Much of the discussion surrounding the new Bleecker Street film Breaking, which stars a phenomenal John Boyega, posits the hostage drama as a modern-day Dog Day Afternoon. There are certainly similarities between the two, though Dog Day Afternoon explores themes of sexuality, while Breaking examines race.
The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and stars Boyega as Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine who held up a Wells Fargo bank in 2017 after he failed to receive a benefits check from his local Veteran’s Affairs office. The Star Wars actor delivers a tender performance, and the filmmaker who coaxed that performance out of him was writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin.
Below the Line recently spoke to Damaris Corbin about the casting process for the film, blocking the scenes inside of the bank, and whether or not she messed with the phones Boyega was using in the film. Breaking is a strong calling card for the director, so find out how she labored to get it made below:
Below the Line: Major congratulations on Breaking; the film was phenomenal and I’m excited to talk to you about it. How’s your day going?
Abi Damaris Corbin: Pretty well. I appreciate your [Al] Pacino shout-out right there on the shelf [pointing to the Dog Day Afternoon Blu-ray on my shelf].
BTL: Well, we’ll circle back to him in a little bit, but how does it feel to finally have this film come out now, eight months after it premiered at Sundance?
Damaris Corbin: I’m really eager to get it out of the door; I’m happy [that] Brian’s finally going to be heard.
BTL: I want to talk about the casting process. Everybody’s going to talk about John Boyega, who’s phenomenal, but you also had a great supporting cast around him. Of course, you had the late Michael K. Williams — I definitely want to know how landed him — but I was also impressed by both Selenis [Leyva] and Nicole [Beharie], who play two of the bank staffers who Brian takes hostage. They really enhanced John’s performance because of the fear that you see on their faces. So I’m just curious about how the casting process went, and whether any part of it was done over Zoom…
Damaris Corbin: Well, John [Boyega] and I met over Zoom initially [because of] COVID — I think he was in London at the time. I had already met Nikki [Beharie] and Selenis before that over Zoom [and] they were cast when John came aboard.
I hadn’t met Mike [K. Williams] at that point. John and I talked a lot about that role and the second we brought up Mike’s name, John and I were both like, ‘It’s Mike; it’s definitely Mike; it’s gotta be Mike.’ He has this voice that’s [like] honey-meets-gravel and I’m just so fortunate to have worked with him. London Covington [and] Olivia Washington just rounded out the heart, and of course, Jeffrey Donovan.
BTL: I spoke to John yesterday and he mentioned something that I’d love to get your perspective on. He mentioned that in some of the scenes where he was more agitated and aggravated, he’d try to pick up the phone and something would go wrong. Sometimes it would go to the wrong line, or there wouldn’t be someone there. There just always seemed to be some difficulty and he wasn’t sure if you were doing that on purpose to kind of “poke the bear,” if you will.
Damaris Corbin: [laughs] Oh, I’ll never tell. You know, you do what you can to get to the performance that is needed. I will say, there was one time it was not intentional for sure. There were a couple times where it was like, ‘This this could work; let’s see.’ [laughs]
But on a routine basis, it was really about the craft for John and I because he had so much to give and we had a really easy shorthand with each other because we were seeing the same film, and so getting to the truth is what we’re about. And yeah, occasionally John would pick up the phone and he’d be in his Brian headspace and [laughs] we would capture that on camera. It’s pretty great — I have some good outtakes, too.
BTL: Well, I hope we see some of those when the film is released on home media. Reading some of your statements about the film, I was fascinated by the comparison that Breaking is like “Sidney Lumet on the inside and Michael Mann on the outside.” The obvious comparison for your film is Dog Day Afternoon, which everybody’s going to talk about, but I’d love to hear more about the kind of dynamic that you were going for.
Damaris Corbin: It’s a really easy shorthand for us to refer to those guys because you can’t ignore, and you shouldn’t ignore, Pacino’s performance in that film. It’s a touchstone for so many actors [and] for so many directors because he redefined so much of cinema with that film. And for me as a director, I knew that we needed to work towards having the craft support Brian’s psychology. So we wanted the audience to fully see Brian’s humanity and know that Brian starts with his world pretty small, and then it opens up. So it starts, and then it just builds one violin, and then it adds and builds to this orchestra of all these pieces working together.
So instead of explaining that whole thing, we’d say “Sidney Lumet on the inside and Michael Mann on the outside,” especially as it grows and escalates in tension. And that’s also exactly what happened to Brian; so using that as a reference point was really helpful.
BTL: I think you also mentioned Heat, which features my favorite Pacino performance, in your Director’s Statement, so let me ask you quickly, are you reading Michael Mann’s new novel Heat 2?
Damaris Corbin: Of course; next week.
BTL: Transitioning from Heat, which has one of the best bank robberies of all time, I’d like to talk about the bank in Breaking, as I was fascinated by its design. Was it a real bank, or did you build a set?
Damaris Corbin: No, we built it out. It’s a location that used to be a bank, [but] it was completely gutted. I think it was used in a [Justin] Bieber music video at one point. But we built out that bank from scratch. We designed the mural that’s behind Brian — the VA cemeteries are actually feathered into it. And [in] some of the shots you can see, we chose those colors based [on] Brian’s hoodie so that we could shoot a contrast between the love that we saw pouring in from Cassandra’s house and the beautiful lights streaming through and the warmth there [from the lights] to the coolness of the paint that we progressed over time.
