HOMME LESS in The City – Thomas Wirthensohn
Interview CHRISTINE TOMAS
Photography LANCE CHESHIRE
By day, Mark walks the streets of New York wearing a designer suit, looking like a million bucks. With a job working in the fashion and movie industries, to some, he is the American dream personified. But at night, this dream turns to nightmare; the truth is that Mark is homeless.
New York is renowned for being a city that never sleeps with an energy and a rush that outstrips nearly anywhere else and housing market that keeps pace, too. But what happens when the demands of the city and the exorbitant cost of living are too much to handle? Who gets left behind, and why? What does it take to make it in the city and what is the human cost of business? Edited from more than 200 hours of footage shot over the course of almost three years, Thomas Wirthensohn’s directorial debut HOMME LESS captures the raw, unfiltered beauty of NYC and the lengths some have to go to make a living there. 4SEE spoke with Thomas to learn about the inspiration behind his award-winning film, as well as what’s next for the talented filmmaker with a social conscience.
How do you know Mark and how did you find out he was homeless?
We met in the late ’80s working for the same modeling agency in Europe. 30 years later, we ran into each other at a photo exhibit in NYC. He was wearing a classic grey suit, looking like a movie star. After a couple of hours together in a bar and a few drinks later, I asked him where he lived. He revealed he didn’t have an apartment and that he had been secretly sleeping on a rooftop for 3 years.
Most of your previous work revolved around advertising production and filming. What inspired you to create this documentary?
Documentary filmmaking and advertising have a very different work process. It can be inspiring to work in a team and do the best to achieve a certain outcome or product, but I had the desire to create something without strict guidelines and limitations other than my own. Mark fascinated me on many levels. At first I was intrigued by the discrepancy between his appearance and his lifestyle. Although his story was pretty unique, I began to wonder how many more were out there living on the edge, struggling to keep up the facade of a well-off citizen, but barely making enough to survive. His life style seemed very courageous and adventurous, but at the same time dark and depressing. Those conflicts interested me and the idea was born.
What was Mark’s initial reaction when you came up with the idea for the documentary?
I think he was flattered, but at first not sure if I could pull it off. After all, it was my first film and I didn’t know what I was doing. Really, I just knew that I had to make this film, no matter what, and I believe that determination convinced him. One week after his revelation, we started shooting, and by that I mean, just him and me, all the way through. No sound guy, no assistant, no producer. Guerrilla style.
What was your overall vision?
I didn’t want to come from a place of judgment. My goal was to show his life from different angles and let him explain it. In the beginning, I even tried to help him until I realized that he quite enjoyed his adventurous and unique life on the roof and that he wasn’t open for change. It wasn’t my intention to find a solution for a certain situation; rather, more about raising questions that would start a discussion. It worked—people started to talk about the film and we had many really great experiences on our festival tour and, of course, globally, media picked up on it as well. We even went on The View, Whoopi Goldberg’s show.
Mark has put up this ruse for years. Neither his mom nor his friend whose roof he lived on had a clue about his situation. While filming, were there ever moments where you sensed that he wasn’t being truthful?
Truth, I believe, is rather subjective. We describe the world how we see it from our own perspective. That doesn’t mean others are seeing it the exact same way and we have to respect that. Of course, we can agree on basic things like “this apple is red,” but while I think it tastes sweet, someone else might think it’s sour. I wasn’t so worried about him ‘lying’ to me, because I could see that his story was real. I think he enjoyed talking about his life in front of a camera. He even said it helps him to collect his thoughts and almost feels like therapy. In my opinion, he was lying more to himself about why he found himself in this situation. We all have to deal with our own issues and shortcomings and it takes courage. It can hurt to dig deep to find the truth of who we really are. If you’re not prepared to go that path, your life will spin in circles and you’re facing the same problems over and over again. That’s my experience anyways.
Do you still keep in touch?
Yes, but we don’t see each other often.
If you were a screenwriter instead of a documentarist, how would Mark’s story end?
Good question. If I was a Hollywood screenwriter Mark would meet the girl that saves him and they would drive towards the sunset together and live happily ever after. (laughs.) Ironically, this almost happened to him, but in the end, it didn’t work out. The thing is that the story really never ends. When I watch a film where the guy finally gets the girl, that’s the end of the film, but in real life it’s the beginning of everything else.
You used to live in Vienna. Do you think a story like Mark’s could exist there?
Vienna has a better quality of life when you count in all the factors like prices, air quality, healthcare, standard of living, etc. Mark’s story could exist in Vienna because he wasn’t completely forced in to his situation by his circumstances, but made a choice at some point. As difficult as it was, it gave him a certain feeling of independence and freedom. When I talk to him today, he says he misses the roof.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a few documentary projects right now. One is about consciousness, science, and psychedelic substances. Another one is about my mother-in-law who was an iconic figure in Harlem in the sixties and seventies. I’m also working on a short film about a PanAm stewardess from back in the day.
Studio Interior Portrait: Photographed at Bath House Studios, New York City,
Special thanks to James Gingold
Studio Roof top Portraits: Photographed at Go Studios Penthouse, New York City,
Special thanks to Halley
Special thanks to Roger Dong, G.E Projects, New York City