Behind the Scenes with Damian Lewis: The Making of Keane

Alex Gansa knew he had the actor to play Nicholas Brody in Homeland once he saw Damian Lewis’ performance in Keane.

“Every ounce of me wanted to go home and pour a gin-and-tonic, but I thought, let me see if it’s streaming on Netflix. I looked on my computer and put on my headphones and opened my laptop and there was this little movie. The first forty-five minutes of the film are essentially Damian on camera. I hit pause and picked up the phone and called the studio head and said, ‘This is just an incredible performance—a damaged person on camera holding the frame. ”

Well, we blogged earlier about how Keane gave us Brody here and both JaniaJania and I wrote our reviews of the movie here and here. But how did Damian get to work on Keane? How did he prepare for his wonderfully gripping but extremely consuming part? How did the filming go? How did it all come together?

So it all starts with director Lodge Kerrigan making a movie called In God’s Hands in 2002. But he unfortunately needs to give up on the movie due to extreme negative damage. Two years later, once the insurance covers his damage, Kerrigan writes an original script, Keane, sharing similar themes with In God’s Hands such as mental illness and abduction of a child. Then he sends the script to a certain actor he spotted in Band of Brothers.

What does Damian think when he reads the script? He tells The Guardian:

“I loved the compassion and unjudgmental attitude toward a person with mental illness which runs in parallel with a completely natural, rational emotional trauma that he experiences over the abduction of his kid.”

Still, he initially thinks…

“if this is handled by a young director, it could read a little like a catalogue of greatest mental-health tics.”

Hmm… so how did Damian decide to get involved? Damian tells Lauren Collins in his New Yorker profile:

“That was a Helen moment because she’d read it, and she said, ‘Whatever happens, you have to do this’.”

Helen and Damian at Keane screening at the Times BFI London Film Festival 2005

As someone who is married to a man in her own line of business, I know that one may find her greatest critic and most reliable counsel in her better half. So no wonder Damian credits Helen as his “ferociously intelligent co-counsel” and I applaud Helen for encouraging Damian to take the role he often cites as the one he is most proud of even though “thirty-three people watched it.” Well, at least, Alex Gansa was one of them 🙂

Yet, joke aside, this is the sad state of independent American cinema. The small budget, slow-cooking movies are not in high demand compared to big studio hits with a lot of action and special effects. And even though they find good homes in movie festivals (Keane was screened at high brow ones like Cannes, New York, London and Toronto) and independent movie theaters, the visibility and reach of a beautiful movie like Keane is still limited. And I think that is one major reason for some great talent in independent film moving to TV in the past decade or so.

Once Damian agrees to do Keane, he and Kerrigan meet up in London to see if they would be able to work together and, guess what, they click.

Damian talks to The Guardian just before the movie’s UK release:

“Lodge is an uncompromising film-maker. The first 35 minutes of the film are quite suffocating for the viewer because there is no great exploration of Keane’s illness or his grief. He may even be entirely delusional, so that plays on the audience’s mind: ‘Did the daughter ever exist?’ It’s clear that he has acute anxiety and panic, and paranoia – all symptoms of schizophrenia. Although grieving in a rational way he is also clearly undergoing some sort of mental breakdown.”

Embed from Getty Images

Now, one thing we repeatedly questioned when we talked about Keane on the blog is the existence of the daughter. Here is an excerpt from my own review:

“Honestly, we do not even know if there was ever a daughter. We do not know if a real bad tragedy like the abduction of his child brought him to the edge, or did the mental problems bring him the delusion of an abducted daughter?”

Kerrigan, in an interview with IndieWire, seems to confirm the former:

“For me, what I was primarily interested in was how a person would deal and survive having their child abducted, if the child was in their care when it happened, and how in a very short period of time your life can change irreversibly. Can you ever survive the extent of the grief that would cause, and how destabilizing that would be and how would you move beyond that in some way and continue to have love? I think that would take a lot of courage.”

Indeed.

How does Damian prepare for the role? Well, he spends time at Fountain House, a support facility for the mentally ill in New York.

“It’s a halfway house, or really a club, set up for people with mental illness who are no longer in institutions. You can talk to people there who are lucid and have remarkable stories to tell, and in the same room you’ll have someone in the corner rocking back and forth, experiencing unbelievably heightened anxiety.”

Damian highlights the responsibility he feels in bringing the character to life as truthfully as possible in his interview with The Independent:

“There is a responsibility to get these things right if you’re being asked to portray illness or mental disintegration or grief in as naturalistic a way as Lodge wanted to shoot the film. Anything sensationalist would have stuck out like a sore thumb: I didn’t want to do, you know, the ‘greatest hits’ of mental tics.”

