A world off kilter

Ted Geoghegan on casting, design and the supernatural in Brooklyn 45

by Jennie Kermode

Brooklyn 45
Brooklyn 45

Five people. One room. It’s late at night in Brooklyn, just after the end of the Second World War, and friends have gathered to comfort one of their number who has recently lost his wife, who shocks them when he says that he wants their help to hold a séance. Writer/director Ted Geoghegan is a little nervous about his new film, Brooklyn 45, because it’s not stuffed to the gills with supernatural shocks like some horror fans may be hoping; rather, its focus is on the psychological, and on the damage done by a conflict which led people to encounter situations they simply were not prepared for. It went down well at SXSW, however, and as it screened at the Overlook Film Festival, I asked him how he managed to assemble its impressive cast.

“I had written the role of Clive for Larry Fessenden,” he begins. “Larry's one of my oldest friends here in New York, we only live a few blocks apart. He's one of my one of my favourite carousing and drinking buddies, where we sit around and we bounce ideas off each other all day. I wanted to create another role that I felt Larry could excel in as an actor, because so often he's given these tiny roles in genre films, he shows up and he gets killed, or he shows up and has one line and walks away – and he's just such a phenomenal actor.

“Larry definitely was taken aback when he saw it. You know, the character has a seven page monologue. But he slayed it. I mean, he is absolutely incredible. And then as for everyone else, we just happen to find the perfect cast across the board. I could not believe how fortunate we were. Jeremy Holm I had previously seen in Jenn Wexler’s film The Ranger, and then I'd also seen him on Mr. Robot and House Of Cards. And although I'd originally thought of the role of Archie as being this almost sheepish, waifish little man, when the idea came for Jeremy to play him as this very hulking, striking guy. I really jumped at the opportunity.

“Not only is this really against how I imagined the character being, but I think it goes against a lot of the, typical sort of things that people do when they create a gay or queer character in the film, and suddenly he is this big, both physically and emotionally strong man. And then watching him break over the course of the film feels even more poignant.

“Ezra Buzzington, who played Paul – I worked with Ezra previously. He played the bad guy in Mohawk. I had such a lovely experience working with him on that film, and I knew that he was going to be able to bring the gravitas that that character needs, because it's such a heavy role. And again, he absolutely destroyed it. And then Kristina Klebe, who plays Hilde, is also a very old friend of mine. When she found out that I was working on a screenplay that featured a younger German American woman, she was like, ‘My parents came over from Germany during the war. We speak German around the house. This role was made for me. I will challenge you to find anyone who will be able to land this role stronger than me.’

“Her audition was amazing, and now, when I watch the film, I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. She's so good at it, it's jaw dropping how great she is. And then Anne Ramsey, who plays Marla, I have grown up watching in films like A League Of Their Own and The Taking Of Deborah Logan, and on TV shows like Mad About You. I always found her very charming and I thought she was such an interesting actor that when the opportunity came up and her name showed up on a list, I just jumped at the opportunity. One of my producers had previously worked with her just said she was an absolute joy. And she's amazing. For somebody who's been in the industry 30 some years, I hope that it's revelatory when they watch her in this film, because I think the performance she gives us so great and I want it to be a reminder that actresses of a certain age can still command a film.

“She said one of the reasons she jumped at this role was because actresses in their fifties, sixties, seventies, they don't get these meaty roles anymore. And she said that to have the opportunity to have a role like this, they’re so few and far between that you better grab them, and she certainly grabbed it. And then finally, Ron E Rains, who plays Bob, her husband, is a local Chicago actor, which was where we shot the film, believe it or not. Ron is best known for his stage work and he also is the Onion’s film critic – he plays film critic Peter Rosenthal. I had always loved those videos, I thought they were so funny. So I was excited at the opportunity to work with him. And he auditioned and his audition was just amazing. He did the first scene from the movie, and he was just so good at it that I couldn't picture anyone else in the role as soon as I saw his audition.”

Going back to the character of Archie, I note that he’s a complicated man who is often likeable but also has a lot of darkness in him, and has been accused of a war crime. Often people argue that LGBTQ characters ought to be good people, to counter nasty stereotypes, but I think that the most important thing is for them to come across as human, and that means that they need to be varied.

“One hundred percent,” he agrees. “As a member of the LGBTQ community, I truly believe that representation can't just mean golden gods. We need to see people from all walks of life, of all nationalities, skin colours, orientations, everything. We need to see them in all sorts of roles. And I think what I liked so much about the character of Archie is that while he is this very proud gay man, he has a lot of baggage. But none of that baggage has to do with him being gay. All of the issues that he deals with, all of the things that are causing him to lose sleep at night, none of those have to do with his sexuality. And even though he is accused of an atrocity and has been turned into this pariah at the end of the war – he went from hero to villain in the eyes of the world – the complexity of his character allows the audience to make up their own mind about how they feel about it.

“No one in the film is painted good or bad, but everyone in the film does or has done good and bad things. And when the picture is over, I want people to walk away and say, ‘Well, I don't know why you made the queer character bad,’ and I want someone to respond with ‘Oh, I didn't think he was bad.’ War makes monsters of us all and these sort of ideas should not be taken lightly. And one of the big messages throughout the film is, are we are we defined by one thing that we do in life? Or is our goodness or badness the summation of a life of good or bad choices?”

