Adrien Brody has always wanted to bring his childhood to life on screen. His upbringing amid the hustle and bustle of New York City inspired his new action-drama Clean, which he produced, co-wrote, scored, and stars in as a garbage man-turned-vigilante hero. By day, he fixes broken appliances and looks out for his neighbors. By night, he cleans the streets, haunted by the memories of his violent past and the loss of his daughter.
“We live in a wonderful nation, but we are afflicted by violence. I grew up in New York City in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and I saw a lot. I also grew up on a style of filmmaking from that era that profoundly affected me as an artist, and I had a yearning to tell stories in a similar fashion, with a broken heroic character that isn’t overtly heroic, in the sense of, it takes some work to actually like the guy. He has a lot of work to do, he has a lot of problems. I feel like that’s more true to life,” Brody says.
“I’ve been yearning as an actor to find a protagonist role that spoke to me and spoke to those truths.”
Clean also stars Glenn Fleshler, Richie Merritt, Chandler DuPont, Michelle Wilson, John Bianco, and Dinora Walcott. Brody’s co-writer is the film’s director, Paul Solet, with whom Brody previously worked on the 2017 crime thriller Bullet Head. Below, the Oscar winner for Best Actor for 2002’s The Pianist explains how emotional scenes on set gave way to nights at home composing the score of Clean, and the inspiration for a character he’s been dreaming about for a decade. — M.S.
As told to Margeaux Sippell
I feel that most of us can relate to, first of all, loss. Not being able to bring back something that has been lost, whatever that may be in our lives. That’s personal. And making mistakes — so a sense of accountability that is earned, but at a cost.
I wanted to represent the world around me and also play with a genre that I love, and for it to be really entertaining, but to honor and acknowledge the struggle it is for us all in this wonderful land, and the oppressive nature of violence and drugs, especially on urban communities, and the enormous hardships and challenges that children and young people, especially in impoverished communities, have to overcome.
Just finding your way out from childhood and finding your voice and who you should be and what you should be is hard enough, let alone if you don’t have a mother or father around, and you have drugs on every corner and you’ve got peer pressure and aggression towards you. And so there were all of these things, and I felt that I wanted to cook it all up and be fearless with it and entertain and have a relatable story that also honors all that I grew up witnessing and that I still struggle with. Heroes in movies are often depicted in a more superficial way. The real heroes are people like this guy who really, really has to work on so much to get through, and then musters it up. I’m not saying his methods of dealing with things are necessarily appropriate — they’re definitely not legal. But he does what he feels is right, and uses his strengths. He employs them to actually do good. There’s something really satisfying about that. All of that has been brewing within me for many years as something that I’ve been yearning to find, that I hadn’t quite found. And I set out to make it myself.
I didn’t fully have it distilled, but I had a real sense of this character and the yearnings of the character and what he’s combating against — his consumption with violence and the past. I was looking to write the story for many years and I just didn’t have the courage. I loved working with Paul Solet. He’s a wonderful writer, and he has a real sense of storytelling. I always try to find a way to bring more truth into the way the characters are depicted. Sometimes that requires altering things in discussions with the director or the writer and how we can simplify certain things or better convey certain things.
The structural composition of taking on a whole screenplay alone was too daunting. Paul has a wonderful understanding of language and technical expertise, and so that was really encouraging. We would spitball and have ideas and some would work. We’d kind of hone in on what honored the character and storytelling at the end of the day. I had a lot of violent technical things that Clean does — things that I had visualized for the character along the way and was waiting to integrate into this story, and there were other things that were a bit too elaborate for our budget.
We had to limit my imagination because I really had amazing things that I wanted him to be able to do to these bad guys. So, unfortunately, I have a very big movie in my head, but reality is not always what we imagine and we have to come to terms with that and make the most with what we have.
But that’s also part of what I wanted to have be a trait in Clean — that he is this guy who has lost so much, and then on his quest to be “clean,” so to speak, he really is putting in the work and trying to do better for society. He’s upcycling and he’s really creative. He does good and he also has this propensity for volatility and violence that he’s reining in. And when ultimately it is unleashed, he just uses all at his disposal and even with those limitations, he’s very crafty.
It was a massive undertaking, and that was just to make the movie. I’ve been making music for almost 29 years now. What I wanted to reflect was so much of what I’d seen in the world around me and the environment growing up in Queens, in these cities, in rural areas, and in upstate New York. The tone and the melancholy and the aggressiveness is something else that I processed in the music that I make. It was perfect for the film, and I just went with it.
As I was acting, I was coming home and creating tracks for it, and I came up with a theme. It was a very interesting thing because music is its own language. It’s very hard for me to describe what that process is, but it’s the way that I compose. It’s kind of a collage of sounds, and that soundscape is emotional. In the edit, you know, I made sure to layer this cacophony of this omnipresent foreboding, grinding weight that comes from city life with ever-present sirens and overheard arguments and motorcycles and trucks and exhaust and you name it — this kind of aural oppression, as well as impending aggression that’s bubbling over in between, that has come to a head. It was very exciting creatively.
It was a very challenging role. There was a lot of sadness and regret and austerity in him, and nobility. So all of that longing and the quest for finding redemption is powerful, and that definitely flowed into the sounds and the melodies and chords and the drum patterns, for that matter. This kind of grinding forward momentum and haunted quality was definitely present in it.
We elaborated upon it in post, and I ended up hiring a full orchestra to replay certain melodies that I originally started on an iPad. I had French horns playing my synth horn that I was composing in a dark room with my headphones on. Ultimately I’m having a wonderful horn player breathe life into the music. As an aspiring musician, as someone who loves music, to have that opportunity and for it to further enhance the storytelling is the most exciting part. Not only was it a great opportunity for me to also make music, it was an opportunity for me to tell a story I’ve wanted to tell for about a decade. With a character that’s swirling around in my head that I really want to bring to life. To breathe life into it with this music as another form of expression was rewarding and challenging. I felt that it was the language. It was part of the same yearning inside of me in that form of storytelling, of redemption and injustice and loss and how isolated we all feel, and the power within us. That always feels present in this film.
Clean, starring Adrien Brody, opens in theaters and on VOD tomorrow. Photos courtesy of IFC Films.
Main image: Adrien Brody in Clean.