We chose the grasscloth on the walls for its texture, for how it would work against skin tones, [and] for how it would progress between lightness and darkness. We actually put in fake windows behind the teller line so that there’d be more visual intensity.
BTL: It’s a big bank, all things considered, but 85 percent of the film takes place right in the lobby, and in the grand scheme of things, that feels like a small sandbox for you to play in. Did you have any difficulty blocking the film or even just shooting in relatively close quarters?
Damaris Corbin: It definitely presents challenges. My cinematographer [Doug Emmett] and I watched a lot of films that take place in single locations in preparation for this film, and then we set forth our rules for how we were going to capture this. We knew that it needed to progress because Brian’s emotional intensity progresses for the audience, psychologically, and so we didn’t want to repeat shots [and] we didn’t want to repeat the visuals, which is why we put a mural in the back. We put the grasscloth, changed our lenses, [and] we moved Brian throughout the bank.
The blocking was so specific; it had to be so that you don’t repeat the background and the shots and the angles. Doug and I shot-listed it down to the tiniest detail so that we made sure it wasn’t repeated. And then once you get on set and you have the actors there, when they’re aware of those parameters, they can have freedom because it’s not something where you’re figuring [it] out on the spot, it’s planned, so within that space, if they know they can go from here-to-here and this is the shot, there’s so much freedom for actors to — in an almost theatrical way — be able to move within that space if everybody’s on the same page.
BTL: I know that you joked about the lighting being real, but how did you control the lighting? Because Brian closes the blinds and turns off the lights in the film, it’s not a very bright film.
Damaris Corbin: We were really careful about [the] time of day. We had to make sure that we were shooting a lot of Nikki’s stuff later in the day because she was over by the windows. And then we had big flags outside; I had a flag over the skylight as well and then had a couple of things on standby to be able to flag off light as necessary. And then, of course, [we had] things to blast light as necessary. We use as little as possible to create the environment properly. But the good thing is, the windows that are directly behind the teller line were fake so we could completely control them.
BTL: The pacing is another reason the film works as well as it does. This would usually be a complaint for me, but I love that Breaking gets right into the meat of the story, right inside of the bank within minutes. Was this always how you intended the film to start, or did you ever consider spending more time with Brian outside of the bank at the beginning?
Damaris Corbin: The thing about Brian’s story that hit Kwame [Kwei-Armah] and I, as writers, is that so much of what led him to come into the bank happened within those phone calls between him and the 911 operators. You see the microaggressions and the walls that he had faced over and over again. So I actually wanted to get into the bank a little quicker than that [laughs], and so did Kwame, but as we wrote and built it out, we realized we needed just a little bit more.
But I trust my audience and I know that so much of our audience is fully aware of the issues with the VA, and I wanted them to have a glimpse into Brian’s humanity, but I didn’t want to make it about the politics of it. I wanted to make it about Brian’s soul, which is a deeper thing than that. That’s what actually causes and prompts change within people’s hearts [when] they see the other person and they reach out to the other person and help. It’s a loaded answer to your question about getting into the bank, but it really was a big deciding choice for Kwame and I to say, ‘Hey, let’s get in the bank quick. Let’s meet our character and find out about why he’s there through what happens this day.’
BTL: Another interesting choice was the way in which you weaved Brian’s flashbacks into the film. Did earlier drafts feature more of his time in the Marines?
Damaris Corbin: Kwame had a nickname for them at one point — “snapbacks” — because they’re so brief and they’re so integrated. [The film’s] from Brian’s point of view, so we hesitated [to call] them flashbacks because it makes it feel like it’s this big thing, but [they’re] just our little “snapbacks.”
BTL: Of course, you worked with an editor on this film, but were there any particular editing choices that you made that enhanced the stressful nature of the film?
Damaris Corbin: So Chris [Witt], my editor, and I worked together on my short film, The Suitcase — which was actually one of the ways Kwame and I met, through the BAFTA thing — but Chris and I have a lot of shorthands and I’ll sit on the couch while he edits and then I’ll work with him for a couple hours and then he’ll work for another hour. And then he’ll say, ‘All right, look at this,’ and we were there day in and day out together. Chris has a really inherent sense of rhythm that I trust a lot so I’m always happy to say, ‘Hey, Chris, I’m thinking about this,’ and then just leave it in his hands and let him try it. And then we shape it a little bit more together because he’ll get the baseline for the rhythm with just one or two things said.
But in terms of tension, there’s so much; it’s like another writer on your project. Kwame and I can never tell you who did what at [a given] point — I don’t remember — and the same [goes] for Chris. He brought so much to the table that I can’t identify just one [thing]. There’s a really beautiful amount of tension just in the poetry that Chris was able to add in some of the relationships by holding just a little bit longer [for] a few more frames. Chris is [a] “down to the frame” guy, and if you hold on John’s eyes just a little bit longer, it brings this amount of poetry that then engages the spirit and the soul.
Breaking is now playing in select theaters nationwide courtesy of Bleecker Street.