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Anchored by a quartet of powerhouse performances, In the Bedroom is an exquisitely realized meditation on love and loss. Chuck Stephens speaks to writer/director Todd Field about life in Maine, learning from Stanley Kubrick and the fiction of Andre Dubus.

Todd Field photographed by Richard Kern.

It’s ‘Da-buse’ – like ‘abuse,’" explains actor and In The Bedroom director Todd Field, when asked about the pronunciation of the name of his late friend, writer Andre Dubus.

There’s a resonance to that response, the sort of resonance that In The Bedroom – dedicated to Dubus and based on one his short stories – patiently and painfully explores. Set in a small, coastal community in Maine, the film unfolds over the course of a long, tragic summer. Frank (Bully’s Nick Stahl), due to enter college at summer’s end, is having an affair with the somewhat older Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a recently divorced mother of two whose husband continues to linger around the edges of her life. Ruth (Sissy Spacek), Frank’s mother, wants her son to call off the affair, fearful that the complications of Natalie’s situation will weigh Frank down just as he’s entering adulthood. Matt (seasoned English actor Tom Wilkinson), Frank’s father, thinks his son should make his own decisions, but in a dramatic twist of fate Ruth’s concerns prove devastatingly well-founded.

It’s best to say as little as possible about In The Bedroom’s plot, since unpredictability and emotional shock are crucial to the way the story unfolds. What must be said, though, is that Field previously best known for his much-lauded acting turns in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Victor Nuñez’s Ruby in Paradise – has suddenly and irreversibly raised the stakes of his career.

Co-written by Field and Rick Festinger, In The Bedroom is that rarest of first features: Watching it, you keep waiting for a stumble in tone, a moment of jarring uncertainty, or a glimpse of fumbled direction – none of which ever arrive.

Extremely literary in tone, precisely and hauntingly acted, free of flashy style yet sublimely cinematic, In The Bedroom rings morally and formally true from beginning to end. In it, the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and the rhythms and cadences of life and language in remotest New England come together in one of the year’s most unexpectedly absorbing films, positioning Field as an extremely talented young director to watch.

Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl. Photo: John Clifford.

FILMMAKER: Other than the fact that you directed it, I hadn’t read anything about In the Bedroom before I saw it. I went in completely cold, and had no idea where the film was set, or what sorts of cultural or aesthetic allusions might be involved. The first scene of the film is this really lyric vignette where lovers Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei are lazing about in the waving grass on a hillside, with a small two-story house behind them. Not knowing that the paintings, and the attitudes behind the paintings, of Andrew Wyeth would be a part of the film’s fabric, I wrote in my notebook two words: Christina’s World – the title of Wyeth’s most famous painting, in which a young woman lies on a grassy hillside gazing up at an almost identical house.

TODD FIELD: It’s interesting that you say that. The first frame of the picture was filmed outside the house that I was living in at the time. And that house was probably built in the same year as the Olson house that you see in Christina’s World. Part of my attraction to the house in the first place was that it’s on a hill with a rutted road, just like the Olson house. I used to park at the bottom of that road and stare up at the house for a couple of years, thinking, "God I’ve got to get into that house."

FILMMAKER: What would you say is Wyeth’s influence on you, or on how we view the parts of New England he depicted?

FIELD: My first introduction to that world was through Wyeth’s tempera paintings, long before I had ever set foot in the state. I’m also very interested in the painting he’d done at Kuerner’s farm down at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, but it was the Maine stuff that really got me going in terms of thinking that there might be a world that existed that he had depicted in these paintings. But Wyeth’s season is really November through March. In most of his known paintings, he’s more interested in the period after the skin dies, when there’s only the skeleton. His palette is much more brown than the one I used in the film. You don’t, for example, find many greens in Andy Wyeth’s paintings. But the story in my film is a summer story.

FILMMAKER: You’re not from Maine, right?

FIELD: I’m from Portland, Oregon, about 10 miles outside of Portland, in an area that used to be mainly woods and a dairy farm. It was very agricultural, but unfortunately it’s no longer that way. Back then it was not dissimilar to where I live in Maine, where I’ve lived for about five years.

