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PLAYGROUND RULES
Todd Field follows-up his acclaimed first feature, In the Bedroom, with a mordantly perceptive film about the paranoias of modern life, Little Children.

BY SCOTT MACAULAY

KATE WINSLET AND PATRICK WILSON STAR IN LITTLE CHILDREN.

In his 1857 novel Madame Bovary, a tale of the unhappy love affairs and sad demise of an unfulfilled married woman, Gustave Flaubert writes in a voice the French dub the style indirect libre. The literary device blends subjectivity and objectivity, mixing a character’s thoughts and interior life with the observations of an all-seeing narrator. The effect can be unsettling and ironic. Flaubert, the son of a surgeon who once described literature as “the dissection of a beautiful woman with her guts in her face, her leg skinned, and half a cigar lying on a foot,” used the style in Madame Bovary to create an unsparing social portrait of a 19th century France full of base, unremarkable people while he also accessed to the reader his Emma Bovary’s willful, modern and ultimately heartbreaking spirit.

Madame Bovary makes an appearance in Todd Field’s masterful film version of Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children – as an object of study in a suburban housewives’ reading group. Most of the women are clueless as to why we should care about poor Emma, but not Sarah Pierce, superbly played by Kate Winslet. Sarah understands Emma as a patron saint of modern feminism for her refusal to accept the boundaries of the world around her.

The style indirect libre also appears in Little Children, and not just in the old-fashioned but quite effective literary voiceover that winds its way through the movie. It’s one of Field’s great directing accomplishments that through editing, sound design, the choreography of his camera movements and the sheer intensity with which his actors realize their parts, he provides a filmic variation on Flaubert’s device. Field segues from intimate moments in which we feel the characters’ every ache and desire to wickedly funny sequences in which the tragi-comedy of his well mannered bedroom community plays out on a broad canvass of political allegory.

Little Children is Field’s directorial follow-up to his independent hit (and literary adaptation) In the Bedroom and, like that film, it explores how desire and tragedy can burst free from the social structures that envelope American life. The story begins shortly after a convicted sex offender is released from police custody into an upscale suburban neighborhood. His presence prompts a local ex-cop to form a citizen’s patrol to “protect the children” while also seeming to trigger a libidinal explosion amongst the town’s residents. Insurance man Richard Pierce becomes addicted to internet porn and when his wife, Sarah, finds out, she consequently sets her eyes on Brad (Patrick Wilson), a handsome stay-at-home dad whose professional failures – he’s been unable to pass the bar exam – make him appealingly dangerous to the social order. Field charts their affair with exacting precision and much foreboding. There’s a moment near the end in which it seems like tragedy will snuff out his character’s outsized dreams. But ultimately, there’s no arsenic-swilling in Little Children. For all its drama, Fields’ view here is ultimately a comic one, even if his comedy holds painful truths about self-delusion and the limitations of the American dream.

I spoke with Field about adaptation, politics and his reputation for on-set perfectionism.

 

Have you seen the film?

Yeah, I liked it lot. I saw the press screening at the festival. Oh, boy.

Why do you say that? They make you do those Q&A’s afterwards. You work 2½ years on something and you want people to walk around [after seeing it] and reflect on it. But then all of a sudden you’re in this position of trying to explain things. You know what I mean?

I do. That’s a little bit of a theme in this issue — directors talking about not wanting to talk about their work. Kelly Reichardt, who directed Old Joy, also talks in this issue about how she purposefully made something that would be open to interpretation. It’s the basic rule of illusion. It’s like in the magicians’ union: If you sign into the Society of American Magicians or the International Brotherhood of Magicians, there are two rules. You work on something, and when you finally show it, you don’t do it again right away. And the second [rule] is that you don’t explain it. It’s the same thing with storytelling. It would be just as ludicrous as going to the symphony and then having the composer sit up and say, “Well, what I meant here on the bridge when I modulated to C major was...” It’s ridiculous. Why would you go to all that trouble to do something that hopefully people are going to engage in enough to have a conversation about, and then get up and say, “What I really meant was...” Or, “Oh, and by the way, the characters you’ve been caught up in for two hours, they’re really actors, and here they are!”

