weeks were passing and peoples’ lives were passing through my life, and they were touching me but I was sort of a little bit removed in a sense. Then one day I showed up at the shelter at about 7 o’clock at night and there was a young girl standing there in front of the shelter; an African American girl about 18 years old. It was about 15 degrees out, she had no jacket on and she was just standing there and I said, “Can I help you? Why don’t you come inside? What are you doing out here?” I thought she lived in the shelter but she didn’t and she thought I worked there and I didn’t obviously work there, so we were kind of misleading each other. Then Kathy shows up and I’m standing in the living room with this girl and Kathy says, “Who’s this girl?” And I said, “I don’t know. She was in front of the shelter.” And she comes over and says, “Never let anybody in the shelter. These are the rules here.” She kind of dug into me a little bit, you know? And I was like, “Okay but this girl, she didn’t have a place to go. She’s by herself, she doesn’t have a jacket, she has nothing.” And she says, “Let me talk to her.” Kathy’s very seasoned obviously and knows what to look for in these people because they could be deceiving, and she interviewed her and she came back to me and said, “It just so happens that we have one bed left in the shelter. Why don’t you tell this girl that she could stay here.” And so I went up to her, her name was Darlecia, and I said, “Hey Darlecia, they have an extra bed here for you to stay. You can stay here” and this girl… I’m sorry (Ronald started to get teary eyed) … Anyway, this girl, she hugged me so hard that she almost knocked me over.
Question: Is she the one that you based Vanessa Hudgens’ character on?
Ronald Krauss: Yeah. It was a jolt into my heart about that there were many young girls like this out there and that could use help. That’s what inspired me and made me think if I was to make a film it could create awareness for other people. I asked Kathy about it and she said absolutely not, of course. And then time went on and she came to me and said, “You know the girls really respect you and trust you in terms of the care of what you’ve been doing, and perhaps you’re right. Maybe some sort of film could really help to spread the word that shelters like this exist and that other people can be kind, and maybe someone will open a shelter if they see a film like this.” But no one ever anticipated it would be a film like this.
Question: What made you choose Vanessa Hudgens for the role of Apple Bailey and what was it like to work with her?
Ronald Krauss: I never thought that a Hollywood actress could really play the role like this after living there for like a year. I lived there for a year writing this script. And there are a lot of famous actors that wanted to do it and had auditioned and some of them were really well known, and then someone mentioned Vanessa Hudgens and I didn’t really know who she was. I met with her and she was very passionate to play this role. She believed in herself that she could really do it. There was something inside of her. She turned in a great audition, she was persistent, and the turning point was that I had taken all the auditions, there was about seven or eight that I liked, and I sent them to the shelter. I didn’t tell them who I was thinking about. And when they saw the link of the girls, they unanimously picked Vanessa. They said this is the girl who should play this part, and that was the confirmation. She dove into this thing, she lived in the shelter, cut her hair off, she gained 15 pounds and besides the physical transformation, she transformed inside and she bonded with Kathy and the girls and they trusted her and they opened up to her.
Question: Kathy, what did you think of the final film?
Kathy DiFiore: (It’s) perfect. It still makes me cry when I watch it. There are women who have left Several Sources that want to come and see it and I can’t wait for that. It’s a legacy for us.
“Gimme Shelter” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.