INTERVIEW: The Long-Distance Director; Todd Field Runs with "In the Bedroom"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 11.21.01) -- Todd Field talks a lot about fear: the fears involved with directing a film, the fears that revolve around showing a film, and most notably, the fears of being a parent, which in many ways form the basis for his powerful debut film, "In the Bedroom" (opening Friday). "It's the most terrifying thing," says Field, the actor-director and father of three. "You can never relax. You're always thinking, where are they? What's that bruise on his arm? Why isn't he talking? What's he upset about? Is someone hurting him? It's 24-7."
"In the Bedroom" delves into these concerns, along with such powerful human emotions as jealousy, grief, and revenge with astounding clarity. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who were awarded a special acting prize at the film's Sundance 2001 premiere, play the troubled parents of Frank (Nick Stahl), an innocent aspiring architect who falls in love with Nathalie (Marisa Tomei), a young woman with two children and an abusive ex-husband. Field, who acted for Stanley Kubrick in "Eyes Wide Shut" and Victor Nunez in "Ruby in Paradise," has undoubtedly learned a thing or two. "In the Bedroom" is as precise and potent as any film this year.
Acquired during Sundance by Miramax, and now turned into one of that company's top Oscar contenders, "In the Bedroom" took a long and winding route to completion. For months, the film's running time was up for grabs, with rumors about Harvey Weinstein taking the scissors to the negative. After all was unsaid and done, however, "In the Bedroom" remains largely unchanged from the version that screened in Park City, a testament to the film's undeniable strength and structure.
Recently, Field spoke to indieWIRE about pace, process, and the long distance haul of making movies.
indieWIRE: So the film began at New York indie companies GreeneStreet, and Good Machine, and ended up at Miramax. Is that where you foresaw it ending up?
Field: I was really fortunate to have GreeneStreet believe enough in this film to put money up for it. When we first met, I said, "I'm telling you guys right now, you have to understand what kind of movie I want to make. I won't make a Lifetime Cable movie, and this has that potential if it's not treated properly. It's important for you to understand that from the start. Because what I'd like to do has the potential to be a crummy movie. It could turn out flat as a pancake. It's a house of cards; it will either really work or it will be a disaster." And they said, "We're willing to take that risk.'" I gave up every single point in the film to get the film finished properly. I have no financial interest in the film, whatsoever. I drew no salary, nothing. But in terms of the sale, yes, I would have liked to have had a say. I was consulted about it, but at the end of the day, it's also important for me to make other movies, and I do have a very real responsibility to the people who financed this film. They took a chance on me when no one else would.
iW: So let's talk about the film. Can you talk about the movie's measured pace? The tension is unbelievable.
Field: It was either going to work or it wasn't. But it had to work that way. Because any other way would have been wrong for this story. And I had no choice. The story dictated how the execution was going to be. Was it terrifying? Yes. Whether it works or not, you don't know. You have a feeling, but you don't know until you cut it together. The first act went very quickly, the ending is easy, but the middle was just impossible. Because pace is story in a film like this and finding what that rhythm was and finding what needed to stay and go in the middle was about three weeks of neither myself or my editor sleeping very well. Every day was trying something else. And it finally came together. It was very exciting. But it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying. Because we really had no safety net; there was no coverage. I spent three days in that house and watched how the light came through. And I started to see what that house was and what that house would do for the story. But the rest of the film was mainly one shot deals and medium shots. And I shot a lot of film. For a film this size, I shot a ridiculous amount of film; I'm grateful that nobody said a word to me about it, but I shot an awful lot.
iW: You used lots of long takes, as well?
Field: It is why I burned a lot of film, because I knew I could not cut to anything else. The actors would do something really exciting and we'd refine it. I was doing multiple takes, not because I wasn't getting what I wanted, but because I was getting what I wanted, and I was greedy and I wanted more. And the actors were wonderful because they wanted more. It's great when everybody wants more.
iW: How much rehearsal did you actually do before the shoot?
