By Yun-hua Chen.
Obsession in general is something that’s a sort of a bottomless wealth for me to draw on. I identify with that sort of [neo-noir] obsession about my own work, so it’s easy to tap into that personally.”
The second collaboration between Paul Solet and Adrien Brody after Bullet Head (2017), Clean portrays the eponymous man traumatized by his shady past and plodding through his everyday routine as a trash collector. It’s a community where young people are easily drawn into the world of drugs, violence and exploitation, and gangsters are interconnected with corrupt police force. In the bleak winter and overwhelming greyness, the tormented soul looks for redemption in his one-man war against the underworld and resorts to violence that he knows all too well.
Reminiscent of neo-noir of the 70s, Clean features carefully choreographed action which makes very good use of screen space. It is a nuanced and sincere character study which cannot be achieved without the tour-de-force performance of Adrien Brody. He subtly balances roughness, melancholy, and tenderness, all while expressing the full range of complexity in a man who has lost almost everything dear to him. In addition to acting, he also co-wrote the script, created the score and original music, and produced the film. Adrien Brody’s music score, sophisticated and well-thought, does much more than simply accompanying the film; it mirrors the kaleidoscopic nature of the main character in its rawness and lyricism.
Paul Solet’s direction is sure-handed, as he portrays the trajectory from serenity to brutality and then redemption with effortless grace, marked by the beautiful collaboration between these two sensitive minds and old souls. Paul Solet talks with us about their collaboration, dark, and the many hats that they wore.
From what I understand, it is a passion project of Adrien Brody as a producer, an actor, a co-writer, the music score composer. How did he talk with you about this project in the beginning and how did you decide to go onboard?
We met on the movie called Bulkhead in about 2016. Right away we just really hit it off. At the time I don’t think he intended to do any movies, but he really responded to that script, and that was a passion project for me. By the time we were finished with that, we just really trusted each other a lot. We spent a lot of time together in Eastern Europe and just really enjoyed each other. He had a really clear emotional vision for a character that he wanted to bring out. He had a sense of an atmosphere, a grip, and things in the world that were bothering him, the crisis and violence, and he wanted to channel these things. He was very passionate about it. We were excited that we found something to do together, and we just dug in and built it together.
How was the process of developing the script together? Was there a lot of going back and forth?
It was good. We really trusted each other at that point. We have the same core working philosophy, which is, what’s honest? what’s the truth of the character and the situation? What would the person actually do? That’s a very positive way to work. We started working when we were still working on Bullet Head’s post-production, and he was doing Luca Changretta on Peaky Blinders. I went to see him in Manchester to do a little finishing and polishing, and we hanged out and drank a lot of highly caffeinated green tea and just spitballed. We walked around this grey industrial environment, just sort of dreaming together and kind of allowing this character to bubble forth. That was the process. We would spitball. Whenever he was in LA, we would get together and work. We would go our separate ways, and then we worked again. When I was in New York, we would meet and walk around the city. We would spitball, go back and work. And we just kept iterating until we had something that we really believed in.
The film has a very stylish neo-noir feeling to it. The tone is dark, and the voices are low-pitched. There seems to be a continuing interest in this dark ambience in your films. What is your relationship with the dark, and what is new for you in Clean?
It’s true. Adrien and I are both really drawn to that. We have the same kind of sensitivities. I don’t think I am looking for the dark consciously, but I am always drawn to it. There are certain themes and certain characters that I find myself coming back to again and again, characters that are mercilessly driven to accomplish a thing, even if the thing they want to accomplish might undo them. Or, characters that are very very good at doing something very bad. That’s something that I am fascinated with. Obsession in general is something that’s a sort of a bottomless wealth for me to draw on. I identify with that sort of obsession about my own work, so it’s easy to tap into that personally. And Adrien has all those same things too.
You are a filmmaker who wears many hats. How do you switch between your roles as a writer and a director, as these two roles have very different ways of expression?
That’s a very good question. They are very different roles, but they are also inseparable to me. For any movie, independent or otherwise, one of the real tests for a good director is, can you make your limitations into assets? Can you make it look deliberate? That is something that has to be embedded into the writing. So, as far as switching hats goes, I spend a lot of time writing. I sort of default to writing. I am always writing. Every day I am writing, By the time I get to a set, I am really just so thrilled to have collaboration and collaborators. I have made enough movies now that I do have a team of people that I am just absolutely in awe of and so grateful to be able to call them my partners. My director of photography Zoran and many other department heads that are just astonishingly brilliant. By the time I get to the set, it’s about facilitating the greatness of others, the department heads and the entire crew, and creating the best environment and communicating the sort of emotional target to them, and then just try to understand what it is they need to get there. That can range from getting the fuck out of their way to stepping in and talking with them and reassuring them, any number of things. And I love that. I love working with people. Film is a fundamentally collaborative medium to me. I like writing to be that too, particularly when you do something like this. I loved working with Adrien on the script. It’s just a vastly better piece than either of us would have been able to do alone. It’s just completely different. There are stories that are very much Adrien’s areas and stories that are very much my areas, and everything just blends in together. And that’s a magical kind of thing. It’s a cool thing to see that come into fruition.
