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Unlikely forces join together to bring 'Gimme Shelter' to the big screen

Fate has a funny way of throwing unlikely advocates together. From a woman who endured abuse (Kathy DiFiore) and reached out to help those in similar situations, to a director’s (Ronald Krauss) chance meeting that inspires him to help champion a cause, to a young actress' (Vanessa Hudgens) confidence that she could take on a lead dramatic role. Each had the belief and conviction to accomplish their goal. 'Gimme Shelter' is a labor of love that allows audiences everywhere to experience a vision of hope.

(L-R) Kathy DiFiore and Writer and Director Ronald Krauss
(Photo Credit: Karen Johnson)

The film 'Gimme Shelter’ is based on inspiring true events that centers on a homeless pregnant teenager, Agnes ‘Apple’ Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) and her journey to shed her past and embrace a future filled with hope with the help of a shelter for pregnant girls and their babies. For this role, Vanessa shed her ‘High School Musical’ persona and immersed herself into the character. In fact, her transformation is so complete that she becomes unrecognizable as Apple. Not only is there an amazing physical transformation, but her ability to portray this complex character is phenomenal.

It is also the story of Kathy DiFiore a woman who endured abuse at the hands of her husband and ended up at a shelter. After she was able to get back on her feet, she opened her home to women to provide them with a safe place to rebuild their lives. The girls in her care become a member of an extended family that provides stability in their lives along with love and support.

In 1981, the state of New Jersey was in the process of closing Kathy’s shelters. They assessed her with a Ten thousand dollars fine and the governor was going to veto legislation that would allow her to keep her shelters. She prayed and a voice she believes was God or an angel said, ‘Contact Mother Theresa.’ After denying that this was what she should do, Kathy contacted a person who had given her his business card (he volunteered in Mother Theresa’s soup kitchen) and he put her in contact with Mother Theresa. Later, Mother Theresa called and offered her help. She wrote a letter to the governor and made a phone call begging him not to veto the legislation. As the result, the law passed and she was able to keep her shelters. A twist of fate? Or divine intervention? Whatever the answer may be, Kathy believes that Mother Theresa is now her guardian angel watching over her.

I had the opportunity to chat with Writer and director Ronald Krauss, Vanessa Hudgens, and Kathy DiFiore about their movie. Just like the main character in the film, despite obstacles in their path, each of them had confidence in this story, the belief in something good, and its power to deliver a message of faith. After talking with them, I realized that ‘Gimme Shelter’ is made possible by individuals who were brought together for a higher purpose. Whether it was providence or pure luck, their hard work and determination created a film with the power to inspire and reach individuals.

Director Krauss discussed the doubt and obstacles that he had to overcome in order to get the film made. In fact, it was by chance that he met Kathy DiFiore and decided to make a movie about her shelters.

Ron, how did you and Kathy meet?

Ron: We have a mutual friend. Kathy has been doing the work for thirty-three years I want to say.

Kathy: Thirty-four in May.

Ron: But we are not there yet, so we will go with thirty-three. I think that I can best describe how we met is that thirty-three years is a lot of years, lot of time and a lot of people reaching out. She says, ‘You know how many people it took for me to meet you?’ And she could probably trace it back to hundreds of people. And somehow that chain made it across the country to L.A. from New Jersey and I became a link in that chain. I was at work and someone taps me on the shoulder and said to me this place in New Jersey is relevant to the type of work you do. I saw your human trafficking film (‘Amexica’) and there are shelters in New Jersey that you should learn about.

In Christmas of 2009, I went to visit my brother who just so happen to live a mile or so from Kathy and I reached out to her. On the holidays I try to do things like help people like feeding the homeless and help at shelters. I had no intention but to show up and say nice to meet you and how can I help kind of thing. And when I stepped into this place it was like a holy ground. It was something that I had never experienced before or seen. This was a place different from places I have seen (tougher places). Her place was like a home, almost like a family a selfless place to really get people back on your feet. I think that it is her understanding about how to get that breath of fresh air to get a break to get back on your feet.

I lived in the shelter for a year. And this film is based on a true story. Unlike some Hollywood stories that are based on some truths. I was just documenting what was happening. And it wasn’t my camera it was her camera. And, I said, you know Kathy you haven’t gotten any publicity in thirty-three years. You should document it. And, before I knew it I had shot two hundred hours. And I didn’t know what to do with it. Then it came to me and I said, ' I know what we can do we should make a movie.' She said, 'Movie, absolutely not. I’m not making a movie. I avoided this for thirty years and I’m not doing this with you.' But the movie is about the work, not the girls and it can inspire other people’s acts of kindness to open shelters and help heal people coming out one of the worst recession in years. Everyday people who find themselves homeless like Kathy did and uplift people. To say there are plenty people like you out in the world.

Ron: Vanessa has the audience and popularity to bring people into a film like this. She brings a performance that reaches into your core. I couldn’t plan this. It is something that comes together.

We were asking if Vanessa was really going to make this movie or not.

Kathy, you had your faith and you had your works that go with your faith, so when did you know that Vanessa was the person to entrust your baby with?

Well Ron will tell you that he let us see ten or twelve snippets from the auditions. And he had her picked but he didn’t tell us. I was recovering from brain surgery six weeks before we were shooting and from my bed I looked at the films with the girls. And, Vanessa I didn’t know who you were. But, she was just unbelievable. I tried to keep my mouth closed because he wanted the girls’ reaction. Mine too, but he wanted the mothers.

Ron: She came to the audition and I remember seeing her and she brought someone who she is closer to in life. She was beautiful. I remember you dancing with Zac Efron. But, when she showed up she wasn’t that person. I think she had become someone else and a swagger, street thing that she can play. She was the closest.

I never believed that a Hollywood actress could play this role. I didn’t expect to cast an actress. I didn’t think they could blend in with these girls in the movie. She became one of the girls. Look at the poster and look at her, she is not the same person. She was deeply into the character. She brought it to life.

We had so many people drop out from the film. The first weeks I lost nine people and had to hire a new crew. And then I lost those nine people. They didn’t understand what we were trying to do. We shot in a real shelter with real people. For the crew, there were a lot of questions. ‘This is crazy, why are we in a real shelter?’ ‘Why are those babies here?’ It was not fundamentally shot like a regular movie. I’m fighting with everybody, the hair lady, the makeup lady, everybody.

Vanessa, what was your experience like on the film?

Vanessa: The experience was amazing. It was a blessing. Being able to be with them and (having) them opening up to me and sharing their story with me, it was so personal. Being in the environment, it allowed me to make it as genuine as possible.

Kathy DiFiore has had brain cancer for twenty years. She routinely gets chemotherapy and after that she is good for three weeks. It is her faith in God that allows her to make a difference in other’s lives. Kathy now has four homes for pregnant girls. If you would like information on starting a shelter she has a free ‘shelter kit’ on her website. The website is

‘Gimme Shelter’ stars Vanessa Hudgens, with James Earl Jones, Rosario Dawson, Stephanie Szostak, Emily Meade, Ann Dowd and Brenden Fraser. It opens nationwide on Friday, January 24, 2013. It is rated PG-13 with a running time of 101 minutes.

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