FILMMAKER: In addition to In the Bedroom, you’ve also published a book of your photography, titled Away: The People of mid-coast Maine. Do you see yourself as a regionalist?

FIELD: I think it’s too early to decide that, but I know what you mean. Especially since I’ve worked with Victor Nuñez, I understand that, by association, it’s probably even more tempting to wonder if that’s where I’m headed. Victor’s certainly known as a regionalist because his stories are always set around Tallahassee, Florida, where he’s been based for a good many years. But I’ve only made one feature film, so I couldn’t possibly be a regionalist yet. I would be really happy making all stories that take place in Maine, but right now I don’t know what I’ll end up doing next. The only idea for another film I’m working on at the moment doesn’t take place there. But I assume I’ll go back up there again, because there’s a lot left for me. Who knows, though? Maybe nobody will let me make a film again.

FILMMAKER: Why? Was there some sort of negative reaction in Maine to the film?

FIELD: No, not at all. I showed the film up in Maine, and I was really nervous – more nervous than I was in Sundance. Mainers are painfully honest. Even in their indifference, they’re pretty honest. But the screening went over extremely well, and I breathed a big sigh of relief about that.

FILMMAKER: Aspects of In The Bedroom may remind viewers of Paul Schrader’s Affliction, which also featured Sissy Spacek. Remind me – did Affliction take place in Maine, and was it any kind of point of reference for you?

FIELD: I haven’t seen the film, but years ago I read the Russell Banks story it’s based on. It takes place in the deep woods of New Hampshire. New Hampshire is like a place to go and die. It’s got to be one of the most depressing places in the world. The thing about New England is that the three states – Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and I guess parts of Massachusetts – are all very different places, and the people in each of those states are very, very different from one another.

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson. Photo: John Clifford.

FILMMAKER: How would you characterize Maine?

FIELD: Maine is almost like a foreign country. I mean, Maine is really all that’s left of America. The rest of the country is so far from what this country was founded on and stood for. But there’s still an American culture in Maine that’s indigenous to America, and not to mass information and manifest knowledge. It’s not a commercial area. It’s an area where people are proud of being sort of anachronisms in what they do, whether they fish, or they do lumber, or whatever. There’s still a vernacular that’s indigenous to the place, a sense of tradition, and people are privately and secretly incredibly proud and romantic about their heritage. Maine is also far enough removed and hard enough to get to that it’s kept a lot of knuckleheads out. In a sense, Maine is sort of the last bastion of the true Yankee, which almost makes it a foreign country, considering what the rest of America has become.

The behavior of the people of Maine – well, all clichés have an element of truth. They don’t speak unless its going to improve the silence. They’re very funny, and in general they’re very smart. In the smallest town there’ll be an opera house, a chamber orchestra, a couple of theaters and four papers, and they’ll read all of them. They’re extremely well informed, and they’re not living there because they’re stupid, or they’re small-town, or country bumpkins. They’re living in Maine because they know it’s the best damned place in the world to live. And they keep two or three jobs without much complaint to live there because they love it. They’re invaded every summer, and then the summer people leave. There’s no place like it in the entire country.

FILMMAKER: In your director’s statement, you write that the Dubus story that In the Bedroom is based on – "Killings" – is a reflection of a particularly "American consciousness," and that Dubus approached writing about the nature of violence in a particularly American way. Is that "American consciousness" also what you’re talking about in the way you’re now describing Maine and Mainers?

FIELD: No, not exactly. I was talking in that statement about Andre’s fiction as opposed to the film per se, but the two ideas are absolutely related. What I mean by that is, for someone who’s not familiar with Andre’s writing, his stories are very much about a sense of – in a New England fashion – the fact that people still go to church on Sundays. His characters are Catholics, generally, because he was a Catholic. Or they’re fallen Catholics. They drink, and they fight, and they fuck, and they can be violent in all sorts of ways. That violence can involve firearms, or it can involve disputes that you would generally find in a Western morality tale. His characters are cerebral, in that there’s a lot of psychology going on, but they’re also people who are active, people who do things. They’re also dreamers. They’re so American.

