“TÁR” has a lot going on. Director Todd Field’s first feature since 2006’s “Little Children” is an immersive acting showcase for Cate Blanchett, who plays the revered Lydia Tár as if her life depended on it. As the composer overseeing a symphony in Berlin when a scandal derails her career, Blanchett inhabits the character in every scene with stunning precision. Unlike Field’s previous work, the movie is a slow-burn immersion into Lydia’s world that often verges on documentary when it isn’t an unsettling psychological thriller or a pitch-black comedy of errors.
Beyond all that, “TÁR” is a treatise on modern times. Lydia’s experiences with social media and repercussions for her actions register as an angry response to the age of accountability. Yet even as the movie premiered to raves Venice and Telluride, Field and Blanchett have been careful about how much they have addressed these issues in limited press for the movie.
This week, as “TÁR” made its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release, the movie’s director and star sat down with IndieWire at the Whitby Hotel to dig into the themes that emerge from Lydia’s story and how they address contemporary circumstances. They also spoke about the broader challenge of making movies with a theatrical audience in mind.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: This movie is saying a lot about the world we live in today. It must be hard to discuss in interviews.
Cate Blanchett: There’s so much to talk about.
Todd Field: There’s a lot to talk about.
CB: Yet it’s one of the hardest movies I’ve ever had to talk about, because it’s so hard to define. It’s about so much.
So much about “TÁR” is built around Cate’s performance. Todd, how much did your initial script change as a result of her involvement?
TF: I sent Cate the script and I’d written the script for her. I didn’t really have to any language to give her. It just started a very immediate, rich conversation between the two of us in September 2020 and we’re still having it.
CB: The character came out of those rich conversations. When I read it, I was so daunted by the ask of it — not just what was necessary to play the character, but also the depth of questioning in the screenplay and my relationship to it, which kept shifting depending on which scene we were shooting or which relationship we were focused on that day.
When the cast started to come together, Nina Hoss elevated it yet again. Then Hildur Guðnadóttir got involved to do the music, and I thought it doesn’t get much better than this. My job was not just to rise to the occasion of the screenplay but the quality of the people I was working alongside.
Did you bring Lydia Tár home with you?
CB: Well, the pandemic was still on and my kids were not as free to come and go. It was really very lonely in a strange way, and running a major cultural institution is a very lonely experience. That was life imitating art. There was much to do in terms of the conversations that Todd and I were having. As we got on, we would occasionally have the odd dinner. In a film that is asking big metaphysical and existential questions, it was a very practical experience. The night before he’d be prepping and talking about what needed to be done the next day. Yet when we were working with the Dresden orchestra, I woke up with my hand in the air, moving sound.
TF: We even tried to bring that into the film. There was a certain point where we had her do that.
CB: Work dreams. We’ve all had those.
Where do you fall on Method acting? Did you try to stay in character between scenes?
CB: There were some parts of the character’s situations or intensity of the focus that I didn’t quite drop in between setups. I don’t know if it’s from spending years and years onstage, but I have the ability to be objective and subjective simultaneously. You have to know where the camera is: OK, I’ve got to rotate more than three quarters because otherwise you’re not going to see into my eye and that’s really important.
At the same time, you have to allow this thing to flow through you. Todd always has the camera in the right position. So when he was setting up, I saw the position of the camera as a proscenium: If I stand stage-right, it’s going to mean something profoundly different than if I’m center-stage left. You were very generous about letting us know what the frame was so we know how best to use it.
I don’t know if you find this, Todd, but for me, it’s not so much that you take the character home each night. It’s more about you focus on when you’re walking on the street at night during the odd day off we had. I would hear things differently. I’d come into a room and notice the curtain as opposed to the bathroom. Your focus shifts.
TF: The whole world starts talking at you based on the thing you’re working on.
CB: Which is a privilege, because you are seeing the world from a different point of view.
And that point of view deals with a very sensitive subject in this movie — essentially cancel culture. The character is put on public trial due to reports about her behavior. How much did you see this story as a microcosm of larger issues?