He gives a bit more detail about his preparation for Keane at New Yorker Festival.

source: Getty Images

Damian arrives in New York a few weeks before they start filming. Kerrigan is rewriting scenes and Damian goes with him to “welfare hotels” in New Jersey where one can pay with their welfare check to get a bed for the night. He also spends time in Port Authority Bus Terminal talking to the homeless. He shares a story about meeting the “other” Tina Turner:

“I met Tina Turner there, in fact, who nightly went to a club to perform with Ike and will come and go sleep on the subway and then take a shower, in the public showers at Port Authority Terminal… yeah the other Tina Turner. She thought she was Tina Turner. She would take her position on 8th Avenue standing on the sidewalk every morning and I would say “Hi Tina, how are you?” and she said “Oh great great great gig last night!” She told the whole thing in great detail.”

Damian also shares in his interview with The Independent that his meetings with the mentally ill and watching documentary footage changed his perspective in some important ways:

“…the thing the film illustrates is how easy it is for any of us healthy, functioning middle-class types to tip over – it’s five short steps to welfare checks and homeless nights and drug abuse, and before you know it you’ve slipped right through the cracks in society.

It’s very easy to walk round, steer clear of, patronise… show animosity to the wino on the street, the guy or woman with needle tracks up their arm. I’ve lived in Camden for five years and your first response is: ‘Go and do it somewhere else’, which is completely unhelpful. We’re always told, ‘Don’t give to people begging because you’ll only feed the next fix’, which is clearly what happens, but there is an act of some compassion just by giving the money. The only real answer is to devote your time to a charity and do it through a formal system. Doing the film taught me a sense of sympathy and understanding that I perhaps have been slow to have before.”

The Independent asks Damian whether, as someone who experienced grief in his mother’s death, he accessed her death for the movie.

“It’s completely different, that’s what I mean when I say that, for me, acting comes from the imagination. It’s just my mind applied to the script and I imagine the rest. But, if you’ve had tragedy in your life, you need to assume it has affected you in subliminal ways, and that will inform the way you judge your next performance.”

Well, I don’t know what Damian imagines in the scene where Keane plays “Can’t Help Myself” on the Juke Box and sings along loudly but he blows me away. He makes Keane’s demons so tangible that it is extremely hard to watch this guy living in HELL and trying so hard to get out of this hell at that very moment.  And I love it that IndieWire asks Kerrigan THE question I would have should I have had the chance.

IndieWire: “Can you talk about the scene in which he sings the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” in a bar? That was the first scene where I felt like I could really feel his pain in a very visceral way. How did that scene evolve? Why that song?”

Kerrigan:I heard the song on the radio while I was location scouting and it just seemed to fit. It had this real pathos. Certainly, it’s a sad love song, but musically, it’s more upbeat. I was interested in the presentation of Motown itself, glamorous and stylish, with somebody who is the antithesis of that, someone who is very isolated and living on the street in cheap motels, ill and unraveling. I thought it would have a greater emotional impact.

With the song, I wanted to have him drowning out everything that was in his head, and just try to escape all the pain and the grief and any hallucinations he may be experiencing, and trying to push it out with overwhelming himself with the song and the music.”

Finally, shooting in Port Authority, a LIVE environment, seems to have presented challenges for filming especially because Kerrigan wants to have long, continuous shots. Kerrigan tells Film Freak Central:

“I wanted to make people feel that Keane really existed and so I chose this aesthetic realism basically because if you could feel like you were with him in “real time” then you could begin to believe in him in three dimensions and then the emotional impact of the picture could be felt with more depth and clarity. Tied into that, I shot the scenes in “real time” and some scenes last up to four minutes, not all, but there’s no traditional coverage in the movie, every scene is shot in one shot and the only cuts are jump cuts.”

He also talks about the challenges of working in an open set:

“A live environment like the Port Authority Bus Terminal you had like 200K people walking through it every day and we weren’t controlling it. We had some extras, but most people walking through the frame were just commuters–so you can imagine that take eleven and you’re three minutes into a four-minute take and a bus arrives and 150 people flood out, and someone says, “Hey, you making a movie?” And then you’re back at zero. So it was really demanding of the actors, but it was also really exhilarating and I think that the actors really fed off of that environment.”

