Tony Kaye and Adrien Brody make a perfect coupling: an acclaimed Oscar-winner known for taking on difficult and harrowing roles and one of Hollywood’s most controversial directors who makes films that not only brutally inform but possess. With their new film, Detachment, they both prove their immense strength in their craft, creating a powerful film that challenges one’s emotional strength and enlightens. The film tells the story of Henry Barthes, a downtrodden substitute teacher who takes a temporary position at a high school in shambles. Barthes, a somber man plagued by flashbacks of his mother’s suicide, is an empathetic and gifted teacher, desperately trying to connect to his students while dealing with his dying grandfather and the teenage prostitute he’s taken in. Shot by Kaye himself, the film cuts between the narrative, interviews with Barthes, and morose animated blackboard drawings used to illustrate everyone’s darker urges. It’s a scathing portrayal of the public school system as well as one man’s story to find meaning in a vicious world. We caught up with Brody and Kaye to find out what drew them to this film, their shared desire for a deeper sense of entertainment, and the state of Hollywood today.
How did you come across the script and why did you decide to do it?
Tony Kaye: I was just attracted to the language of it. When I look at scripts, I’m quite visual in a sense, and I look at the pages and through all the speeches. I like that kind of thing. When I see great big chunks, I think, This is good! If I see loads of pages where there’s just one line here or one line there, I’m not very interested. Of course, that’s a stupid and idiotic thing to say, but when I read it, the poetics of the language of Carl [Lund]’s script really made me want to try and get this film made — and I spent five years trying to get the film made. It gave me the opportunity to tell a story about a character, one in particular which I like. I prefer those kinds of movies to ensemble casts, although we do have that here. It’s definitely a glossary about the character of Henry Barthes.
Adrien Brody: [I was attracted to] its intensity and its relevance to the importance of education. The importance of kindness and patience are things that are easy to forget with all of the other pressures that we have in life. My father was a public school teacher and a great one at that, so I partially did this as an homage to him and how valuable that is. Not only how much it shaped me and my life, but also what a contribution it is.
How did you know that you wanted Adrien for the role?
TK: Oh, that was a lucky break. I mean, there’s no such thing as something just happening or it being just “luck.” Our paths collided, and we got on tremendously as people, and we trusted each other and both appreciated each other’s style of working. The collaboration between the two of us is what set the tempo. He knew and he believed me that I was going to make the movie entirely about him. A director’s interpretation of a script can sometimes change the entire thing.
Was there something about your character that drew you to him?
AB: I was attracted to a number of things. First of all, I wanted to work with Tony. He had such an interesting, colorful past and is so unusual, so I knew it was going to be an interesting experience. He’s wonderful to work with — incredibly collaborative and creative. And the writing was so good. Carl Lund wrote a beautiful script, and unfortunately it’s hard to find meaningful stuff out there.
Did you see yourself in your character at all?
AB: Yeah, of course. I am fortunately less volatile than he is, but I can relate to anger and frustration and that simmering beneath the surface.
What I found interesting about him was that he was so damaged and he had so much pain, but he allowed himself to have those emotions.
AB: Well, he is closed off He’s so broken and fragile and teetering on collapse, yet, at the same time, he’s compelled to share and inspire. I’m sure he sees many parallels between himself and the broken children that he has to provide some guidance for. What I love about it is, although he reluctantly does all this, that’s what saves him; his generosity saves himself because if he just remained isolated and shut off from it all he’d wither away.
Tony, your films are always so socially conscious and mix entertainment with some greater meaning or enlightenment. I understand why it’s important to do films of this nature and give something that’s more than just entertainment, but what’s your perspective on it?
TK: The purpose of living and the only way we can exist in any form is to try and bring light to help mankind in some way — to be proactive. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to, in a manner of speaking, live out this dream of being a communicator of sorts. I hope this is now given me a career — that I can regularly make movies one after the other now. Whatever they may be, I’m looking for the importance. Not to preach, but to try and engage and make somebody — in this case, some really bright kid — want to teach or help somebody.
Adrien, as an actor, do you feel the need to tell these sort of stories — to do something socially relevant that’s not just entertaining?
AB: Yes. Not a responsibility in the sense that I have to because, you know, I don’t feel somebody else has to. If they’re an actor, they do whatever they want to do. If you’re a songwriter, you can sing whatever you want to sing about. What inspires me is something a bit more meaningful than entertainment. And I also really appreciate what I’ve learned from being asked to represent such meaningful and significant things that have affected us historically. It’s changed my whole level of awareness and outlook as a man, my appreciation for my own good fortune, and our blessed lives and the degree of freedom we have here as Americans. It’s an amazing thing, and you only gain that insight from deeply immersing yourself in other people’s struggles. Unless you’re studying abroad [and immersed in] those cultures, it’s very hard to gain that by just reading about it or picking up a magazine article. But if you’ve forced yourself into a place that is unpleasant, you can tell it more faithfully and can also come back to your life with a greater awareness and empathy.
Tony, do you try not to impose your own point-of-view and step away to give a broad overview of the subject that you’re covering, or do you think it’s important to put your own view in there as well?
