Mesmerized by the Performances
by Patrick Preziosi | Slant Magazine | August 15, 2022
As American indie cinema continues to make startlingly popular in-roads into extremely suffocating subjectivity—as evinced by the success of the Safdies’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, as well as the critical attention paid toward Eliza Hittman—it’s important to uphold the foundational impact of Lodge Kerrigan’s four films. The last decade and change has seen the director lending his talents to television, most notably The Girlfriend Experience, and, now, ahead of the release of the 4K restoration of his 2004 film Keane, it’s as good a time as any to reacquaint oneself with the singular potency of Kerrigan’s artistry.
Even after the visceral puzzlebox journey of 1993’s Clean, Shaven and the unnerving stateliness of 1998’s Claire Dolan, Keane still has a sideswiping power, which proved Kerrigan not to be some nominal provocateur, but a true disciple of some of the most penetrating of American directors of the back half of the 20th century, from Frederick Wiseman to John Cassavetes. As the eponymous William Keane, Damian Lewis ably registers both insurmountable grief and a more subtle mental imbalance: Perpetually searching for his missing daughter in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where she was abducted some months earlier, Keane is a man reasonably drowning in obsession and paranoia, compounding his personal, stalled-out investigation with drugs and alcohol.
Keane’s camerawork, by John Foster, is invasive and easily jostled, yet it adapts to moments of intimacy throughout the film, particularly between Keane, and Lynn and Kira, a mother and daughter (played by Amy Ryan and Abigail Breslin, respectively), the latter of which is close in age to his own missing girl. The tripartite relationship is both troubling and reassuring, and it elevates Keane to being one of Kerrigan’s more hopeful projects.
Last week, I spoke with Kerrigan about Grasshopper Film’s restoration of Keane, his nontraditional approach to rehearsing with his actors, revisiting his work, and more.
I wonder what it’s like for you to revisit your own films after so many years, considering how intense and uncompromising they can be. Because when I come back to them myself, there’s always something new and surprising, something that gets under my skin that didn’t the first time. Do you experience a similar sensation?
It really depends on the film. What’s so interesting to me about filmmaking is really the process behind it. So when it’s done, I watch it once with an audience, and then I move on. Unless, of course, I have to oversee the remastering of a film, like when Criterion picked up Clean, Shaven years ago. To be perfectly honest, re-watching Keane, I was still mesmerized by the performances, not just Damian’s, but Abigail’s and Amy’s as well. That’s what really struck me this time around, beyond focusing on the work that had to be done for the restoration.
There are moments I find newly moving in your films on a second or third watch. Watching Keane again just this week, I found myself really affected by the scene in the department store where he’s trying to find clothes for his daughter, a somewhat pointless endeavor. But he talks to this woman who’s there with her own daughter, and she’s very helpful in deciding between sizes and fits, and it was very poignant.
I’m very pleased to hear that, and it’s wonderful that it affected you that way. I think this comes about by my not writing in a very traditional way. I don’t prioritize a lot of exposition or explanations, I don’t attempt any witty dialogue. I prefer the relatively minimal, I like things to be expressed by the characters and their actions and interactions rather than the dialogue. That could be why these sorts of scenes become more moving after repeat viewings.
The New York City of Keane is incredibly street-level, and there’s facets of this time period that I’m sure are gone. Do you find that your films now have something of a retroactive documentary quality?
I think one of the responsibilities of the director is to find and maintain the correct aesthetic of the film, which extends to the photography, production design, the casting, the editing, everything. I like to think that instead of a specific style, I try to find the right overall vision for whatever it is I’m trying to communicate. Claire Dolan, for instance, is an incredibly formalist film, so there’s no documentary there at all. Rebecca H. is a mix of formalism and open work. And the TV work I’ve done is certainly not documentary-oriented at all.