Kerrigan thinks Damian, thanks to his theatre background, shines in a live setting with continuous takes:

“He’s from the Royal Shakespeare Company so of course that vibe of working, in a way, in front of a live audience in continual non-covered takes was, I think, liberating for him. It really played into his strengths and he really appreciated the chance, I think, to be able to work through an emotion without needing to break it up with coverage or insert shots.”

Damian, in his interview with The Guardian, talks about the technical challenges during the Port Authority shoot, too.

“We couldn’t control background movements or people looking at the camera, so sometimes we would shoot an incredibly intense scene nine, 10 times before everything came together,” he says. “I could nail it two or three times, but then I’d start to dip, just as Abigail was hitting her stride. It starts to feel like keeping a car ticking over while you’re refuelling yourself. By take 10 you’re in bits and you just hope no one walks past and looks into the camera.”

Damian works with Lodge Kerrigan again in 2013 when the latter directs Homeland Season 2 Episode 3 State of Independence in which Brody takes care of Bassel the tailor.

Pinnland Empire asks Kerrigan about directing Homeland, a show in which mental illness, a repeated theme in Kerrigan’s work, is an element. The director cites a number of factors including the quality of the writing as well as the cast, and in particular the opportunity to work with Damian again.

<3

And when asked whether he and Damian would like to collaborate again…

“I hope so – we’re actively looking for another project together.”

AMEN to that! While I immensely enjoy Damian’s work in TV, as a huge fan of independent cinema, and maybe for selfish reasons, I would LOVE to see him tackle flawed and complex characters like William Keane on big screen. Come on boys, do it already!

Lodge Kerrigan and Damian Lewis attend Keane Screening at Toronto International Film Festival 2004, source: Getty Images

21 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes with Damian Lewis: The Making of Keane”

  1. Dans ce film,Damian montre qu’il est vraiment le plus grand acteur du monde!Je n’exagère pas!
    il donne la chair de poule,il fait pleurer,il nous plonge dans une admiration profonde!
    Quel acteur!!Monique

  2. Stunning. Keane is number 2 on my favorite Damian performances. I wonder how large it’s viewer numbers are today. Such a great performance!

    1. Definitely number 2 for me, too! No wonder he got the Brody part after Homeland people saw him in Keane. OMG, they were considering Ryan Philippe for the part, can you imagine?

      Re the viewer numbers for Keane: I am sure more and more people have seen it now but it is so sad that this is the state independent cinema has been in. No big studio, no big budget, no special effects, no big ads, and chances are, “33 people” see your movie… I think that is one reason for the talent in indie cinema moving to TV in the last decade or so.

  3. I really, really thank you for your research and everything you did to put it all together!

    It’s hard for me to read and write because I’ve been sick for a month or so with a toothache and headache, but it’s harder to resist not doing it. I will use GOOGLE translate.

    Apart from all its incredible technical qualities – directing, screenplay, cinematography, acting (Damian’s acting is “Oh, my God!”), Keane is one of the very few movies that really shakes me deeply and makes me revise my own awareness. It makes me wondering myself I am passionate about the pain, and suffering, and woes of others or I’m just a useless, heartless imbecile who goes through life with no relation to other people. The alienation is a big scourge for our society. It makes the problems grow like a tsunami and at the same time a personal tragedy when experiencing in isolation as is usually the case, it is very painful and sometimes fatal. And the system doesn’t work. I think that Keane and all those wonderful pieces of art that make us think and wake up from the devastating lethargy that has plagued our societies have their influence.

    One late evening, maybe two months ago while I was coming home from work by the train, the silence in the carriage was broken by a male voice that shouted obscene words with no sense. Everybody started to laugh and mock at him. The voice came from behind me. I did not turn back to see whose voice was that but when he came close enough to be in the sight of my eyes I saw a young man around his 30 whose left arm and shoulder were missing … they were not there. I was horrified not by what I saw, but I was horrified because I could not stop thinking about what a terrible experience this man had been through to reach this state of madness. I was thinking and I could not imagine this pain … The other passengers still laughed at his footle talk. And I did not understand why they laughed, and then I realized I had “turned off” and did not listen to the meaning of his words, probably because my English is not my native language and I can do that or because of the horror that hit me. I experienced anger and HELPLESSNES in front of all this insanity and misery and I could not help  I was thinking about how inane and superficial and useless we are most of the time. I’m not going any further because it’s difficult … The world is full of the pain of all those people – veterans, crazy, disabled, and we – “normal” people laugh at them. I hope that somewhat depicts the effect that Keane has on me.

