By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist March 15, 2012 at 12:58PM
"Detachment" could be read as an indictment of the public school system -- thanks to the bleak portrayal of a school where no parents show up for parents' night, where students threaten each other as well as their teachers with violence, and where the only "good" student commits suicide in public. But director Tony Kaye and lead actor Adrien Brody also intended "Detachment" to be an "homage" to teachers, who are played in the film with varying levels of despair by Christina Hendricks, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner, James Caan, and Marcia Gay Harden. Kaye and Brody explained to The Playlist how the film came together in a not-by-the-book style.
Adrien Brody's father Elliot was a public school teacher, who taught history at the junior high level before he retired. And while Brody's substitute teacher Henry Barthes is not like him or his father, the actor said that this background helped him understand his character.
"I'm paying homage to the generosity necessary for a lifetime of teaching," Brody said, "because it's obviously not a glamorous or lucrative profession. There's a thoughtfulness about Henry that I could embrace from my father, that I could convey when he was able to teach. That's why I did the movie, because I'm a good example of being the end result of having a good home, and caring, intelligent, thoughtful parents, and an average school experience."
In all fairness, perhaps his school experience wasn't completely average -- Brody attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, otherwise known as the school that inspired "Fame." When this was pointed out, Brody laughed. "I was very grateful for that, but it wasn't 'Fame.' It wasn't the movie. Not at all."
"I mean it was average academically," he explained. "I mean average in the sense that I didn't have profoundly deep interactions with my teachers. But I'm not condemning the whole school! It's better than a lot of other schools, and it saved my life because otherwise I would have gone to a very violent, troubled school."
Even with his upbringing, Brody said he could also understand his character's volatility, which he thinks "all young men know." "It's not like I had to learn Chopin or change my physical appearance," the actor said. "I just had to commit to understand the fragility and the isolation that this man felt."
Kaye wants to work "organically," he said, so he often shoots without any rehearsal, even for the crew. "It changes all the time," the director said. "I think the on-the-fly style in which I work, it's interesting for the actors, because it benefits their process, if you like. And really, the whole process is about the actors and the acting, and not about anything else. For me, it's not chaos, I know what I'm doing, but maybe for an actor, if he is a tremendously regimented one, it's sort of a baptism by fire."
Co-star Nelson previously called this method "eccentric" and "unpredictable," describing getting pages of dialogue just before shooting, while Brody calls it "refreshing" and "very spontaneous." "I often try to find a degree of flexibility and spontaneity," Brody said. "A lot of the material was scripted and well-written, and you did get the pages beforehand. I've worked with Ken Loach, who wouldn't give you the script, or would only give you half of the scene unless you were the catalyst in the scene, and that was different."
One scene, however, was not in the script -- a thread that recurs throughout the movie. It was a sequence in which the director interviewed Brody in character as Henry Barthes. "I showed Adrien a rough cut of the movie," Kaye said, "and then I said, 'Can I ask you a few questions? I've got a camera.' And that's how the interview came about."
Other shots were planned to be improvised, although they were accounted for in the script, such as Lucy Liu's guidance counselor character when she explodes at a student. "It was originally just going to be a conversation," Kaye said. "It wasn't supposed to be played like a woman who had lost her family in a war. But I wanted it to be explosive, for her to completely break down, and push it to an extreme, because it's about the emotional journey." So Liu came up with a way for the guidance counselor to yell and cry and still be sympathetic.
Another improvised scene was when Henry Barthes encounters a teenage runaway/prostitute Erica (played by a then-fourteen-year-old Sami Gayle). "When he meets her on the street, it's all improvisation," Kaye said. "But it's structured. The scene was written, but once you get actors who are as gifted as Adrien and Sami, who are so perfectly balanced against each other, you just run the camera and let them riff."
Brody plays a lot of artists and writers, but he doesn't have time to read.
From "The Pianist" to "King Kong" to "Midnight in Paris," Brody has played a number of creative characters and champions of expression, and so his Henry Barthes belongs to the same school, talking eloquently to his English class about ideas from George Orwell's "1984" and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Yet Brody himself hasn't read those works. He sheepishly admitted, "I never finished '1984,' but I should!" He also went through a Poe phase when he was younger ("Teenage boys like that kind of morbid perspective"), but lately, he said, he doesn't have much time for leisure reading. "Unfortunately I have to read a lot of scripts," he explained, "and they prevent me from indulging in great books. It's a dilemma. C'est la vie."
If he had more free time, Brody said, he'd also like to watch movies, make music, maybe even direct someday ("if I find material that moves me"). But when he has time to turn a few pages, he's more likely to re-read something like "Madame Bovary" than a comic book, despite persistent rumors that he's attached to various superhero projects such as "Ant-Man" or "Fantastic Four." "I'm not so drawn to that kind of stuff," he said. "I keep hearing about those, but no one has ever really approached me directly about either of those."
Brody has just wrapped his next film in China.
For his next role in Feng Xiaogang's "Remembering 1942," Brody portrays real-life journalist Theodore White, one of Time magazine's first foreign correspondents, who was stationed in central China and spread the word about the Henan drought and famine of 1942, which resulted in over 3 million deaths.
"I realized that it was my third encounter living in 1942 in my lifetime," Brody said. "'The Thin Red Line,' 'The Pianist' for the European front, and now China. So stepping into those shoes again, and reliving that look and feel in a new movie, it's a strange phenomenon. It's another life, but you know it, and it becomes more intimate for you, even though the characters are different, and the circumstances are different."
This time, Brody said, he had to learn "a bit of Chinese" to play White. "It was amazing," Brody said. "He had a profound effect, creating awareness of this tragedy, and then he was later condemned as a Communist back in the States. But he wasn't even a Communist. He just studied Chinese culture. But he made a major effort to shed a light on the government's lack of accountability in providing relief to the refugees. He did a good thing."
No word yet on when that film will arrive, but "Detachment" is on VOD now and rolls out in limited release on March 16th.