Lodge Kerrigan on Keeping a Film Alive with “Keane”

It has to put a bit of a grin on Lodge Kerrigan’s face now that his 2004 drama “Keane” is receiving a theatrical revival when it was born out of the fact that he couldn’t shake the idea of it off himself. Having come off making another film called “In God’s Hands” that would never see the light of day due to negative damage that made it impossible to complete – its legacy now can be seen as the first pairing the now-married leads Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard – he and the film’s executive producer Steven Soderbergh resolved to make something else almost immediately and while it could be anything that the director wanted, he continued to be gripped by the notion of how life could change in an instant, particularly if it involved a child abduction.

You can never be entirely sure whether the six-year-old daughter of the film’s title character, played by a mesmerizing Damian Lewis, actually has been taken, a wrinkle that surely made “Keane” interesting enough for Kerrigan to get back on the horse so quickly following his previous effort and in a certain respect made the film into a stealth follow-up to his 1993 breakthrough “Clean, Shaven,” which took great care to get inside the head of a schizophrenic (Peter Greene) as he tried to reclaim his daughter from the family that took her in. In “Keane,” Kerrigan reversed this equation when it is Keane who essentially adopts a family upon seeing Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her seven-year-old daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin) staying in a room across the hall at the fleabag motel he’s holed up in in Jersey, desperately searching for the kid he thinks he lost track of at Port Authority.

Uncertainty may be a driving force narratively in “Keane” when its lead is full of mystery, but Kerrigan has a gift for perfectly orienting an audience inside the harrowing circumstances of his characters that it can be said nearly two decades on was ahead of its time then and still innovative now. As it would turn out, the film would actually inspire a new way of working for the filmmaker, who has spent a large part of the years since directing episodes of prestige TV, including a reunion with Lewis on “Homeland” before co-creating the first two seasons of “The Girlfriend Experience” with Amy Seimetz, while his features began to influence a whole generation of filmmakers chasing after the raw, frenzied vitality that he was able to transmit to the screen. With “Keane” back in theaters thanks to Grasshopper Films and more immersive than ever with a striking 4K restoration, the director spoke about looking back on the film as a pivotal point in his career, being surprised by his own gumption to shoot the film in public spaces in unbroken four-minute takes and how he and Soderbergh can speak to each other with film.

What was it like doing the restoration?

Magnolia was the original distributor of “Keane” in the U.S. and the contract expired, so the rights reverted back and Steven Soderbergh, the executive producer of the film, and I were on the phone and he said, “Would you be interested in remastering.” I usually only watch my films once or twice with an audience when they’re completed, so I hadn’t seen “Keane” since 2005. I took a look at it and given the improvements in the digital video space and what you’re able to accomplish today versus in 2004, I jumped at the chance and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. We restored a number of shots that we had to create original photochemical visual effects for to correct certain aberrations in the camera — not CGI or anything like that, but there was a shutter speed issue and an issue of flickering fluorescent lights in one scene. Technically, it’s effects work to fix those problems, but it was a photochemical process, so we created an internegative that got cut into the [film] for the printing and because we had the original 35 camera negative, we were able to use the original negative and correct those shots digitally, which now look so much better.

It’s remarkable. I went back and watch the DVD the other night and the difference was quite striking.

Right?!? It’s very different. You know, I make a joke that if you store a film in a digital medium and you come back 10 years later, it just skews magenta. Every year you wait, it gets more and more magenta, which of course it doesn’t, but looking back at the tools, they weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. You can really be so precise with color and shaping the light and shaping the film, and really the combination of the the digital space as it exists today and using the original 35 negative is just fantastic.

If this was your first time seeing it in years, are you amazed that you pulled this off? All these single takes in live public locations.

The things that really stayed with me are just how remarkable the three leads are in it. Obviously, Damian just gives a magnetic, electric performance, but Abigail Breslin is really just so present and vulnerable and so moving and Amy Ryan gives a beautifully nuanced performance, so I was really just impressed by that again. I also was taken by the fact that it seems so relevant. It was made in 2004, but it seems to be just as contemporary as it was back then when I made it. And the third was justwhat a high risk it was! I was so focused on making it this way. A lot of it came from writing it on locations to capture this energy and vitality — Port Authority and on the streets around Port Authority, walking up the Lincoln Tunnel on the other side of Bergen County, New Jersey and the motels. When I was watching the new restoration, the new 4K, I was going, “Wow, that was just so high-risk.”