With Keane, I really just wanted to draw the audience into William’s world, how he sees and interprets what’s around him, his psychological and emotional states. Being very close to him, making things claustrophobic by limiting the viewpoint to his subjectivity, is simply what seemed the most effective. And one of the significant elements of preparing for Keane was writing the script on location, especially in the Port Authority bus terminals, where I’d be acting out to myself the basis of the character’s monologues. I also walked around the streets of midtown, where Keane interacts with live traffic. Then he walks through the Lincoln Tunnel and ends up in [North Bergen], I started writing certain scenes around there, along the highway and at different motels. Writing on location gave this energy that I was able to invite Damian, Abigail, and Amy to participate in, as we rehearsed on location as well.
And these were very nontraditional rehearsals: I was more showing them the different shooting locations, and then we’d read through the script at those different places. We were also to improvise more together this way, and I was very open to any ideas they had, because I wanted them to really own their characters. One of the most important things to me, as a filmmaker and audience member, is when life is presented in front of the camera, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Things get really visceral, electrifying, maybe even unsettling, at the same time. That was the end goal for writing and rehearsing on location.
How does this play into the editing then? You can tell a lot of the film comes from improvisation, yet the cuts are still very exact.
There are many different schools of improvisation, and for Keane, it wasn’t just actors making things up on the spot; there was no winging of the dialogue. So everything was technically “scripted” upfront, and then I met with Damian, and we’d go to these locations and improvise scenes so we could adjust or add dialogue, and that wasn’t even that extensive of a process. A lot of what you see in the film was achieved in this writing process, where we’d find things together that’d fit an actor’s age or cadence, so they feel comfortable with it.
The film is one shot per scene, which is very risky when you’re working with live environments, particularly a place like Port Authority, especially considering that some takes ran up to four minutes; there’s one shot in Keane, that if it went even five seconds longer, we would have rolled out of film. A lot of the editing is in the camera, because the camera is dependent on the person in front of it, and how long you should stay on them, how much space you should give them. From the actors’ perspective, I think they really had a lot of space to express their characters, because the only real edits are jump cuts.
This shooting style gave me the necessary energy for Keane. I’m still kind of amazed we did what we did; to be frank, going into Port Authority, with no control over the area, is a crazy idea. You could be three minutes into one of these four-minute shots, and somebody would walk in the background and point at the camera. But somehow, the unpredictability gave everyone a great focus on set, and Damian was able to get into the zone with Abigail and Amy super quick. I recognized this compatibility early, and tried to step out of the way as best I could. Because of all the prep work and rehearsing, all these crew and cast-wide discussions. A lot of the communication between Damian and I, with cinematographer John Foster, was largely unspoken, which is great if you’re shooting as quickly as you can.
It’s impressive because it’s such a volatile environment. I’m thinking of the first scene, where it opens with him speaking through the intercom of a ticket booth partition, and so much could go wrong even just with that.
To their credit, a lot of friends and colleagues told me to rethink the film, or to at least reconsider more traditional coverage. But Steven Soderbergh, who produced the film, was very supportive of the idea, and as I’ve said, the cast and crew responded almost instantly.
Had you written on location before, or was this something specific to Keane?
With some of Clean, Shaven, yes, but that was more spur of the moment, up on vacation with family in Canada. The location writing for Keane changed my overall approach; it introduced a whole new system of thinking about filmmaking. It’s seemingly very simple to write, but bringing actors onto a location early in the rehearsal process and saying, “This is where your character is spending the night,” “This is where they run out of food,” “This is where they get into a fight,” “This is where they have a drink,” it allows them to create a much fuller character.
It’s maybe obvious, but the usual economics and mechanics of filmmaking don’t allow for this. You write an entire script, it’s financed, you go find locations as you’re casting, you maybe get two weeks of rehearsal if you’re lucky, because studios don’t want to bring the actors in too early, and this all works against organic means of directing. I’m very fortunate to have lived, and still live, in New York City, because I was able to take advantage of all these locations.
Keane cycles through a series of locations, where Clean, Shaven is something like a road movie, in its own way.
That’s true. But you know, we’re talking about smaller movies here, real no-budget filmmaking. Those are the kinds of sets where everyone involved should be encouraged to take risks.
You often incorporate children into the environments of your films, so I’m curious how you navigate the scenes where they’re interacting with their adult counterparts.
There’s obviously, and rightly, shooting restrictions when it comes to working with children.
Read the rest of the original article at Slant Magazine