'Detachment': A Movie About Teachers, Not Education Reform

A conversation with filmmaker Tony Kaye about his latest project, which is set in a school but avoids making a political statement


Paper Street Films

Profiles of British filmmaker Tony Kaye often begin by dredging up the controversy surrounding his American History X (1998), which included intense battles with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton and an attempt to disown the final cut. They're sure to mention his self-admittedly crazy behavior at the time, which left him unemployed in Hollywood for about a decade. Typically, they'd also hail Kaye's music video work, for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash, and his evocative abortion documentary Lake of Fire.

What they won't do, or wouldn't before now, is spotlight Kaye's humanist filmmaking leanings. Deep-rooted emotional truths are on full display in Kaye's films, and you can't miss them in Detachment, his latest, which offers a dreamlike evocation of the burdens facing teachers at a failing New York public school.

Adrien Brody stars as one of those educators: a disaffected substitute named Henry Barthes who struggles amid his tortured personal life and tumultuous classroom.

Here, a serene and optimistic Kaye, who seems much different than the former rebel, speaks about the ensemble film. Detachment also stars James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Marcia Gay Harden, among many other notables. It's currently available on demand and begins a limited theatrical release today.

Why is your impressionistic cinematic approach right for a story about teachers?

Let me state firmly that maybe it was a script [by former public school teacher Carl Lund] about the breakdown of the American education system, but I never made a movie about that. Not for one minute. I made a movie about the issue of abortion called Lake of Fire and I consider that to be a solid movie about abortion, but Detachment, for anyone who goes to see Detachment because they think it's sort of an indictment or a comment about education is going to walk away unhappy. It's much better your just stumble into this movie and don't even know why you're going. Or maybe you're an Adrien Brody fan, or something.

So what is it about?

It's a movie about people. It's a movie about humanity. It's a movie about, really, "love beats death." It's a movie about those kinds of things, and it's just sort of a microcosm of our lives. ... It's not deep enough [and] it's not rounded enough, to be those other things. It's like [how] Star Wars isn't a movie about robots fighting each other. It's about something else.

Would you prefer that the movie was publicly framed and talked about in some way that didn't focus on the teacher angle?

There's nothing you can do really, is there? The marketing of a movie, there's no such thing as an idea until it's sold. It's what Harvey Weinstein has demonstrated so brilliantly in the career he's had. He's brought a life onto that craft that nobody really knew even existed prior. It bothers me, but in the end you just have to let go and the light will sort it out. Nobody, not even Harvey Weinstein, has that kind of power. ... It's going to be people [and] it's going to be word of mouth. The movie has been released in France, and it was a gargantuan hit, four times the level of the expectancy, and it's still going strong there. They reckon it's going to get to 300,000 admissions. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens here. When a movie is released, that's nothing, really. That's just a burp. It's like Citizen Kane. I'm not for one minute putting it in that category, but Citizen Kane tanked on release. It was only when it went to France that it started its ride.

You've worked with a lot of big stars before, and this movie is full of them, many in small parts. Why is that important?

To work with people, some of whom I worked with [here], and not have the opportunity to get more out of them was ridiculous in a way. But, there's no such thing as a small role, particularly in the case of what Lucy Liu achieved in the movie and what James Caan achieved in this movie. That's a nod to the brilliance of Carl's writing that we got such an amazing cast.

Your daughter Betty plays a major role in the film as well. How did that come about and what was it like to work with her?

[Betty's character] Meredith is really the deep significance of the whole movie. What happens to her is the only thing that happens in the entire film. I gave the script to Betty three, four years ago. Betty had done a lot of acting, not in front of the camera, but stage acting. She was only going to get the role if she was the best. I was quite prepared for her not to talk to me for years. ... When she was growing up I was AWOL a lot of the time. ... I was always working. So it was wonderful, I mean it was a real gift from God, to be able to collaborate with her on the role and to hang out like we did. ... How lucky am I?