Were there elements of this film that you wanted people to question and have very different points of view on? Oh, absolutely. I think the novel was meant to provoke — to provoke conversation, to make you uncomfortable and angry and to make you laugh.

LITTLE CHILDREN DIRECTOR TODD FIELD.

Now that you’ve seen the film a few times, have you learned how reactions break down? Is there a split along gender lines? No. There is an element in the film that has to do with how we ghettoize and stereotype both each other and ourselves. We judge each other and presume things based on first impressions, snap decisions, hearsay and gossip. When you complete a film, it’s a natural thing to presume, Oh, well, people of this age or this gender or from this ethnic background may not respond in a certain way, but if you think that, you’re ultimately going to be proven wrong. If you think that an 82-year-old couple is going to be shocked, awed, repulsed or just uninterested, you’ll get slapped in the face, because they’ll be the couple who comes up to you and talks for half an hour about the movie. If you think that a 25-year-old Latino male is not going to like it because he’s from East L.A., you’re going to be a presumptive reductive racist and you’ll be proven wrong too. He might be the one person who you have the most meaningful conversation with. That’s why cinema is great. It’s a very democratic process, and it’s open to everyone. Why do we sit and watch Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films that have no reflection of our culture at all? We’re not from Istanbul, yet we’re so profoundly moved. That’s why film, I think, is the closest form of expression to music. It doesn’t require that someone [be of] a particular background or gender or race or age.

After making In the Bedroom, which was such a big success, I’m sure you had a lot of opportunities in front of you in terms of what the next film would be. How did you alight on this one? Why this particular novel? At one point I remember hearing that you were working on Revolutionary Road, another great novel that deals with some of the same themes. How did you narrow the choices down, and what made this one pop out? I was completely occupied with In the Bedroom until April 2002. It was like being kidnapped into the circus for a while, and I took six months to recover from it. Six months before that, my wife had picked up Yates’s book, read it and said, “You have to read this — it’s one of the greatest American novels.” I read it, and I was completely devastated, so I looked into the rights and, oddly enough, the rights were held by [the actor] Patrick O’Neal’s estate. His widow Cynthia is, coincidentally, very good friends with Kate Winslet, and Patrick O’Neal was my boss 22 years ago when I was waiting tables for him at O’Neal’s across from Lincoln Center. And so the agent set up a screening of In the Bedroom at Universal for Cynthia O’Neal, and afterwards they said, “Okay, you can have the rights, but there is just one caveat: you have to shoot Patrick’s script, because Patrick had been trying to get this movie made forever.” I respected that. I understood why she felt that way, but I really wanted to write the script myself. And so I let it go. That happened very, very quickly, but I continued to read Yates, and I found in his work an incredible power but almost a suffocating tragedy. So in a way I was happy that I didn’t go down that road, because Yates is relentless: nobody gets out alive in any of his books.

And then you discovered Little Children? No. Then I started working on a project about the actor Edwin Booth. I spent a very long time researching it at the various libraries that hold his papers and letters, and I kind of fell in love with this man. He changed the way we think of drama, theater and acting. He also happened to have an incredibly tragic life. His father was a great actor who was quite a character and also very disturbed. After two years of marriage he lost the great love of his life and had to raise their child alone. He was the most famous man in America but he was also a very introverted and shy individual. And then he had this brother who was a real showboat, by all accounts not much of an actor, who ended up killing the president. I worked on this for many months, but the story took place from 1840 to 1890, and it would have been tremendously expensive to do properly. That was, I guess, in 2003, and I couldn’t get the backing for it. Leon Vitali, who I work with, who’s a very smart man, had read Little Children in galleys. It was sent to him from [producers] Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who had done Election with Tom [Perrotta] and had a very close association with him. Leon called me up and said, “You have to read this right away.” I read it and was really surprised, because I started out making certain assumptions about the book and the characters. It was very funny, and I thought it was going to be a kind of wry send-up. And by about the middle of the book I went from laughing out loud to having to put it down because I was so emotionally devastated. And so I read it again, and I read it again, and I read it again, because I wasn’t sure. I knew it was a great novel but I was uncertain about it being a film.

