PRINT October 2000


LODGE KERRIGAN'S TWO FEATURE FILMS, Clean, Shaven (1993) and Claire Dolan (1998), are harrowing works because they deal with harrowing lives. The subjects of schizophrenia and prostitution have been addressed elsewhere in film, but perhaps never before have they been given such unblinking scrutiny. When Clean, Shaven was screened in New York at New Directors/New Films seven years ago, a discomfited audience viscerally experienced the terrifying auditory hallucinations that torment the mentally imbalanced protagonist, who may or may not have committed a murder. Likewise, the dissociated sex in which Claire Dolan engages (to satisfy a debt incurred in the care of her ailing mother) is disturbing when it isn't utterly excruciating to watch, as audiences at Cannes discovered in 1998. Like Robert Bresson, Kerrigan strips both dialogue and plot down to their barest essentials, eschewing exposition, and his films cannot be watched without the highest degree of viewer engagement.

Notwithstanding the very limited distribution his work has been given in America, Kerrigan has earned a level of distinction unequaled by all but a handful of his contemporaries. A former student of philosophy at Columbia and filmmaking at New York University, he has received both Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships as well as the Independent Feature Project/West's coveted, if somewhat ridiculously titled, Someone to Watch Award. Meanwhile, Kerrigan forged a fruitful business relationship with one of Europe's last art-film impresarios, the legendary Marin Karmitz, who has produced films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Abbas Kiarostami, and Claude Chabrol, among others. Though Claire Dolan enjoyed respectable financial success in Europe (via Karmitz's MK2 distribution company), it found no American audience until the Walter Reade Theater presented it this spring as part of Independent Visions, a joint initiative of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Independent Feature Project, which has led to its gradual release across the country.

Having struggled for the better part of a decade to bring these two rigorously—and in the case of Claire Dolan, almost obsessively—controlled feature films to fruition, and to an international audience, Kerrigan now gravitates toward a simpler and more spontaneous execution, toward letting go and fighting a different kind of battle.

Christopher Münch

CHRISTOPHER MUNCH: Claire Dolan made me think of Antonioni. Something about Its controlled, almost ruthlessly calculated architectural aspects resonated in a way that I hadn't felt since seeing some of his more architectural films, like La Notte and L'Eclisse. The design of the various hotel rooms, for example, seemed to reinforce Claire's dissociation from her clients. It was a fascinating, almost unrecognizable, depletion of New York. Ironically, it made me think of Toronto—the city to which much of New York's film production has fled—yet all of Claire Dolan was shot in New York and New Jersey.

LODGE KERRIGAN: The idea was to try to portray New York as a city of windows, where everyone can look in on each other's lives. Whenever Claire's performing as a prostitute, she's turning tricks in her room and looking out into another hotel or high-rise. At any point, hundreds of people could be watching her as she works: How would that affect her emotionally? How would she have to distance herself?

The decision about how to portray the city really came from the emotional core of Claire and her struggle. Ultimately, the film is about a woman who tries to change her life on her own terms. She's not dependent on anyone else. She's determined at least to attempt to go after what she wants. In order to do that, she has to start decompartmentalizing her life. The men she knows—particularly Elton [Vincent D'Onofrio], a man she picks up in a bar and becomes romantically involved with—can't do that. He has a daughter from a previous relationship, and he doesn't really tell Claire about her.

I'm always reluctant to draw analogies between filmmaking and art, because I think of filmmaking very much more as a craft than as an art. But we worked consciously to use a cooler palette toward the beginning of the film to try to create a sense of emotional distance. We used a lot of reflections to create the idea of image-based sex, image-based commerce, and we used a minimalist style to exclude a large part of the chaos of New York City: We wanted to create a sense of dread and impending doom. And I have to say, I owe a lot to the producer, Ann Ruark, to Teo [Teodoro Maniaci], the cinematographer who shot it, and to Sharon Lomofsky, the production designer. The collaboration between all of us formulated the look, and no doubt if I had worked with different people, the look of the film would have been significantly different.

Anyway, as Claire tries to leave her life behind by fleeing to Newark, she is followed by Cain [Claire's pimp, played by Colm Meaney], who eventually tracks her down. The idea is that she's not really free, that somebody could be watching her, that her pimp is really in control and pulling the strings. In draining the city of its chaos and stripping it of its masses, I thought we would help reinforce the idea of there being a puppetmaster.

