The Visitor: Thomas McCarthy Interview
We caught up with all-round nice guy Thomas McCarthy, writer and director of The Visitor, who first made a name for himself with 2003’s indie hit The Station Agent, whilst also acting in films such as Meet The Parents and Michael Clayton. Thomas gives us the low-down on travelling the world, the cultural importance of the film and his phantom website tomforoscar.com....
LOVEFiLM: It’s a beautifully crafted, measured and moving film, that mixes two rather different ideas. You’ve travelled a lot, do you think the film has been born out of time spent aborad?
Thomas McCarthy: Yeah I think it is. I’m always interested in bringing people together from different background whether that’s in the same town or from different countries; it always interests me. I had this character Walter Vale kicking around for a long time, and then I wasn’t sure really what to do with him. I had all these themes that I was exploring for him that we explore in the movie, like being stuck in life, being disconnected, losing the passion for ones vocation.
I ended up in Beirut for a period of time and I think that’s where the character Haaz emerged from. I met all these great people and went to work with all these great filmmakers and writers and there was energy and an enthusiasm and openness. I sort of grabbed little bits of pieces of it and that was the beginning of the infection of Tarek?
LF:Do you see yourself as an American writer or do you think you write from a more global perspective?
TM: At the end of the day, you know you still have to claim your nationality, even though sometimes you are conflicted about the relevance of it; but yeah I would consider myself as an American writer. I think there’s a reason a lot of artists - whether its writers or painters or whatever - go into a sort of self imposed exile at the very least, or just travel for a period of time as it allows you to reflect on your own culture and compare and contrast it. Not to mention yourself. You pick up the elements of yourself that you maybe wouldn’t see in your everyday life. I think that’s reminiscent of what Walter does; so I think that that’s something I transposed onto the movie albeit in a smaller way.
LF: The film does have some quite clear political overtones – was that your aim?
TM: No. Maybe cultural overtones; just bringing people together; and certainly fleshing out what I thought was an Arab character that represented more of what I saw everyday. It’s interesting, I’ve had people come up to me and say oh you know this Arab character that gets in trouble in the park is a little too nice isn’t he? And I’m like, well compared to what? Compared to most of the Arab people I’ve met – no! He’s pretty average. He’s got an edge, he does things wrong, he can be selfish but he’s also a pretty decent guy; and that felt honest to me.
In American media, there’s been a very specific portrayal; it hasn’t had the widest range, so I think I was setting out to do that in a sort of social and cultural way. I guess I mean exploring it. I was really excited to kinda play with the character and bring him to life; I wasn’t trying to preach or teach anything. I was representing something that I was witnessing personally. Then beyond that, the sort of political and immigration angle – this was a reality of the people in that situation in New York that you couldn’t ignore.
LF: One of the main characters of the film is the music; was that always the intention?
TM: Yeah the music was always pretty important from the beginning. I didn’t know how it was all gonna work, and how it would tie together in such a way that it would influence the storyline as it did, but it was certainly something I had in mind from the very beginning.
LF: There’s a beautiful scene in the film where Walter and Tarek are playing Djembe together in the park and the effect of the music is pretty incredible…
TM: Exactly – it was an incredibly joyous event, like a mini-celebration. You just can’t help but be dragged into it when you’re there. And Walter participating; I would say that’s the high point of his life in the last seven to ten years you know! It’s just one of those moments where he’s really able to let go and just kinda go with it; and it’s the most released he’s been in his own life in a long long long time and I think it was a very liberating and uplifting experience.
LF: Do you find it easier to direct having being an actor yourself?
TM: I don’t know if I find it easier than other things. It’s one thing I ‘m most comfortable with and something I’ve truly enjoyed doing. I’ve had experience from both sides now; I have been a director with other actors; and I have worked with a lot of directors as an actor. I think from that you start to discern what’s helpful and what’s not and start to develop your own technique. I think communication with actors is a domain I feel very comfortable in. Not to say it’s always easy, or to say there’s not problems or obstacles you have to work through, but I sort of welcome that challenge and I feel very at ease in that situation.
LF: The film’s had huge success in the US already – were you surprised by that?
TM: Yes! I mean you never can expect it. Especially when you have a movie that’s subtle, that doesn’t have any big name stars and when you’re releasing at a time when there’s a lot of huge open marketed blockbusters coming out. We don’t have that kind of marketing campaign. It’s all been word of mouth; it really relies on people seeing the movie and going home and saying you know you should go and see this and you can never anticipate what’s gonna make an audience do that. Although I was very proud of the movie, and made exactly the movie I wanted to, you never know how it’s going to resonate with audiences. It always is a little bit of a surprise and a gratifying experience to witness it catch on and sustain at the box office.
LF: The British press are saying that you are a candidate for an Oscar?
TM: I started that rumour and I’m glad it’s caught on! I have been perpetuating it – it’s on my website tomforoscar.com! You should check it out there’s a lot of lovely pictures of me holding a face statue. [laughs] No… It is great to hear. A lot of that is nice to hear, but it’s also just talk; there’s a long way to go and a lot of movies to come out. I’m just glad that people have responded to the movie, you’ve just got to block out everything else and say what ever happens, happens. Everything here on in for me is crazy. I’d like it to do well in Europe and I’m anxious to see how it goes this weekend; hopefully people get out to see it. I think we all made a good movie and worked hard on it but now it’s onto the next thing.
Titles related to this article