Detachment is the new and much anticipated film from Tony Kaye, (American History X), telling the story of substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody).
Henry conveniently flits from one job to the other, never leaving enough time for him to create any concrete emotional roots with his colleagues or pupils. His new job takes him to an inner city school where the teachers are as frightened and bursting with frustration as the pupils are apathetic and unruly. Emotional, moving and inspirational, we caught up with Tony Kaye to find out more about his new talkie, which first blew our minds on the big screen at the Woodstock Film Festival, 2011.
What was it about the script that first attracted you? Carl Lund is a great writer in a true sense. His style of writing was very impressionistic, I almost thought I’d written it, you know, it was easy. We spent five years working on the script trying to get it made. Eventually it happened with Paper Street, a young indie New York production company. Carl and I talked a lot during the pre-production, and then when Adrien Brody came on board, he and I just ran away with the whole thing. The great thing about the script is that it’s real, and there are two reasons that it’s real. First, writing is research, writing for me is a combination of research and speech. Carl was a teacher, so he experienced it and he had seen it, and then I was given another stroke of luck in that Adrien Brody’s father had been a public high school teacher for 30 years, so it was a home run.
How important was it for you to make a film specifically about a teacher or the schooling system in the US? I never used to understand why people were teachers, you know, they say if you can’t do, then you teach, but actually I think it’s the most important job in the world, and Adrien is actually a great ambassador in that respect. However, for me personally, it’s not a movie about a teacher, it’s not a movie about school. The story to me is about a man who is dealing with the school of real life and the choices that he makes. He’s got family issues and quite a few professional issues, it’s just an observation of a person, it’s a series of emotional situations that a person finds themselves in. Then you have the character Meredith, who becomes a victim of the whole thing and there’s another strain about parenting and looking after the young and learning from people with greater experience in life than yourself. I brought an emotional palette of colours to the party. I used the experience of the writings of Carl Lund, and the familial connections and the pain of Adrien, and I just brought all these other people, and I put the whole thing in a bag and shook it up.
At the core of the film is a message of hope. Could you talk a bit about this central arch of the movie? The arch of the movie is from Detachment to Attachment. Henry is completely compartmentalised at the beginning, he’s completely detached from everybody, even himself. At the end of the movie he decides to take on a parental role with Erica and he becomes a teacher, he goes back to the school that he was going to leave. In a way it’s about the pressure of life and how you have to be persistent through that, and there’s the irony that I put in there about the trashing of books. I didn’t put any electronic media in this film, I purposely didn’t do that. It’s an analogue film. In schools there are no blackboards anymore, they’re all smart-boards, which is a computer screen, and they’re texting all the time. I’ve taken that all away, I’ve stripped it back to the analogue – the more emotional lack of a computer, a blackboard, meaning that the blackboard is supposed to be a character, the soul of the school. But then also at the end, as we go into the future, the trashing of books, I’m saying that there are no more books. Now we read from the Kindle or the iPad, but you know I’ve passionately loved books all my life and I love them as objects. I think certainly at the end, as we move into the digital future, where things are going a thousand times as fast, it’s like we’re on the deafening road to a formula one track. But also I find brutality and pain, I do find beauty in them and I try my hardest to make those things as poetic as I can.
Detachment is out now in the US.
Text: Joe Cohen