This is the story of how two Israeli filmmakers transformed a Buddhist movie star into Bob Dylan, a New York homeless man, a Manhattan Jewish fixer, and a politician with family issues. It started when Oren Moverman wrote “I’m Not There” with director Todd Haynes, who cast Richard Gere as one of six versions of Bob Dylan.
Several years later, Gere spotted Moverman across a crowded room. “It was an Academy event in New York,” Gere said. “It was a cocktail thing for new members.” Moverman introduced him to Oscar-nominated Joseph Cedar (”Footnote”). They wound up talking Middle East politics. “The three of us were getting along great,” said Gere, who told the men, “If you want to do something that has to do with the Middle East, even in a tangential way, talk to me.”
Before they parted ways, Moverman agreed to take a look at a 20-year-old screenplay about a homeless man that Gere couldn’t move out of development limbo. Moverman read the script and said, “I really like that world. Can we start going to homeless shelters and figuring it out?”
The films Moverman has directed, Oscar-nominated “The Messenger” and “Ramparts,” are lean, organic, and anchored in the real world. Together they honed the script and shot the low-budget movie on the fly in Manhattan, with long lenses and non-professionals. The result was 2014 festival favorite “Time Out of Mind,” which earned Gere his best notices in years.
At the New York premiere, Gere ran into Cedar again. This time, the director talked to him about starring in his first English-language film as a shameless Jewish fixer who befriends the Prime Minister of Israel. After debuting at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” opens Friday via Sony Pictures Classics. Again, the film has earned raves for Gere.
Gere was the first to question Cedar’s casting. “Look, I’m flattered,” he told the director. “But why wouldn’t you want to name a dozen terrific New York Jewish actors who could do something amazing with this?” They spent eight or nine months talking about it. “He was looking for something more universal,” said Gere. “But I had to get it right. The Normans of New York, I’ve met many of them over the last 40 years.”
“There’s an assumption that there’s something about Richard that doesn’t fit the physicality of what Norman might have been,” said Cedar. “That made the challenge more interesting. It helped him to fulfill the character attributes, to convince each person he meets for at least 15 minutes that he’s legitimate and has substance. It’s a role that required good acting. It’s a difficult role for any actor. He needs a challenge, he needs to do something much more difficult than the stuff he was offered.”
It took Gere a while to find the character. At one point before filming, Cedar called him to ask him to time out a phone scene. “And he was Norman suddenly, the slight accent, the rhythm and desperation in his voice,” he said. “Richard found out he can play with this character; it was not as rigid as he might have thought. Once we had that, it becomes a tremendous joy.”
Oppenheimer keeps looking for ways to be helpful, to do favors, and then one pivotal act turns his life around. He approaches and befriends a lonely Israeli government operative (charismatic Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi) and, in an impulsive and instinctive move, buys him a gorgeous pair of shoes. When the man rises to become Prime Minister of Israel, they meet again, he shines his affection on Oppenheimer, and suddenly all of the fixer’s acquaintances want him to do things for them. He’s in the center of the action.
“We all want to belong, we all want a room of people to turn and smile and be glad we’re there,” said Gere. “There are different levels of Normans; women, too. They never quite fit in, they are never allowed in, they desperately want to belong. They’re interesting personalities. They don’t want to be the boss. They want to be around the glow. Norman, when he’s close to the prime minister, he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He just wants to be there, included, to belong.”
Anyone playing Norman had to be comfortable with his ability to function and survive, “which has to be about him not being afraid to humiliate himself,” said Cedar, “the service he gives in the hopes of connecting to someone, the thing that you won’t allow yourself to do because of your pride. This is hard for any movie star to embody in a convincing way.”
They repeatedly rehearsed the pivotal shoe store scene. How does Oppenheimer convince a man he just met to accept a gift of $1200 designer shoes? “I’d ask myself, ‘Why I am deserving of this and what is this person expecting in return?'” said Cedar. “That was Norman’s challenge. It’s a huge investment; he has no way of knowing that it will pay off at the moment when it happens. It was like a theater piece. There were so many reasons why each character could find a way to back out. We played with the material until we created an inevitable outcome. That took a kind of dance between the two actors. Reaching every beat required acting, planning, knowing how to set up a moment, like in soccer. We prepare the path so the person can kick at the right place at the right time.”
As a producer, Moverman showed Cedar how to film on the streets of New York. While “Norman” is a scripted talking-heads drama, much of the film was shot outdoors with Gere walking alone with on his phone in public spaces. “When you shoot a movie on a New York street,” said Moverman, “if you have a camera, you create a set. When you create a set, everybody pays attention. If you hide the camera, nobody gives a shit.”
And it was one of the most bitterly cold winters in years. You can see Gere’s breath and uncovered red ears. “In those night scenes in the alley by the synagogue,” said Gere with feeling, “it was 20 below zero.”
Just as Moverman had to shut down Gere’s star wattage, hiding his glorious white hair under a hat, but keeping a flicker of the old attractiveness, Cedar transforms the 67-year-old Mayflower descendant into a schlub. He is transformed by an awkwardly layered suit and camel hair overcoat, trimmed hair and prosthetics to push out his ears.
“He changes something in the body language,” said Cedar. “We didn’t find it right away. It took some trial and error. It’s hard to take the charisma out of Richard, but we didn’t want to eliminate it completely. We wanted to fracture it, give him some flaw to change the way he seems sees himself.”
So why did Gere finally say yes? “It’s like falling in love,” he said. “Is it intellectual, rational? Not in the beginning. You either feel it or you don’t, and your blood moves. It’s the same reading a script to me. Do I feel it? Then I will be as rational as I can. Is this a director I trust doing this material? Am I going to have a good time in a creative partnership on the same wavelength? Will it be a struggle or energizing? Is this going to be creative? Do we have enough days to shoot? Where? Who is in the cast? If they are terrific people, is there enough budget to support doing this the right way?”
Gere is grateful. “What we did together on ‘Time Out of Mind’ is one of the things I’m most proud of that I’ve ever done,” he said. “I feel that way about ‘Norman.’ That combo has been rich for me with these two guys.”
With his $12 million Hollywood paydays in the rearview mirror, Gere doesn’t worry about his fees. If he can squeeze two weeks in Pakistan for an “Exotic Marigold Hotel” sequel into his busy schedule, he does it. “I look to make the same movies I always did,” he said, “but now what used to be part of the studios, who used to make smaller character-driven narratives, are independently financed instead.”
And he is no longer chasing global bankability. Because of decades-long loyal support of the Dalai Lama, “I’m not allowed to travel to China,” he said, “and Chinese actors can’t work with me. It’s an acknowledgment of Chinese government weakness, that this silly movie star is dangerous to them. Of course they’re not happy — I tell the alternate truth, which is different than the Communist Party line.”
Coming May 5 is the third movie to come out of that fateful Academy party, Moverman’s darkly satiric moral thriller “The Dinner” (The Orchard), based on the novel by Herman Koch, which premiered in Berlin to a mixed reception. Gere stars with Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall as two estranged brothers and their wives. Over an elaborate restaurant dinner, the two couples cogitate over what to do about their teenage sons, who are close friends and have committed a horrendous crime, killing a homeless person.
“To what ends would you go to protect your kids?” said Gere, who plays a popular Congressman running for governor. “It’s about the craziness in our world, how people do bad things, decent people. Ultimately, it’s about responsibility.”
Next up: Gere stars in old pal Jon Avnet’s ’60s psychiatrist drama “Three Christs.” as a shrink who throws three delusional patients into one room. Clearly, Gere fell in love.