Not every filmmaker got their start through a prestigious film school, or by maxing out credit cards to make their first feature. There are many avenues of life experience which can easily become a valued asset to the art and business of filmmaking, as I discovered from my interview with Canadian writer/director Damian Lee. As a former athlete, Lee’s filmography has had the type of stamina hard training sports might require; completed with years with patience and dedication. Breakout, a backwoods thriller starring Brendan Fraser, Dominic Purcell (“Prison Break”), and Ethan Suplee (“My Name is Earl”), is the latest release from writer/director Lee in a career of filmmaking that spans over thirty years. An athlete never stops training, developing and growing, and this is the work ethic that Damian has clearly brought with him into his career in film production.
Ryan Izay: Damian, I’ll get to Breakout in a minute but first I have to ask about a rumor I heard about you. Is it true that you used to be a bare-knuckle boxer in
Damian Lee: (laughs) Well, I started out as an athlete. I actually had a couple of sports that I participated in professionally. One of them was boxing, for a little bit. At one point I fought Trevor Berbick, Heavyweight champion of the world, in
was some bare-fisted fighting that went on for awhile, but it wasn’t as
extensive as perhaps you’d imagine. But there was a lot of boxing. It’s a sport
I got into when I was pretty young, and I liked it. And did it for quite a
while. Some of it got pretty brutal, but it was an adventure and I had the
privilege of fighting some pretty notable fighters. Not that I did that well,
I’ll tell you. Jamaica
Izay: How does one go from being an athlete to a filmmaker?
Lee: Well, one of the things that I did was ski professionally for quite awhile, and the ski racing was broadcast on television a lot. So, I was around that and around television production. When I quit ski racing and all the other sports I was doing, I started to produce, direct and write those television shows. And that got pretty boring after a couple years, because there’s no plot. You’d show someone running, or kayaking, or something, but it gets pretty boring. So, then I made my first movie. I made a very low-budget movie for $125,000, and it was Jim Carrey’s first movie. It’s called
. I made it at Copper Mountain .
It had Alan Thicke in it. There was literally no plot to it; it was just two
guys going to Copper Mountain to ski and pick up
girls. So that’s how I segued into the production business. And there was a
natural rhythm that I liked in production. There was a gearing up, not unlike
athletic events. And I find that a lot of athletes translate pretty well into
the production industry. There’s a similar work ethic, and actually producing a
film can be pretty physically demanding. Boxing and other sports really helped
me in terms of physical dynamism, so that was a big asset, actually. So, that
was the transition. Copper
Izay: You’ve got quite a few writing credits, as well as directing. Have you always been a writer or is just that you wanted the control that comes with creating your own story?
Lee: Both are probably correct. I was writing a lot before I started writing for films. I always enjoyed writing and then when I started writing for films, I found the writing aspects, in many ways, is the only true creative aspect of the process. The rest of the process is quite interpretive. Actors interpret, directors interpret, production designers interpret; we interpret the words on the page. It’s one of the aspects of the process that you are left to your own devices, and vices, so that you can actually work quite freely. It’s probably the most liberating aspect of the entire process. Of course, there is control. You can design a picture before you shoot. Or if you think of actors you’d like to work with, or actors who can capture the moment that you’re envisioning on the page. So, that very much is a control thing, but for me, I enjoy the freedom of creating a vision. I very much enjoy that.
Izay: Do you have cast members you would like as you’re doing the writing?
Lee: I definitely have archetypes in mind. And from the archetypes, whether it’s subconscious or conscious, the archetypes begin to manifest themselves in the articulation of particular personas and names. But I think you write in archetypes first, before thinking of particular actors, whether we consciously do it or not. Because the archetypes represent a particular type of energy, or device, or momentum, and that exists for the story. And if that device needs to be represented in a human form, I begin to envision the particular face of an actor.
Izay: A Dark Truth had political issues in the screenplay, and Breakout has environmental ones. Are these issues which have a personal significance as you are writing? Do you intentionally integrate issues into your genre films?
Lee: Very much so. What I like to do is take issues of importance, be it spiritual, political, sociological, monetary, whatever, and I like to find the heaviest issue you can deal with and then tell it in the most physically dynamic way. For example, if you had a scene discussing politics with a person, if you take the extreme dynamic level it could be two officers interrogating, water-boarding, a member of Al Qaeda. Then the political views are articulated as a physical thing within the scene. I like to find those moments of friction, and explore what the film wants to say in the realm of the frictional conflict.
Izay: What was the seed of inspiration for Breakout?
Lee: I think there it was the idea of ends versus means. To what extent are we willing to put ourselves. For example, Nelson Mandela. How many years was Nelson Mandela in prison for? 27 years. He had chances when he was in prison; if he had capitulated, in a signed statement he was wrong, he would have gotten out. But he believed so strongly in what he was doing that the objective justified the means in which he was suffering. That was one of the themes in Breakout that I wanted to explore. There was a great film called Witness with Harrison Ford, many years ago. That film started out as an episode for “Gunsmoke.” Witness started out as a single episode, but it was never made for “Gunsmoke,” and it morphed into this Academy Award-winning film. Another film I’ve always really liked, that I wanted to explore in this, was Deliverance. The thing I find interesting about that movie… the rednecks, they weren’t doing anything wrong. It was acceptable morality in their world, right? I love Dominic’s character in Breakout. When he’s trying to kill the kids and their father, he sees it as God’s will. I really like he can embrace a religious philosophy that no matter what they are doing, he thinks they’re right. Look at Islamic extremism. Look at Catholic extremism! People think the Spanish Inquisition was just a few years; it lasted almost 700 years. The final person put to death in the Spanish Inquisition was in
in 1850. It’s pretty amazing. So, anyway those
were the themes I wanted to explore in Breakout.
