Paul Solet on Getting His Hands Dirty for “Clean”

“You find a way to make peace with them or they find a way to make war with you,” a wizened barber (Mykelti Williamson) tells the garbageman (Adrien Brody) in his chair who has taken on the nickname “Clean” in Paul Solet’s thriller that goes by the same name. He could be referring to the local gang led by Michael (Glenn Fleshler), a thug who runs a fish market as a front for his nefarious activities running drugs in the area, but for Brody’s tortured soul, it’s clear he’s specifically referring to inner demons only, knowing him from the AA meetings they attend together and the veiled allusions to his past that he’d rather forget.

It isn’t the first time Solet has worked the resurfacing of trauma into one of his films or has had Brody carrying that weight, having worked together previously on “Bullet Head,” which involved a heist that came around to look at what had been robbed well before from a trio of thieves to make them go to such desperate measures, and in “Clean,” wrestling with what’s going on inside eventually takes shape outside as Michael’s ne’er do well son Mikey (Richie Merritt) runs afoul of Clean and Michael sees fit to take the trashman out before things get too heated. After confessing that not only is he looking for answers, but no longer knows the questions as he ambles through life, clinging onto the routine of emptying out cans on the ice cold streets of upstate New York, Clean can seize onto a sense of purpose when his life is in danger, finding a use for all the anger he holds inside and a knowledge of how to carry out retribution when Mikey’s henchmen come calling.

As it turns out, Brody had been hoping to play such a guy for the past decade and his fingerprints are all over “Clean,” not only starring in the film but serving as a co-writer, producer and composer, supplying the spring in his step with his very own beats. It’s one surprise move of many in the latest thriller from Solet, who follows-up his 2020 doc “Tread,” about Marvin Heemeyer who went to war with a town in his bulldozer with the tale of another unpredictable tale of a man going up against the world. Following its premiere at Tribeca last summer, the film is arriving in theaters and on VOD this week and the director took time to talk about reuniting with Brody, drawing inspiration from the community they shot in and surviving a shoot in the dead of winter.

So you and Adrien must’ve really hit it off on “Bullet Head.”

Yeah, that is what happened. Adrien and I had a really good time and at the time we met, he was in the south of France, just doing art and taking it easy and I don’t think he really had any intention of doing a movie at the time. But he read “Bullet Head” and responded to the same stuff I responded to and it was a very it was a very personal movie for both of us. By the time we were done, I think we really trusted each other and in talking about finding something else together, he articulated a feeling that he had and some sensitivities to things that were going on in the world — some forms of violence and the opiate crisis and all these things were really bothering him, and he had this sense of a character having grown up in New York that he wanted to explore and bring out. From that, “Clean” was born.

Was it a different experience working with an actor who originated the character?

It’s really interesting. Adrien is an actor who is incredibly studious. He goes home at night and he works and he studies and this was really just an extension of that. Like any savvy actor in the position that he was in on this movie would do, I think he really was wise enough to understand that the ability to co-write, to produce, to score – all of these things are extensions of his own performance. Someone who’s a director who spent a lot of time in editorial understands those tools and how powerful they are. They can make or break a performance, so when you get a chance to allow a talent like Adrian to extend his performance into these other areas, it’s fascinating thing to see.

Since he worked on it as a composer as well, did you have music in mind from the start?

He would go home at night and make beats on his iPad and he was thinking about it throughout. I really do feel like on this movie, in a way that I don’t think he got to experience before, he got to have the freedom to feel his performance in ways that are beyond performance. He was able to sort of envision how things might be complimented later on through music and it’s a really neat way of making a movie. I think it was a powerful experience for him.

Is it true he was bringing his own props to set too? I heard that flare gun was actually his.

Yeah, part of his vision for this was the area that we were that we ended up shooting in which is Utica, in upstate New York that Adrien is very familiar with. It’s a just extremely rich, textured, cinematic place and Adrian had brought some pretty specific things to some these set-pieces like the flare gun, which I don’t want to give away [the scene], it’s a pretty brutal vision he had and there was a scene where he builds his gun. That was something that came out of Adrian’s head, whole cloth. He knew exactly how he wanted to do that. And he had a fucking blast doing it. It was a fun scene to shoot.

What was it like location scouting? You’ve got that amazing church next to the fish market. Did that one long take grow out of what you found?

It entirely did. That was just a gift. That is the block, that is the neighborhood, that fish store is there. You see a lot in movies, one interior is used and exterior somewhere else is used, but that’s the interior of the church, that’s the exterior of the church. It’s right up the street, and we carry you in real time from the one to the other. It’s just that was where we needed to be. And I remember just driving around with Adrien, in soft prep, finding that place together and just being like, “Holy shit, this is the spot.”

What was it like figuring out some of the choreography of those rampage scenes?

We had just a terrific stunt coordinator on this — Manny Siverio is just a master. He goes way, way back with Adrien to Spike Lee days and Manny and Adrian did a lot of work together. They just danced. We allow the script to stay fluid and malleable, according to what assets we found. Like when we found the fish store, the script changes. You find the church, the script changes. You find a bowling alley/diner with a little row behind it and you say, “Oh, we have to have a hatchet fight behind this.” We must. That’s one of the real joys of being able to have a very small team that’s writing/directing/producing as a unit. You can just change it. You just say, “Adrien, I’m out scouting. I found this place, check this out. Let’s make it this.”

The locations were gifts. They really were. From the bowling alley place to the incredible barbershop — those barbershop scenes are really some of my favorite in the movie and some of the most personal to me. All the recovery meetings are personal to me, and I remember [thinking], “Where are we going to put this place?” We were looking at churches and I was looking around this church, [and thought] when I saw the church gym, “These rooms are beautiful. This is the place to do it. Put the chairs in a circle, use the whole gym.” That was one of the real advantages to just being able to be flexible and be very pragmatic about finding the production value and the atmosphere where you are. Also, having come off of having just made a documentary, Zoran, my cinematographer and I were more in tune with really, really looking at what we could get from the location. We had an incredible production designer for the recreation stuff [on “Tread”] and when you’re shooting interviews, you ideally want to put a person in a space that says something about them, so you’re casting spaces all the time and you really get into that frame of mind. Having come off that for “Clean,” I really “Clean” probably benefited a lot from that.

I couldn’t help but think there was some cross-pollination between “Tread” and “Clean,” both when this guy is driving a large garbage truck and he’s holding so much rage inside.

Yeah, I think these things always sort of cross pollinate. Even in “Bullet Head,” there’s a reference to a Mr. Clean borrowing a garbage truck from him, so these ideas, there are kernels of them and they’re always affecting each other a little bit. And the climax of this movie, how could it not have been inspired by my experience [in “Tread”] with Marvin Heemeyer somehow.

All this snow looks incredible, but was it a difficult shoot?

Oh man, working upstate New York in the winter, that crew got the shit kicked out of them. They really did. That was a very, very hard movie to make. Upstate New York in the winter is grueling, but that said, at the end of the day, everybody survives it and what you get is something that people pay millions of dollars to have on film. We didn’t have to make that snow. We had to drive home in it, and that’s complicated, but man, it’s really beautiful. It really adds some dimension to that movie.

“Clean” opens on January 28th in limited release and on VOD.