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’.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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, ten 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.
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!