12 November 2006

Before Children: Todd Field on In the Bedroom (2001)

IN THE EARLIEST MOMENTS OF In the Bedroom, [2001] Todd Field's first feature as a director, he and cinematographer Antonio Calvache suggest a paradise of ordinariness. Two lovers come into focus amid rills of green grass. The postcard-romantic fuzziness gives way to a glimpse of simple happiness. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is lanky-haired, tatter-jeaned, lazy-grinning at his good fortune. He is lost in this sunny moment on this Maine hillside with the barelegged, summer-skirted Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei). You see them together and you do not think, he is barely out of his teens, she is in her late twenties or early thirties. You think: here they are in their now. The moment is as wispy as dandelion fluff, transfixing in its tenderness. We will learn that she is a single mother, working in a convenience store, eager to avoid her sometimes-violent ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother). Richard will be stuck in their small coastal town forever. He resents Frank for all he has ahead of him: his youth, prospects as a potential architect, college, Natalie. Happiness. Why can't we all know Natalie's smile at the younger, kinder, brighter star shining in front of her? Frank's parents have their qualms, but the summer has only begun. School will separate the pair, and passion will fade. A Special Jury Prize for acting was awarded at Sundance to Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as Frank's seemingly content, taciturn mother and father. They heal wounds, he as a local doctor, she as a high- school chorus leader. The two actors excel at what can only be called eloquent silence: instants that allow you to read their emotional history without going through motions that are merely illustrative.

Of course, things change. This is a drama, and good, proper drama demonstrates to us the particulars of life's hard choices, ones that we hope we can confront effectively, or certainly more effectively than our seconds on screen. Let their actions ask questions to which we have no ready answers. Nothing will ever be the same again may have been the freshly minted cliché after September 11, yet shouldn't most of us wake each morning with that thought in mind? Nature's way is never to be the same. History, conflict, our family, our friends, our lovers, our bodies, our lives. Of course, our reception of any given movie changes in relation to where and when we see it. In the Bedroom (co-written with Robert Festinger) is more relevant now than earlier in 2001, as it questions the rash act, the steadfast moment, the act of retribution that can change the course of your life in a single deadly instant.

Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, primarily in the film's concluding act, In the Bedroom manages to be several things, including thriller, melodrama and most affectingly, a masterful, mournful family portrait that diligently confronts ideas about loss and grieving. In the Bedroom's measured pace, stylistic rigor and aching performances mark the 37-year-old Field, who has co-written or directed several shorts before, as a talent to watch. Additional viewings of the film make the subject of a career almost beside the point: This is a film to watch.

Best known as an actor in films such as Ruby in Paradise or Walking and Talking, rather than as a still photographer or as an American Film Institute graduate, Field often demurs when asked to cite his influences, hoping that his fervently spoken, articulate passion will not mark him as some sort of film geek. Whether speaking of the weeks spent working with Stanley Kubrick on the role of mysterious pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut or how Kieslowski's Decalogue not only changed his idea of what film could be, but what his life must be, Field is both student and teacher. This interview focuses on the insights he offers into the emotional content of "In the Bedroom." All of his discursive knowledge of photography and film history is brought to bear on one of the most shattering, most human stories you will see all year. A coil of cigarette smoke, an irksome bandage, a reaction to a sudden shout. There are 136 minutes of such carefully selected images and performances. Field has a command of telling imagery and composition, which he will discuss after modest prodding, but those are discoveries for the eye to make. This interview contains spoiler warnings: the film's shifts reward the unknowing.

PRIDE: What were the dangers in making a film with this kind of stylistic austerity?

FIELD: I was afraid that it would turn into a movie of the week. That was my biggest fear. So I wanted to be able to explore something that interested me for a couple of reasons, in a way that I tried to make clear, immediately, to the people who were financing the film. I knew they'd probably say, "Why are you spending so much time here, why are you doing five set-ups on this scene? Come on, get on with it." I knew the film would either be effective on some level or it would be a horrible disaster. There was no in-between. It was either going to work on some level or it was going to be really flat and awful.

PRIDE: Just a little pressure for the first-time feature director.

FIELD: Yeah, but you need to have something like that. It's a performance piece. There's an inherent amount of tension you build by not cutting and by trying to let actors work. I as a viewer, at least, tend to invest more in a story the less manipulated I feel, the more I feel that I'm either sitting or standing in a room. When I was at the American Film Institute, I had this very strong set of rules that I never would discuss with anyone, but really specific rules. One was that the camera was either standing, sitting or walking. You should never be aware of the camera unless you are heightening something for a very, very good reason.

PRIDE: There's a scene, however, where two of the most reserved, the most emotionally taciturn characters, played by Wilkinson and Spacek, have a blow-out. It's powerful, and the camera is thrashing all over the place.