    God bless Helen for Being Damian’s “ferociously intelligent co-counsel”! <3

    As for the independent cinema and its low funding and low demand – I love what Lodge Kerrigan wisely says about that: "I think it's an economic question. I work at a low budget level because it's appropriate to the films that I want to make. It's a business. I accept and like that it's a business. I think it's immature to think that you can get as much money as you want and make any movie that you want and expect any distributor to find an audience and support a larger budget than the movie warrants. I think it's a real responsibility for filmmakers to look at the work and ask does story warrant the budget.
    I think what's happened, and it's very clear, is that most of the filmmakers want to make bigger and bigger budget movies, and people who invest in the movie want to make a bigger and bigger profit. So it becomes about economies of scale. With the minutes they become bigger, they need a wider audience. Then it becomes less about an individual vision and more about a demographic. So decisions get about who the audience is, and I do not take part in that. I do not have to, because I work on a low budget level. And that's the compromise I've done. "

    You got my AMIN too for a new Kerrigan-Lewis project!
    What else can I say besides: Damian, please do your passionate projects !!! The next one can be seen not by thirty-three, but by only three, yet if it touches the three, as Keane touched me – then it's WORTH IT. You may not earn any money, but I promise, if it happens to meet you, I will treat you a beer 
    And if I can give my modest recommendation to all the readers of this great blog who like Damian more or less, here it is: If you don't have a chance to see this STUNNING MAN at the theater, then you MUST WATCH Keane!

    I'm sorry for the long comment 🙁

    <3 <3 <3

      1. EMPATHY IN ACTION. Bravo! And that is, I think, what Damian sees the movie like, too. He says he has learnt from the movie and the movie changed his attitude towards the kind of people we meet in Keane.

        Your long comment is brilliant. I LOVE you for many things but for that comment, too! But I need to read it again and digest a bit before I respond. Later today, hopefully!

    1. First things first: So sorry about you being sick. Please take good care of yourself. Hope you are able to have some rest! Hope you feel much better now.

      I love the Kerrigan quote. No wonder he is a smart man and I admire and respect his choices like I admire and respect Damian’s choices. I know many fans want to see him as James Bond or in an equally big role. I respect that choice, too. But I personally (and quite selfishly) would LOVE to see him in movies like Keane, bringing to life characters like Keane. Movies like Keane, as you also rightly point out, raise awareness about issues we, as a society, try our best to keep our distance from. Your personal experience on the train is amazing. I just thought about what I would have felt at that moment should i have been there… I am embarrassed but I will not lie, I would feel terrified because I would be terrified by someone shouting on the train. I would never laugh, but I know I would feel terrified and I would wish with all my heart that the men would get off at the next stop. You are right. We live in an isolating society where we prefer not to co-exist with people with whom we would not feel comfortable. VERY SAD. But I believe in the power of film in raising awareness about issues. As much as I understand the “entertainment” aspect of it, cinema is a very serious art form when it is done right and can change minds and can change lives.

      I completely agree with you that every Damian fan MUST SEE Keane. We have been trying our best to spread the word about the movie and hope we have done our share in increasing the number of Keane viewers 🙂

      1. Thank you so much for your kind words! <3
        Yes, the whole thing is that I desperately need to rest, but I can't do it now and I feel myself somehow trapped. My immune system is literally collapsing. Anyway. No more off topic 🙂

        Same here with that “Bond – Keane” dilemma. I guess so that’s the way things go when the guy is so gifted with a perfect look, Irresistible charm, and great talent. Lucky us!

        Speaking of that mind-blowing "Can’t Help Myself" scene here's the other song, the lyrics of which Keane was whispering. It is somewhat calming if we could talk about any peace of mind in the movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6jLECMPFPs

        Tell me why the ivy twines?
        Tell me why the stars do shine?
        Tell me why the ocean's blue?
        And I will tell you just why I love you

        Because God made the ivy twine
        Because God made the stars to shine
        Because God made the ocean blue
        Because God made you, that's why I love you

        The only difference is that Keane says “skies are blue” instead of “ocean”. I guess the original is a folk lullaby.

        Much love to you too! <3

  4. I guess during this ginger drought, it is time to watch Keane again. His performance was worthy of an Oscar, but of course we already knew that. There are two pieces of Damian’s work of which I own two copies, fearful that something would happen to one of them. The first being Band of Brothers and the second is Keane.

    1. I agree, Connie, Damian’s performance in Keane is absolutely Oscar-worthy. But, unfortunately, the independent American cinema has been under-appreciated for a long long time because of very powerful big studios making big budget movies and marketing them leaving no place for indies to find a good home in movie theaters. Hahaha, I know, I am so opinionated about this 🙂 If the Academy had paid a bit more attention to what was out there, they should have noticed Keane. I think they have started to correct that in the last couple of years but there is still a long way to go. I would LOVE Damian to be in another movie like Keane.

