If every film is a document of its own making, then Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, shot in real locations in and around New York City in 2004, is also a depiction of the period in which it was made. Viewing the film on the occasion of a new digital restoration by Grasshopper Film that begins a theatrical run at Film at Lincoln Center today, I was struck by the numerous billboards and posters placed atop taxi cabs that the film’s lead character, William Keane (Damian Lewis), obliviously walks by. Short of pointing at the screen, Leonardo DiCaprio-style, as I noticed a poster for the upcoming season of The Sopranos or a cab ad advertising Bernadette Peters in Gypsy on Broadway, I appreciated the unintentional media ephemera that pops into the background of many of Kerrigan’s frames—such are the unexpected pleasures of filming in live locations!
When we first meet the title character, the unemployed, unstable redhead is wandering the Port Authority bus depot in an effort to retrace the steps he took when his daughter was abducted months prior at the complex’s basement level. When he’s not putting himself through this agonizing recreation of brutal trauma, Keane is living in a hotel and getting drunk, snorting cocaine, hooking up with various women in bathroom stalls,and purchasing children’s clothes for the eventual return of his kin. Something feels off: when Keane informs a character later in the film that he was married once but is now divorced, we begin to suspect that that might not be true and grow unsure as to whether there ever was an abducted daughter to begin with. When, back at the hotel, Keane encounters a down-on-her-luck mother (Amy Ryan) with a young daughter (Abigail Breslin), we fear that Keane may see something in the girl that reminds him of his. Sure enough…
Not exactly Travis Bickle but at times on a similar astral plane, William Keane is an unsettling character that provided Damian Lewis with a bit of a career breakthrough. Indeed, the English actor was nominated for the 2005 Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor (losing to Amy Adams in Junebug). And while the partnership between Lewis and Kerrigan would continue after Keane (the two reuniting on an episode of Homeland in 2012), the film represents another prodigious partnership between Kerrigan and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, that continues across film and television.
The week before the new restoration’s theatrical release, I spoke with Kerrigan about the trickiness of shooting on film, the digital advantages of restoring older work and a Keane alternate cut that was edited by Soderbergh.
Filmmaker: Before we get into Keane, I was curious about some general background information regarding where you were, career-wise, at that point in your life. Between Claire Dolan (1998) and Keane, I believe you made a film, In God’s Hands, that had a narrative similar to what Keane would ultimately become. Of course, due to extensive damage to the original [camera] negative, In God’s Hands was never officially released, but was the idea for Keane born out of your work on that previous film?
Kerrigan: I don’t want to get into In God’s Hands, to be really honest. It was a completely different story, although it did deal with a couple whose child had been abducted. In God’s Hands was about a person who was religious and had subsequently lost their faith, a story about a family struggling to go through that. But with Keane, one of the most important elements in the writing and in the filmmaking was that I leave it up to the audience to decide for themselves whether Keane ever even had a daughter. I wouldn’t say that the theme of child abduction runs through In God’s Hands and Keane, but certainly, the idea of possible child abduction runs through it [laughs]. That’s a similarity between the two films, but everything else is different. I can’t imagine remaking a film, redoing it, but Keane was certainly born from the ashes of In God’s Hands, even if it’s a very different film that had its own life.
Filmmaker: When you were in the early writing stages of Keane, were you looking to write a very performance-heavy lead role, in which the camera never really loses sight of the main character? Was Port Authority always going to play a factor in the film? Did each of these elements come together around the same time in your writing?
Kerrigan: Kind of. I’d be hard pressed, given how long ago it was, to completely [recall], but I wanted the film to be set in New York City, without a question or a doubt. [The film] had the energy of New York City and I wrote the script on location. I wrote in Port Authority and walked the streets around the vicinity of Port Authority. I’d go right up to the Lincoln Tunnel and then [go] to the other side, [into] Bergen County, New Jersey, to find the motels [used in the film]. I wanted to write it, as much as possible, in the actual locations we would use, to create that world and to be very specific.
