Often a re-release is granted to some long-cherished classic or cult sensation. In the case of Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, which played the festival circuit through 2004 and received a small theatrical run in 2005, a much-underseen film has been given another chance to find the audience it’s long deserved with a brand new 4K restoration courtesy Grasshopper Film.
The titular Keane (played impressively by Damian Lewis pre-Homeland and Billions) a mid-30s man suffering from schizophrenia and on a fruitless quest to find his lost daughter through the purgatory of New York City. Coming across Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her young daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin) living in precarity in the same motel, and soon finding himself taking care of the young girl while her mother tends to waiting tables. Keane begins to see her as potentially his lost daughter, which leads him down a dark path of recreating and revisiting his past.
Humming with the ambience of dark rooms, crowded bus stations, and the overwhelming crush of a metropolis, Kerrigan’s film is a formally rigorous work that still manages to treat tricky subject matter with the utmost integrity. We were lucky enough to discuss Keane and other facets of his fascinating career, including his debut feature Clean, Shaven, and the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience.
The Film Stage: So in the almost 20 years since the film has come out, how has your relationship with it changed?
Lodge Kerrigan: That’s an interesting question. I tend to watch the film only once with an audience after I make it. A large part of what attracts me to film is actually the filmmaking process rather than presenting a film afterward. Although that is exhilarating and very rewarding, to share it and show it to an audience.
The last time I watched it was in, I believe, the Director’s Fortnight in 2005; or it may have been the New York Film Festival after that. Anyway, it was in 2005. So when I watched it again during the remastering and restoration process, I think what really struck me were three things—one being how intense and magnetic Damian’s performance was, but also how great Abigail and Amy were in the film. Abigail was so vulnerable and present. And Amy’s performance was so beautifully nuanced. The second thing was just how relevant it still seems to me personally. It was made in 2004, so that’s, what, 18 years ago. But it still seems very much of the moment now.
And the third thing was just how high-risk it was and we were shooting in real live environments, but not only that but we were shooting a lot of environments that we didn’t control or only partially controlled. We were shooting one-shot scenes. One scene in Port Authority lasted for four minutes long. Also, in the background real commuters would show up and could ruin the take. And it’s one shot per scene, there’s no coverage, so you have to start all over again if they do. During that period friends and colleagues said “maybe you want to think about getting more traditional coverage,” but I really didn’t want to; I thought it was worth the risk. I still do. Steven Soderbergh, the executive producer, was very supportive of the approach.
And I thought that it would be just more exhilarating to capture the energy of the city and the energy of these characters, and also it carved a lot of space for them as actors to express their characters, both verbally and nonverbally throughout an entire city rather than just a few lines of dialogue or reaction and then cut to other coverage. So I thought it was a very bracing way of working—to really focus the performers, focus the crew. It’s almost documentary-like in that kind of focus. But it was also very high-risk at the time. I was just completely confident that it would work and, looking back on it, I realized how fortunate [I was]. If I had to repeat it I would do it the same way. I think it’s completely worth it—particularly for smaller films like Keane, I think are worth taking that kind of risk.
Even though a lot of the film is really honed in tightly on the lead character, do you think the way New York City has changed would make the film different in the nearly two decades since?
No, I don’t. Well, I mean obviously it depends where you focus on, but one of the elements with the locations that I was focused on was the economic implications of dealing with mental instability. Obviously with the character it’s specific—you know, what issues or what conditions he’s dealing with. But it’s obvious that he’s unstable and I think that has real economic ramifications. And so I was looking at areas of the city that reflected that, and I still think that they exist.
I was just thinking of this because I’m based in Toronto and I remember watching the first season of The Girlfriend Experience that you did. It really—even though I know that it was technically set in Chicago—captured the kind of chilly feeling of downtown Toronto perfectly.
Good. [Laughs] It’s meant to. But Toronto is very well-suited, at least downtown, to an anonymous, distanced, chilly feeling. But I really enjoyed my time shooting there.
Talking about your lead Damian Lewis; in terms of casting, was it difficult because the camera is essentially in the actor’s face for much of the film? Were you worried about casting an actor who would be too self-conscious acting in a film like that?
Sure, yeah. And for Abigail, yes, it was a concern. Heidi Levitt, one of the casting directors, sent me Band of Brothers and I was just taken by how magnetic he was. The characters are obviously completely utterly different, completely opposed. But there was something about Damian. He really held the screen and the choices he was making as an actor are really intelligent; his reactions keep evolving. So I went over to London to spend some time with him just because I knew it would be a very intense project, and as well as the process of working together, and we got along really well. I mean, we’re very close friends to this day.
And then he came over, and one important factor is that I wrote it on location to really capture the energy of the city. I wanted to directly translate it into the film. But what it allowed me to do is bring the actors—Damian, Abigail, and Amy—to the locations very, very early in the rehearsal process so they could see where their characters exist. Then I was able to answer any questions that they had. We improvised some scenes. Everything was scripted, but I adjusted the dialogue so they were comfortable with it and so they really own their characters, and then I brought in John Foster, the DP, so we would discuss any technical issues because I only shot one shot per scene. It created certain obstacles and problems that we had to solve.
