DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: A Humanist Approach To A Hot-button Topic, Nicole Kassel on “The Woodsman”
by Liza Bear
[EDITORS NOTE: Liza Bear spoke with Nicole Kassell about “The Woodsman”; the film will be released on DVD this week (April 12, 2005).]
Lead us not into temptation… And find us an apartment that doesn’t overlook a schoolyard. If there’s one practice that’s universally condemned it’s the sexual abuse of children. For her bold debut feature about a recovering child molester Nicole Kassell took a daringly humanistic approach to a hot-button subject. Securing an option to adapt Steven Fechter‘s play “The Woodsman” while still a graduate student at NYU film school [by writing the first draft on spec], she transposed the barebones minimalist play into raw, moody Philadelphia locations, the home of producer Lee Daniels [“Monster’s Ball”]. She also landed a dynamic cast anchored by dark side veteran Kevin Bacon, whose riveting intensity as lead is for many a career best. Other key roles are played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick as Vicki, Walter’s girl friend; Benjamin Bratt as Walter’s brother-in-law; Mos Def as a creepy neighborhood cop, and Hannah Pilkes, an 11-year old birdwatcher who tests Walter’s resolve. While the story is at times contrived and plot moves somewhat mechanistic, Bacon’s outstanding turn and the vibrancy of the other performances more than compensate and testify to Kassell’s remarkable assurance at the helm, as do the overall visual textures and rhythms of the film.
Released after serving 12 years for molesting preteen girls, ex-con Walter [Bacon] finds a job at a lumberyard, a supportive girl-friend Vicki and, somewhat unconvincingly, an apartment overlooking an elementary school where he spies on another child molester. The film dramatizes two key issues: Walter’s own attempts to lead a normal life in spite of his deep-seated shame, and societal unwillingness to give him a second chance. Kassell ably balances the vengeful condemnation of his co-workers, embodied in secretary Mary-Kay [Eve] with Walter’s conflicting desires. Is a new life possible for the sexual offender, and how would that happen, are questions that the film raises, with hope if not utter confidence. Nicole Kassell discussed her modus operandi as a first-time director and some of the issues raised by the film.
indieWIRE: How different is the movie from Steven Fechter’s play?
Nicole Kassell: It’s quite different but the heart is still there. All the workplace [lumber yard] scenes didn’t exist in the play. The play was very minimal. There’s just Walter on the stage, with characters entering. No set. So the character of Mary Kay [the vengeful co-worker] was created. In the course of the film, Walter’s character evolves a lot. In the play he was much more extroverted, aggressive and sarcastic. Doing the adaptation I made him much quieter and understated and internalized.
iW: Who did you imagine as Walter when you wrote the script?
NK: Because it was my first feature, I thought it would be a credit card low-budget digital film… But I had my fantasies, and Kevin Bacon was right there on my wish list.
iW: How did the character or the script change once Kevin became involved?
NK: Kevin and I sat down one-on-one and read the script together. I would play the other actor. If something didn’t ring true, he would bring it up, and if it was important to me, it was my homework to go home, think about why it was so important, and convince him or lead him to that place � or to cut it. We would go back and forth.
iW: Could you give an example?
NK: The scene we grappled with the most was the one with the girl on the park bench and ultimately we were grappling over one paragraph of dialogue. We got that down to two lines. Kevin wanted the whole paragraph to go and I had to fight for those two lines. But it was always a constructive and valuable conflict because he couldn’t have acted a scene unless he agreed with it.
iW: Was that scene [between the 11-year-old girl and Walter] in the play?
iW: Word for word, or…?
NK: No, the play was dialogue-heavy. While much of the scene in the film is Word-for-word, it’s about 5 pages shorter and simplified. But we also edited it down in the cutting room. That scene was very much the heart of the play.
iW: Was the girl’s relationship to her father also part of the play?
iW: I understand Vicki’s character wasn’t so developed in the play.
NK: Vicki was still a key character in the play but she’s more evenly dispersed throughout the film. The only scenes in the play were the bedroom scenes. Her presence in the outside world was part of the adaptation, and it was surprising to realize after we’d developed the script that it was also a love story between these two very damaged characters.
iW: Were you surprised that Walter would be able to relate physically to a woman his age?
NK: I didn’t find it surprising, but I found it essential that if Walter’s going to have any hope or if he’s going to be able to walk the straight and narrow, a key factor to his rehabilitation is being able to identify to a woman his age and have a healthy intimate relationship.
iW: Your film presents two pedophiles, one heterosexual and one homosexual. Were you worried at all about perpetuating the stereotype of homosexuals as pedophiles?
NK: No, I was worried more about people saying, “oh so the worst offender is the homosexual one.” Pedophilia affects people of all classes and genders and orientation and I wanted to reflect that in some way.
iW: Can you talk about Kevin’s style as an actor and as a person? You’ve said you were able to cut a lot of dialogue because he was so expressive…
NK: In rehearsal Kevin told me up front that he would do something a little different in each take, and that was true. Because we’d done so much work together I was able to let him go once we were rolling. If it wasn’t exactly what I wanted I would tweak it until I got what I wanted. In rehearsing he doesn’t go the full distance, he holds back a little bit, I guess to preserve the freshness of his performance when we’re shooting.
iW: “Palindromes,” “Birth…” Do you feel like you’re part of the zeitgeist of the moment?
NK: I do. In Toronto there was “Mysterious Skin,” the Gregg Araki film and Almodovar‘s “Bad Education.” I definitely feel the zeitgeist has happened. We all started writing at different phases. I started writing “The Woodsman” in 2000 [and] the playwright wrote it in 1997, so long before the Catholic church explosion. But because of the Catholic church, it was like an atom bomb for getting this into people’s consciousness.
iW: What was your reaction to Todd Solondz‘ “Happiness”?
NK: To me the most interesting part of that film was the character of the pedophile. The scene where the father tries to tell his wife what he does or might do was so heartbreaking. Personally that was the story I wanted to see told. I also looked at “L.I.E.,” but we were definitely coming at the subject from a different angle.
iW: Is rehabilitation possible? A lot of people think the leopard will never change its spots, but from your research, is that wrong?
NK: I hope so. I personally don’t want to live in a world in which I don’t believe people can change. Public opinion thinks there’s a 100% re-offending rate, but that’s not the case. The research has shown that with treatment, the recidivism rate drops drastically. Like an alcoholic can reform, I do believe an offender can, but it takes a lot, a lot, a lot of work.
iW: Could pedophiles see a reason to heal themselves after watching the film?
NK: I hope so. Walter is out of jail, he’s got a job, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s got a family that he might be mending. If an offender saw this film, hopefully they’d see that they’re not alone in their struggle, but all of these safety measures need to be in place. They need help.
iW: What are you working on now?
NK: I’m adapting an Arthur Miller play that will star Michael Douglas.