TF: The classical music world is a rich and interesting one for me, but in terms of the story, it’s a backdrop. It could’ve been any kind of pyramid scheme, any kind of power structure. It could’ve been a multinational corporation or an architectural firm. Pick your poison. In all our conversations, we talked about this examination of power — how we look at power and how we decide the way we look at it.
CB: And who benefits from it.
TF: If you really want to talk about power and the long reach of history — the abuse and complicity of power, how it corrupts, all these clichés we’ve grown up with — you have to reckon with the idea that there is no black or white. To find the truth of something requires a little more rigor.
There’s a scene where Lydia is a guest lecturer at Juilliard, where she takes a young student to task for resisting Beethoven and Mozart because they were white men with questionable personal lives. Was this based on something real?
TF: I have friends that teach and that’s one of the inspirations behind the scene. There’s another bigger idea behind it, which is what you would tell your younger self. The student is representative of who Lydia Tár was coming out of Harvard at 24, wanting to push the boundaries, wanting to do experimental music, wanting to bust up the establishment, but she’s gotten past that. She’s at another point in her life. It’s like she’s saying, “Yes, there’s this, but it’s not mutually exclusive.”
It doesn’t go very well for her.
TF: In terms of talking about power in a more thorough way, what’s potentially troubling is when conversation is extinguished and we don’t have the ability to walk in one another’s shoes. I don’t need to be a cobbler to understand whether my shoes fit or not. We all have the ability to try to see someone else’s point. My older son wanted to go study rhetoric at Berkeley. It’s one of the oldest schools in America where you can do that. The idea of debate as a healthy part of social discourse is so fundamental to Western civilization and the idea that it would be extinguished or somehow neutered is frightening.
Cate, when did you start to be more cautious about how you discussed ideas in public?
CB: I’ve always been cautious about interfacing with the media. I’ve always been very private. There are not a lot places where you can have nuanced debate about complicated issues. We haven’t even processed what’s called “The Black Lives Matter #MeToo Moment.” What do you mean? It’s not over. We’re still living through this.
A huge part of that process is rage. If it’s channeled correctly — if heard and understood and listened to — rage is a really, really important transitional tool and is totally understandable. I feel like we’re in a moment of profound transition, which is terrifying for some people. But we’re used to the churn of change because we’re making things.
How do you feel about the way people, as well as storytelling, can be judged through a moral framework?
CB: I think there are certain behaviors that are intolerable. But when it comes to things like banning books, you have to understand the context under which these books were written, even if they may not be your taste. You may find them offensive, but let’s talk about why. I’m much more interested in igniting the conversation with people who think differently than shutting the conversation down.
TF: It’s the times we live in. This is not a social treatise on this moment we’re having. It’s an interesting conversation to have. That scene in the classroom is just the reality of what we live in. The important part of this scene for that character is having a conversation with herself that she’s not successful at having.
CB: She’s been trying to sweep it under the rug. We’ve been talking about origin stories a lot – the connections that conductors have to their mentors is incredibly important in cementing their unassailable right to play their music. But a lot of Lydia’s origin story is invented. So what does that mean? Does she not have a true connection to her origin story or does this one allow her access to a space that unleashes her talent?
When you first started getting attention for your roles…
CB: Did I make shit up? [laughs]
Or feel like you were being judged in ways that were beyond your control.
CB: It sounds a bit like a copout to say that it was a different landscape, but it was that. I came to making films very late. In dog years, my career was almost over as an actress. My first role was when I was 25. I didn’t expect it to continue. I thought I had five years. I thought at 35 that they put you out to pasture as an actress. That’s certainly changed. That’s because women are at the helm more. They’re not the exception anymore. There are a lot of female-driven narratives. I hate that term. I think there are a lot of good women making good shit that’s being seen. They’ve always made it.
TF: If you look at the birth of Hollywood, the great filmmakers that are long-forgotten are female, as were the great screenwriters and editors. There was a shift in Hollywood after the pre-Code days where it became much more patriarchal. But the origins of Hollywood and narrative filmmaking really began with women.
CB: But it was also international. I think one of the world’s greatest filmmakers was Larisa Shepitko. She only made a handful of films, but my god, I can’t unsee the movies that she’s made.
Getty Images for FLC
Since you bring it up, does this mean you plan to work with more women directors?
