Fun facts: As of December 2016, the average rent for an apartment in New York was $3,046. The rent for a 23-sq.-meter unit at a micro-apartment that went up in Kips Bay last year comes to $2,570, according to 6sqft.com.
Then there’s Mark Reay, who just decided not to go that route. A 50-something model, photographer and actor who has lived most of his adult life in and around Manhattan, Reay knew he couldn’t or didn’t want to exist anywhere else but in New York. But after the “Lehman Shock” and the effects of the Great Recession settled on the city like a permanent smog, coming up with the monthly rent became increasingly difficult for Reay, even as he pared down his lifestyle to its barest essentials.
Interestingly, the essentials for Mark Reay add up to: an impeccable suit, Italian shoes, a haircut that looks like it cost a couple of hundred bucks at a swanky salon, camera equipment and high-quality personal care products. Combine all that with his elegant 190-cm frame and what you have is a GQ cover, not the usual example of New York homelessness.
“Homme Less” (Japan title: “Homme Less: New York to Neta Otoko”) is a documentary about Reay and how he managed to inhabit a small corner on the rooftop of an apartment building where a friend lived, with no one the wiser, for an astounding five or six years. (In the doc, he says he’s unsure exactly how long he lived there.) During this time, he worked, went to the gym and paid health insurance like everyone else — he just didn’t have his own digs and he certainly didn’t want to go to a shelter.
Written and directed by Thomas Wirthensohn, “Homme Less” is insightful, poignant and often even hilarious, depicting the life and musings of Reay as he goes through the logistics of keeping body and soul together in the world’s most expensive city.
“I didn’t think there was really a movie in my story but when it came out at the DOC NYC in 2014 (where it won the Metropolis Grand Jury Prize) I got a lot of feedback,” says Reay during his visit to Japan to promote the documentary. “I never thought my life was motivational but it actually reached out to a lot of people and they commented on SNS, saying ‘We were touched by your story.’ And then I realized that I had something in my life that needed to be told and meant something to other people.”
Before making “Homme Less,” the only film Wirthensohn had made was a short that lasted about 30 seconds, and though he and Reay had known each other for over 20 years, a friendship that began when they both worked as models on catwalks all over the world, Reay says, “I trusted Tom as a human being and a friend, but at first I didn’t trust him as a filmmaker.”
Picking up the camera that shot most of “Homme Less,” entrusted to him by Wirthenson during his stay in Japan, he adds, “Still, I was working as a photographer, and I had been on movie sets so I had a feel for the film-making process. I decided to team up with him. And he did promise me — ‘I’m never going to embarrass you.’ That was something.”
Reay’s own photography has appeared in magazines such as Dazed and Confused, and his portfolio contains some wondrous shots of the world’s top models. He has also worked as stand-ins in TV shows and extras in movies. In short, he’s an artist, but as he describes it: “I’ve had a lot of adventures but few achievements. It was very frustrating. For a long time, I would go to a bar and people would ask me that inevitable question: ‘What do you do?’ And I could only answer, ‘Not much.’ But now, with this film, I think I have the achievement.”
The journey wasn’t easy. There was virtually no filming schedule, since Reay himself didn’t have one. So he gave Wirthensohn copies of the keys to the entrance of the apartment building he was living above, allowing the filmmaker to come over whenever. Often, two to three weeks would go by before the director showed up with his gear, which would be in the dead of night or early dawn to avoid being seen. He would call out to Reay, who slept under a tarp.
On many days, both Reay and Wirthenson became deeply depressed, unconvinced they would ever complete the documentary or if they did, that it would be any good.
“Tom even arranged for me to talk with a psychiatrist,” says Reay. “But I told the doctor, ‘It’s the director I’m more concerned about.’ “
“Homme Less,” however, tones down the depression, bleakness and desperation that must have accompanied being homeless for so long. “The really bad stuff,” jokes Reay, “is in the other 162 versions of the film.” The miracle is that he managed to avoid hunger, or anything that even remotely suggests poverty, and survived to tell the tale.
“I got tired of worrying about money,” says Reay. “It’s just that simple. I wanted out of the rat race.”
“Homme Less” opens on Jan. 28 at selected theaters across Japan. For more information, visit homme-less.jp.