The director Roger Spottiswoode’s filmography features box office hits including Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan as 007, and the Tom Hanks comedy Turner & Hooch alongside smaller films covering topics such as the AIDS epidemic, Hiroshima and the Rwandan genocide. His latest cinematic release, A Street Cat Named Bob, tells the story of a homeless busker and Big Issue seller in London who befriends a stray cat while recovering from heroin addiction. Inside Housing spoke to Mr Spottiswoode about portraying homelessness on screen
Q: Did you set out with the aim of trying to educate people about the way the Big Issue operates or change people’s attitudes to homeless people?
RS: “I do believe you can’t really send telegrams but I thought it was a very interesting story, what James had written in his book, and obviously a lot of people read it and were connected to it. I thought: this [film] will find a way to those people and maybe to some more people who are just interested in the cat but will become interested in James.
“One certainly hopes people will think about it and indeed in our previews we did get a lot of people saying: ‘It really made me think about what it’s like to be a homeless person.’ It’s easier for people to understand things if they see more of it and if you can find a way for them to want to see more of it, so much the better.”
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Q: Did you find your own attitudes or awareness changed during filming?
RS: “Yes. When you film homeless people, you have to go and talk to them to get permission to do it or pay them or interact with them, and that’s a huge learning curve.
“I met an awful lot of nice people who are stuck living on the streets and many of them were embarrassed and really didn’t want to be seen; some of them let me film their backs. They didn’t want their relatives to know they were homeless, many of them, because it’s not known that they’re homeless. Some of them were working homeless people and they’re embarrassed about being homeless but they’re stuck. They’re trying to hold down a job and they can’t find anywhere to live. Others have started like that and then fallen out of everything and they don’t know how to climb back into the world, the world that we know, and it’s very interesting. It’s very, very sad and the only way to really take care of it is to give them homes.”
Q: What advice would you give young film-makers approaching a film about homelessness?
RS: “Just find a story that people can connect to.
“…It’s a difficult subject because we’ve all seen a lot of it in the media and it easily goes by. [My friend and I] were struggling to find a way into the story of homelessness in New York.
“…This story [A Street Cat Named Bob], I thought was compelling and I thought, because of [James’] relationship with the cat, that was like a keyhole into the subject a little bit, of dealing with someone who is a heroin addict and homeless.”
Q: Did you approach A Street Cat Named Bob any differently to, for example, Tomorrow Never Dies? Is it the same process as a director?
RS: “Of course it’s not the same process. One has an infinite budget, one has a small budget. One is entirely about entertainment and the other one is about entertainment and information. We’re not trying to lecture people; it’s trying to enlighten them in some way without them feeling they’re being preached at. You’re trying to offer them a different view of something that they pass by every day and hope that they will see it slightly differently and perhaps look at homeless people differently.
“It’s a little different from making a Bond film, or any other kind of film. There’s nothing wrong with Bond films but they’re just trying to do a slightly different thing… I’ve made lots of films that are more serious and are an effort to find an audience and to portray something that really happens in a rather more real way rather than just as entertainment – but hopefully in an entertaining enough way that people will sit through it and be interested.”
Q: How do you strike that balance between light and shade, the hard-hitting and the entertaining?
RS: “It’s difficult. In London, I don’t read reviews but I’m told that we got lots of rather pithy reviews saying ‘oh, this is too Hollywood comes to homelessness’ or something… Obviously for some critics there, the cat, or the way I made the film, was too entertaining and not serious enough. I don’t know. The audience seemed to like it, at least the ones that I heard back from or spoke to afterwards or read about afterwards. But everyone has different opinions.”