Scenes From a Marriage

First-Time Filmmaker Todd Field Goes Behind Closed Doors

Its classical themes and three-act structure notwithstanding, Todd Field's debut feature, In the Bedroom, alighted on the snowy peaks of Sundance last January as if from another universe. Here was a small miracle of patience and composure, so starkly removed from everything the festival had come to represent that it seemed almost to herald the overdue coming-of-age of American independent film, or at least sound the death knell of a decade of Park City bloat. A breathtakingly precise drama about a middle-aged Maine couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) fumbling through the aftermath of an unfathomable family tragedy, In the Bedroom (which opens on Friday) undertakes a detailed anatomy of sorrow, evoking the desperate, outsize shapelessness of grief even as it isolates the emotion's constituent toxins of blame, guilt, and rage.

All of which, the 37-year-old Field readily acknowledges, made the project a tough sell from the outset. "It's not a real sexy thing to go into a meeting and pitch," says the actor-turned-director (best known as the shady jazz pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut and as Ashley Judd's sensitive love interest in Ruby in Paradise). "But there is a certain tedium to grief. One could argue that it's boring, like most forms of depression are. I suffered a personal tragedy in 1989 that I really was not able to deal with in a very healthy way for about three years. The film is informed by my own grief. The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."

The seed for In the Bedroom was planted nearly a decade ago, when Field was given a book of Andre Dubus's short fiction while he was a student at the American Film Institute. "Even though his stories take place in New England and I grew up in the Northwest, I knew all these people so well. These are my relatives, this was my neighborhood, this is the VFW Hall, this is the Elks Club." In 1993, his first year at AFI, Field made a short based on Dubus's "Delivering." He was also drawn to another story, the 18-page-long "Killings," but decided it was too dense for a short piece. His thesis film, Nonnie & Alex, a rueful, nostalgia-dappled tale of a young boy's first Halloween without his mother (written by Field's wife, Serena Rathbun), won a prize at Sundance. But upon graduation, instead of embarking on the arduous process of feature-film development, the father of three opted to pay off his student loans by taking a series of acting gigs, in Nicole Holofcener's indie rom-com Walking and Talking, the tornado blockbuster Twister, and Eyes Wide Shut.

"The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."
Photograph by Robin Holland
"The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."

Itching to finally direct his own movie, Field turned once again to "Killings." It turned out there was an existing adaptation, written by Rob Festinger and "more of a potboiler thriller." After working through the legal entanglements, Field was allowed to have a crack at it. "My intention was never to make a story about revenge," he says. "Nothing here is in keeping with a Cannon film starring Charles Bronson. You're required in that genre to give a certain amount of satisfaction, and that's not what this film is about—it's about someone violating their own nature. The thing that stayed with me about Andre's story was what he leads you to imagine about this marriage—how together, for better or worse, they operate ultimately as a third character, separate from themselves, like in any marriage."

A pivotal moment in the evolution of In the Bedroom came when Field traveled to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to pay his respects to Dubus. "He was pretty dubious. He asked me why I wanted to do this story—what's it about? And I said, 'I may be completely wrong but it's the Scottish play.' And he said, 'Fucking right, that's what it is!' He warmed up after that, but it was two hours getting to that point. It was harrowing to send him the script, but his feedback was beyond what I could have hoped for. He was so supportive and really excited. We talked almost daily."

In fact, Field was the last person Dubus ever spoke to. The author died in 1999, on February 24, Field's birthday. "I was walking around not fully conscious for a while after that," he says. Eleven days later, he sustained another blow. "I was leaving for England and was actually going to see Stanley [Kubrick], and I got a call from Tom Cruise, who said, 'You're not going to believe this, but Stanley's dead.' And I just lost it. These were two of my heroes, who'd inspired me before I'd even met them, and who became mentors to me, these two bearded godheads. . . . "

Field had been a Kubrick fan since he saw 2001 as a teenager. "When I first started acting, he was casting for Full Metal Jacket, and I remember getting drunk in London and calling information on a pay phone for Stanley Kubrick." Field was on set in England for more than half the duration of Eyes Wide Shut's 15-month shoot. "I had a good deal of downtime and he never kicked me away when I was hiding behind his shoulder looking at the monitor." True to form, Kubrick counseled Field on the importance of secrecy: "If you have an idea, he said, you need to kind of bury it. Stealthily make it happen, but be careful, because as soon as you give voice to something that's exciting to you, it becomes anecdotal, and you start to doubt it yourself. An idea before it's fully formed is vulnerable to attack."

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