FIELD: Yeah. Well, you've got about 45 minutes of absolute rock-hard stillness where the camera does not move at all. For a number of reasons, I needed the camera to be free. I suppose I could have done it with a Steadicam or something but I'm not crazy about that. It was just handheld, the whole thing. I'd worked with my operator before, many times. I wanted there to be a sense of freedom. We blocked that scene out over the course of a very long time, Sissy and Tom and I alone in the house. Then we did it again for the crew. But I wanted to leave them open to chance in terms of their movements. Practically speaking, also, it is a very small space. I mean, that is a practical house, a real kitchen, and that kitchen is intensely small. If you lock a camera down, the only way to give them room to move would be on something like an 18mm lens, which, unfortunately, gives some aberrations in the corner and the potential for distortion. It's also not a very pretty lens to have on when you're doing some emotional... there's too much affect in that lens. The camera had to be free. It wasn't a choice to make it jittery. The operator had to hold it for a very long time. I tried to shore up a lot of time, as much time as possible, on a ridiculously short schedule, for that sequence. And we did it many, many, many, many times. There's only so long you can hold a full camera package on your shoulder, you get total fatigue. But that scene is the beginning of the next movement of the plot [so we had to get it right.] Then we'd got back onto a regular dolly. And my operator is about five feet tall, he'd just about had it! A lot of it just had to do with a human being as opposed to a tripod.

PRIDE: Did you learn this from working on sets or from watching films?

FIELD: The directors that I always really admire, some of them are really underappreciated. My theory on it was because they always did their job so well. They never called attention, "Hey Mom, I'm directing, look at this type of crane shot." They were always more interested in the fact they were telling a story about human beings and they would do everything they could do to stay out of the way of that. Like Alan Pakula, Victor Nunez, and a lot of foreign directors. I'll just sound like a clichéd film student if I name their names. It wasn't about that for them, it was about telling stories. Which is not to say they weren't competent in terms of their craft, but any 12-year-old kid can draw a very elaborate storyboard sequence from comic books, and almost anyone can go out and execute it and move the camera simply to move the camera and be very entertaining and hold your interest. There's no trick in that. But if you really want to jump off a cliff, and that's the only reason to make films, there should be no net. And you move the camera around, it's a big net. It's why it makes executives a lot more comfortable when they see dailies, "Oh good, he's moving the camera, okay, all right. Okay, well, a moving shot cuts into another moving shot, oh yeah, we'll be fine, we'll make a montage." But when you don't do any of that, you're naked. It's either going to work or it's not going to work, and if you fail, god! You fail. You fail so badly. But if it works, it's magic. And you hope nobody sees it, you hope it helps pull them in, especially for a drama, especially for a performance piece that's going to live and die by how these people inhabit these characters. It's a performance piece or it's really nothing. This isn't a director's piece.

PRIDE: Why these actors?

FIELD: I came to them pretty late. I thought of people that I knew in these roles. They're all based on, for the most, people I know very well, my neighbors or family. I never thought of actors until we started to cast. Then it became really clear that someone had to be really truly amazing to play Ruth, but I also wanted someone known. The financiers didn't make me do that, they actually let me cast anyone I want, and when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Which is pretty amazing. But I really wanted Sissy. I never thought she would do it. But I sent her the script and two days later she called me, and we kept talking and talking and she signed on. She was the first person to sign on.

PRIDE: Why her?

FIELD: She has a certain gravity to her as an actress and she really has this ability to convince herself and disappear. She's done so many different roles. I would never say, "Oh that's a Sissy Spacek role." She has always surprised me. I grew up watching her and I've always been fascinated with her, and with her as a human being. She checked out of Hollywood and decided to raise her family. She's an intensely strong woman, and that's who this character really is in her own way. And you can't take your eyes off of her! Every performance I've ever seen from her, it's ten balls in the air. There's always something in between. This character could have very easily become a one-dimensional character without someone who could do that.

PRIDE: Just about every actor in the film has a moment of intense stillness. They hold things in reserve. They don't speak. We see, as it were, the wheels turning. Are you interested in those moments of in-between-ness?

FIELD: I suppose so. And probably from years of being a film actor. Generally, film acting--that's an oxymoron, actually--most of the time you're frustrated because for whatever reason, most of that stuff is what ends up on the floor. And that sort of moment is what we're really trained to do as actors. It's not the other thing. There's very few filmmakers who I've worked with who are interested in that, and when I've worked with them, it's been so exciting because they understand that the interesting things in life are always the in-between stuff, the things we aren't saying to each other. It's always the subtitles of our life, you know, it's never really what we say. Words are really something to be gotten past. They can serve a dual purpose; they can be going against what you're trying to do. But quiet is something—for some reason people who make movies are afraid. In music nobody seems to be afraid of that. If you go to see an orchestra, a night of Beethoven or something... I went to the Hollywood Bowl for the first time about a month ago with my wife and there's this 45-piece orchestra and you know it's coming, you're just like, "Come on, get there, get there, get there," and they're holding back and it's just pianissimo the whole time. There’s something about it, so intensely exciting. So much more exciting than when they finally, RRRRAWRRR! It's when they're holding back and you can feel it bubbling under. But, you know, if you're trying to do that in a film, you have to have people who are a 45-piece orchestra. That have so much going on, they can fill that silence. Even though it appears very simple, like they're doing nothing, they're so much going on inside of them, you don't have a flat line. It would be death to let a lot of actors do nothing... or be still.

