In the Wake: Bryan Cranston portrays an unhinged family man in Robin Swicord’s 'Wakefield'

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If they’re honest with themselves, just about everybody has to admit there’s been a time in their life where they’ve wanted to abandon everything. Goodbye job, goodbye family, goodbye responsibilities. Most of us will never act on those momentary impulses; daydreaming about hopping in your car and heading for the horizon is all well and good, but doing it is something else altogether.

And yet. What if?

That’s exactly the impulse suburban husband and father Howard Wakefield indulges in in the late E.L. Doctorow’s short story “Wakefield,” adapted for the big screen by writer-director Robin Swicord and out from IFC Films on May 19. Howard’s trip is a short one. Getting home from work one night, he decides to set up camp in the attic of his family’s detached garage, giving him the perfect vantage point from which to observe his wife and children from afar. He spends one night. Then another. Months pass. Once a high-powered lawyer, the patriarch of a seemingly perfect nuclear family, Howard is now bedraggled and foraging food from trash cans. And all day, he watches. “I never left my family,” he says. “I left myself.”

It’s a cerebral, unflashy role, one that requires an actor capable of extreme nuance. After all, viewed from outside, a good chunk of what Howard actually does in this movie is sitting quietly, looking out a window. Playing Howard Wakefield provided an opportunity for a tour de force performance from Bryan Cranston, who in Swicord’s estimation has a “tremendous capacity as an actor to contain everything.”

“It’s a very hard film to quote-unquote rehearse, because it’s so internal,” Swicord explains. “There aren’t so many scenes where he’s in dialogue with someone else. How do you rehearse the inner journey? Bryan is a really thoughtful guy. He’s a writer. He’s a producer. He’s a director. He’s a humanitarian. There’s so much there just in conversation, in sitting down with him. He’s so ready to start diving into the text and start exploring and talking. He has a really careful way of going through the script, beat by beat, line by line, page by page, all the way through. It’s a long process.”

Through that process, Cranston teased out of Swicord’s script a compelling and rounded portrait not only of a man, but of the strained relationship that played a major role in driving him to his attic isolation. Wakefield is in many ways “a meditation on marriage,” Swicord explains. “What it is to really watch your partner and how you come to know them, the secret person that’s there all day you never get to see. Everything about them: going to work, coming home, how they parent, when they have shifts in mood, all the things that you miss because you’re simply not with them.”

That focus is more prevalent in Wakefield than in “Wakefield,” in which Howard’s wife—Diana, brought to life in the movie by Jennifer Garner—is less fleshed out. Even in Wakefield-the-movie, Diana rarely speaks save in a small handful of flashback scenes. Or, rather, she does, but the audience—and Howard himself, several dozen feet and two panes of glass between them—doesn’t hear her. It’s a story within a story: us watching a man as he watches someone else.

But despite being at a remove from an audience, Diana never feels like less than a fully developed character. Her story, Swicord argues, is the “real movie. [Howard’s] going through an internal experience, but all the action is happening outside of him.” To that end, Swicord wrote a second script for that “real movie”—“what happened inside the house. They all had their own journeys, their own character arcs. It was all there.”

In the process of adapting, Swicord explains, “you have to expand somewhat on what the author’s intention was… Adapting is just making decisions. What to include. Where I need to expand. Where I need to combine or contract part of the story.” It’s not an unfamiliar process for Swicord, who as a scriptwriter has tackled adaptations of Little Women (with Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic children’s tale), Memoirs of a Geisha and Matilda, among others. She also scripted an early version of David Fincher’s Oscar-winning F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Wakefield is Swicord’s second film as a writer-director. The first was romantic drama The Jane Austen Book Club, which was released in 2007 and became a modest commercial and critical success. Why, then, the ten-year gap between films? It “was not something that I expected,” Swicord says. “I made a movie that made money and was well-received. I thought all I had to do, especially having been a screenwriter for thirty years, was exhibit competence as a director, and I would be able to get my next picture made, or be hired to work as a director on a film. But I had not factored in the pandemic of engrained sexism in the film business.”

At this point in our interview, frustration seeps into Swicord’s heretofore calm voice. And understandably so. Male directors are routinely snapped up by some studio to direct a big-budget tentpole after a sole indie success. Think Colin Trevorrow, who got Jurassic World on the strength of Safety Not Guaranteed, or Marc Webb, who swung from (500) Days of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man. For female directors and directors of color, that leap is more rare. So rare, in fact, that in 2016 the Sundance Institute started their FilmTwo Initiative with the specific goal of helping up-and-coming directors make their second films, with a specific focus on women and people of color.

Swicord recalls meeting “a young filmmaker, 22 years old” who garnered praise from a short film that screened “in a tiny little corner of the Sundance Film Festival. It was about a very specialty thing… He walked out of there with people saying to him, ‘Come have a meeting with CAA. We’re interested in representing you.’” Contrast that with another meeting, this one with Ava DuVernay, shortly after Middle of Nowhere garnered her a Best Director prize at Sundance. “I said, ‘Your phone must be ringing off the hook. Everyone must want to represent you. You’re such an incredible director,’” Swicord recalls. “She said: ‘Not one phone call.’ That’s the difference.”

“The unwanted ten-year hiatus in a female filmmaker’s life is something that’s quite common,” argues Swicord. “It doesn’t matter how well you do the job. It is not a meritocracy. You are up against people who have decided that you are not as good as the next guy, no matter how inexperienced he is. You’re not going to be able to handle a bigger budget than the little five-million-dollar movie that you made.”

For Swicord, that uneven playing field manifested itself in the collapse of what she intended to be her Jane Austen Book Club follow-up. An actor on the film “wanted me to bring their manager on as one of the producers. So I did,” she recalls. “And the first thing this person did was have me fired from my own movie, because they wanted a quote-unquote more experienced—which means more male—director to do it. So the movie never happened, because the person who was passionate about it was the writer-director, who they got to leave. After I had that experience, I understood more than I’ve ever understood at any point in this long career I’ve had what I’m really up against as a female filmmaker.”

During the ten-year period between The Jane Austen Book Club and Wakefield, it wasn’t like Swicord was sitting around waiting for someone to write her a $100 million check: “I was working the entire time. I was trying to get movies made the entire time. When I realized what I was up against, I found ‘Wakefield’”—a story that she saw so clearly in her mind that, reading it, she thought someone else had beaten her to the punch and made it into a movie first. “I went to Doctorow. I befriended him. It was a very nice relationship. He agreed that I could pursue the making of this movie, which meant writing my script on spec, going out with my producers and finding the money from a group of Broadway angels who financed the movie at not very much money. And then making it in twenty days. That’s what I had to do in order to get my next movie.”