Kwame Kwei-Armah and Abi Damaris Corbin are two writers who’ve come together to fuel the vision of John Boyega starrer Breaking. London-born Kwame has worked in several areas of the arts including broadcasting, singing, playwrighting, and acting. His screenwriting siphons from his other artistic skills. Abi Damaris Corbin had done a handful of shorts when The Suitcase (2017) received critical acclaim at Sundance. Kwame and Abi were touched by Brian Brown-Easley’s tragic story and knew they had to share it with the world. Their script is the first feature for both.
Brian’s is a tale of the forgotten, someone who got lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy and is the subject of the upcoming Breaking. The Bleecker Street release comes out in theaters nationwide on August 26, 2022, and stars John Boyega (Star Wars, Attack the Block), Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth), and Connie Britton (The White Lotus). It also marks one of Michael K. Williams's final roles.
The 2017 Longreads article “Did Brian Brown-Easley Have to Die?” that Breaking is based on chronicles what led the Marine vet to hold hostages at a bank in Atlanta. The piece showcases the struggles vets have with adapting to society again once they’re civilians. In the film, John Boyega has a great dramatic turn as Brian. He confidently channels the troubled vet and is almost unrecognizable. The movie has shades of Dog Day Afternoon and John Q and is riveting.
We recently spoke with Kwame Kwei-Armah and Abi Damaris Corbin about Breaking and they gladly shared their process for developing this real-life story.
Interview with Abi Damaris Corbin
The Suitcase's main character was an unsung hero. Do you see similarities between him and Brian?
I grew up in Boston, I'm the youngest of five, with a lot of adopted siblings on top of that who were always there. My dad worked at the post office when I was growing up. He's a vet. Because of that, I saw a lot of systems and a lot of people that felt like cogs in those systems. I find myself telling stories that show you can move the system even if feel like you're just a cog. You matter as a person. So, yes, I think there's a similarity with the themes I find myself attracted to.
How did Breaking come about?
I'd read the story about Brian Brown-Easley and as I mentioned, my dad's a vet. I knew a lot about what was going on with the VA and the struggles that Brian went through I recognized. Then I partnered with Kwame and said 'Hey, can we do this right?' We sat down with Jessica, Brian's wife. She wanted his story told. And here we are.
What was the writing process like?
It was great. Kwame has become a dear friend throughout this process. He likes to say he doesn't want to get attached to something that he won't get up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning for. We went to Atlanta together to research the story before COVID hit. We had these pretty great ideas of working together in London and L.A., sitting in rooms brainstorming together, but then COVID hit, and we had to work remotely. We woke up at a lot of weird hours to get our schedules to align. Very early mornings and late nights cowriting on Final Draft and outlining and doing voices...trying to figure out the heart of the story. I think our first draft was 200 and something pages because we used as much of the transcripts as possible.
What are the specific challenges of doing a film that's in one location?
Making sure that you progress well so the audience doesn't get sick of the visuals. That they don't get frustrated by the characters in a way that you don't want them to. That you maintain the tension. That really was a mandate for us as filmmakers, to make sure that we progress the tension.
What specifics things did you learn on this project that you'll take to your next project?
Make sure to bring good people with you. People that are dedicated, hardworking, and see the craft as what it is...a craft. And are there for the right reasons.
The Suitcase was a short, Breaking is a feature. What changes, if any, did you have to make to your writing style for writing a feature?
Make sure that your sequences are escalating. A feature film is essentially ten shorts. I ran into James Cameron at this tech thing four or five years ago. I think it was when I was doing Suitcase. I told him that I was going to direct a feature as soon as I finished this thing. He gave me that advice, that you're essentially making ten short films. You're telling a story within each one of those frameworks for your lead character that then continues to grow. I think I stripped out a lot more of my description moving into a feature because I was a lot more descriptive as a director. I wrote like a director, not like a writer. To get to a sales draft, you have to be a lot sparser.
Were you able to relate to Brian’s character in any way and if so, how?
Oh, very much so. I feel like life is filled with a lot of bad choices. So many people don't have two good choices, you have two bad ones. Brian didn't have good choices.
Who are some of your biggest writing and directing influences?
Mark Boal, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Stephen Spielberg. As far as writers, there are so many. I respect Michel Gondry, Spike Lee, Steven Soderberg.