PRIDE: But then in your film, you have a scene between Marisa and Tom, she's working at the convenience store, he wants any sort of excuse to make some sort of connection with her after the horrible thing that happens. The scene is just them hesitating around each other, and when he leaves the store, you hold on her and it's the most remarkable passage of acting.

FIELD: There's nothing really that he can say and there's nothing really she can say other than there's some desire to acknowledge what they've both been through. You can't say anything. That's the thing about grief. You can't say anything about it. Words are so inadequate.

PRIDE: There are a lot of cross-purpose, interrupted conversations as well.

FIELD: Yeah. And also just because... I've, I lost someone, I've been through a very long period of grief with my wife's family, she lost her brother. Just stories that people tell! I mean, often when you go through an experience and you lose someone, you end up comforting the other person that's coming to you more than yourself. [If you are grieving,] you will never get comforted, because it's much more comforting for you to say, "No, no, it's okay, it's all right," because what can they possibly say to you? You're not going to get over something like that.

PRIDE: Grief isn't something you can talk about, because you don't know what it is. You're experiencing it before you know what it is. Your characters are doing things, and they don't know why.

FIELD: Right. The points of your compass are completely off. You haven't... There's nothing, it's completely natural in one way, but it's a completely unnatural state of existence. You look at ancient cultures and they have all kinds of rituals to get through grief. Which is very practical. You know, we do dancing, we'll take this leap, then we'll have an hallucinogenic experience, we'll go up to the mountain and we'll sweat it out, whatever. They understood that intrinsically, you have to take some sort of action to push it through, where you're not going to get over it, but you're going to cross through this threshold because until you do, it can be so unbelievably strange and you can't do anything. You're frozen in your grief. The weird thing is that when finally a door opens in grief, it can be at the most unbelievable moment, for no reason you can really grab onto. There was a screening in late August and this woman came up to me in a hotel lobby. She grabbed me, and she said, "I saw the film and I wanted to talk to you." I said, "Okay." She said, "I had a couple of questions about these two things, they were minor points." I said, "What do you think? And she said, "Well, I think this." I told her I'd agree with that. The second, the same thing. I could tell she really didn't want to talk about that. Then she started crying. Really crying. And I held her. And I said, "What's wrong? And she said, "My mother was murdered two months ago and I can't talk to anyone. I saw the film, and I understand, I feel so angry. But I don't want to talk to anyone! I said, "I just made a film. I have no answers. Nobody has any answers. This is just something you're going to have to bear yourself, and it's going to be really hard." It struck me. I felt so helpless. That's what people feel in grief. Both parties feel so helpless. You're not the person who's grieving if you're a loved one or a stranger or a friend or whoever. There's *nothing* you can do. And if you're the person who's grieving? There's nothing you can do. It's such a strange thing. There's no formula for grieving.

PRIDE: This is a hard film to talk about without giving things away, and it would be great for people to see it cold. Still, some people are going to be identifying the actions that the characters rashly take, like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice dismissing the film as being "granolaDeath Wish," taking the father's actions as vigilantism.

FIELD: Well, it's not… I don't think... It's not the answer. I probably shouldn't explain this. It's so not the answer. The generation being portrayed is a generation removed from the generation I was thinking of. Which is really my parents' generation. They never talked. They never had a fight like in the film in their entire marriage. Were they to say those things to each other, they' wouldn't recover. In my generation, we can make up, make love, go have dinner, we might do that three times a year and that's a healthy relationship. But for their generation, with the things they say to each other about their shortcomings, that's the most violent scene in the film. That fight. That's the violence, the fight between those two characters, because of who they are. When she says to him, "He kept smiling," and he says, "Maybe it felt like he did," the viewers know that he didn't. Something happens. Some conversation we weren't privy to. I don't believe that man would ever have taken that action. The two of them become a third character out of that discussion and that's how the action was taken. And clearly, oh God help them, that is the worst possible thing they could do. It's over! It's personally over for him and it's over between the two of them. They're dead! They've effectively murdered themselves! There is no satisfaction in that act. There is none. He's violated nature and removed himself from it forever. If they could have just talked, 45 minutes earlier, maybe they could have figured something out. It's such a gross case of overcompensation for crossing a boundary in a marriage. It's horrible. It's terrible.

PRIDE: So why go to sorrow if they could have spoken?

FIELD: Because, honestly, that's what's in the short story. Although in the short story, where it works effectively, there is a sense of satisfaction for them in the end. But that would have been arch, and I didn't believe that's who these characters are. The name of the short story is "Killings," and I always took that to mean that there are three killings, the son, the ex-husband, then there's themselves. That's really what it is. For them to reconcile and to be okay again, it goes back to my M.O.W. comment, it would have been great for everything to be hunky-dory again, but that wouldn't have been right, either. Something had to happen. Even if it was something tragic and foolish. [Originally published in a slightly different form in Cinema Scope 9, Winter 2001.]