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Tony Kaye on Detachment

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By Kristin McCracken

In Tony Kaye’s new film Detachment (available on VOD and in theaters beginning March 16), Oscar winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) stars as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher in an urban public high school who takes the “substitute” moniker to heart: he never stays in one place long enough to form emotional attachments to anyone, students or colleagues alike. Clearly dealing with a troubled past, Henry seems to revel in his alone-ness.
Sami Gayle and Adrien Brody in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Sami Gayle and Adrien Brody / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Detachment also features two young actresses who turn in breakthrough performances. Sami Gayle is a runaway teen who appears to be as broken as Henry, and Betty Kaye (the director’s daughter) is a troubled artist struggling to find meaning and beauty in a world in which she feels invisible. Through his relationships with these two girls, Henry finds an inner compassion that allows him to connect, deeply. The supporting cast of characters is stunningly well fleshed-out, with stellar performances from Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Tim Blake Nelson , Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, and James Caan.

Kaye, best known for his debut feature American History X, was recently given the Honorary Maverick Award (which he accepted with a song) at the Woodstock Film Festival for Detachment, and it’s easy to see why. Detachment is an emotionally fraught, heartbreaking film that is unlike anything else you will see this year. Kaye, too, is a true original. 

Detachment

Adrien Brody / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: How do you describe Detachment in your own words?

Tony Kaye: I talk about Detachment differently every time I answer this question, but really the simplest and most honest thing for me to say is that Detachment is a movie that I strived to create through truthful and honest performances -- no more, no less.

I took a text that was written by an ex-teacher (Carl Lund) and grabbed a handful of actors (one being my oldest daughter Betty!) who were magnetized to his writing -- and I guess were intrigued by working with me -- and helped them get to a place of blazing reality in the moment they were acting it out.

I believe that the craft of the teacher is a wondrous one -- maybe the most important profession under God's sun. It is very simply the formation of tomorrow, and these souls should be paid billions of monies. That way, the very greatest minds would be attracted to the job. Or maybe it's right that they are not paid billions of monies, so that people who are motivated purely by money are not drawn to it. But what society needs is peeps who want to be as potentially dynamic and peeps who want to be the next Steve Jobs! And then Adrien Brody appeared.

James Caan in Detachment by Tony Kaye

James Caan / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: How did the project come to you? What attracted you to the story?

Tony Kaye: My agent sent it to me. I liked the style of the writing: it was not really a story to me, but an abstract blanket of words flying out in all directions. I also saw an incredible, miraculous opportunity to work with my oldest daughter Betty (I know I keep plugging her), who plays the role of Meredith. I missed out on so much of her early life, as I was continually running around the world making commercials, and I only now realize -- seeing my close relationship with my younger daughters -- how absent I was. A big part of what Carl Lund wrote about is the importance of simply showing up, being there -- being a parent and what that means. Family is everything; that's a theme here also.

Tribeca: Though he is surrounded by first-rate colleagues, Adrien Brody is the heart and soul of Detachment; his performance blew me away. Did you immediately have him in mind for Henry? What was he like to work with?

Tony Kaye: I forget the exact beats of how Adrien got involved, but it was like dynamite for me. Adrien's father was a public high school teacher for 30 years, so he had the perfect education and manner and understanding of the world for this role; all that was left for me to do was to turn his engine on. I decided from the get-go that I was going to give everything to Adrien's character, Henry Barthes, and with every passing day of the shoot, our collaboration got better. Our work together set the template that the rest of the cast followed; the house that Adrien and I built became the temple of the congregation.

I always thought that Adrien was a gifted actor, but I never realized just how good he actually is. To me, he is the epitome of the great New York school of acting -- like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino -- an actor who has to do nothing but walk in front of a camera.

Sami Gayle in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Sami Gayle / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: The film provides a breakthrough introduction to two young actresses: Betty Kaye and Sami Gayle. Can you talk about your casting process with them?

Tony Kaye: This is the most personal question of all. To begin with Sami Gayle: she walked into an open casting call, and I sensed she was maybe the girl I was looking for to play Erica. Turns out she was most certainly the girl. I believe that in the years to come, Sami has the potential to become one of the most important actresses in the world -- she has the presence and vision and depth of thought to conquer any character she chooses to create. I did nothing other than introduce her to Adrien, and occasionally say, "Give me a little more, please!; Meryl Streep, get your baton ready!"