There's still remarkably cinema focused on that period just after the war, when everybody was readjusting and trying to live normal lives again. I wonder aloud if that was a big focal point for him going into the film, because there are so many different reactions and different kinds of trauma and different kinds of damage that the characters are carrying from it.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “The the time directly after the end of World War Two in the United States was an incredibly, incredibly dark time. Suicides were at an all time high, the country was falling apart in so many ways, but historically we remember it as this this rejuvenative post war era, and we think of the soldier kissing the woman in Times Square – that's what we want to remember. But the truth is, we had hundreds of thousands of soldiers coming back from the frontlines, just shells of the people they used to be. And the characters in Brooklyn 45 are not only veterans of World War Two, they're veterans of World War One.

“It's the mid-1940s, and all of these characters are in their fifties or older. These are all people who signed up when they were young, fought once and then had to do it again. And the wreckage that that would cause a person, to have to do it once, let alone twice, it's unparalleled. I mean, we've rarely ever seen times like this in history.

“I've always been interested in the past. All of my films that I've directed are period pieces. And I just thought that this was a very unique time in US history that not only hadn't been seen in horror cinema, but really hadn't been seen in much cinema at all. I had several people mention The Best Years Of Our Lives as about as close a connection as one could get to this film. I love the idea of when people think of Brooklyn 45, the closest film that they can come up with is not a horror. Much like Mohawk, you know, I think it it's a horrifying film, and very bad things happen, but ultimately, it's a human drama.”

Also in this period, of course, there was that huge interest in occultism across society, which forms the bedrock of this film. I think it works better because he’s restrained in his use of supernatural material, leaving plenty of room to focus on the human drama, but I ask him how he struck the right balance with that.

“That's exactly why the supernatural elements are so restrained: because I wanted to make sure that the human characters could remain as human as possible throughout the story. The seeds for Brooklyn 45 were planted when I was making We Are Still Here eight years ago. There's a séance scene in that film between actors Larry Fessenden and Andrew Sensenig that has become fans’ favourite scene. People really love the séance scene between two middle aged men and the reason it resonates so strongly is because they are middle aged – they're not teenagers playing with a Ouija board. These are people who have definitely come to grips with what they believe, and then to have that belief ripped out from underneath them in their fifties or sixties or seventies is such a mean, traumatic thing to happen because it forces you to reevaluate everything.

“I love that conceit and I wanted it to be the bedrock of Brooklyn 45. You have these characters. Some are religious, some aren’t, some have completely lost their faith. And so when a supernatural element, that is undeniably supernatural, shows up, it fundamentally changes all of them. And then the film asks you to live with these characters after their minds have been changed. I felt like having supernatural elements show up again and again and again and again wouldn't allow us to actually drink in how these characters have changed.

“Myself, I'm agnostic, kind of like the character of Hock in the film. I'd like to believe there's something else out there, I just don't really have any reason to. I've never had a reason to believe in it. I've never had that hope. But if you and I were having this interview and all of a sudden a ghost walked into the room, and I had to completely change every single thing I believe in in that moment, I'll tell you what – four or five hours later today, I would be saying some pretty strange things and acting pretty awkwardly. I don't need that ghost show up again to really drive home how much I've changed from that one experience. And so in this film, the ghost works as a catalyst and as another character, rather than a non stop spook show. The supernatural elements are really just like one very small piece in this puzzle.”

The set against which all this plays out is also something of a puzzle, full of intricate period detail and curious clues.

“We actually built the parlour from the ground up inside a warehouse in Chicago, in a little over two weeks,” he explains. “The detail in it is next level amazing. One of the film's producers, Sarah Sharp, was also in charge of all of that incredible art and brought her A game to it. The script details the room so intricately that I knew we would never be able to find this room somewhere. I knew that it was going to be something that we were going to have to construct, and I did kind of a rough sketch of what needed to be in the room in order for all of the gags to work. And Sara and her team just came in and brought my vision completely to life.

“There is a piece of concept art from the film that served as the blueprint for the room and I still to this day cannot believe how much the room looks like this piece of art. It has textured wallpaper as was the style in the Forties. It's got beautiful wainscoting. The fireplace is this beautiful, grand fixture with Tiffany glass built around it. There’s a beautiful old Zenith radio from the Forties and the liquor cabinet, the smoking corner, all of these very specific little parts of the room.

“One of the other wonderful little touches is prior to starting production on the film I posted on my social media and I asked people if they would send along photos of their friends and family prior to 1945. And so all of the photos that filled the room are all actual friends and family of my friends and family. So the room felt very lived in and very homey in that regard. There's a photo of my grandfather and namesake, Theodore Geoghegan, looking over the proceedings in the room for the entire film, as is my grandmother, who's still alive. There's a lot of really wonderful faces in that room that always cheered me up when I would walk around it because I wanted the room to feel cosy. I didn't want it to feel nightmarish, I wanted it to feel like the sort of place that you would want to hang out in, until you wanted to leave. And when you want to leave, you want to get out of there, even though the room is cosy.”

His next project, he says, is a little different: he’s recently become a father and plans to spend some time focusing on his son. Directing and looking after a baby don’t mix very well, but he does plan to continue work as a writer, and he hopes to have the pleasure of seeing somebody else take one of his scripts and bring it to life.

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