What were your worries about it? I had a couple of reservations, one being that it might be interpreted as a send-up of suburbia, and I think that’s an easy target. I am a product of suburbia. Some of the greatest people I’ve ever known are products of suburbia. I’ve lived here in New York, I’ve lived in London, and I’ve lived in the middle of this country, and I just don’t believe that people are all that different. What interested me about the book were its characters, its themes and, almost in an allegorical way, its sense of paranoia [and how that connected with] the state our country is in right now. Probably the only thing that made me take pause was the fact that it was set in this bedroom community and that it might be accused of being a send-up of suburbia, because I don’t believe that that’s what the story is. I think that would be a lazy way to perceive it. And then Tom came into town and we started talking. He said that he was interested in working on the script with me, which was just an incredibly exciting idea. I was already incredibly taken with his book and had a huge amount of admiration for him as a writer, but I also knew I wouldn’t have to be looking over my shoulder wondering at the end of the process what the novelist was going to think of the script. And he had ideas too. He said, “I don’t want to just transcribe the book into a screenplay; let’s go make a movie.” It was great. As you know, there are moments of discovery and joy in moviemaking, but a lot of times it’s abstract and a very labor-intensive, no-sleep kind of work. I would never associate fun with making films, but Tom and I really did have a lot of fun.

What were the decisions you had to make in the adaptation process, particularly with regards to the film’s point of view? One of the things I liked most about the film was how fluidly you went from capturing your characters’ sense of inner space to seeing them in the context of their community and public spaces to then even jumping to an overarching, god’s-eye-view perspective on your characters. Well, the way the script is built, every character is allowed at least one moment of interior reflection, with the exception of Ronny. Ronny is only viewed through the eyes of others, and we really don’t even see him alone until the ending. We see him through the public’s and the news media’s eyes, [and these perceptions are] sort of filtered through [the character of] Larry Hedges. We also, more importantly, see him through his mother’s eyes, and we see him through the eyes of Sheila, this woman he goes out on a date with, which unfortunately doesn’t turn out so well. But the narration never comments on him. That was very, very intentional. He’s the only one. [The idea of using narration] came immediately, and I never questioned it. I would be as dubious about doing that in the abstract as anyone, probably because as a young actor I worked in Roger Corman movies, and things like [narration] are always the earmarks for real hackwork or attempts to “fix” a film. But in this case it wasn’t that at all. Here we have this very exciting voice of a really vital artist, Tom Perrotta, and his passive observations were what originally attracted me to the book. There was no way I wanted to lose those feelings.

JENNIFER CONNELLY IN LITTLE CHILDREN.

You mentioned the scene towards the end of the movie when Ronny is on a date with Sheila. Yes, we’re seeing him through Sheila’s eyes, but we’re also seeing him in a private moment that almost confirms all the negative things the other characters have been saying about him throughout the movie. It was an interesting curveball to throw. I was almost expecting to find out in this scene that he had been misjudged. Yeah, he has some issues. But even in that scene, we don’t really know what those issues are, and that was very important. It was an important thing that we never know for sure what he has or hasn’t done. The community makes up its mind, Larry makes up his mind, people at dinner parties use him as a conversation topic, and they make up their minds, and the audience can make up their own minds too. But knowing for certain seemed kind of beside the point. There was the other thing [Tom and I] addressed when we first sat down together, which was, what was Ronny going to represent in the film? Was he going to represent a social stigma or some kind of aberrant behavior, something you would see on Dateline? Or was he going to represent the paranoia of our times? When I showed this film in France, the first thing the journalists there said was, “You made a political film. Larry Hedges is George Bush, and Ronny could be Osama bin Laden or some guy incarcerated at Guantanamo.” And they got it. That was the whole idea. All we know about him for sure in the film is that he’s been charged with indecent exposure to a minor. Now, he could have dropped trou’ in front of a 17-year-old girl, which would be legal in some countries. We also know that he’s completely conscious of the fact that he’s got a problem, so when he goes out on that date with Sheila, you could argue that it’s a courageous act, especially given what we’ve seen happen to him when he has gone out into public before. He and his mother are living in a kind of cave. He goes out [with Sheila] as a sort of expression of love to [his mother], and makes, I believe, a really sincere effort with this woman, but then he can’t help himself. It’s horrible. It’s horrible what effect he may have on another individual, but for me it’s also horrible in an “oh god, don’t, don’t!” [kind of way]. He seemed to have a mutual connection based on a sort of common experience [with Sheila]. He could have had a chance with her.