A lot of friends and colleagues said that at the time, and coupled with the fact that it’s only one shot per scene, the only edits are jumpcuts and in-camera edits, so there’s not coverage and some of the scenes in Port Authority go up to four minutes long. There’s one that literally goes four minutes long and if it had gone five more seconds we would’ve rolled out [of film], so you could imagine if we’re shooting these long takes and you’re three minutes, three minutes-and-a-half into a scene and you get someone in the background pointing at the camera or going “what are you guys doing?” then you’re back to square zero with no coverage. We didn’t control Port Authority. Damian’s going out into live environments and into live traffic on the streets, so I don’t mean unsafe, but it was very high risk in the sense of being able to complete the work. But it really gave was a certain energy to the film. It was really alive and as a filmmaker and as an audience member, that is one of the most important elements to me. Is there life in front of the camera? Is there a certain unpredictability? Are you kind of off-balance?

It also gave a real focus not only to the crew, but also to the cast. It carved out a lot of space to the actors to find and express their characters within a scene because there was no coverage. They were playing the entire scene the whole time. But also in that environment, it was really exhilarating and a lot of the work that Damian and I did and I did with the other actors and John Foster, the [director of photography] and Andy Hafitz, the editor. A lot of the discussions happened well before we were shooting, so during the shooting, I recognized that Damian was really in the zone and so were the other actors and the energy was really right. I just tried to step out of the way and the crew just tried to capture it as quickly and efficiently as we could.

I’ve always admired how you get so close psychologically and physically to your lead character. How much space do you want to give over to your actors to find it for themselves?

I’d like to think I give a lot, but I think it’s also because of the way I write. I tend not to write a lot of exposition. I prefer characters to express themselves through their behavior, rather than through dialogue and I have no problem when an actor wants to adjust dialogue or things like that. All I want are the actors to really own their characters and I feel if you cast really intelligent, talented actors, it’s a collaboration. They bring a tremendous amount to it that you could never really think of yourself, but really carving out the space for them by shooting every scene in one shot, it really allowed them the room to express themselves in a verbal, but also completely nonverbal way.

Then finding the locations early on [for “Keane”] changed my approach to directing and my approach my rehearsals — I don’t rehearse scenes now. I don’t set a scene up on a stage or even a location. I’ll improvise a scene just to make sure an actor is comfortable with the dialogue or not, but I don’t try to rehearse scenes anymore. I learned the importance of so much of the prep that we did allowed us to have people very much in tune once production started. My approach is to try to do as much prep work as possible, so when you’re shooting, you’re really executing and — this is just my way or working, it’s not the right way of working —but I have relatively few discussions on set. Damian and I, while we had intense conversations before we started shooting, once we started, our communication was largely nonverbal, and between John Foster and himself, they kind of do a dance together and John’s handheld work, a lot of that was completely nonverbal.

Something unrelated to the filming itself that always stuck with me was the inclusion of an alternate cut on the DVD that Steven Soderbergh did that radically changes how you’re introduced to this character. The cut is introduced as something he did for fun, but was the edit a pretty fixed process based on the way that you shot?

Yeah, Steven and I are friends and he’s been a great producer and a supporter for 20 years, so his cut was really a conversation from one filmmaker to another. At the end when I was finished and I was picture locking [“Keane”], I sent it to him — I believe he was doing “Ocean’s 11” at the time and all he had was the DVD. He didn’t have access to other material and as a conversation from one filmmaker to another, he played with it and reordered the scenes and did another version of it and sent it back to me, just to think about. I greatly appreciated it. I didn’t make any changes in the end — that really wasn’t the purpose. It was just fun. And we decided to talk about it later and said, “Wouldn’t it be great to put that on a DVD? How editing really changes the intent of the film?” That’s why we included it. But it was communication between one filmmaker to another. Film is the language and it was very playful.

“Keane” is now playing in New York at the Francesca Beale Theater of Film at Lincoln Center and opens on August 28th in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz 3.