Betty Kaye -- ah, this was another kettle of fish altogether. I gave the script to Betty three years before we shot the movie, and she devoured it -- every page, every character. Betty knows about this movie better than anyone else, better than me. Betty was my battery, my inner light from start to finish here. Betty talks about Detachment better than anyone else in the movie. Though the movie is not about her character, the movie singularly revolves around her character. What happens to Meredith is actually the only thing that happens in the story.

Betty Kaye in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Betty Kaye / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

I must state this very loud and clear: I was absolutely prepared not to give this role to Betty unless she was the best. I had already made a deal with myself to accept the fact that Betty may not talk to me for a few years if I handed the part to someone else; I had to be the director, and not Betty's father. But she killed it. I think Meredith is the most real character in the movie, because of how Betty played it. Betty is nothing like Meredith -- she is a very talented visual artist, but has none of the deep and pained vulnerability of Meredith. Betty inhabits the 99 percent unlike the tragic Meredith and so many other souls who have so much to give us but take it all away largely in a state of unbridled self obsessed ego trauma.

It's very exciting for me to watch what she'll do next -- where she takes her acting experience. It's heartwarming for me to be able to play a part in her career. How great to be a dad and to direct your daughter in a meaningful project. I'm very lucky!

Blythe Danner in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Blythe Danner / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: It's also impossible to ignore your high-wattage supporting cast. How did you work with them to develop their characters? Was there room for improvisation, or do you stick closely to the script once you start to shoot?

Tony Kaye: I do stick closely to a script; why direct a script if you’re not going to follow it? However, I use a script as a ticket for a journey, and not as a map. Of course I do improvisation with the actors; I actually let the actors do whatever they want. However, I think of it as structured improvisation -- I’ll cover what’s written most of the time, and then just make a load of stuff up. You have to be flexible enough to go with the energy of the set; the set becomes the new reality, created by what was written on the page. And then in editing, you go into what is the final draft, when everything really does get thrown up in the air.

Christina Hendricks in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Christina Hendricks / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

If I ever get successful, like, really successful, I’ll follow the Charlie Chaplin school of filmmaking: write/shoot/edit/re-write/re-shoot/re-edit/re-write/re-shoot/re-edit… and then several years later, you have a finished movie. I think Woody Allen tried it once.

To me, casting is the most important art of the craft of directing. Once you’ve made those choices, the movie is set; there’s no going back. The three most important things about making a movie are who is in front of the camera and who is in front of the camera and who is in front of the camera.

Marcia Gay Harden in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Marcia Gay Harden / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers? Is there one particular thing you learned making Detachment that you didn’t learn from your other films?

Tony Kaye: Having the desire to make movies is a kind of blessing. God has put this desire into you to create stories, fables, journeys. I myself have maybe not reached any level of self-satisfaction, or even achievement, in terms of really breaking ground, which is what I am trying to do with the form. I am trying to find something new, different and original. If/when I do, then maybe I can stand here and say, “Try this,” or “Try that.” What I would say for now is: be yourself and try to be original. I mean, it’s okay to copy or steal other ideas, anything, really, but you should also have the deep-down-real drive to try and shift the form.

My advice: Be original, work hard, pray, be cool, don’t be scared of anything, value your own ideas, work until you fall asleep, keep healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink alcohol (ha ha ha), don’t eat hamburgers and/or french fries, wear a coat if it gets cold, eat porridge in the morning, watch as many movies as you can all the time, learn to play the piano, do some acting, run for 45 minutes every day, kill your ego, make angels, listen to the 10 hours of Beatles music produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick, listen to it over and over and over and over again, know that family and environment is everything, don’t kill anyone, don’t rob any banks or break into people’s houses, keep out of jail, read a lot, write a lot (anything—even gobbledygook like this), paint, read a story by Robert McKee, see every movie made by Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa and Tex Avery, keep out of the sun in the middle of the day, listen to beatlesradio.com: “Try to see it my way, or run the risk of knowing all our love may soon be gone."

Lucy Liu in Detachment by Tony Kaye

Lucy Liu / Credit: Tony Kaye / Tribeca Film

Tribeca: What makes Detachment a must-see? What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

Tony Kaye: I don’t believe that Detachment is a movie to be seen, but rather to be felt or experienced. Don’t go to see it if you are looking for a movie about education, because it’s not that. It’s a movie you go to and then when you go home, you’ll think about people in a different way, a deeper way -- maybe a better way, hopefully…

Detachment: Tony Kaye

Detachment is now playing on nationwide VOD. The film will open in New York on March 16; in Los Angeles on March 23; and in Dallas and San Diego on March 30, with more cities to follow. Find out how and where you can watch it.

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