TK: I believe in trying to be a cause and not an effect. My choice in being a cause is to often be upset. My point-ofview is not relevant; my point-of-view is only relevant in terms of the quality of acting — that’s my choice. I didn’t write it, I’m not the actor. With Lake of Fire, my second film, I made a movie about the abortion debate in the United States, and I have a massive feeling and choice about what I think is right in that zone, but it’s of no importance other than that I chose to spend 16 years working on it. My choice is to be something that light goes through, and then I channel it in the best and most graphic way that I possibly can.
Adrien, did you spend time in schools for the role?
AB: We were in a public school, and I went to public school so it brought back a lot of memories. It’s like a bad smell; you end up remembering so much from it. You shoot in a relatively drab school, sitting in a classroom as you wait and study your lines, and a few people from the administration are there and the janitor, and the series of urinals. It just brings it all back.
How long were you shooting for?
AB: Twenty days. It was hard. It’s a short amount of time, and it’s challenging to make great films in 20 days. There’s no room for error.
When you have that short amount of time you really have to become your character. When you go home at night, how do you not carry your character’s struggle with you?
AB: I don’t intentionally try and stay in character, but if you have a great deal of material to absorb and specifics and style of writing that you have to be careful with, you have to study. You work very long hours and then come home, and there’s really no time to do much else. You’re basically immersed in it the whole time. I spent a lot of time alone with that and [being] silent. It’s intense it’s like a mediation or something, it’s very weird.
There were so many themes and issues and really hard-hitting, penetrating moments in the film. Were you worried at all, Tony, that it felt a little a heavy at times?
TK: It’s a real onslaught, but I tried to make it as poetic and as beautiful to make it palatable. I didn’t show anything; I just intuit.
Adrien, you and Sami Gayle have such a great chemistry together. Did you spend a lot of time together before you shot?
AB: No, no. She just possesses a wonderful fearlessness and enthusiasm and emotional intelligence that’s rare for a young girl. She’s so focused, and it was easy to collaborate with her.
There’s a hopefulness to it but there’s just so much pain in it also. Did you feel that way when you first read the script?
AB: Oh yeah, I cried when I first read the script. It’s very sad. There’s a slim little crack to get that light through all of that bleakness, but you need that. You need to show a relatively dark depiction of all this or you don’t awaken the understanding that you need to make some changes and do better.
Tony, why did you choose to include the interludes of animations?
TK: It’s a very disjointed, very dysfunctional, and very chaotic assemblage which is not too different from life — that was my choice. I thought that the blackboard should speak, that it should say something. I have a sort of massive apprenticeship; I’ve made eight billion TV commercials and hundreds of music videos, but I haven’t been making movies. I’ve been working with the techniques of motion picture and sound for 30 years, so I have a lot of tricks I can do so I wanted to use them. [With Detachment], I just needed to throw everything and the kitchen sink to the wall.
Adrien, what was your reaction the first time you saw the film completed? There’s all the animations and different things throughout it that shape it.
AB: I’m very impressed with Tony. I’m very moved by the film, and it was very brave and unusual filmmaking. That doesn’t really exist much today. I don’t know a film that’s like this. It’s great to be a part of that and I think he made a wonderful, honest, and proactive film.
Why do you think there’s not much room for this sort of film today?
AB: People produce movies because it’s a business, and you want a safe return on your investment. You can make things that are in-your-face and challenging and force the audience to think, and it’s unpredictable. It takes a certain degree of bravery to want to make movies like that. I think that’s the big issue, and that’s why there are so many very superficial movies out there. It’s easier to appeal to a mass audience and not require much thought and it’s a safer return on the investment. It’s a challenge to have art and commerce meet and find that balance and have a greater impact rather than just creating entertainment.
Tony, how do you find that things have changed greatly since you began filmmaking?
TK: Things have definitely changed — there’s the internet, better special effects, and the ability now to make a life-like character on the screen without using a human being. But it was my passion and my choice to turn my back on all that. I’ve been left behind a little bit by some of my peers who have all become massively, incredibly well-known movie-makers. My choice was not to do any tricks, but to focus on the camera and the performances of people involved. That was my canvas I decided to work with many, many years ago. I’ve been overtaken by all these things, but with the success — however small — of Detachment, hopefully when other actors see the great performances from Adrien, Sami Gayle, Lucy Lu, and James Caan, to name a few, I’m praying they’ll think, Well I wouldn’t mind working with this guy.
There was so much controversy surrounded American History X and it’s become a film that everyone knows and appreciates—how do you feel about now that so much time has passed.
TK: I gave everything I had to that movie. I put in my own money and went bankrupt as a result of that film for my own crazy actions. But my biggest upset was that I fell out with the lead actor. And it was my fault. It was a desire for myself and myself alone. I just felt so embarrassed and ashamed by that, and I kind of went mad. I couldn’t understand it. In a way I’m very proud of what we did, and why shouldn’t I be? It’s lasted and it’s still current. If it came out this week, it would be good. In fact, if it came out this week it would be better than it was then because it would not seem like a big budget movie. It was a 10-million-dollar film. It was a big-budget movie but was still made and built in a very gritty and realistic way. Movies weren’t like that then when it came out. So I’m very proud of it and it made me even more determined not to make the same mistakes.