I even invited the actors to visit the locations during our rehearsal process. It was a very nontraditional rehearsal period, in the sense that I focused on them seeing the environment, where their characters lived. I answered any questions they had as we read through the material. Although the screenplay was completely scripted beforehand, we improvised some scenes, adjusted dialogue—whatever they wanted, simply because I wanted the actors to own their characters. I invited the director of photography, John Foster, and our assistant director, Urs Hirschbiegel, to [join us] during the rehearsal process so that we could answer any of the technical questions anyone had early on. That way, once we were actually shooting, we could focus on the performances.
Filmmaker: How did you come to casting Damian Lewis and Abigail Breslin in the two lead roles? They had both just come off of big-budget studio films, Lewis co-starring in Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Dreamcatcher, and Abigail Breslin in M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi summer blockbuster, Signs, two years prior. Many of the supporting roles were performed by New York actors (Chris Bauer, Liza Colón-Zayas, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Amy Ryan) involved in the local theater scene, but how did you come to casting Lewis and Breslin?
Kerrigan: There’s never any playbook when it comes to casting or directing or working with any actor, whatever their age might be. For Abigail,I found that she had this ability to listen very carefully. When she performs, she’s so present, and that’s really what I was looking for. It wasn’t a question of her being in Signs or where she was in her career at that point. Keane is a very challenging film, but Steven [Soderbergh], who executive produced it, and Andy Fierberg, who produced it, were very supportive of casting who I thought were best for the roles. We just focused on the best performers and had no other considerations.
I hadn’t even seen Damian Lewis in Dreamcatcher at that point. Our casting director, Heidi Levitt, sent me a DVD of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and that’s where I noticed Damian. Obviously, his role [as Major Richard “Dick” Winters] is completely different from William Keane, but I thought he was very magnetic. When I write something, I’m constantly thinking about it and filter my everyday world through that lens, to see if I might be surprised or imagine things in different ways, and it was much the same with Damian. When I saw Band of Brothers, I began thinking of him in the role of Keane. I flew out to London and spent a couple of days with him, as I knew that it’d be a very intense project to work on together and I wanted to make sure that we got along and viewed the character the same way, which we did. He participated in the rehearsal process and I invited him on location before we began filming. Truthfully, a lot of our work was comprised of discussions very early on. By the time we were on set, a lot of our work was unspoken. I observed quickly that he was really in his own [element], as were Abigail and Amy Ryan, and I just tried to step out of the way and execute it as quickly as possible.
Filmmaker: When it came to planning to film inside Port Authority, were you working closely with a location manager? Were there only certain times of night (or early morning) where you could film interiors?
Kerrigan: Brian Bell and Jenny Schweitzer, who were the co-producers, deserve all the credit for clearing Port Authority, which was a big ask, and they really came through. Yes, we did have limited hours [to shoot] inside Port Authority and working with Abigail (a child actor at that point) also limited our hours. In terms of scheduling, it was certainly challenging. It was a very high-risk way of shooting, particularly due to the way we shot it, which was entirely handheld and one [continuous] shot per scene. The only editing involved in certain scenes are jump cuts and in-camera editing. Some takes lasted up to four minutes, which was the length of the magazine [the length of any scene was limited to the 35mm loads, which at 400 feet, amounted to approximately four minutes of screen time]. We could be three-and-a-half minutes into a take in a live environment like Port Authority, then a passerby happens to enter the frame and ruin the take. We’d then have to start from scratch, all over again. It was a very intense, high-risk situation, but I think it was energizing and allowed the actors a lot of space, within a scene, to express their character, rather than have it just be the routine of: do one shot of a couple of lines, get the reaction shot next, cut, go to another set up, etc. I think [our approach] gave them a lot of room.
Filmmaker: Were there potential lighting issues you had to be aware of filming in these live locations? Reflective, glares, or otherwise?
Kerrigan: It wasn’t so much [the lighting in the space of] Port Authority as much as it was about some mixed lighting issues we encountered there. For example, we had to swap out a few florescent bulbs in some areas (where we knew there would be a majority of a scene taking place) to [streamline] everything, but it was very minimal. When possible, we filmed with a space’s pre-existing lighting and only augmented it when necessary.
