DREAMS OF FIELD

Actor's Directing Career Advances with
Features

Twenty-two years and one day of dreams preceded the arrival of Todd Field's Little Children at the 44th New York Film Festival. The clock started ticking Sept. 29, 1984, when Field, then a waiter trying to be an actor, was slipped tickets to the curtain-raiser for the 22nd New York Film Festival--Jim Jarmusch's deadpan road movie Stranger Than Paradise--and a filmmaker was more or less born that night in the audience.

"It just blew my mind," Field says, conjuring up a still-fresh memory. "It was like discovering an entirely different country, with a different language and a different feeling. I remember sitting there and just thinking, 'Gosh, I want to make films, and some day I'd like to have one of them at this festival. It started then and there. In one way, that experience changed my relationship to film in a very, very meaningful way. In another way, it totally ruined me because I could never go back down to 42nd Street again and sit through Targets starring Gene Hackman, with Matt Dillon playing his son, and not question the biological components. I started haunting art houses and seeing different kinds of films."

The actor was born before the director was born, and Field made a rather wide loop in that profession (Gross Anatomy, Fat Man and Little Boy, Ruby in Paradise) before he took time off to get back on track again by taking some directing courses at the American Film Institute and making several short films. He relapsed into acting (Sleep With Me, Twister, Walking and Talking, Eyes Wide Shut), but managed to keep his eye on the ball and finally made his feature-film bow directing In the Bedroom from a script he and Rob Festinger wrote from Andre Dubus' short story about a Maine couple engulfed by grief.

"When we were in Sundance with In the Bedroom," Field recalls rather vividly, "people were talking about many festivals, and I just kept saying, 'Oh, please, can we go to the New York Film Festival?' But they didn't invite the film, and I was really heartbroken. I thought, 'Gosh, I'll probably never get to go there.' So when Richard [Peña] invited Little Children this year, I was completely dumbstruck and excited and nervous as all get-out."

[There was some consolation for In the Bedroom after it missed the New York Film Festival boat: It was voted Best Picture of 2001 by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as Best First Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, and won Field five prizes for direction/writing and earned five Oscar nominations.]

Little Children came out of the festival chute to some loud and sustained critical cheers. Based on an acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta (whose previous book, Election, brought Sideways' Alexander Payne to screen prominence and acclaim), the picture is a darkly satirical take on modern American family life, and, as co-adapted by the author and the director, it ventures in its nervously uncharted fashion into corners as dark as Bedroom's.

Basically, what we have here is Playground Follies and Foibles of 2006, plopped down in a New England suburbia. The focus is not on the children at play-they're the necessary accessories-it's on the adults in attendance, the ladies-in-waiting who enforce the play-nice rules of the sandbox, staving off boredom by inventing fantasies of their own.

They send one of their number, Sarah (Kate Winslet), over to flirt with "the Prom King"-the solitary stay-at-home dad on the premises, Brad (Patrick Wilson)-and the encounter reverses itself when the two kiss, shocking their gossipy audience and sending them scattering for hypocritical cover. The kiss surprises Sarah and Brad too, enough to follow it into a full-trottled affair that jeopardizes their marriages-his to beautiful documentarian Jennifer Connelly, hers to sexually knotted Gregg Edelman.

While these relationships heave and sway in the foreground, there is the shadowy subplot of a registered sex-offender, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), afoot, in the custody of his mother (Phyllis Somerville), who is trying to rehabilitate him with a nice girl (Jane Adams) and keep Larry, the local pit-bull vigilante loco (Noah Emmerich), at bay. Field keeps this chaos at a quiet rumble, like a gathering storm, clouds darkening as we go along toward inevitable (inescapable, given the actions of the characters) tragedy.

In the Bedroom faded similarly to black. "There's that whole thing that people say, 'You make the same film over and over and over again,' and I understand that," says Field. "Many stories, whether they're traditional or untraditional, have to do with family and family dynamics. That can be found in friendships, that can be found in lovers, that can be found in the workplace. We're all trying to get this inexplicable thing in our hand, which is impossible to possess. It has to do with intimacy with one another. Our chances for that are dashed by the world in so many ways-by forces that we aren't aware of, by things that we do that we are not aware of. As we get older-at least as I get older-I'm struck with this idea that all we have are moments of intimacy with each other, with our children, with our spouses, with our friends-but that we're alike, and alone is dark."

Not that he has deliberately confined himself to this one dark note, mind you. "There have been all kinds of films that I have tried to make before this film that do have those themes that I'm just as interested in, and, for whatever reason, someone didn't want to back any of them. They were afraid of the material, or they said, 'We're not making baseball pictures now,' or 'Who cares about Edwin Booth, some dead actor from the 19th century?' I've worked on all of those projects, and I put a lot of time into them. But honestly, probably, these projects that I tried to get off the ground would have that common thread in them too, simply because I don't know any other thread to follow."

It may very well be in his next picture, which he happily reports is already in the works. "I have something that I should be writing. I haven't had a chance to because I've been trying to get all the physical elements for this film ready for release. It's an original. I've already been hired to do it, and I already have a production schedule-it's all private equity from New York-but I haven't finished the script yet. I need to get back to work on it. I've been working on this picture for over two and a half years, since early 2004. I only had two and a half years, really, where I had a hard time getting things on."

The prestige In the Bedroom brought Field didn't bring him work, curiously. "You make a film, it goes out, it has a life of its own completely separate from you, and I think there's a natural assumption-I certainly had this-that it would be easier to make another film, and it simply isn't true. I've spent five years trying to get another film on. I've been able to get no backing or anything else."

Reenter the Actor, in television. "I've been in kitchen-sink dramas for five years, and I've done scripts that nobody wants to make, so when I found this book of Tom's, I wanted to make it like I've wanted to make other things. I was just fortunate enough to have someone who said, 'Yes, let's make the film.'"

Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who produced Little Children with Field, had produced Perrotta's Oscar-nominated Election, so they got a copy of the new novel in galley form. "They sent it over," recalls Field, "and I read it-probably five times, because I'm always looking to have a reason to say, 'No, I'm not going to do this.' I kinda couldn't. His voice was so strong, and it affected me in a way that I probably didn't fully understand, which is a good thing. If it were going to start me on this road all of us was going to be on for a very long time, it was probably better to figure out why it was interesting as we went out. Initially, it was Tom's voices-specifically, his third-person observations more than the story or characters-that moved me. His voices were sharp, funny, appropriately kind."

Hovering over the proceedings, unseen but all-seeing, is a narrator who speaks the thoughts of the characters, sometimes telling us things they don't know-much like Orson Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons or Ray Collins in The Human Comedy or Sam Waterston in The Great Gatsby, all retaining the literary language of the respective source.

Retaining the words was Field's first choice when he and Perrotta started writing the film. "I said to Tom when I proposed the narration, 'What attracts me to your book is your voice, your sense of passive observation. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes incredibly even-handed, but it's strong-a voice I've not heard. I don't want to lose it. If I take it away, I don't know if I'll be that interested, so, for now, let's do it with the idea you'll be in the movie, that your voice is going to be in the movie. Later, if we decide we don't like it, we'll get rid of it.' But the more we would read it, the more invested we became in it."

Will Lyman delivers these sensitive insights and asides. "It was always Will, from the beginning," admits Field. "He has a wonderful voice that doesn't imply anything. It's an incredibly neutral voice, a nonjudgmental voice. You'll recognize him from 'Frontline.'"

The narrator has his say about all the major characters save one-the pedophile-and that was the way Field wanted it. "Ronnie interested me more in what we don't know about him. I only wanted to see him through others' eyes. I only wanted to see him in a public setting-where people don't know him-through their eyes, or through the eyes of his mother or through the eyes of a date-only through other people's eyes. We don't know really what he has done. In the book, you do. The book ends with three pages of exposition where Larry, Sarah and Ronnie all magically converge on the playground, and Ronnie confesses that he has done all these terrible things, and then they smoke this cigarette. I was interested in how he is perceived by the people in his life and not in his life and by us, the audience. I don't want to know he has done or what he hasn't done."

Perrotta's 350-page novel and the screenplay he wrote with Field are two different animals, the director points out-and he was singularly unamused that Winslet, in her actressy quest of pursuing every scrap of information about her character, had broken ranks and read the novel. Despite her pleas, he chose to exclude her character's bisexuality-primarily because it took the story nowhere. "I don't want an actor showing up on my set with ideas from a book that I discarded for a very practical reason," he says, without the trace of a smile. "She thought up this idea that this woman had this sort of sexual history, but the truth is that it really felt left-footed and awkward to try to explore that because, really, it's a grace note of the novel. It's not who she is when we meet her."

Winslet was, however, very helpful in filling the difficult role of Ronnie McGorvey. When she heard Field was considering Haley, with whom she'd worked in All the King's Men, she gave him the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and even came in and read with him. It was, Field allows, a tough part to cast. "I kinda left that role very late," he admits. "When you think about a role like that, many people would have the same five ideas, and I heard them over and over. They were all good actors, but it was important that whoever play this role be somebody who wasn't on that top-of-the-head list, but I had no idea who that would be. One night I came back to my hotel, and there was this audition tape sitting there for me. Jackie Earle Haley had gotten his hands on a very, very early draft of the script-I don't know how-and he had made a 20-minute film out of this character. It was rather daunting, actually, because Jackie for the last several years has been making his living as a regional commercial director-so he had tracking shots and very involved things, and I thought, 'Oh, boy, this guy can really direct. I'm in trouble here.' He came in and read the last scene with Kate, and I read Larry with him. When he finished, it was very clear he was meant to play this role. I'm very thankful that he did."

It could be Field still harbors some sympathies for the desperations of actors at the starting gate. One has only to hearken back to almost two decades ago to Radio Days for the first film sighting of Todd Field, ten seconds long, as a young Frank Sinatra singing "All or Nothing at All." How that came to pass, he says, is an archetype Only-in-New-York story.

"There was a period of time when I was out of work. I was completely homeless, and I called my mother and asked if she could send me a couple of hundred dollars just for a little while. She said, 'No, but I'll send you a plane ticket. You come and work on the loading dock.' I said, 'I can't do that.' I opened up Backstage, and it said, 'Woody Allen's Fall Project: Extras Call.' So I went and I stood in line outside of St. Michael's Church for three or four hours. There were 5,000 men at the open call and 3,000 women. When I got to the front, the auditor wouldn't let me in because I wasn't in SAG. So I went around to the back-I knew there was a back door-and I went to the auditor, and I said, 'I lost my number,' so he gave me one. They had this big scrim, big light. You got a table, hit a stapler, stepped out and said your name. They'd say next, next, next. And when I walked by, they said, 'Wait.' And this voice said, 'Todd?' 'Yes.' 'Todd Field?' I said, 'Yes.' I walked toward this light, and sitting there was Todd Baylor, who cast Little Children, and he said, 'Remember? We met. You were tending bar on the Upper East Side? We have you in mind for this part. I haven't been able to get in touch with you. Where are you?' I said, 'Well, you know. I've been very busy.' Like I was sleeping in stations. He said, 'Well, can you come in and meet with Woody Allen tomorrow?' I said, 'Yeah.' And I went in the next morning and met Woody and they hired me. It was a few days' work, but I've been working ever since. That would have never happened in L.A."