HOMME LESS - The Movie
'Follow your bliss but be prepared to live your nightmare!' Mark Reay
When I first visited New York in the early 90s one of my most vivid memories, apart form the overwhelming impact this city had on me, was of a man on the street trying to fish coins out of a subway shaft using a string with a magnet attached to it. At the time I experienced it as one of those typically bizarre New York moments rather than as a glimpse into the dark side of this amazing city. I was blinded and overwhelmed by the vibrant energy of Manhattan and took it all in with joy. New York seduced me like a beautiful woman and I was happy to follow her.
In 2008 I decided to move to New York. Soon I realized that this experience was wholly different from visiting as a tourist. The ‘beautiful woman’ made me realize what a big privilege it was to be with her, a privilege that had its price. New York isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough place to make a living and to get by. After couch surfing all over town, I managed to find and afford my own place. I felt like I finally had arrived and was part of this great city. Once you’re hooked it’s hard to leave New York. Little did I know at the time that some people develop extremely innovative ways to hold on to her, despite all the pressures, financial and otherwise, she puts on them.
We usually recognize homeless people from their behavior and the way they look. They appear to have no direction and move slowly, if at all. They seem to have lost their ability to be a productive part of society—or refuse to—and therefore we tend to see them as disabled. We immediately distance ourselves, as if they had a contagious disease.
We may pity them and throw them a dime but we draw a solid line between what we see as their dysfunctional lives and our ‘normality’. We feel safe on our side of the divide and are convinced this could never happen to us. But what if homelessness is nearer to us than we think, invisible and almost indistinguishable from what we call normal? What if many of ‘us’ are just one paycheck away from losing everything, even our homes? What if homelessness is already part of our so-called ‘normality’?
Mark and I go back a long way. We first met in Vienna more than 20 years ago where we worked in the fashion industry as male models, both pursuing a life of glamor. We ran into each other in different cities at the most random places over the years, talked about what’s new in our lives and then went our separate ways.
When I saw him again in New York in 2010 he was still a very good-looking guy in his early fifties, well dressed and with no sign of decay. Quite the opposite: he looked like a millionaire living it up in this town. So it was shocking when he finally revealed his unbelievable story to me. At first, I thought he was joking. It felt surreal, like the moment when I heard about the collapse of the banking system or the bankruptcy of whole countries. Something that just didn’t make sense at all. Right away I knew that I wanted to make a documentary film about his life in New York.
HOMME LESS is about the underbelly of the American Dream, the hidden backyard of our society. Mark’s life stands as a metaphor for the struggle of the vanishing middle class in America. But it’s also a film about the relationship between New York City and one of its residents. New York is not simply a beautiful backdrop for this story. She’s the antagonist that dictates the direction M’s life is going in. The joy and pain, the love and hate, the success and denial New York is teasing him with, the hardship he is going through in order to stay in her grace and the inventiveness he comes up with to be with her are all unique.
Mark walks the streets of Manhattan looking like a millionaire, wearing designer suits and expensive leather shoes. He seems to be well off, and works in the prestigious fashion and movie business. He is eloquent, charming and good looking, and obviously has a lot going for him. But while during the day he pursues a ‘normal’ life, late at night he goes to a place where the American Dream has turned into a nightmare.
HOMME LESS captures a raw and unfiltered moment in time, our time. Like its title HOMME LESS has different layers and raises the question of how far are we from losing everything, even our homes, and with it a part of our dignity and humanity? How often do we have to pretend that everything is in fine order to keep up the facade of being a well-off member of society? And how far are we prepared to go to take the financial pressure off our shoulders to live a more carefree live, the live that we want to live?
What went wrong in Mark’s life? How is he able to keep up his facade of success and fool everyone? What keeps him from going under? What motivates him to put up with this rather unthinkable situation? What were and are his hopes and desires in life?
Mark stands lost and alone in the midst of eight million dreams, balanced between the glamorous surfaces of this vibrant and inspiring city and its far from glamorous hidden backyard. He is the Homme Less.
As a first-time director of a feature length documentary, I feel very blessed and privileged that this story has presented itself to me. I can’t thank Mark enough for his trust in me as a filmmaker and friend to share his story. When we started shooting I pushed aside all the obstacles and questions that come up when you start such a long-term adventure. And an adventure it was. I grabbed my Canon 5D Mark II and my sound recorder and off we went, just Mark and me, documenting his life.
We filmed everything along the way as it happened, guerrilla style. I never looked at any location before we actually shot there. That was sometimes risky but also very exciting to see how his reality revealed itself, unrehearsed and raw.
My approach was mostly intuitive, and as physically demanding and sometimes even psychologically challenging as it was, the creative process itself was fascinating and most rewarding.
I had no producer at the time we started shooting. Further down the line I presented some footage and the story to Wolfgang Ramml, the head of Filmhaus Vienna, who immediately came on board as a producer of HOMME LESS. He reached out to his colleague Karol Martesko-Fenster in New York who also quickly signed onto the project.
HOMME LESS was edited from more than 200 hours of footage shot over the course of almost three years. We brought Josh Cramer to the project, a very talented editor with great experience and founder of House of Trim.
He helped greatly to find the structure and storyline for the film. I wanted to keep it raw and show all the layers of Mark’s personality without judging or finger pointing but at the same time use him as a vehicle to tell a story that was beyond his life as an individual.
New York is the capital of jazz and I’ve been a jazz lover for many years. Very early in the making of the film, it was clear to me that I wanted a jazz score. Jazz has a lot to do with individual expression and discovering freedom through improvisation and that’s what HOMME LESS is about.
Lucky enough a friend of mine introduced me to Kyle Eastwood at the time. He was playing at the Blue Note in New York and when I told him about my film he immediately loved the idea of a jazz score. The music he wrote and performed together with Matt McGuire gives the film the New York feeling I was looking for. It carries and emphasizes its rhythm in a very beautiful and touching way and I could not be happier to have had such amazing musicians write and perform the score for HOMME LESS.