Your films deal with the feelings of being trapped, either being trapped with a baby, in a warehouse, on house arrest, or like in Clean, being trapped in his identity as an ex-hitman and a bereaved person. It is very fitting to our time as we have all experienced multiple lockdowns. What’s your thoughts on this?
You have done your research. I really appreciate that. It’s interesting to see how resonant some of these things are in this particular period of time. My experience of the last couple of years is that it was a catalyzing, magnifying experience of what it already was, so whatever anxiety and discomfort that there already were, you are in a sort of forced meditative, reflective confrontation with all those things, and at the same token, the things that were good in your life, it became very very clear. Like, it became very very clear to me that the woman I was living with was the woman that I want to spend the rest of my life with. It became very clear to me that I wanted to have a baby. It’s a very long-winded way of saying that the fact that there are resonances from those movies is in the spirit of time. When I look at it through that lens, it sort of makes sense to me, more as a magnifier for what they already were. Bottom line is that we all have kind of a constant existential struggle with being trapped by one thing or another. Our decisions, various addictions, all sorts of oppression depending on where you are in the world, all these things are omnipresent and universal, ubiquitous, so it makes sense that they resonate.
You have worked on projects across the spectrum, both documentary and fiction, including TV and movies of all sizes and genres, both at the studio and independent levels. How do you like this multifacetedness of your repertoire and what is the most comfortable place for you?
I really just like working with people and working on a good story. It’s not so much the arena or the scale that matters. It really doesn’t matter so much. You are always trying to do more than what you have the resources for, no matter at what scale you are working. So, you are always going to have not enough time, not enough resources. One way or another. For me it’s about just working on something that you feel it is honest and authentic and heartfelt, and you are working on it with a group of people that are as passionate about it as you are, and you can eat a lot of shit in the process and be just fine.
Coming into Clean, this is a credit to Adrien. We identified this particular area in New York as a place that he wanted to do this. He understood right away what I understood when I got there, which was, this place is just hugely semantic and textured and in a way that it’s just very hard to replicate.”
One thing that stood out for me was the music. It is exceptionally good. How involved were you when Adrien worked on the score?
Adrien has been making music for a long time. A lot of people don’t know that about Adrien. He has been making beats since he was a kid, and over the last years collaborated with some great people and learned a lot. He really was passionate about doing the score. If you know anything about film music, you’d know it’s hard. It’s a really complex thing to do. In the same way that a novelist can’t just step into a screenwriting role. It’s a very complex, structured, nuanced multi-staged thing, and the learning curve is really really steep. Adrien did a great job. He really didn’t need a whole lot of guidance for me. He saw it rightly as an extension of his performance. And that’s a very very wise way for an actor to look at it. Adrien wore a lot of hats in this movie: co-writer, producer, star, score, and he was really integrally involved throughout the film process all the way till the film finishing. For me, I trust Adrien as an actor to a degree that’s hard to surpass, so for me, it’s about viewing these things as an extension of his performance and just sort of identifying what was necessary, what would be most useful to him to facilitate the best work from him. That was my process of working with him throughout, whether it was his performance or related to score or anything.
The location is very fitting to the general aesthetics of the film. Can you talk about your location scouting?
Yeah, great question. Prior to this movie, I had just done Tread. It is a documentary about a guy, a truly crazy story about a guy who basically became enraged at a conflict in a small town and used his skill set, he was an incredible welder, to build a home-made tank and destroyed a large portion of the town. Having come off a documentary, I had become very acutely conscious of casting spaces, in a way that I don’t think I would have just from shooting fiction films. In this documentary, one of the things that we were really looking to do is for every subject to be put on a space without a word being spoken or communicated about them, and create an appropriate atmosphere, give it a visual shorthand. And also, in a documentary, when you were shooting in spaces, you were looking at what’s there and what exists. Coming into Clean, this is a credit to Adrien. We identified this particular area in New York as a place that he wanted to do this. He understood right away what I understood when I got there, which was, this place is just hugely semantic and textured and in a way that it’s just very hard to replicate. A great production designer can spend hours and millions of dollars trying to build that texture and those layers like scenic painters. You can do a lot, but this was a world that we could walk into and to a great degree a ready-made.
Are we going to see a comedy from you at some point?
A comedy? Oh gosh. It’s possible. I think it’s important particularly when you deal with dark subject matters to inject levity. I am not interested in punishing our audience. I don’t want to make it a punishing experience. Even in a film like Clean, you will find that levity. There’s always dark humor in everything I have ever done. A full-blown comedy? It would be a good challenge for me.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.