Paul Bettany's Neighbors Inspired 'Shelter'

It's strange to think about how many peoples' lives you may have had an effect on, simply by existing near them. And that impact by proximity is the story behind Paul Bettany's directorial debut, the indie drama Shelter. Starring Captain America: The Winter Soldier's Anthony Mackie, as well as Bettany's wife, Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, Shelter tells a love story in a non-traditional setting. Tahir, a Laotian ex-con, and Hannah, a heroin-addicted mother, meet while they're both living on the streets of New York. Their budding relationship is plagued by the hardships they face being homeless, but they also lean on each other to heal some of the wounds that brought them to this point. At the end of the movie, the filmmaker includes a simple and intriguing dedication: "To the couple who lived outside my building," and so the question of if Shelter is a true story will certainly stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Although it's a fictional tale, it has basis in real life; Bettany and Connelly spend most of their time in New York, where the homeless are part of the fabric of everyone's lives. In the city, even the swankiest buildings open up to the same streets that the rest of the New York population walks every day, and it was right outside their Tribeca home where Bettany began seeing one particular homeless couple. In an interview with FilmJournal.com, the director explained how two people who he'd never even had a true conversation with ended up inspiring Shelter.

I would pass them every day on the school run with my children and try to talk to them, but they were quite recalcitrant and not interested in returning the serve. Eventually — I’m ashamed to say — they sort of became part of the landscape of the city and I never really saw them at all.

The Bettany/Connelly family stopped seeing their homeless neighbors after they returned to the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Their silent presence and then their telling absence dovetailed with an amorphous theme that Bettany had been mulling over for a possible feature. He told FilmJournal.com how he planned to explore the stigma of poverty.

The world is increasingly a gray area, but we seem forever entrenched in black and white positions. I wanted to make a film that investigates judgment, and I thought this couple would make really good candidates for that.

Since Bettany never was able to learn about the couple's real journey, he used the medium of film to create a version of it that challenged viewers' capacity for empathy. Now, mining a stranger's personal narrative for a movie can lean to the exploitative. But Bettany and his team cut no corners in their efforts to make sure Shelter accurately portrayed the homeless experience. The Coalition For The Homeless were giving the opportunity to review and approve the script, and Bettany has been working with that non-profit organization to raise awareness of the poverty crisis in New York City. When he appeared on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to promote the film, Bettany shared some sobering statistics with the audience and encouraged them to get involved.

Shelter may not be based on one specific true story, but the film does endeavor to be faithful to the experience of the millions of homeless individuals living in New York.

Image: Screen Media Films