CB: It’s so random what we end up doing. A lot of it has to do with family and time and who approaches you and when you’re available. It was immaterial to me what gender Todd was. It was just the conversation.
Todd, it’s been 16 years since you made your last movie. How much has the industry changed since then?
CB: You used to do interviews on phonograph, didn’t you?
TF: Direct to disc. [laughs] I mean, nothing has changed about making a movie. I think the world for cinema-goers has changed drastically in a way that I probably needn’t add to. Other people have said it at least as well or better than I could and have been attacked or inflamed for it. But let’s put it this way. I went out to tech theaters in New York today and it was really depressing. Super depressing.
Because of the projection quality?
TF: No. At the beginning of the pandemic a lot of us put in what we could to try to support independent repertory houses, the arthouses in America. We knew that since their margins were so close anyway that there was a good chance they’d close up and die. Should that happen, we’re all in real trouble.
We’re very lucky we have a place like the New York Film Festival 60 years and going or a place like the San Francisco Film Festival that’s the oldest film festival in America, but most people can’t get to those things. What about having a single-screen house you can go to? They’re disappearing. So now you’re showing a film somewhere with paper-thin walls where you’ve got a different kind of movie bleeding over into your house, with seats that you can’t really sit in, screens that aren’t maintained, and an infrastructure that has no love at all. You’re a long way from New Yorker Films or something like that.
CB: But go and see this movie in the cinema! [laughs]
TF: I may be sitting here shilling for this movie, but this is something that absolutely has to be addressed: the fact that there is not a standard. It’s one thing to rail on about the death of film and how we have to keep the photochemical process alive, but that’s just a line item that’s not going to happen anymore. I can tell you that from shooting advertising.
Because it’s too expensive?
TF: It’s not. We used to make $100,000 Roger Corman movies and the line item budget that was expected was that we were shooting on film, we’re doing dual mag, we were in the bar afterwards with the crew, we’re watching that together as a group, we’re getting off on that and shooting the next day. It was an accepted part of doing business. It’s just that it’s not accepted anymore. That’s why film died. It wasn’t supported. By the same token, we have a dying arthouse community.
CB: It’s unsupported.
TF: It’s a broken infrastructure to actually go and see cinema. I’m not just talking about end-of-year cinema. I’m talking about world cinema. I’m talking about being able to see things with a collective community and walking out and feeling different. I remember reading this book about Kieślowski where he said he resented that people always said theater is a different kind of collective experience but not film. He said that’s bullshit. You come in and you feel that energy in the room. The only difference is the performers. If you want people to go to the cinema, to have an immersive experience and sit together with other people, you had better give them the opportunity to do that properly.
Cate, you often serve as a producer on your projects through your Dirty Films banner. I was sorry to hear that you won’t be making an adaptation of “A Manual for Cleaning Women” with Pedro Almodóvar.
CB: Well, look, it’ll happen in some other form. I adore Pedro and totally respect him. He’s got to work in the language he feels like he can thrive best in. Maybe we’ll make something better. It just won’t be that.
How does your awareness of the fragile ecosystem for getting films made and released impact the work you do as a producer?
CB: My husband and I produced many, many shows a year when we were running the Sydney Theatre Company. Working on films is just an extension of that. It’s just a different medium. But you have to be really careful. Some films can still live and breathe on equal measure on a small screen and some can’t. You have to be really careful who you partner with from the get-go. That’s the idea of the creative producer: someone who has grown up on-set, who understands how a script is developed, and how a movie is made. But they also have a financial sense and ability to understand where to place that movie and distribute it. That role is a dying art, and it’s why a lot of actors and directors are stepping into it.
They’re invested in the success on a creative level.
CB: They know they have to care for the thing from soup to nuts. A lot of times, things are just thrust out, and it’s immaterial to the producer what screen it’s placed on or what the rollout is. When you’ve been in the industry for a while, you’ve seen the ups and downs, not necessarily because of the quality but simply how projects have been handled. I’m quite passionate about being involved in that. I do care about what I make. Sometimes it doesn’t work. No one tries to make a bad movie, but if it’s good, you want to know that it has a fighting chance of finding an audience.
Focus Features releases “TÁR” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 7 followed by a national expansion.