I’m a producer, so I know there’s never a correlation between how hard a film is to make and how pleasurable the experience is and whether it’s good or not. A moment ago, you said you don’t associate filmmaking with fun, and I know that you have a reputation as a director for being a real perfectionist. For you, what is the emotional experience of directing? What are you like on a set of a film? It depends. On In the Bedroom I had a very specific crew with me, and it was a very different experience than this. On this film I had to bring in a lot of people that I didn’t know. Some of them were excellent, some of them were not. It was a very tough and frustrating shoot.

Even though it was a bigger budget. That doesn’t matter. You know that. It doesn’t make it any easier. I felt like I had more time on In the Bedroom. Money is meaningful to a point, but we also had 3½-year-old children on 40 percent of the production, and that nearly doubled our schedule because we could only shoot them for 6½ hours a day. In one way I was very, very blessed because my cast was so superb. Aside from being very good actors, they were meaningful collaborators. But I did a lot of things with the camera that I swore I’d never do starting out, because that’s what was required with this kind of story. Things were a lot more involved and took a lot more time. The main thing when you’re working on a film is that you have to pace yourself — you have to stay interested. If you ever lose interest in what you’re doing from moment to moment or day to day, you’re dead. The second you quit being interested or excited about the possibility of what you may discover along the way, you’re dead. And so for very practical reasons, for reasons of self-preservation, I try to keep a lid on how much I allow myself to really enjoy [the process]. I know I’m going to have to get through prep, through casting, and I know I’m going to have to get through production. And then I know I’m going to have to get through editing and then I’m going to have to get through the lab and then the sound mix. At no point do I ever want to say, “I don’t want to see this anymore” or “I’m bored” or “This doesn’t interest me any longer.” I’m looking for something to surprise me, and that can happen anywhere. It can happen walking to a location, it can happen because of the actors who come in, it can happen in the cutting room. I’m always looking for something that I haven’t thought of before. It can be the tiniest thing, but it’s always something to trick myself into staying interested.

Is that desire antithetical to the demands of prepping a movie of this scale? As the machine gets bigger, you have to tame it more and more. It can be harder to keep mobile and to allow for those sorts of quick decisions or last-minute changes of mind. Yeah. Well, here we were commuting 45 minutes to an hour at least every day to these different locations to build a sort of dream of a community, a community that doesn’t really exist. It isn’t the suburbs. It isn’t anywhere. It’s kind of this other world, a playground from my imagination, from my childhood. And yes, when you’re dealing at a certain level with a certain budget, suddenly you have 10 more trucks to move around and 10 more union people in the crew you don’t need and you don’t want to pay. You don’t want to have to tell them to be quiet, you don’t want their stuff to be right outside your frame, and you don’t want to wait for them to move it. It’s hard to travel in groups. It’s much easier to go out to dinner with two people than to go out with 10. And just because you have more money, it doesn’t mean that the film is going to be any better or that it’s going to be any easier. I think probably the opposite. I think I knew that going in, but it was completely confirmed for me by the end of the shoot. Money is relative. The audience asks, “Well, how much money did you have to make it?” Who cares? You break down a script, and it may seem very simple on the page, but you never know. It’s arbitrary until you really map every single thing out: your locations, gas, crew — all of that. On In the Bedroom, people would say, “How much do you want to make the movie?” and I’d always say, “How much have you got?” I knew I could do it for very little, because I lived [where we shot]. I knew those locations that are built into the script. I knew how long it takes exactly at any time of day to get from one point to the other. And I knew that I wouldn’t be strapped with having the long arm of the unions and 25 drivers and all that other stuff because nobody was paying attention. It’s gotten much, much harder now. I think it’s harder for people to make signature films, films that are personal to them. I’ve been reading your magazine for I don’t know how many years, and independent film has now become this “thing.” It’s been codified. If you’re going out and making your first film, the unions are tracking you like foxes in the woods, waiting to go after you.

