Director Thomas McCarthy has a knack for making brilliantly understated movies with talented character actors. He also knows how to use real locations to great effect. In his first movie, The Station Agent, he followed a trio of misfits around the backwaters of New Jersey. In his second, The Visitor, he's all over New York City.
According to McCarthy, filming in New York was exponentially harder than doing so in New Jersey – even though, thanks to the first movie's success, he had a considerably larger budget. 'Shooting a movie here is like living here,' he explains. 'You know, you have those days where you're like, “I'm the king of the world. This is the greatest place ever and I'm shooting here and this feels great. I'm so lucky.” And then literally an hour later, you're like, “I want to shut down production. I want to take it to Pennsylvania, to horse country, and I don't want to deal with this anymore,” because it can be a brutal place to work.'
New York has starred in a great many movies, so it was a tough call for the relatively new director. 'I was like, “I'm making a movie in New York, everyone does it, it's so hard to be original”,' he explains. 'Then I thought all I can do is not treat New York like a postcard or romanticize it in any way, but just sort of an insiders' guide as I see the city.'
'We really try to do that a lot,' he continues, 'almost to the point in moments of being mundane, because your life in New York can become very mundane. It's got a lot of color, but it can become very systematic and very ritualistic and you lock into your world. I think that's what we try to do with this movie. My cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, and myself spent a lot of time just walking around downtown, just watching, just looking, taking pictures, talking, pointing things out. I think that's pretty well represented in the film.'
Like The Station Agent, The Visitor deals in an understated way with change. In this, an unfulfilled college professor from Connecticut comes to New York for a conference and encounters a whole new world. He's an expert on globalization, but it seems like his world has become very narrow. He's sleepwalking though his life. The people he accidentally meets open his eyes – and his heart. They expand his horizons.
He listens to drummers in Washington Square Park (as it was before current rennovations started). He travels the city with his new friends – taking in kebab houses, the subway, Central Park, Broadway, and even detention centers in Queens. And his world expands.
It seems ironic to praise this movie too much, as its beauty is in its subtlety. But all the praise it's had has been well deserved. It's a beautiful film – and a great way to see New York. – Roshan McArthur