"As a director, my job is to hire the right people, and make sure I give them the space to be able to do their best work," says Abi Damaris Corbin, who makes her feature directorial debut with Breaking. The drama tells the true story of former Marine Corps Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, who, on a hot summer day in 2017, walked into a bank in the Atlanta suburbs and handed the teller a note that read: "I have a bomb."
Brown-Easley, who was honorably discharged after serving in Iraq, relied on disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and, when they withheld those benefits, he was left desperate. He had no intentions of robbing the bank; he only wanted the $892 that the VA owed him. Breaking is a complex portrait of a broken system, and a man who just wants to be heard — a demanding role for the actor who would portray him. Corbin found that actor in John Boyega.
"I really had to say, 'This is someone who's got a lot to give. How do I craft a space in which he gives?'" explains Corbin (who co-wrote the script with playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah). "John and I went through the script line-by-line, scene-by-scene, and we built a foundation together." Unable to rehearse in person due to COVID restrictions and wanting to avoid Zoom readings, she decided, "I have to find another path to create honesty and rawness."
Filming took place over five weeks in the summer of 2021 under strict pandemic protocols. The story largely unfolds inside the bank, between Boyega's Brian Brown-Easley and the two tellers he takes hostage, played by Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva. The director and her cast wound up using the obligatory social distancing to their benefit. "Because Brian is pretty separated, we kept John pretty separated from the women. And then, we let the chemistry unfold on set."
"I kept as much of the crew out as possible, so it felt very much like it was just the three of them," Corbin adds. "Keeping people out of the eyelines — not for actor drama, but literally just for the craft."
The movie also captures the response outside the bank, with the late Michael K. Williams co-starring as a hostage negotiator, Connie Britton as a local news producer, and Olivia Washington as Brian's ex-wife. Much of their interactions with Boyega's character take place through phone calls, but Corbin says, "We made sure that when John is on the phone, he's not just talking to a random scripty or A.D. He's actually performing against Mike — and that doesn't happen often! Mike is in 100-something degree weather in the Valley, sitting in a room right outside of the bank that had no air conditioning, so that he could be there for John."
"It was all about capturing the humanity, and making sure that the art of what we were doing never got in the way of it."
"The magic that you see in John's performance, that's craft. There is a little Boyega magic, let's be real, but that's straight-up John using his craft, Mike using his craft, and them just letting the energy flow between them," she continues, "and us not stopping when we know there's more to give. When there's more truth to uncover."
Breaking premiered during this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast (U.S. Dramatic Competition). Corbin sees that as a triumph for more than just her actors, but also her crew whose work behind the camera highlighted the humanity in the actors' performances, from cinematographer Doug Emmett, to editor Chris Witt, to each crewmember in every department who "felt the weight of this story."
"For me, it was all about capturing the humanity, and making sure that the art and the craft of what we were doing buoyed that and never got in the way of it," she explains. "Because that's the heart of the film — if you see Brian, you'll see the other person on the street who you pass, and then, it's not about politics. It's about the heart underneath it."
By John Boone