Fresh from her appearance in the surprisingly well received Harmony Korine-directed Spring Breakers, actress Vanessa Hudgens wants audiences to remember one thing: gone are the days of High School Musical. To that end, the usually prim and manicured 24-year old actress will next appear in Gimme Shelter, a gritty and very un-manicured look at life on the streets of Newark, NJ through the eyes of a pregnant and dejected teenage girl.
We sat down with the man behind this project, writer-director-producer-editor (and humanitarian) Ronald Krauss, who based Gimme Shelter on true stories culled from his experience living amongst homeless pregnant teens at a shelter in New Jersey. Having made his mark with Amexica, the much-lauded 2010 film targeting the issue of human trafficking, this was not Krauss’s first foray into socially conscious filmmaking and immersing himself in his subject of choice. “I don’t pick these issues, they pick me,” he says, reminiscing about the year he spent in the shelter. “The thing was, I really bonded with these girls. There was a connection between [us]. They trusted me…I became like the honorary house father of the shelter.”
Krauss’s initial intention was to make a documentary—still in the works—about the shelter and its origins, but at a certain point he realized that to create even more awareness around these girls’ lives, a feature would make a greater mark. And one night, after meeting a girl at the doorstep of the shelter who literally had nowhere else to turn, the idea for Gimme Shelter started to spark. “We used to have a script night – I would start to show them the screenplay, because it was about their lives and I needed their approval if I was going to do this.”
The result is a raw and unfettered portrait of these young women. “The script became their lives…we filmed entirely [on site] in Newark, NJ on the streets, and in the shelter. I was going for a very realistic feel on the film…We were shooting in the real places, we were using the real people,” Krauss points out, describing the bold choice to feature many actual residents from the shelter in prominent roles. “I didn’t know if it was going to work: it was verite, old-school type of filmmaking, where you mix, documentary-style, real people and actors.”
So how did he end up with Hudgens at the center of it all, a starlet usually likened to projects as glossy as the Disney vehicles that initially made her famous? “The girls picked her!” Krauss retorts, describing how he put all of his top casting choices on a tape and sent it to the residents of the shelter. And he was thrilled they picked her. “I felt that she had the most swagger. There was a side to Vanessa that she brought, that nobody else showed. And it was a side that Hollywood hadn’t showed of her.”
And Vanessa gave all of herself to the role. “I had Vanessa come to live in the shelter, with the girls, to transform into this character,” Krauss recalls. “She lived on the top floor of…a convent which was converted into a shelter. I put her [there] and I left her. Took her cellphone. She was very emotional…breaking into this character. She slowly started transforming.”
That transformation has already begun to make waves, bucking expectations and making naysayers think twice. “I don’t think I’ve ever even met Vanessa,” Krauss emphasizes, remembering that right from her first audition the actress lost much of the pomp and circumstance of a Hollywood darling. Instead, she retreated deep into the complexities of Apple Bailey, the troubled figure at the center of Gimme Shelter who goes “from a street girl to a mother.”
Also featuring a powerhouse performance by Rosario Dawson as Apple’s drug addicted and vicious mother, Gimme Shelter is Krauss’s passion project; one that he feels is “about women, for women” and “about family—what family means today.”
Gimme Shelter is scheduled to open nationwide later this year.
photo by Ana Ochoa www.AnaOchoaPhoto.com