If you had to adapt a piece of literature, what would it be?
The Three Musketeers.
Why would you pick that one?
It's a load of fun. There are characters in it that aren't fully explored on film. Although I love some of the adaptations, there are things to say. Robin Hood is another one I’d like to adapt.
Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah
What kind of research did you have to do for the film?
A lot...! We read the article, after we read the article, we went to Atlanta and walked the path that he did from his hotel room to the bank. We spoke to negotiators. We went to the TV studios. Most important, we had a transcript of everything that happened in the bank. We were able to really think about the way that Brian spoke, the way that he acted. We listened to the transcript from 9-1-1 operators. We dug deep.
How much did you know about the status of Vets in the U.S. prior to the project?
I lived in the U.S. for seven years; I lived in Baltimore. I was there during the Freddie Gray uprising. In a sad way, I'm relatively well informed about the history of this kind of brutality. However, part of the reason that I was fascinated with this piece is because I hadn't heard about it and this happened in 2017...! This is a 21st-century heist. He went into a bank, and he said why am I here? I'm here because I need to be heard. He called a TV station so that they could capture him live. Why did I not hear about this? That's part of the reason I found myself very attracted to it.
You got your start in the art with music?
I did. I began as an actor, I graduated to a writer. Moved from writing to directing. To artistic directing, then to screenwriting, then to directing film. I'm about to start directing my first film.
How does your love for and knowledge of music affect your writing?
In every way. I began as a musician. I've found in the last five years my love for the musical. It's a combination of all the things that I love. Though I don't write to music, before I begin a project, I have to understand the sonic soundscape that I'm playing with. I would listen to a lot of things from that era to get me into the groove.
You've said you feel that Brian's fight was a cerebral and spiritual fight against the system. Can you recount a situation where you felt you had to fight against the system?
That’s a great question but if I may, I'd like to politely reframe it. Can I think of a time when I did not? As a black person, as a Diasporic person, I think that is our default.
What was the most challenging act of Breaking to write?
I want to say the end, but it's not true. The most painful part was just before the end when he went to the restroom, and he prays. That was writing about a man who knew he was about to die. Getting into that "I am about to die" mode was quite hard.
You've written plays, television, and features. What are the different challenges of each?
First, let me begin with what I think the similarities are. For me, nothing exists without character. The characters are the be-all and the end-all. Do we care about them? Do we see ourselves in them? Do we wish to aspire to be them, or do we wish to run away from them? When you're writing film, it's a visual medium. When you're writing television, it's a combination of dialogue and visuals. When you're writing a play, it's all about the dialogue creating the visuals. The idea pulls the form.
How do you keep your creativity flowing on a daily basis?
By some days understanding that I'm typing and not writing, just to keep the ball moving. Knowing that when I read it back, it will trigger something. It's the discipline of just doing. There's one thing worse than having a deadline and that's not having a deadline…! When I get into the white heat of a story, I like to immerse myself in it for those first three or four weeks and get that first draft done.
How did John Boyega get attached to Breaking?
We got to the end of the first draft and the first thing Abi and I said was, 'This is John Boyega.' I happened to have given him his first job. He had one line in a play of mine in a theater in London, which I remember fondly but he says I treated him badly...! We put the call in. John was busy at that point. When it got closer to shooting, he was available.
What's Brian's main dilemma?
I think it's 'What can I do? Can I do any more to be heard?' He realizes, 'I can't.'
What's the main takeaway you want people to have from the film?
What is art? Art is there to make us look at ourselves, to hold a mirror up to ourselves to say if we like what we see, Kool and the Gang. And if you don't, what do you want to do about it? I hope an audience will take from this that we need to hear each other. There are people walking down the street in our families, in our homes, in our offices who are bombs waiting to explode. What might extinguish the fire is for them to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized.
Who are some of your influences?
The playwright August Wilson. The magnificent human being, which is Muhammed Ali. Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. And my mother.
Are you working on any other projects?
I'm about to start shooting a new movie called The Collaboration, which is about Andy Warhol and Basquiat. It was a play at my theater this year. Now we're doing the feature film. And then we're going to bring the play to Broadway this year.
How do you feel that your writing has grown since you first started?
I don’t know specifically how it’s grown. I just always want to maintain the fire that I have.