  5. I finally bought a copy of Keane about a month ago. I had to have it available. Of course I watched it right away. Just as stunning as the first time!
    I wonder how Billions will look to me this year, I was fresh off of S 1-3 of Homeland last year, grieving my Brody. We’ll see.

    1. No wonder it is the film that Damian is most proud of having made.

      I think Billions could be a different experience for you this year. I know it takes a bit of time to leave Brody in his time and place and move on a bit. He made me start a blog for God’s sake, hahaha, it was not easy to let him go! 😀 I am so looking forward to experiencing Billions Season 3 together. Fingers crossed for an early 2018 premiere.

  6. Hallo liebe Damianista,
    Ich sage einfach nur Wow Wow Wow zu Deiner heutigen Seite über Damian und seinen Film Keane.
    Mich hat dieser Film auch unheimlich begeistert und ich habe in natürlich ebenfalls auf DVD. Es gibt ihn zwar nur in der Originalfassung, aber das war mir egal. Da das Spiel so eindringlich und aussagekräftig ist, benötigt man nicht unbedingt eine Übersetzung ins Deutsche.
    Mit diesen ganzen wahnsinnig interessanten Hintergrundinformationen macht es noch mehr Sinn, diesen Film immer wieder mal anzusehen. Vielen, vielen Dank.
    Auch hat mich der Kommentar von Tsvetanka Nikolaeva vom 30. August 2017 sehr, sehr nachdenklich gemacht. Es ist traurig, aber leider wahr. Man kann nur hoffen, dass einem bei nächster Gelegenheit dazu das richtige Verhalten in den Sinn kommt. Denn wir sollten ja nicht bei den anderen die Veränderung suchen, sondern bei uns selbst anfangen. Ich für meinen Teil muss sagen, dass ich da schon genug beschäftigt bin, da hab ich gar keine Zeit nach anderen zu schauen, die es vielleicht schlechter machen.
    Herzlichste Grüße aus Deutschland !!

    Google-translate:

    Hello dear Damianista,
    I just say Wow Wow Wow to your today’s page about Damian and his movie Keane.
    This movie has also been incredibly enthusiastic and I have in course also on DVD. It is only in the original version, but I did not care. Since the game is so powerful and meaningful, you do not necessarily need a translation into German.
    With all these insanely interesting background information it makes even more sense to watch this film again and again. Thanks alot.
    Also the comment of Tsvetanka Nikolaeva of 30 August 2017 made me very, very thoughtful. It is sad, but unfortunately true. One can only hope that the right behavior comes to mind at the next opportunity. For we should not seek change in the others, but start with ourselves. For my part I have to say that I am already busy enough, because I have no time to look after others, which might make it worse.
    Greetings from Germany!

    1. Thank you, Petra! I loved putting this one together. I agree with you that Damian does so much with so little, and even without any words that you can watch him in Keane in English without subtitles and understand perfectly what is going on. His body language. His eyes. His posture. It is all about who Keane is. Damian is brilliant in this!

      Tsvetanka is right. Absolutely. And she has made me think as well. We are all too busy to take care of others. It is sad. But it is true. And this is what life is.

  7. I read all the comments and I can only agree. This movie should’ve been in Oscars, it was nominated in Cannes though. This story makes me cry, as it’s so real…and sometimes you get to see people wandering off lost in tears, drugs or simply thoughts, and then I think that the greatest abyss a human can have are the depth of his/her own mind. Excellent performancr by Damian as usual!

    1. Oh yes you are absolutely right — Keane was in competition at Cannes. It was also screened at NYFF that picks the best of the best from that year’s festival circuit but does not give awards. “Every movie we show is a winner”, they say 😀 Talking about this, I was at 2004 NYFF. And I saw many films. Didn’t see Keane. But I don’t know if Keane would hit me like Brody did. Probably not. But I know I would at least ask to myself, “who is this incredible actor?”

  8. As promised, I am catching up on Lewis’ works. Watched Keane this week. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and not in a cheesy action movie kind of way (which bores me to tears after five minutes.) This was a truly engrossing portrait and it broke my heart. Every new scene felt like that phone call in the middle of the night when your heart jerks in your chest. Especially if you have a friend or loved one in peril. You think, Oh God, please let it be alright. The final scene made me weep. I’m so glad I found this site as a portal to his work. Life just got a lot richer.

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