Field: Only about a week. With good actors, it's enough. We rehearsed while we were shooting. Kubrick was able to work that way. Victor Nunez works almost identical, but on a short schedule. I like that. It's scary, because you're opening yourself up to chance, but it's the only way to do it. What's going to happen if an actress suddenly goes, "What if I did this?" You have to create something where that's going to happen, because that's the only thing that's going to keep you invested as a filmmaker, too, to invent things that are different.
iW: Did going behind the camera help you gain any new insight into acting?
Field: Not really, because I've been making films for 10 years now. I do think that actors have a much easier time. They're sprinters; they don't have to run so long. To film act, you're a sprinter. And to get behind a camera, you don't become a long distance runner; you become a sherpa, or a glorified janitor, in the end. You've got the whole world on your back and if the film succeeds, everyone will jump out and take credit for it. And if the film doesn't succeed, you'll get all the credit for it. It's a position that you better be secure in, because if you're looking for recognition, you're going to be sorely disappointed. It's much too exhausting. It's probably the most terrifying thing I can imagine doing.
iW: Can you talk about the film's structure? There's a definite three acts there, but it's not what we expect.
Field: Generally, act breaks are every 30 pages. And this movie isn't like that. The first moment is over about 50 minutes into the film, and the second moment is about another 50 minutes and the ending is really only 30 minutes. There is a beginning, middle and end, for sure. And that affected everything, where there was music and where there wasn't music. There really is not music in the middle. There are sounds. The middle is dead, it's still, it's quiet. It's hard for me to watch. It's really, really painful.
iW: I feel like the light in the film is as important as the editing. That opening reminded me of Terence Malick...
Field: I had an idea that I wanted to start very primary and slowly leave the color and bring the density down by the end. And we did that; we flashed the film. But I'm sure deep into my collective conscious, of course, there's Malick and others.
iW: And Kubrick does a lot with natural light?
Field: There's a real economy in terms of light. There's something great about letting the actors move. A lot of time you have no sense of reality, because there's a C-stand there. It's really nice to be able to walk on to a set and not have all these lights around. It's nice not to have so much around you. Because it's one more layer you don't have to worry about.
iW: Can you talk about how you got such depth from your actors?
Field: It's a very mysterious thing. It's all theoretical until the actors actually come in. For some actors, it's good to be completely literal, and tell them why something is the way it is and why it's going to work and what it represents. But most of the time, you don't. Most of the time you give short, succinct suggestions.
What's interesting is when you get people together. Something happens or it doesn't happen. In this case, the actors that came together are very interesting. And they're not necessarily exactly what I had in mind when I was working in the script or when I was thinking who was going to play these characters. I never thought about actors; I just thought about characters. And when they came in, they brought something. Actors are amazing. If actors are allowed to really do what they do, if they're given a certain amount of space to do that in, and if they trust you enough to do that, they're always going to take something to a much more interesting place that you can ever possibly imagine. If they didn't, if they just came in and did exactly what you imagined, it'd be a pretty pointless process.
iW: Because you are an actor, did that make the process easier?
Field: The actors knew on the show that they came first. That's a big deal, because that's rarely the case. That's the case if you work with a couple of the people that I've worked with, but most of the time, you're hanging on for your life on a set. It's not the way it used to be. 50 years ago or even 30 years ago on a film set -- when there weren't "independent" films -- part of the joy of a studio film was that these people knew each other and worked together all the time. And they knew actors are not normal people. And that's why we want to watch them. And they have a way of working that's really mysterious. And you leave them alone. You respect the fact that you need to create a safe, quiet place around them, because you're enabling something intense to happen.
I've worked on sets as an actor where you see people raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes, 'Oh, the actors.' So desperate to be liked, some actors will be buddy-buddy with everybody on the crew and they really phone their work in, because that's their way of coping with feeling unsafe and feeling judged. If you walk on to a set where you rule the set in a respectful way, not in a tyrannical way, and no one's going to mess with you and you are not going to move on until you're really happy, you tend to work better as an actor. It's a very strange way to make a living, it's a very peculiar thing, there's no way to put a value on it and that's why it's exciting.