In 1994, Lodge Kerrigan won the Independent Spirit Awards’ Someone To Watch award for his debut feature Clean, Shaven, which starred Peter Greene (Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects) as a schizophrenic trying to regain custody of his daughter. Ten years later, Kerrigan’s third film, Keane, explored similar themes, following the title character—played with restless magnetism by Damian Lewis (Band Of Brothers, Homeland)—as he simultaneously wrestles with his daughter’s kidnapping, and his own unspecific mental illness. While Kerrigan is consistently compelled to explore mental health in his films, he does so with a poetic subjectivity that captures his protagonists’ interior life, encouraging the audience’s empathy without imposing judgment.
When the rights to Keane, which also starts Amy Ryan and Abigail Breslin, recently reverted to Kerrigan and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, Kerrigan decided to give audiences a fresh look at the extraordinary project. He also meticulously remastered the film to make its long takes and live environments look brighter and more beautiful than ever. After opening in New York on August 19, the film adds dates in Los Angeles on August 28. Kerrigan spoke with The A.V. Club about preparing Keane for this new presentation, and reflected on the film’s themes, and his evolving career as an independent—and self-described “amateur”—filmmaker.
The A.V. Club: What is it that seems to fascinate you about exploring mental illness?
Lodge Kerrigan: It’s a very good question. I think through Clean, Shaven and Keane, I just wonder as a society if we could have more empathy for people who are clearly struggling and dealing with the tremendous economic fallout and consequences of facing serious mental health issues and challenges. Really, it’s just that simple.
AVC: Before you developed Keane, you were working a project with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard called In God’s Hands, a film that you essentially lost. Why did you decide to move onto Keane instead of trying to remake or reconstruct In God’s Hands?
LK: I’m really a little reluctant to talk about it. Yes, we lost the film to negative damage. It dealt with the theme of child abduction, which is similar [to Keane], but in most other aspects it was very different. Steven Soderbergh was an executive producer of that film, and he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll move forward”—and he was really true to his word. I was still interested in the theme of an event that could change your life irrevocably, instantaneously or within a very short period of time. So I kept the theme of child abduction. But the entire film is just completely different. Particularly in In God’s Hands, it is very clear that a child was abducted, whereas in Keane, I withhold that information and it’s up to an audience to really answer a lot of questions. [But] as a filmmaker for myself, remaking a film that I’ve already made, I just would really have no interest in doing that.
AVC: The intensity of the camerawork in Keane really draws viewers into his perspective. Can you talk about that creative choice and the logistics of doing that?
LK: From a creative point of view, it was very clear and simple: I just wanted to draw an audience into his emotional and psychological world, and I thought that by restricting the outside view—it’s not his point of view, it’s not subjective—it’s as close, really, as you can get. This film really changed my whole approach to directing and also writing in that I wrote a lot of it on actual location. I knew that I wanted to make it in New York, so I wrote it in Port Authority … on the streets surrounding Port Authority, walking up to the Lincoln Tunnel, going on the other side in Bergen County, New Jersey, going to those motels, and writing it there because I wanted to capture a certain energy. And then during the rehearsal period, I just walked all the actors, Amy Ryan and Abigail Breslin, through the locations themselves so they could see the worlds their characters occupied and inhabited.
Then I invited John Foster [director of photography] to come to the rehearsal period. We’re on location, the film is shot, one shot per scene. It’s mostly in-camera editing, but there are also just jump cuts, which is a very high-risk way of shooting. I felt that it would carve out a lot of space for the actors to really express their characters within a scene—but that created certain technical problems. So when it came time to actually shooting, all of the discussions had really been had. [That preparation] allowed us to focus on the performances, getting the in-camera editing timed correctly, having the scenes evolve in interesting ways. And so I really tried to guide the performances, but largely I stepped out of the way and just tried to execute as much as possible. So that coupled with shooting in live environments, just really allowed it to be electrifying—and really it worked.
AVC: Did you have a clear answer for what William’s diagnosis might have been, even if it was going to be only oblique or unspecific in the final film?
LK: We know that his character is on disability. We talked about that perhaps at times under a lot of stress, he might hear things or think that he hears things. He’s in a state of heightened anxiety, distress, lack of sleep, he’s self-medicating, he’s engaging in self-destructive behavior. All of that really we discussed in a specific way, as opposed to his actual, specific diagnosis.
But in terms of whether he had a daughter or not, yes, we were very specific. Because it’s impossible to direct or perform a scene without believing or knowing one way or the other. So Damian and I believed he had a daughter that was abducted. But what I did in the writing was express it through his behavior rather than through dialogue. If you look how he interacts with Kira, you get a real clear sense that he is a parent—just the patience he has consistently with the child, not that all parents are patient [laughs].
AVC: In Keane you kind of fully discredit your main character at the beginning, and then you rebuild and tear that down throughout the movie. How difficult was it to determine how far you could push the risks Keane takes and still be empathetic?