And stories I wanted to tell. Deliverance
is an amazing film, and that scene is
an amazing scene. And Witness is an
amazing film. So, those are themes I wanted to explore, and also the aspects of
‘ends-versus-mean.’ Those are all important to me, in terms of looking at this
Izay: What was it like filming in the woods? I spoke to Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of Kings of Summer, this past week. He was telling me many of the shots were cheated, but it was still a pain. Was this your experience?
Lee: It was, just in terms of humping the gear around. We were humping a lot of hills and rivers and stuff. Even if we weren’t that far in, a half-a-mile or whatever over woods and rocks, it was basically just the movement of gear that was difficult. And also having the cast, in some of the shots, move over distances. It’s difficult to coordinate moving the cast back into position ‘A.’ So, if I’m like “Let’s do that take again,” if the canoes were at point ‘A’ and they’ve moved 500 yards down the river, to get that canoe back up the river takes a lot of time and energy. So…patience, patience, patience. There’s a lot of dead time when you’re doing something like that. If you’re doing the big master take, you can’t hurry that. Getting into position in the morning took longer, getting out took longer, and the individual master takes took time themselves.
Izay: As far as casting goes, I noticed that you worked with Dominic Purcell again in your upcoming film, A Fighting
Can we hear a little about that? It isn’t based on
your days as a bare-knuckle boxer, is it? Man.
Lee: (laughs) No… I really like this film. It’s basically all set in the ring. Dominic plays an older fighter, 43 years of age, whose been retired for four years. He’s not a very good fighter; he’s just never been knocked down. And he’s proud of that one thing. He comes back because he needs the money; his mother is dying and he wants to take her back to
one last time. And he ends up fighting this young kid, 20 years of age, called
King Solomon. It’s a story of the old and the young meeting in the ring, and
what they come to mean to each other. It’s a story about them earning the
respect of each other in most brutal of circumstances. Ireland
Izay: What boxing films influenced your making of A Fighting Man?
Lee: I like Raging Bull a lot. The boxing in that, at least from my perspective, leave some things to be desired. But it’s a great boxing film and very much influenced me in many ways. Also, The Champ, a Jon Voight film, another great film. But again, if you look at the boxing by today’s standards, seems to be lacking. But the heart is very substantial. That was a big film, in terms of significance of heart and spirit in the ring. The first Rocky was a great boxing film, and then I think a lot of the other ones were less boxing and something more of an event. The first Rocky was influential in many ways, and Dominic Purcell’s character certainly has echoes of Stallone’s Rocky.
Izay: What about your stylistic influences when it comes to the actual boxing? Are there films in which you do like the way they approached it?
Lee: I think I like aspects of the films. I like certain aspects of Raging Bull; I liked certain aspects of the first Rocky. Those are films that I liked certain aspects of, stylistically. I wanted to make the film quite real in terms of the coverage of the fighting. I had the fighters training in the ring, learning the choreography of the boxing four months out before the filming started. So these guys knew the boxing so well, I could film this in its entirety in a wide shot and the boxing would actually play. The trainer who was working with both fighters and acting as the primary choreographer was a great fighter himself, and I used him as the referee in the fight.
Izay: Any other projects you are working on right now?
Lee: Yeah, there are a few films. A film called Christian Soldier, which is in development. It deals with ethics in extremely violent situations. I like the potential of that, though not a lot of work has been done on that yet; and I think the title is compelling. Also a film that David Peoples wrote, that I did the last draft of. David Peoples, of course, who wrote Blade Runner and Unforgiven, so that’s a pretty substantial film. There’s a film I’ve been working on with the United Nations for the last four years; it deals with water deprivation. The word ‘news’ comes from North, East, West, South, and so I took that as a template for this film, in which there is water deprivation in different parts of the globe that become interconnected. And we have A Fighting Man in the post stage right now and my editor is Bill Steinkamp. Bill did Scent of a Woman, A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Fabulous Baker Boys; he was Sydney Pollack’s editor for twenty-years. I consider it a great privilege to be working with him as my editor and co-conspirator.
Izay: When can we look forward to seeing A Fighting Man?
Lee: I would imagine next spring. We’ll be finished before the end of this year. I think we start to mix it two months from now, and then the picture should be completely finished and we’ll be working with Sony for distribution. It’s a hell of film, really moving story. Famke Janssen is in the film, Dominic is in there, of course, James Caan, Kim Coates, Louis Gossett Jr., Adam Beach…It’s a pretty impressive cast.
Izay: I look forward to seeing that.
Lee: I want you to see it. And after you watch it, call me and let’s talk about that film.
Breakout was released on DVD on September 17th through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Also, A Dark Truth is available now on Instant Netflix, Redbox, and on DVD and Blu-ray.