CM: If you're comfortable with it, why don't we talk about your being a male filmmaker making a movie about a female prostitute. What was your relationship to the subject matter of Claire Dolan?

LK: When I was editing Clean, Shaven in a very small editing facility in Times Square before they cleaned up the whole area, I'd come out at all hours of the night, and at different times would see pregnant prostitutes working. Some of these women had very distended abdomens, and I remember how viscerally affected I was; it was really shocking. I guess you could say that was the starting point of the film. Usually, when something has that significant an impact on me, I try to figure out why. I had seen mothers before, I had seen prostitutes before; I'm not shocked by the idea of motherhood or prostitution. I then realized that it was the specific combination of the two, and that this reflected a sexist attitude on my part. I had been influenced by the notion that women should carry out specific roles, that the whore and Madonna are totally separated. I then realized how demeaning and limiting that notion is.

I started to think about how prostitutes have been portrayed in films before: Either it's like in Pretty Woman—the whore with the heart of gold—or like in other films, such as Klute, where the prostitute is supposed to provide voyeuristic titillation to the audience. A sort of pact is made in which the audience is seduced by the filmmaker into partaking of or having a relationship with the prostitute that excludes everyone else. It's like at a strip club, where there's usually a kind of old-timer who's sitting at the bar, utterly involved with the stripper, who's stripping just for him. But, of course, everybody else knows it's just an act. I always get the sense that this guy, the old-timer, really believes that it's directed at him, and that there's some special relationship between the stripper and him, and the stripper has singled him out because she really likes him. That's the kind of narcissism or megalomania that I was trying to depict. I didn't want Claire Dolan to be titillating or seductive to the audience—I wanted it to see the old guy and not be him.

Many critics questioned whether Claire—or rather Katrin Cartlidge, the actress who plays her—was seductive enough, was beautiful enough, was voluptuous enough. You would think that those critics, being in the position of actually writing for the public, would be sufficiently self-aware to realize that what they're saying is a poor reflection on themselves.

That's something I've been trying to focus on recently in my work—the notion of beauty and the pact between the filmmaker and the audience. What is it really all about? Is it manipulative of filmmakers to place the audience in this position, to seduce them, in order to make them like a film? I've begun to question all of these conventions, like the tendency to make a character easier to identify with in order to engage the audience emotionally from start to finish in a traditional way, the tendency to have the character reveal certain things to the audience that he or she doesn't reveal to other characters. Breaking down this convention is important to me.

CM: Did Katrin have any concerns about the audience being able to connect with a character you've painted in a sometimes unsympathetic way?

LK: Katrin and I were both very much in agreement. One of the reasons I cast her is that we saw the character in similar terms. I had wanted to attack the whole notion of the sexy prostitute playing out some male fantasy and to concentrate on how the character had to compartmentalize her life in order to exist. The clients aren't really having sex with Claire; they're having sex with an image of her. So it's purely narcissistic on their part.

I think the film is very emotional. You see Claire going through a real emotional journey and at least attempting to live the life that she wants, which I think takes a tremendous amount of courage. Most people, when they're faced with any degree of significant change in their lives, tend to do anything to avoid it. I didn't want the audience to be seduced. The sex scenes—there are a fair number of them—I think all of them are very different. But certainly the ones that deal purely with her work are more distant and antiseptic: It's merely a transaction.

CM: There's an ambiguous aspect to Cain's relationship with Claire, to the point where it almost seems as if he has her best interests at heart, yet obviously he's her pimp and doesn't. He's manipulative and cruel. How did their relationship come about?

LK: Brevity and efficiency are things to strive for. When I was thinking about the whole idea of prostitution, I realized it's such a standard story. So I refused to really explain everybody's backgrounds. There's also a certain banality to the reductionism of explaining psychologically everything that happens. “Why did Claire become a prostitute?” In all honesty, I think people make decisions based on years of living and that it's incredibly complicated why people behave in certain ways when faced with a conflict and choose certain paths and not others.