LK: I was interested in exploring somebody who I wanted the audience to answer [that question] for themselves. If your daughter was abducted, how would you deal with that level of grief and loss? Could you ever recover from that? That was really interesting to me. Not portraying somebody who’s either likable or unlikable, or whether somebody is good or bad. I don’t particularly care one way or the other, to be quite frank. I didn’t sit there going, I want the audience to do this. So I imagine that it’s unsettling at first because you don’t know, is this person telling the truth or not?
To see that he’s struggling with something, he makes some very selfish choices. And he also loved his daughter. So he’s a human being. He possesses all these qualities, some of which are repugnant and some of which are really admirable—and that’s what it is to be human. So I was more interested in the grief. He loves his daughter—how is he going to deal with it? And so I took this structure from a theory of reoccurring nightmares. So when you have a nightmare that reoccurs, what you’re really trying to do, in essence, is change a traumatic event that happened in your life. For him, he believes his daughter was abducted. And what he does is goes and recreates another abduction, potential abduction, when he takes Kira to the bus terminal, in order to change the outcome. [And] that psychological process is what I found really fascinating and at the same time, very human.
AVC: You came up at a very particular moment in independent cinema. I’m sure it’s great to have a champion like Steven Soderbergh, who seems to share some affinity for making art for its own sake. But do you feel like the creative journey of your career and the topics you’ve explored have been what you expected?
LK: It’s a very complicated loaded question [laughs]. Just off the top, yes, there’s a certain privilege involved in being able to direct and make films, so I just want to acknowledge that I’ve been very lucky to have had the career that I’ve had. [But] as you go through different phases of your life, there are different or shifting priorities. How many times can you go through in life making no-budget film after no-budget film?
You could. There are people that do it. Technology has made it possible to make films incredibly cheaply. Steven’s made features on an iPhone. So it’s easy to say “the industry is the problem.” But I don’t quite fully accept that. I think it’s much more complicated. The last feature I made was Rebecca H. (Return To The Dogs), that I shot in Paris. It premiered at Cannes—and then that was it. And then I turned to television and I really found television very rewarding in a different way, in the sense that I liken it to be a director in the studio system in the ’50s where you’re under contract and they just give you a project and you have to direct it. It’s not my taste necessarily, but they’re fantastic projects, and I learn a lot as a director, so I become more versatile. I found that incredibly rewarding.
My desire now, I don’t generally like to talk about the future, but my desire now is to go back to small, auteur films and ones that probably will struggle to get distribution and struggle to be seen. But I think that’s really where my heart lays. And I say this in the best, original sense of the word “amateur,” out of love—in my heart, I’m an amateur filmmaker. I don’t do it for the industry or for commercial success. I’m interested in the process of making films. Not in screening films—I enjoy screening with an audience, but that’s not my goal. I actually really enjoy the process of creating. So I think, yes, we live in a world where the divide between commercial cinema and art is very set. And a lot of filmmakers try to operate in that gray area between the two where they get some funding and are able to express themselves to make their own work. But it’s relatively simple to go out and make a film if your heart’s into it and that’s what you want to do. The tools exist, it’s very cheap—so I try not to use that as an excuse not to make films.
AVC: The remastered Keane looks gorgeous. As someone who maybe more acutely than most filmmakers has experienced the loss of a valued creative endeavor with In God’s Hands, what opportunity does this re-release offer you?
LK: Well, Magnolia picked up the film after we screened it at Toronto in 2004, but the rights reverted back, and Steven and I were on the phone and he said, do you want to remaster it? And I took a look and I went like, “Wow, I’d love to remaster this—it’s so magenta [laughs].” Shooting in all of this mixed lighting and live environments was very challenging from a color correction point of view. So I went in and remastered it. What do I hope for it? I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I’m not sure I have any hope for it. I would love people to see it, but that’s up to them [laughs]. Once I’ve made [a film], it doesn’t really belong to me anymore—like I still emotionally connect to it, but more as an audience member.
But the remastering part of it, what you can do with color now [and] shaping the light of the film given that it was all shot in a live environment, so you’re having mixed color sources all the time just to balance that out, it just was wonderful. And I think it looks absolutely beautiful. When I watched it through the remastering, I was really struck by how magnetic Damian is, just how incredible his performance is. He carries that film, and also how great Abigail Breslin and Amy Ryan were. And I was also struck by the fact that it still seems really relevant. Even watching it today, I’d go, wow, that could happen today.
The third thing is just how high risk it was! When I was younger, perhaps I didn’t appreciate quite the extent to what a high risk I was taking, to think that I’m shooting in live environments and I’m shooting one shot per scene. There’s a scene in Port Authority that lasts four minutes, so if it had gone on another 10 seconds, we would have run out of film. You could be shooting for three and a half minutes into a shot, into a scene and somebody gets off a bus in the background and points to the camera, then you have no coverage, you have nothing—you’re starting from zero. When I was determining how I wanted to shoot it, a number of friends and colleagues said, maybe you should think about getting traditional coverage just as a backup. But it was worth the energy and giving the space to the actors so that they could perform the scene in one, without cutting it. And just how exhilarating it was. And I just kind of stepped out of the way and just tried to capture it as quickly as possible.