For certain scenes, like the ones set in the motel rooms at night where there’s a lot of movement between characters and each scene is a single shot, there we basically had to film 360 degrees. It was in those interior environments where things like the camera capturing crew reflections became an issue. However, bringing our DP into rehearsals very early in the process helped us to plan for how we could solve these problems. We wanted to maximize the amount of shooting time that we had and I’m a big believer that you should always aim to answer as many questions as you can before you arrive on set to begin shooting. Always maximize your shooting time.
Filmmaker: I distinctly remember that, upon the film’s original home video release, a “Steven Soderbergh Alternate Cut” was included as a bonus feature on the DVD. That’s not something you see too often! Were you sharing cuts of the film with Soderbergh before you locked picture, comparing notes to get it at the right length, the right pacing, etc.? What was the process like of going through all of your footage in the edit?
Kerrigan: Andrew Hafitz was the editor on the film and did a fantastic job. A lot of the editing in the film is in-camera, and I had discussions with Andy and John about all of that. We employed jump cuts to deal with the pacing of the film, to create this unsettling feeling within the story. I don’t want to minimize the post-production process in any way, but a lot of our conversations happened very early, before shooting began, during the rehearsal process. Andy, John and myself discussed what would be the ideal points at which to move from one character to another and how we could identify a sense of pacing, a sense of timing, and how long to stay on one character.
To your earlier question regarding Steven’s alternate cut, back when I was locking picture, I sent him the edit, just from filmmaker to filmmaker. We’re friends, and he was working, I believe, on Ocean’s 12 at the time, and, only having what I sent him, Steven decided to reorder the footage, really just to start a conversation between us as filmmakers. He sent [this new cut] back to me and we had a conversation much later on “in case it jogged anything,” he said. However, I didn’t make any changes to my cut. I kept the cut that I had, but it began a conversation from one filmmaker to another. We both thought it would be interesting to include his cut on the film’s original DVD release, just so you can see the effect of editing and how it can change your experience of the film.
Filmmaker: The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2004 and, after a very healthy festival run, was released by Magnolia a year later, in early September of 2005. While the business of acquiring independent films on the festival circuit was quite different back then, how soon after the film premiered was it sold to Magnolia for distribution?
Kerrigan: I believe we sold it out of Toronto [the film screened in the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks following its Telluride debut]. It was pretty early in the process. The film then played at the New York Film Festival in 2004, then at Cannes in 2005. I believe Magnolia picked it up very early. [Magnolia Pictures co-founder] Eamonn Bowles was a fan of the film, and I’m very grateful to him for picking it up and releasing it.
Filmmaker: How did the new restoration come about? Was this something that you were interested in?
Kerrigan: When the film’s rights reverted back [to us] from Magnolia, I had a conversation with Steven about what we should do with the film. Steven asked me, “Would you be interested in remastering it?” I took a look and thought that it could be [improved upon] with a new digital restoration, so we remastered the film from the 35mm original camera negative. The digital capabilities that exist now, in terms of color correction, are so much more advanced than they were in 2004. I was very grateful for the opportunity to do this. We went back to a number of shots and used some visual effects to help fix shots that [had previously] created flicker and shutter issues with the camera. There were internegatives created for those, so we were able to pull them, go back to the original camera negative and solve these problems in a new digital space while using the [original] camera negative. I think it looks a lot better now.
Filmmaker: Do you enjoy revisiting your films? Do you enjoy having the opportunity to go back and work on a new restoration like this one?
Kerrigan: It’s an interesting question, because generally, I don’t have a hard and fast rule about revisiting my work. Generally, I watch a film with an audience only once, and that’s really it, unless I find myself with the opportunity to remaster it [years later]. When the Criterion Collection re-released Clean, Shaven, the film was remastered and I watched it again for that, then it got theatrically released this past year in Japan and I watched it again for that. I think the last time I had watched Keane was at the New York [Film Festival] in 2004, or maybe at the Director’s Fortnight screening in Cannes in 2005, somewhere around that time. The film’s initial festival run was the last time I’d seen it, and when I watched it [again], I felt like, “Finally the tools exist for us to properly [remaster the film].” I’m grateful that we did. I think it’s remarkable what you can do now, in terms of shaping the look of a film, compared to what you could do back then when we made it.