Why Claire became a prostitute is not the point of the film. Cain was a friend of the family's who helped Claire's mother gain hospital treatment and then forced Claire, at the moment when she was most vulnerable—when her mother was very ill in the hospital—to pay back the debt by engaging in prostitution with client friends of his. The most manipulative thing he could possibly do was to invade her private space in that arena of emotions, given that the one loving relationship Claire has at the beginning of the film is with her mother.

At film school they taught me this maxim—and I believe it to this day, whether it's accurate or not—that people are what they do, not what they say. Cain is obviously abusive of Claire. He doesn't care about Claire. Clearly, he's not a reliable narrator. Anything he says, an audience should immediately question. So when he says, “I've known her since she was twelve—she was a whore then, she'll always be a whore,” as far as I'm concerned, he's totally unreliable. It may be true, it may not be. But it's more about how the audience takes it and what that says about their own feelings or prejudices.

In the same way, I used that structure for Clean, Shaven—the whole notion of the schizophrenic possibly being a killer. It never definitively says it. At the end of the film, you realize there's only really circumstantial evidence, and this forces an audience to address its own feelings toward schizophrenics or psychotics.

CM: In this connection I was wondering if working with Peter Greene [who plays the schizophrenic in Clean, Shaven] was difficult for you on some gut level, just because his performance was such a difficult one.

LK: Peter—you know, I have to go so far back in my memory—I worked with Peter on Clean, Shaven for two years. He is a great performer. That was his first feature-film role [Green went on to take parts in Laws of Gravity and Pulp Fiction], and I knew the second I saw him that I would cast him just because of the energy he possessed. He was actually different than—you know, I keep getting asked the question, “Is Peter Greene like the character in real life?” And he's not at all. But he does possess a certain energy that I thought he could harness and would be appropriate for the lead.

CM: How does your rehearsal process relate to the formation of your characters?

LK: I don't believe in the theory that a director really extracts a great performance out of actors. I find that if they're talented actors and the correct environment is created, they will produce good work.

Claire Dolan was all written before casting. Usually, I don't engage actors in the writing process the way some filmmakers like Mike Leigh do, or like Jim McKay did on Girlstown. Generally, I try to write everything relatively specifically. Filmmaking, from start to finish, is a process not only of collaboration but of rewriting. So I'm totally open. My text is just the starting point.

Usually, when I finish writing a script, I actually give it to an actor first because I find that there are so many similarities between writers and actors: They're both trying to portray an accurate character. If there are any inconsistencies in a character, hopefully an actor will be able to point them out.

I take the rehearsal process itself very seriously. I was fortunate that Ann Ruark, our producer, was able to block a significant period of time before the shoot, which I utilized as best I could. It's really a process of communication, trying to make things clear, so that the questions you have are answered before you're on the set. A lot of discussion takes place. One of the discussions Colm Meaney and I had, an idea to which he consented and agreed, was that Cain should never reveal his dishonesty to Claire, that he should always keep up a front of being sincere and interested in her life—because that would be much more subtle and abusive.

Actors respond if you're very serious about the rehearsal period. How seriously the filmmaker takes it ultimately has a huge impact on how seriously everyone else takes it. Knowing what you want and being specific is at least 95 percent of it.

CM: You've recently spoken about wanting to work in a way that involves less manipulation on a craft level.

LK: I don't know if it's so much an issue of manipulation because I think everything is manipulation and not in a bad or nefarious way. It's just that I've spent so long trying to control every element. Particularly with Clean, Shaven, in the sound design, and then with Claire Dolan in the visual strategy of the film. I've reached a point where I'm reevaluating that obsessive quality and all of the aesthetic assumptions that underlie it. What is good framing, what is good performance, what is beautiful production design? Even, what is aesthetically pleasing? In the amateur world of filmmaking—and I mean “amateur” in the best possible way—when you're working on minute budgets, there's a lot more freedom in terms of improvisation—not in the traditional sense of working with actors, but just improvising in the moment. I find that much more appealing than professional film, where you arrive and basically take over an environment and control it to the nth degree.

Clean, Shaven was an amateur production, and sometimes I think the whole experience I had making that movie is the primary reason why I'm completely reevaluating my work now. I was so happy making an “amateur” film. In the professional world of filmmaking, I haven't been anywhere near as happy. So basically I'm trying to return to what it was that really drove me to begin with.