It’s very difficult to make a non-union film right now. It’s almost impossible. And that’s sad, because you think about guys like Victor Nunez, who’d go out and work with a six-man crew. Nobody was union, he had no drivers, and he could be really fleet of foot and work in a really personal, intuitive way. A couple of lights and an Aaton on his shoulder. That’s a very hard thing to do now. It makes you envy in a way people who are working in Iran or Turkey. If only I spoke a different language! Don’t you find that? I remember [acting in] Walking and Talking with Good Machine. Those guys were doing everything with frequent flyer miles, and they didn’t even pay us. We’d fly into town, stay in a hotel ourselves, there was no per diem. And they said, “Well, that’s what it’s going to take, so let’s get it made!” All those great movies that came out of that period... It’s very hard to do it that way anymore.

It’s interesting to hear you say this, because one would think that you have, after In the Bedroom, “graduated” to bigger budgets. It sounds, though, like you want to maintain a more compact way of working. Oh yeah, I like working that way. It’s a wonderful feeling about not spending money unnecessarily. At least you can wake up every day and look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Okay, I’m doing this for the right reasons, I’m making a film, I’m putting every single part of my effort and my sweat and every dollar into the film, not into stupid things.”

Are you optimistic about keeping some of that spirit as you move forward and make more movies? Yeah. Sure. I can’t stand spending money where it shouldn’t be spent. There’s good money and bad money spent on films. Like, if we spend this money now, we’re not going to be able to get the mixer that I want. It’s in my contract to fly first class, but I don’t want to fly first class. Fly me coach, fly me Jet Blue. I’m working for Time Warner on this film, and I flew coach for two years on this movie. They probably thought I was an idiot, but I know for a fact that I saved the movie about $45,000 by doing that. On the other hand, the truth is that this film came together very quickly. We brought New Line the script; Kent Alterman and Toby Emmerich at New Line said, “Yes, we love it — go make it.” And they gave me complete freedom. They gave me as much rope as I could have to hang myself. It was nice not to have to go struggle to get a budget together. I think that’s rare, and I think they were kind of crazy for letting me make this movie. Seriously — I mean. what the hell were they thinking? [laughs]

Well, it turned out. I’m grateful. I don’t know that I would have said, “Yeah, go make this film.”

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: Cinema Scope.

LENS: Zeiss & Angenieux.

CAMERA: Arriflex.

CAMERA NEGATIVE: Eastman 5218, 5217, 5229, 5274, 5279.

EDITING SYSTEM: Steenbeck.


GO BACK AND WATCH...

THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS: Rose Troché 2001 suburban saga houses the different plotlines and characters from A. M. Homes’s celebrated collection of short stories into her own cinematic neighborhood.

THE SWIMMER: In his 1968 adaptation of John Cheever’s story, Frank Perry casts the swimming pool as the iconic watering hole of suburban desire and disintegration.

ELECTION: Alexander Payne (and his co-writer Jim Taylor) adapted Tom Perrotta’s novel for their 1999 comedy of a ambitious high school politician played by Reese Witherspoon.

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