A lot of the points of reference in Andre’s work have to do with the wars, the great wars, and American’s involvement in those wars. There are a lot of veterans in his stories. If you take any culture that's been involved in wars, and nearly all world cultures have been, the post-war eras in those countries are deeply affected by how they participated in the war, and whether or not they won. Americans have a pretty good batting average in war: We’re the winners. So we have our VFW’s and we have our Elks clubs, and that's the world that Dubus’s characters live in.

FILMMAKER: You also mentioned that Dubus was a kind of cinephile. What kinds of movies did he enjoy?

FIELD: He went from very highbrow to very lowbrow. He saw every art film that came into Newberry Port, which is the next town over from where his son lived. There’s an arthouse over there, and he saw every French film, every foreign film that played there. But he would also see really cheesy movies, too – and he loved some of them. He gave me one that I never watched because, well, it has Sean Young and Michael Caine, and it’s this film noir kind of thing, and it just looked terrible. After he died, I felt guilty and thought maybe there was something in it that was important, so I watched it and no, it was terrible. I never got through it. I think it’s called Blue Ice. But he loved all movies, and he could talk your ear off about anyone from Techiné to Tarkovsky to Truffaut.

FILMMAKER: Do you think of his fiction as cinematic, generally?

FIELD: Some of it is, but not generally; not obviously so, anyway. But this story was, and another story of his that I did at the American Film Institute seemed really cinematic. There are also some of his stories that are cinematic, but they scare me too much to consider turning then into a film. They’re just so powerful. There’s a Dubus story called "Rose," and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else where I was on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, thinking I was going to have a heart attack.

FILMMAKER: One thing about the film that struck me as somehow short story-like in it’s effect was your use of extremely short, single-shot moments – Sissy Spacek watching late-night television and silently grieving, for instance – that end in very quick blackouts. Something about that technique seemed very literary, like an ellipsis, or a paragraph that's only two sentences long.

FIELD: What I found very effective in Andre’s short stories is that he gives you just enough information or detail that they become almost like a novel, because you end up investing so much of your own imagination in very brief details. This story is like 14 or 17 pages long, but I was convinced, before I went back to read it a second time, that it was about 150 pages long – like a novella. I wanted to try to do something with it where I could make things as clear as possible, and then let the audience bring things to it. I wanted to make points in the story in a way that, to as large an extent as possible, you could build those bridges yourself, and you could walk over them yourself. Hopefully, people will invest themselves in the story in a way that’s personal rather than just having everything laid out for them. But it’s scary to do that, because people are afraid of anything that isn’t right on the money, especially in films. People have the inclination to say, "Well, I just don't get that."

FILMMAKER: The film’s story, though it contains a couple of completely shocking moments, unfolds in a pretty direct way. At the same time, however, it’s also filled with complicated metaphors and a network of stories within the story that are told by someone for one reason, but interpreted by those who hear them in very different – and sometimes quite contradictory – ways. Even the title, which at first seems almost simplistic, continues to accrue meaning through the film’s very last scene. The title actually comes from a term for the inside of a lobster trap, and the behavior of lobsters in that trap works as a metaphor for the human relationships and behaviors in the film. Was all that in the story, and what made you want to make the film, or did you develop those aspects while writing the script?

FIELD: I think it’s difficult to know why you do certain things as a writer or as a filmmaker. If something interests you, it’s often because you don’t really know why it interests you. I based the characters of the father, Matt [a doctor in the film; a clothing salesman in the story], and his son Frank [a lifeguard in the story; a lobsterman in the film] on a father and son that I go out lobstering with. When we go out fishing, all of that stuff about lobstering — the trap, hunting and gathering, relations between males and females — those are deep truths. You really don’t have to dress them up, or push too hard to turn them into metaphors. They have to resonate with us because we’re living in that same world. What was most interesting to me was that these characters are interacting with a piece of nature that’s not gentle. Lobsters are cannibals. There are a lot of misconceptions about lobsters, even from lobstermen.

