Like so many indie movies, “Wakefield” was something of a miracle for writer-director Robin Swicord. It’s been more than eight years since “The Jane Austen Book Club” (an average statistic for women directors); in the meantime she received an Oscar nomination for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (she shared story by credit with Eric Roth). But for “Wakefield” to happen required infinite patience and no small amount of luck.
Swicord sent “Wakefield” over the transom to Telluride co-director Tom Luddy. “He loves the interesting movie,” she said. “He has broad taste, a love for European movies. I felt when I was cutting ‘Wakefield,’ ‘We are making an interesting, strange movie.'”
When she arrived to world premiere the film on Friday for her first Telluride, Swicord had just finished tweaking and coloring all the visual effects fixes to lock the film, which had never been screened anywhere. And it played well at Telluride; several buyers are interested (I hear Sony Pictures Classics and Roadside Attractions), but UTA seller Rena Ronson is waiting to see how to plays to more audiences in Toronto.
Here’s what Swicord did right.
Go with material that hooks you.
Writer E.L. Doctorow let Swicord option his 2008 New Yorker short story. And then he kept his faith in her, through his death last summer. “When you’re reading on your own and you come across something,” she told me over coffee at Telluride, “it’s a feeling. Something hooks into your sternum below the heart. You ignore that at your peril, it’s where the real work is, there’s something yummy in there.”
Trained as a photographer and writer, with credits that include “Little Women” and “Practical Magic,” Swicord has always been an observer. “Wakefield” shows us a tightly wound suburban businessman (Bryan Cranston) who returns late from the city on the train and crashes in the garage rather than go inside the house. He watches his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters with binoculars through the window as days, weeks, and months go by. He forages in garbage bins and dumpsters for provisions, and reacts to what he sees next door with running commentary. We wonder what will he do next, when he will get caught, and how far is he willing to go.
Let your movie be weird.
While “Wakefield” conjures up the suburban ennui of “The Swimmer” or “Rabbit Run,” Swicord embraced the story’s idiosyncrasies. And Swicord was willing for her lead character to be unlikable. “I have resisted the tyranny of the likable protagonist for a long time,” she said. “It infects and hurts Hollywood movies.”
She was intrigued by the “tension between wanting to be in a family surrounded by your tribe, and protected, to have every day be the same and be able to relax and do your life,” she said,” and the ennui that comes, and the need to escape, the adventures that we imagine await us when we step out. Most people feel some version of that at different points in their lives, I felt it a lot. I’ve wanted to freeze the world and go about my business unobserved, do what I wanted to do, read what I want, put off the math test forever. I’m interested in the mutability of identity. Are people able to change? There was a lot there, not all explored, as well as the portrait of a marriage.”
Wait for the right star.
Swicord had a hard time getting her script financed, and tried to avoid going with the wrong big names overseas, “because you end up with an actor who sees a great part and wants to do it, but now you have another thing on your hands that was not the intention,” she said. Swicord felt that her scripts were going to the bottom of the pile. “I know my place,” she said. “My name doesn’t move the needle at all. I’ve tried to get a couple of others made in the last eight years. It’s not easy to attract a male cast with a female director.”
Luckily, Cranston connected to “Wakefield” just as his stock was rising. As they waited for his schedule over a year and half to open, he became even more valuable. And producers Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, and Wendy Fetterman were able to bring in angel investors from Broadway to pay for the movie.
By the time “Wakefield” got made, its tiny budget and shooting schedule grew bigger, even if it was still shot in 20 days for well under $5 million. All thanks to Cranston’s global bankability after “Breaking Bad” and his Oscar-nominated turn in “Trumbo.”
Nurture your crew.
Swicord met her 29-year-old cinematographer, Andrei Bowden-Schwartz, when he was a friend of her daughter’s at Wesleyan. She encouraged him to join the union and log credits on indie features. Then she partnered him with a 79-year-old gaffer who knows all the tricks in the book. She had crew members from “The Revenant” willing to help her make her small budget sing. And she had more fun with creating shots and placement and mood and color palette with this film than she did on “Jane Austen,” which was all about getting coverage of a sprawling Middle American ensemble. “I had more time to make decisions on how to tell the story with the camera,” she said. “On this one we could paint with light and decide on a different palette in creating a mood and feeling.”
Go with what’s fake.
They hired one guy who worked on hundreds of tweaks that dribbled in over the summer of editing. If there wasn’t enough snow on a given day, they matched it in post. If it stopped raining in the afternoon, he added CG water drops. If they needed Cranston to look younger for a flashback, he erased some wrinkles. Swicord got a kick out of creating a fake moving Metro train with lights and gimbals and sound. Said Swicord, “We needed, in order to make a movie that looks this good for the amount of money we had, for everyone to be at the top of their game.”
Swicord is busy; with Terry George, she wrote his latest movie, “The Promise,” an acquisition title that will premiere at Toronto, and she’s writing a movie for HBO. But will she have to wait another eight years to direct, or is the climate improving for women?
“I feel like we have potential for a shift in that, as people are becoming more aware of the unconscious bias that permeates everywhere, not just the movie business,” she said. “Because they are now doing this weird thing where if they have a whole group of women in a movie, then they’ll go, ‘We should be looking at women directors for this.’ They didn’t used to do that. It’s insane that we have this special category of movie over here with girls in it, so we’re thinking about a girl to direct. I definitely want to make ‘Wakefield’ and then ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ I’ve been writing roles for women my whole career, but I want to defy the current: ‘Just don’t put me in your stupid box! I’m an artist. Give me something yummy to do and I’ll do it. And it doesn’t need to be coded pink or blue, for god’s sake!”
“Wakefield” debuted at the Telluride Film Festival.