And then, when it came time to shoot, two things really happened. One, it freed up the shooting day to really just focus on performance; and then the second thing was a lot of the communication between myself and Damian as well as between John Foster and Damian on the day was really kind of unspoken. We had developed and we understood the character so well and understood what we were trying to achieve that we didn’t have a lot of in-depth discussions at all. So very early the crew recognized it; I recognized it. So I just tried to guide the actors in the right direction but largely step out of the way and just executed as quickly as possible. So I was relatively confident from going out and meeting Damian and all the other discussions. He understood from the technical perspective what we were trying to do, and that included putting a camera in his face for the majority of the film.
It’s also known with Keane that included on the original DVD was an alternate cut by Steven Soderbergh, the executive producer. Do you still to this day kind of encourage people to watch that, or is it just sort of a curiosity on the DVD?
[Laughs] That’s an interesting question. Steven and I are friends, I’ve known him for over 20 years, we’ve worked together. When I was locking the picture I sent him a cut of the film on DVD. I think he was doing Ocean’s Eleven at the time. I sent it to him, really, as from one filmmaker to another, and he reordered the scenes. He had just the DVD, he didn’t have the material, and he did a re-edit and sent it back to me as “a remix,” as you were. And it really was just one filmmaker having a conversation through film as the medium as a language—you know, much that one musician might remix a track and send it to another and you just listen to it.
It’s interesting—it makes you think to just see it in a different way. It didn’t change my edit of the film at all. That was never the intent. It was just really a conversation. So we talked about it afterward and decided to include it in the DVD just because we thought it’d be fun. You know, it’s really playful and we thought it’d be interesting to other filmmakers and cinephiles to see how editing can really change the film and change the intent.
This and your first film Clean, Shaven explore similar terrain. With both those films, did you have people reach out to you, people who maybe knew those who suffered from similar conditions or those conditions themselves, and offer their input?
Certainly for Clean, Shaven. I had a number of people reach out at screenings when I did the festival route. And I also was asked and presented it to the American Psychiatric Association at their annual convention. I was happy to do it and did a Q&A. I was very moved by that.
Obviously for Clean, Shaven, it’s about a person with schizophrenia. There could be more support for people going through that and their families than is currently provided in the United States in particular. I had a lot of people who were dealing with that in their real lives come out and speak about their experiences and reach out to me just, I think, wanting to have a sense of community support.
I’m kind of curious, too—after Clean, Shaven, like you said, it played a lot of festivals and Ebert loved it. Were you getting any offers from Hollywood?
From Hollywood? [Laughs] I don’t think anyone in Hollywood saw it. I don’t know who’s seen Clean, Shaven or not. I can’t attest to how many executives have seen it or haven’t, but no—I didn’t.
You’ve worked a lot in television the past decade or so. Is that a comfortable medium for you? And do you think you could make a film like Keane in that medium, or would you prefer to return to films?
It’s my desire to return to films. I usually don’t talk about the future that much. I prefer to talk about films when they’re made, but it certainly is my desire to go and make another small auteur film in the near future. I would like to return to that. You know that the conversation of television versus film is an extremely large topic. There are obviously differences between the two, but for me I tend to think of both as expression and problem-solving in slightly different ways. But I think that they’re more aligned and there’s more in common as mediums per se. And I think if you look, historically, there have been great filmmakers who have made great television.
I mean, it’s hard to discuss it because there are so many different types of television; working for hire or you’re doing corporate work. Where is the funding coming from, what is the focus, how much freedom do you have? All these elements are tied into it, but as a medium in and of itself? I don’t find there are that many differences between the two. If anything I think television might be slightly more challenging because something like The Girlfriend Experience, which was the first season and 13 half-hour episodes, you have to write it so that it makes sense within that. That there’s an arc within each 30-minute episode and it works on another level across 13 episodes.
So you’re working on multiple levels, whereas a feature film of 90 minutes or 120 minutes is just basically—I mean, I’m not degrading it—but it’s one arc. So you’re not dealing with multiple levels of writing on that. But really, I think largely the differences that exist really depend on the economics of it. I don’t find there’s been any differences between the two and I think they are artificial.
Like, if you look at—for instance—Scenes From a Marriage, that could easily… I mean, there is a feature version of it, but I think if you look at something like that, I don’t see that as being any different from a film, even the TV version. Maybe some information gets repeated so you could re-edit it. But I don’t think in the pacing or in the character development or in the filmmaking there’s any separation. And there’s so many works of television that are the same. I mean I don’t want to go through them all. [Laughs] So I don’t think, in essence, there’s anything in the medium that is separating the two. It’s more a question of what the economic intent is for the work that you’re doing.
Keane opens at Film at Lincoln Center on August 19 and will expand.