Some of those ideas developed from an article I read about the head of the Zoology department at the University of New Hampshire. He’d done a study where he attached a camera pointing straight down over a lobster pot, and he observed lobster behavior for a year. He sent me a copy of the tape, and it was some of the most disturbing footage I’ve ever seen. The state fishery is always concerned about lobsters getting in and out of traps, but the lobsters actually get in and out of them pretty quickly. Most of them stay in the trap because they like it. Not only do they like it, they fiercely defend it as long as there’s bait in it. They’ll go out and wait by the doors, and if another lobster comes in, they’ll attack it and get into a brutal fight. Oftentimes one will eat the other one; literally crush it and start eating it. They’re really fast and brutal. Lobsters are caught, but they actually catch themselves, and they don’t want to leave the traps.

FILMMAKER: I want to ask you about working with Kubrick; how many days were you on the set of Eyes Wide Shut, and what did you take away from that experience?

FIELD: I was initially supposed to be there only for a short period of time, but I ended up being on set on both the first day of the shoot and the last day of the shoot. Over a period of 15 months, I was actually in the country for about nine of those months. It was a life-changing experience, and I don’t believe I would have made this film if I hadn’t had it.

FILMMAKER: How did one follow from the other?

FIELD: There was an intensity and a sense of possibility in that experience, and it was a way of working that I had only experienced once before, when I was working with Victor Nuñez. It had to do with how you don’t have to make a film with all the toys and gadgets and a million crew-people. You don’t have to make everything else more important than the acting and the performances. There was an intimacy to it that made me want to make a film in that way. I tried to do that before in film school, but it was very hard to convince people that there’s another way of working, especially crew-people in film school, who are paying for the experience and tend to want to pretend that they’re Mr. Panavision for the day.

One of the most important things I learned from Stanley was “Don’t talk to anyone.” Just do your stuff, do it invisibly and you’ll care about it much more. Don’t tell anyone you’re working on anything, keep it private, because the more you talk about something, the more you take that power away from yourself. And you need that to sustain yourself, to get a picture on, to get through it, to fight for it for all the reasons that it interested you in the first place. If you talk about it too much, it all becomes a story, and you start to doubt yourself. And when other people start to develop opinions about it — all it takes is one errant comment from somebody to kill an idea for you. It’s a very fragile thing to have an idea or an impulse about something.

FILMMAKER: One of things that makes In the Bedroom so effective, especially if you go into it without having any idea what’s to come, is that it’s very difficult to figure who the star or the emotional center of the film is until about a third of the way through. It doesn’t give anything away to say that Tom Wilkinson, who plays the father, gives a truly amazing performance. How did you cast him?

FIELD: The interesting thing is that he was cast last. I had someone else in mind, but because of the timing, he fell out. I wanted, first of all, a man — just a man. Obviously he had to be an actor, and a good actor, but I wanted whoever I cast to be a man, rather than somebody who was known as an actor, at least by an American audience. There’s a hierarchy in the marriage between Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Matt (Wilkinson). Ruth pushes Matt, and she was always pushing her son to do this and that, always trying to get the men to do stuff. There’s a certain gravity she has, and it was important to get somebody in that role who was both very good, and who was also known. Casting Sissy Spacek wasn’t a condition of the producers; it was what was right for the role. But I wanted somebody who wasn’t known in the husband’s role, and I was about 10 days out from the rehearsals when I called a friend in England who knew the script and asked for suggestions. They immediately said Tom Wilkinson.

FILMMAKER: What did he bring to the part?

FIELD: He’s a very powerful actor, and when you take an actor like that and have them play a character who’s more passive than they really are, it creates an enormous amount of tension. It’s like going to the Hollywood Bowl for a night of Beethoven, and the conductor has the 40-five piece orchestra play pianissimo instead of triple forte. You know the power is there for them to overwhelm you, and you want them to, but they’re holding back. That’s what Tom is like. He’s also the kind of actor who always has a million things going on at once. So you’re immediately engaged with him, and determined to follow him wherever he goes.

FILMMAKER: And he does rather decisively have somewhere to go, even if a lot of what he does in the film is merely to look and listen. Remind me again of the lines of poetry that his poker-playing buddy Carl recites to him near the end of the film.

FIELD: They’re from Longfellow, from a very long work titled “My Lost Youth.” The refrain is, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”


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