Visitor, The–Tom McCarthy

In actor and filmmaker Tom McCarthys follow-up to his award winning directorial debut The Station Agent, Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) stars as a disillusioned Connecticut economics professor whose life is transformed by a chance encounter in New York City. A poignant and often funny film about rediscovering joy in the most unexpected places, “The Visitor” boasts an international cast including Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

McCarthy wrote and directed the film. Michael London and Mary Jane Skalski are the films producers. Oliver Bokelberg is Director of Photography. Oscar-winner Jan A. P. Kaczamarek composed the music. John Paino is Production Designer. Costumes are by Melissa Toth. The film is edited by Tom McArdle.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a man who's sleepwalking through his life. Having lost his passion for teaching and writing, he fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his college sends him to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him.

Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The instruments exuberant rhythms revitalize Walters faltering
spirit and open his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. As the friendship between the two men deepens, the differences in culture, age and temperament fall away.

After being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation. As his situation turns desperate, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. When Tareks beautiful mother
Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly in search of her son, the professors personal commitment develops into an unlikely romance.
Its through these newfound connections with three virtual strangers that Walter is awakened to a new world and a new life.


Its always difficult to point to the exact inspiration for a film, says Tom McCarthy, director and writer of The Visitor. I collect a lot of different ideas and keep them in one big file, and then I pull out the ones that are most resonant for me.

McCarthy wowed Hollywood with his first project, “The Station Agent,” a low budget independent movie that made waves well beyond the indie film world. In fact, the U.S. State Department invited McCarthy to take it to the Middle East as part of a cultural outreach program. It was during that trip that McCarthy first started thinking about the deep chasm separating Americans from the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world.

Lack of Knowledge

I was in Oman and in Lebanon, two amazing countries, he says. I was struck by how little I knew about the region, about the people, about the culture. Our country is so involved politically and militarily there, but with all the news and the headlines and the drama, we can forget that there are human beings on both sides of this. How can I eliminate that a little bit That always is my call to arms.

McCarthy was struck by the artists he met there and the passion they brought to their work. I thought, I want to capture this. Thats where I got the idea for the character of Tarek. At the same time, the filmmaker had been separately developing the character of an aging college professor who had lost his passion for his vocation. Somewhere along the way, the two came together, says McCarthy.

“The Station Agent” producer Mary Jane Skalski was one of the first to read the developing screenplay. I had an idea of what he was writing and I'd read pages here and there, she remembers. But when I got the first full draft, I didn't really know what to expect.

Skalski was struck by the films humanity and its sense of hope. It's a story about four people and how their lives come together and are changed because of it. It's about just going a little bit beyond yourself and how your life can change when you do that. Yes, its another opportunity to entertain people, but at the same time to encourage people to just be a little bit

Little Decisions, Big Differences

“Little Decisions” says McCarthy, sometimes make the biggest differences in life. Many of the choices that send us in a completely different direction in life are arbitrary. I think thats the magic of life, isnt it It makes us realize, as much as we like to imagine we have control over our fate and destiny, we really dont.

Thats something that happens in this movie, adds the director. Walter has no intention of
going to New York. He does everything he can to get out of it. He makes a snap decision to help two kids out of a jam, and in doing so he discovers a new musical life. Who could predict these things

Immigration Issues

While McCarthy and Skalski are adamant “The Visitor” is primarily about the characters, ultimately it also deals with issues surrounding the hot-button topic of immigration. After returning from the Middle East to his home base in New York, McCarthy began to spend time in the citys vibrant Arab community. During his research, he heard the story of a young man who had been confined to a government detention center on immigration charges. McCarthy eventually began visiting detainees and learned that many of them didnt have legal representation.

Were not standing on a soap box and saying this is right or this is wrong, but rather, let's approach this situation with empathy and with understanding, says the director. We're dealing with people, not just a cause.

Same Crew

In addition to Skalski, McCarthy brought back a number of his collaborators from “The Station Agent” to work on The Visitor. My cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, read a very
early draft of this. Tom McArdle, my editor, and John Paino, my production designer, did as well. Its a joy to be able to include these guys very early on because we share a common vision of the
type of movies we want to make. Weve even started to develop a shorthand for working with each other.

McArdle and I sat down a number of times before we shot the movie to talk through all the things we would usually talk through after we shot the movie, he continues. Its a wonderful opportunity to do that with an editor you trust. What happens by the time you actually begin shooting or the design stage or the editing stage, is that you have a history with these people and the story has a history among you, which is crucial. They keep me on track and remind me of the vision we had when we started.

McCarthy and Skalski were working with two new partners as well, the production companies Participant and Groundswell. McCarthy had previous experience working with both companies as an actorin Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck for Participant and in The Guru for Groundswell.

Groundswell and Participant were two of the first companies we turned to when it was time to finance this film because of their commitment to telling original stories and their track records in making it happen, says McCarthy. They had a lot of input and a lot of ideas along the way, but they were also very committed to my vision of the film. We were all very clear about the type of movie we wanted to make.


Authenticity was one of the most important elements for McCarthy throughout the making of
this movie, says Skalski. The movie hinges on people who are taking a leap of faith and therefore the audience has to take that leap of faith, too. And how could they do that if a moment ever didnt feel true

McCarthy says that he didnt set out to make a political statement, but rather to reveal the
human face on something that was quickly becoming a major issue. The characters are embroiled in a situation that is very much in the national consciousness right now: immigration and detention.

It may not change the world, but at the very least, its reminding us of the human element and
consequences to a very divisive issue. I guess, in some small way, Im holding up the mirror up
and saying, This is whats going on. Do we like it Do we not Is there room for debate Rather than providing answers, McCarthy sees the filmmakers job as raising the questionsbut never at the expense of telling a compelling story. In the end, this is a love story, and a story of friendship. The story keeps evolving in a very simple way. There are funny moments, tragic moments, and even mundane moments. I think its reflective of how life unfolds.